- New York Times
- Seattle Times
- Boulder Daily Camera
- Contra Costa Times
- Dallas Morning News
- School Library Journal
- Christian Science Monitor
- Publisher's Weekly
- Kirkus Review
"This is the most important book of its kind since
Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities, and it carries the
same torch—telling us what's really going on inside the
public education system. The Flickering Mind is a powerful
work and a must-read for anyone who cares what will be within
the minds of the next generation of Americans."
-- Gregg Easterbrook, Senior Editor of The New
Republic and author of The Progress Paradox
"...a work of impressive scholarship and balanced judgment... of
how political leaders and some ambitious educators have oversold
the value of computers at the cost of the human features of
learning, the challenge and excitement of teacher-student interaction,
and the stimulation of imagination. This is a provocative but
potentially constructive contribution to education for our time."
-- Jerome L. Singer, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology
& Child Study at Yale University and co-author of Handbook
of Children and the Media
"Oppenheimer brings two great strengths to the subject he explores
in The Flickering Mind: An understanding of technology's
possibilities and limitations, and an appreciation for the day-by-day
realities of the way children learn. He also has a good eye for
what is working in the classroom, and why– and for what
is hucksterish in the sales tactics used to promote high-tech
learning. The combination makes The Flickering Mind authoritative
and original, clear in its main message but also nuanced and fair."
-- James Fallows, National Correspondent for The
Atlantic Monthly and author of Breaking the News
"A well-documented, very readable plea… Well grounded in both data
about what’s happening and rich, in-depth examples, Oppenheimer helps
us see how often we use technology to disguise a thoughtless curriculum.
But it’s also filled with ideas for how we can better marry
good education with sensible uses of modern technology."
-- Deborah Meier, founder of Harlem’s Central Park
East schools and author of The Power of Their Ideas
“This is a splendid book, humane and smart, with the authority that only comes
from lots of patient reporting. For those who care about children, this is an
important—and impressively sensible—guide to what has gone wrong with schools
and how we can put matters right, if parents and educators can get free of
-- William Greider, National Book Award nominee
and author of The Soul of Capitalism
January 4, 2004
Books about education tend to fall into predictable
patterns. Their authors define what the problem ''really'' is,
and use some combination of statistics and stories about individual
schools or districts to prove their theses: their version of the
trouble is right, other people's assumptions are wrong, so other
proposed fixes miss the point. Finally, they offer their solutions,
which are usually much less persuasive than their analyses. Three
books this year fit the pattern: superb analyses, followed by
comparatively little in the way of useful solutions. Even so,
the stories they tell combine in a portrait worth examining.
In ''Final Test: The Battle for Adequacy in America's Schools,''
Peter Schrag looks at two burning issues: tests and money. He
does not engage in the debate over the virtues or dangers of high-stakes
testing, instead taking them as a given. Schrag, the author most
recently of ''Paradise Lost,'' about voter initiatives and California,
is interested in how higher standards and testing influence the
battle over school funding. His implicit assumption is that money
matters (which the most rigorous research supports).
The push for higher standards and accountability, generally embodied
in high-stakes exams, has given an unexpected boost to lawsuits
seeking more money for schools. As Schrag explains, ''the adequacy
principle asks the states to determine the actual cost of providing
decent educational resources for each child and to use that as
the gauge for school spending.'' His descriptions of cases in
the courts of Kentucky, New York, Ohio and elsewhere detail the
wide array of issues -- unequal distribution of funding, political
corruption, unqualified teachers, resistant legislatures, crumbling
schools -- involved in the search for a definition of an adequate
For Schrag, the adequacy drive matters because it does not simply
try to get disadvantaged communities more money; thinking about
adequacy means figuring out what it would take to give all students
a good education, giving them a fair chance of meeting new standards,
and then coming up with enough money to actually do it. Schrag
sees the court cases he looks at as merely the first step.
Todd Oppenheimer has some very specific ideas about how money
should not be spent to improve schools, and he gets them across
persuasively in ''The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology
in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved.'' According to
Oppenheimer, a journalist based in San Francisco, in education,
''technology is like a vine -- it's gorgeous at first blossom
but quickly overgrown, gradually altering and choking its surroundings.''
While ''The Flickering Mind'' shows both effective and ineffective
uses of computers, Oppenheimer's point is that the amount of money
and other resources that technology requires far outweighs the
good it generally does. This is an especially important argument
at a time of straitjacket federal and state budgets.
If computers really only accentuate the culture of whatever school
they're in for good or ill, as Oppenheimer seems to show, then
what will buying more solve? Not much, apparently. His stories
of computers and schools in Maryland and West Virginia, among
other places, make his case effectively. His descriptions of excellent
schools using computers in a limited way, if at all, get at the
heart of what good classrooms look like: teachers who know how
to teach and are excited to be doing it, and students who believe
they can and should learn from those teachers. He doesn't tell
us how to make more schools fit this description (though his ''small
set of hopes for schools,'' like better teacher pay to lift the
quality of teaching over all, are admirable).
For Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom, the real problem
is the tremendous and persistent achievement gap between white
and Asian students on the one hand and black and Hispanic students
on the other. In their view, differential schooling and different
cultural values are the issue, not genetics: too many schools
do not believe their students can learn, and too many families
think it doesn't matter very much. And it matters tremendously.
The Thernstroms, also the authors of ''America in Black and White,''
believe what they call the racial gap is not just a huge educational
problem, it ''is also the main source of ongoing racial inequality.''
The bulk of ''No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning''
is spent arguing that the conventional explanations, like lack
of funding and poorly trained teachers, are wrong. Early on, a
number of charter schools are described glowingly, especially
several KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) academies, and the book
ends on a high note: ''The lure of charter schools and even vouchers
may prove irresistible if No Child Left Behind fails to close
the racial gap in academic achievement, as we predict it will.''
But the picture they paint is selective; plenty of charter schools
are mediocre, and some are awful. Furthermore, the research on
vouchers does not provide any reason to think they will make a
significant difference. (This may not matter to the Thernstroms,
since they dismiss solid research on small classes and on the
positive effects of higher funding; like many who write on education,
instead of letting the best research drive their argument, they
cite the research that supports it.) In the end, they make a far
more convincing case for looking closely at culture than they
do for choice or charter schools as a real solution.
What can we get from these books? A great deal, I suspect. Spending
more money on schools a la Schrag, spending it more intelligently
a la Oppenheimer and keeping the children most in need squarely
in our sights a la the Thernstroms is the beginning of wisdom
about fixing our schools. Finding real answers, and the will to
implement them, is next.
Back to top
October 14, 2003
Are Computers Wrecking Schools?
A new and controversial book argues that computers have done far
more harm than good to education
NEWSWEEK WEB EXCLUSIVE
Todd Oppenheimer, author of "The Flickering
Mind," was among the first journalists to leave print
to explore computers, CD-ROMs and online delivery, here at Newsweek.
But what he saw of the cyberworld clearly didn’t sit well.
After a few years he returned to the realm of print to produce
his first book—a carefully researched and scathing attack
on computers in education stretching back to the early Eighties.
His subtitle says it all: The false promise of technology in
the classroom and how learning can be saved.
IT IS HARDLY AN, ahem, academic issue: total school
spending on computer technology, in the ’90s alone, was
estimated at $70 billion. And the ongoing Federal "e-rate"
program continues to pump $2.25 billion each year into Internet
networks for poor schools. The use of heavily computer-based curricula,
both in schools and in private learning centers, is rapidly increasing.
And hardware manufacturers continue to court school district business
as assiduously as they do the Fortune 500. If computers are bad
for schools, then we’ve taken a catastrophically wrong turn.
And that’s exactly what Oppenheimer argues.
At four-hundred-pages-plus, "The Flickering Mind,"
www.flickeringmind.net) is not a book intended for a quick browse
or a snap judgment; Oppenheimer has been visiting classrooms and
talking to educators ever since an Atlantic Monthly article he
wrote on the topic in 1997 won a National Magazine Award. And
the subject needs the space: educational computing is a mix of
issues ranging from politics and capitalism to marketing and the
social status of teachers.
Oppenheimer focuses on what he sees as the key
failings of computers in schools. Some issues are not new: the
early and excessive concern about “computer literacy,”
too often at the cost of basic literacy. Other issues are familiar
but more clearly documented than usual-the inability of school
systems to maintain equipment or train teachers once the hardware
is in place. He does give computers credit for some benefits:
more efficient record keeping, and better ways to reach children
with learning disabilities. But the central message is that computer
infatuation has not only drained billions of dollars from more
urgent educational needs, but that its misuse actually damages
students, turning out a generation of kids with inferior learning
and thinking skills.
Oppenheimer is brutal in his assessment of the
well-to-do “high tech” schools he visits, all too
often finding teachers and administrators in a fog of self-delusion,
bragging about glitzy student PowerPoint productions that in fact
reveal scant understanding. He is equally cutting about the technologic
follies he sees in underprivileged schools. This time he lays
blame on ambitious administrators and clueless federal programs
that ignore the real needs of teachers—many of whom need
careful coaching even to find the “Enter” key.
While there are few heroes in Oppenheimer’s
book, most of the villains are superficial or misguided, rather
than venal, with one exception: the companies that have prospered
by selling technology to schools. Oppenheimer is particularly
strong in examining the Federal e-rate program, in which technology
firms seem to have systematically overbilled many school districts
in setting up their Internet services. Oppenheimer describes how,
in 2000, the San Francisco school district turned down $50 million
in e-rate funds when they found that they could actually build
their network themselves, for less than even the small cost they
would have had to pay in order to receive the e-rate funding.
The hardware manufacturer was marking up the equipment for the
federal program far over the prices that the district could get
on the open market. In another extended chapter he also takes
off after the highly popular (and lucrative) Renaissance Learning
Inc., whose software-based reading curriculum is promoted via
reams of questionable research.
Oppenheimer can overstep in his technology-bashing.
At one point he suggests that "by 2002, use of the Web, by
both developers and consumers, was already starting to decline,"
a statement that would puzzle most Internet statisticians. And
then by way of explanation for this faltering Web, Oppenheimer
explains that “what increasingly filled the Internet’s
void were hundreds of lucrative sites serving up pornography,
swindles and various other examples of sleaze.” Had he made
that “tens of thousands” of sleazy sites he’d
be closer—but then there were also plenty of smart, well-designed,
and reasonably informative sites elsewhere in the "void."
Oppenheimer doesn’t limit himself to technology—laced
throughout the book are nutshell summaries of historical trends
in education and various pedagogic philosophies, as well as analysis
of public school funding in this country. At times one wonders
whether what Oppenheimer finds unappealing in his classroom visits
aren’t so much computers, but the endemic problems of this
country’s neglected public schools, newly reflected in the
mirror of technology infatuation. But computer technology remains
the central focus, and when Oppenheimer at last turns to solutions,
his centerpiece is the controversial Waldorf method, an unorthodox
schooling philosophy that discourages technology of any kind.
Oppenheimer’s admiration for the Waldorf
method stems from the schools’ insistence that kids learn
best with physical objects and activities rather than computerized
graphics and abstractions. And in fact there is some evidence
that too much computer activity early in life—in lieu of
real-world experience—may indeed limit intellectual and
creative development. That possibility, even more than the billions
of wasted dollars, is certainly the book’s most worrisome
The Flickering Mind will likely launch a firestorm
among educators—anyone who spends much time with teachers
knows that many find great value in computers, and often spend
their own time and money to learn about the technology. Luddite
opponents may also use the book to condemn any computers in schools,
and that would be a shame. It’s important to recall that
Oppenheimer’s survey covers only the very first years of
a process in which educators are still learning the best ways
to use the little machines. If The Flickering Mind helps redirect
educators toward a more judicious and appropriate use of computers,
Oppenheimer’s crusade will be worthwhile. If it merely gives
society another reason to cut education spending—this time
at the expense of classroom technology—then the costly lessons
we’ve learned thus far will be wasted altogether.
Back to top
October 26, 2003
The short-circuiting of U.S. education
By Steve Weinberg
Special to The Seattle Times
Anybody who cares about the successes and failures of kindergarten
through grade-12 education should read "The Flickering Mind,"
a painstakingly reported, passionately argued book.
Do not, repeat not, let the word "technology"
in the subtitle scare you. Yes, the book is built on controversies
about the use of computers in the teaching process. Yes, the discussion
about technology is occasionally, well, technical. But Todd Oppenheimer,
a veteran investigative journalist, knows how to explain complicated
topics clearly. He uses scene-setting and anecdotes regularly,
sometimes elevating the writing from clear to compelling.
To explore why computers in schools have usually
failed to fulfill their promise, Oppenheimer traveled all over
the United States. He eventually chose a few school districts
to write about in-depth, including Montgomery County, Md.; Hundred,
W. Va.; Napa, Cal.; Milwaukee, Wis.; and several sites in New
Although Oppenheimer occasionally sounds as if
he's anti-technology, preferring instead the humanistic method,
he is certainly no Luddite. He understands the myriad ways computers
can enhance learning. He documents, however, that too much emphasis
on computerized instruction leads to shallow thinking, to a sort
of rote curriculum disconnected from the complexities of the real
world. The skills students need to succeed after high school are
only tangentially related to computing.
Those skills, Oppenheimer says, "include a
rich inner life, strong values and work habits, broad knowledge,
the capacity to think clearly, a fertile and flexible imagination,
and some feel for the art of discussion."
Perhaps the most prevalent myth shattered by Oppenheimer
is the oft-mentioned "digital divide," a term that suggests
wealthy school districts have more computers than those that are
poverty-stricken. Oppenheimer shows that many, probably most,
school districts serving low-income families possess plenty of
computers. What they lack is teachers who are skilled at using
the computers to impart useful knowledge, maintenance budgets
and support from pupils' homes.
Why have so few school districts grasped the repeated
failures of classroom technology as panacea? Partly because of
turnover, Oppenheimer says. By the time students and parents realize
what has gone wrong, they have moved on. Quite a few teachers
stay but are largely powerless to override school principals,
district administrators and school-board members elected from
Oppenheimer's considerable investigative skills
kick in as he dissects the for-profit corporations, government
agencies and agenda-promoting not-for-profit groups that push
budget-draining, spirit-sapping technology. He names names, handing
journalists scandals to further expose in locale after locale,
if those journalists possess the will.
Back to top
January 18, 2004
By Joshua Benton/The Dallas Morning News
It's pop quiz time. Fill in the blanks: What technological advances
are these people talking about?
1. "I believe that _________ is destined to revolutionize
our educational system."
2. "The time may come when a _________ will be as common
in the classroom as is the blackboard."
3. "In our schools, every classroom in America must be ________."
Put your pencils down. The answers:
1. "The motion picture" (inventor Thomas Edison, 1922).
2. "Portable radio receiver" (educator William Levenson,
3. "Connected to the information superhighway" (President
Bill Clinton, 1996).
My point? Every few decades, some new device comes along promising
to be a cure-all for our educational ailments. And in just about
every case, the results have fallen short of the revolution promised.
For the last decade, that can't-miss technology has been computers.
Last year, Texas' public schools spent between $300 million and
$400 million on computer technology and training, according to
Anita Givens, the state's director of educational technology.
These days most classrooms have at least one computer, and some
have one for every student.
But some critics are starting to wonder whether the enormous investment
has, again, been a waste of time and money.
"The computer culture has essentially polluted the culture
of education," says journalist Todd Oppenheimer.
Late last year, Mr. Oppenheimer published the stimulating book
The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the
Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved.
I'm sure you can deduce from the title where he stands. But for
folks on either side of the debate, it's a provocative read that
gets at a core issue: What, exactly, do we want our children to
learn in school?
Here's a summary of some of Mr. Oppenheimer's claims:
- Computers encourage shallow, superficial work. Writing a 10-page
report takes research, thought and hard work. But making a PowerPoint
presentation on the same subject takes only cursory knowledge.
He quotes one high school student who spent 17 hours on a major
civics presentation: seven hours on research and writing, 10 hours
finding the right clip art and fonts for his PowerPoint.
"Some kids think you can find two Web sites about your topic
on Google and they're done with their research," he says.
"That's where your work should be starting, not when it ends."
- Computers break down too often, and schools don't have staff
trained to fix them. As a result, teachers end up getting distracted
from their jobs, reinstalling broken device drivers when they
could be teaching. (I can verify this one; I've seen many dozens
of classroom computers "resting" while awaiting repair.)
- Kids need to learn how to do things the hard way before they
do them the easy way. There's a reason we learn our multiplication
tables before we're handed a calculator; we need to understand
how things work before we start taking short cuts. For that reason,
Mr. Oppenheimer is passionate about taking computers out of elementary
schools, where he believes hands-on, nondigital learning is essential.
"The computer world is all about speed, quick and easy,"
he says. "The school world is all about slowing things down,
not skipping steps."
In sum, he wants computers out of elementary schools, limited
in middle schools, and pulled out of high school classrooms and
put into special computer labs.
Even ed-tech's biggest proponents agree with some of what Mr.
Oppenheimer argues. "I think he's right that teachers need
more training and support to be able to use the tools they have,"
said Alice Owen, executive director of technology for Irving schools.
"It's a difficult change for teachers. It changes your classroom
dramatically to bring in computers."
Irving now gives laptops to all its high school students, at a
cost of more than $10 million. Dr. Owen says computers in the
classroom aren't the magic potion some hyped them up to be in
the 1990s. But used effectively, she says, they can do wonders.
"We're giving kids an opportunity to do things they wouldn't
be able to otherwise," she said. "Kids have a greater
appreciation for school. Those kinds of motivational gains you
just can't deny."
In any event, Mr. Oppenheimer is about to get his wish.
State budget problems have forced cutbacks on technology spending
across the country. One national survey found that funding for
an average state ed-tech program dropped 25 percent from 2002
The Texas Legislature killed one of its major technology grant
programs last year, and Ms. Givens said some schools could cut
back tech spending by 50 percent or more.
"Yes, there are teachers who use computers pointlessly,"
she says. "But that doesn't mean you get rid of the computers.
You teach teachers how to use them better."
Joshua Benton covers primary and secondary schools for The
Dallas Morning News. He can be reached at jbenton@dallasnews .com.
Back to top
January 4, 2004
By Geof Wollerman, For the Camera
Few inventions have so rapidly infiltrated our daily lives, or
caused as much fevered controversy, as the advent of personal
computers and the Internet.
In "The Flickering Mind," Todd Oppenheimer
explores an important but often ignored avenue of the computer
craze: the use of technology in the classroom.
"We have arrived at a time," he writes in his introduction,
"when our entire sense of what it means to be an educated
person has been turned on its head."
With the passionate, objective, and well-balanced prose of a veteran
journalist, Oppenheimer depicts a vivid — though sometimes
depressing — picture of electronic learning in the classroom
today. Beginning with a detailed history of the rise of computers
in education, he gives the reader a sobering look back at the
last 20 years, taking particular care to point out the roller
coaster of technology booms and busts that has pillaged billions
of dollars from education coffers, and delivered our children
with "missionary zeal" (many without a job) into the
unstable, high-tech job market of today.
Based on a 1997 cover article by Oppenheimer for The Atlantic
Monthly, the book is built on a compilation of stories from the
front lines of education. From poor inner-city public schools
with a handful of outdated machines to small, computer-laden private
schools, Oppenheimer looks at how technology is, or is not, being
put to use. His research is exhaustive (with more than 30 pages
of endnotes), and his message is clear.
Oppenheimer condemns the overuse of computers in the classroom,
especially with grade-school children, which is creating a "thin
academic environment." He also attacks the Bush administration's
recent push for more standardized testing, and draws a link between
the two: testing has a number of flaws that prevent any results
from accurately portraying the reality of our children's scope
of knowledge (or lack thereof); while computers, by nature, create
a simulated classroom experience that is limited, full of surface-level
thinking and void of the richness that comes from learning basic
life skills. Both trends are detrimental to our children's future.
Oppenheimer quotes many leading employers, especially in the technology
sector, as being disappointed with many recent graduates' inability
to solve real-world problems or work effectively with other employees.
Though the stories at times appear overwhelmingly bleak, this
seems to be a desired effect. Just when things can't possibly
get any worse, right before you pull your kids out of public school
forever and throw your computer in the dumpster, the author changes
gears and relates some of his more positive experiences with contemporary
schooling. According to Oppenheimer, a handful of public schools
have begun adopting new teaching methods with an astonishing degree
of success. These schools (which engage in minimal computer usage
and have a larger focus on project-based, hands-on learning) typically
perform above the national average, and many of them are in our
country's poorest neighborhoods. In these classrooms Oppenheimer
discovers "remnants of education's sturdier traditions"
that, if used correctly, "could open up a whole new direction
in education policy."
Oppenheimer concludes with a list of hopes for the
future of education. He wishes school administrators would wake
up from their "amnesia" of the last 20 years and stop
wasting money on the next new device; and that the government
will start paying its teachers what they deserve. His most incendiary
hope quotes the Declaration of Independence: "... all men
are created equal" and "endowed with certain unalienable
rights," and that "... whenever any Form of Government
becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People
to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government...."
When our children's needs are not being met, do we have the courage
to question authority?
"The Flickering Mind" is a must-read for
anyone who is wary of the grip that computers have on society
today. Whether you are a teacher, or a parent, or just interested
in the direction that our education system is headed, I cannot
say enough about the pertinence of this well-written book. It
is about learning, and, like the education of our children, it
should not be ignored.
Back to top
December 21, 2003
'Flickering' plugs into tech/learning disconnect
By Suzanne Pardington
COMPUTERS WERE ONCE the shiny new toys of the education
world. We were led to believe they could entertain and educate
even the most jaded students. They could succeed where weak teachers
and old textbooks failed. And without them, children would be
ill-prepared for a new high-tech work world that would make old
ways of learning obsolete.
Boy, were we gullible. "The Flickering Mind," by San
Francisco journalist Todd Oppenheimer, reveals just how much.
His investigation into the failures of classroom technology exposes
the potentially harmful myths that have fueled the race to wire
classrooms with the latest computers and software. Oppenheimer
did what education reporters rarely have the patience or time
to do: He spent five years digging beyond the surface hype of
press releases, photo opportunities and political grandstanding
to find out what's really going on in schools.
In classroom after classroom, from Harlem to Napa, Oppenheimer
found computers either not used or misused, and students missing
out on important academic skills as a result. Teachers lacked
training. Computers kept crashing or weren't wired properly. Students
goofed off by playing games or surfing the Internet when the teacher
couldn't see their screens.
Even widely celebrated high-tech schools have failed
to live up to their promises, Oppenheimer says.
At one West Virginia high school that invested heavily in laptops
and wireless connections, Oppenheimer observed students researching
wildlife on the Internet. First, they could not connect because
of technical glitches. Then they went to wrong sites, including
ones for Michael J. Fox, the Phoenix Coyotes and the Black Bear
Bar & Grill. They found what they were looking for with 15
minutes left to go in the class, little time for discussion.
Wasted time was not the only problem Oppenheimer found. More disturbingly,
he concludes that technology often leads to superficial student
New Tech High School in Napa, for example, aims to train students
for the high-tech business world. During a presentation of student
social studies projects, however, flashy graphics and a multimedia
slide show disguised thin academic content. The written analysis
was "surprisingly simplistic," ending after a paragraph
or two, Oppenheimer writes. The problem showed up again in students'
One of the school's slogans is: "It doesn't matter what you
know. It matters what you show."
Oppenheimer did find more careful and productive use of computers
in some schools, but from his account, they seem to be the exception
rather than the rule. Schools were caught up in the rush to keep
up with rapidly changing technology, often without much thought
as to whether computers would actually improve education.
Part of the blame should fall on computer and software companies
that have heavily targeted schools, and the politicians who bought
into the myth that more computers meant better schools.
As early as 1983, there was an odd product called "Dial-a-Drill."
A computerized voice would call students on the phone to drill
them in spelling and math. If the student answered correctly,
the questions got harder. If the answer was wrong, they got easier.
Now the computer tutoring programs are flashier, but they essentially
do the same thing: drill students on basic skills. Only now, software
companies often use faulty research to back up their claims of
student success and to appeal to educators who are looking for
"scientifically" backed programs that comply with the
federal No Child Left Behind education law.
Oppenheimer does not deny that computers and technology have a
place in schools, more so in high schools than elementary schools,
but he posits that schools need to become smarter about how they
are used. Human interaction should be the priority, he says. Students
need people more than gizmos.
It is not surprising, then, that his final thoughts on how to
improve schools do not include buying more computers. Instead,
he returns to the basic ingredients of a solid education: well-trained
and well-paid teachers, school buildings that aren't falling apart,
more generous funding for schools and high academic expectations.
It seems so simple. Is anybody paying attention?
Back to top
November 1, 2003
Rage Against the Machine
By Walter Minkel
Todd Oppenheimer says it's ironic that technology—particularly
the hyperlinked Web—is often touted as a way to help students
make connections between various pieces of information. During
the seven years he spent researching and writing his new book,
The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom
and How Learning Can Be Saved (Random House), Oppenheimer observed
many students noodling about on the Web, clicking aimlessly from
site to site. His conclusion? Today's students spend so much time
exploring glitzy multimedia and swimming in endless streams of
fuzzily linked information that they have no time to think about
what they've found. Students need guides, like librarians and
teachers, to show them how to make sense of that information,
says Oppenheimer. Kids need to be taught "the value of perseverance
and accomplishment," he says. "Computer technology completely
shortcuts that process—it teaches people that they don't
need to go through it. It sanctions quickness and superficiality."
But, unfortunately, educators are often part of
the problem. Oppenheimer has seen many teachers praise their students—and
give them high grades—for creating polished PowerPoint presentations
that simply regurgitate text and display pictures copied from
the Web. Projects like these, he says, show no evidence of any
personal thought or understanding of the subject. The way technology
has been implemented in the majority of American schools has caused
students to think less, not more, he wrote in a 1997 cover story
for the Atlantic Monthly . And in the No-Child-Left-Behind era,
he also thinks there's too much emphasis on using technology to
cram kids' heads with facts they'll need to pass tests. (He depicts
Accelerated Reader as one such use of technology.)
Oppenheimer began covering multimedia technology
for Newsweek during the mid-1990s, and he says that he was a "big
fan" of it. But the more he saw how technology was being
used in K–12 schools, the less convinced he became that
it was doing students much good. Now a freelance journalist, Oppenheimer
believes that school technology is best in small, carefully measured
doses, and he documents his case in his book.
When I asked him, in a phone interview, if he'd
like schools to shut down their computer networks, he said no.
Oppenheimer wants educators to offer kids more guidance in how
to think about what they find online. "Kids need to learn
the principles of depth and breadth," he says. "They
need to find the intersection between their imaginations and the
information that's already out there." It's your imagination
that makes your work special, he says, not what you can copy from
So how can librarians use technology in a way that
encourages students to think more imaginatively and critically?
It's essential to teach information literacy skills across the
curriculum, says Oppenheimer. As part of that effort, educators
should require students to look first at print materials—which
are edited and fact checked—rather than relying on Internet
materials, which are more likely to be inaccurate and contain
misspellings. "Reading and studying books and magazine articles
[teaches] kids how to write a lead paragraph, and how to use transitions
to bring people into their story," he says. Oppenheimer also
believes that manipulating physical objects—whether blocks
and paint or books and magazines—focuses students' attention
on the task at hand, and helps them learn better than a computer
He hopes that teachers and librarians will guide
kids to ask essential questions and encourage them to tackle real-world
problems that can't be solved by simply looking on the Net. For
example, instead of simply listing the clothes that the ancient
Egyptians wore, let's ask students: "What would the ancient
Egyptians have worn if the temperature in the Nile valley had
been 15 degrees cooler? How might their culture have been different?"
Researching questions like these requires more than Google, and
librarians should guide students to the best available tools.
Although high-tech vendors claim that children
exposed to cutting-edge hardware and software will have an easier
time getting jobs later on, Oppenheimer disagrees. No technology
is cutting edge for very long, and what employers really want,
says Oppenheimer, are graduates who can think creatively, solve
problems, and be able to write a readable and meaningful English
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October 14, 2003
What impact has computer technology had on public
education in the US? That's the question journalist Todd Oppenheimer
sets out to answer in "The Flickering Mind."
Mr. Oppenheimer's conclusion: Putting computers in classrooms
has been almost entirely wasteful, and the rush to keep schools
up-to-date with the latest technology has been largely pointless.
"At this early stage of the personal computer's history,
the technology is far too complex and error prone to be smoothly
integrated into most classrooms," Oppenheimer writes. "While
the technology business is creatively frantic, financially strapped
public schools cannot afford to keep up with the innovations."
Of course, this is not the first time US schools have been seduced
by new technology, Oppenheimer points out. He summarizes the history
of technological innovations in American schools and explains
how each (TV among them) has been hailed as education's savior.
And yet, despite technology's lack of success in US classrooms,
many Americans still prefer to invest in computers rather than
in teachers, Oppenheimer charges.
On the other hand, Oppenheimer cites Seymour Papert, a computer-science
professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who beats
the drum for more technology and urges a revolutionized concept
of school. "School has probably changed less than other major
institutions," says Professor Papert. "The evidence
that we got it right in school and got it wrong everywhere else
is pretty slight."
While Papert's argument is at least debatable, Oppenheimer leaves
any serious discussion of it behind to focus on the regrettable
role of those he sees as charlatans in the computer and testing
"One of the great secrets of the industry is that manufacturers
of computer hardware and software often know their products are
hampered by significant limitations," writes Oppenheimer.
"Yet they rarely hold back from going to market with the
gear, because they also know that most if not all of those problems
will be fixed with the next upgrade, the release of which will
simply net more sales."
Oppenheimer examines individual schools where technology has been
useful, but there he largely credits the enthusiasm and devotion
of individual teachers.
The most effective teachers, he argues, are those who know enough
to ignore the latest technological products and rely on such hands-on
technology as pens and paper, musical instruments, wooden blocks,
Although he researched this book for more than five years (its
genesis was in two articles in "The Atlantic Monthly"),
Oppenheimer is for the most part reluctant to weigh in with his
views. A good reporter, he allows the experts and insiders to
sound off instead.
"I have boiled down my feelings about the subject into a
small set of hopes for schools," he writes. "I hesitate
to turn these hopes into formal recommendations for a reason.
For decades, teachers and administrators have been battered [by]
... all manner of 'experts' who do not spend their days cooped
up in a room with dozens of unruly youngsters.... These teachers
are doing God's work."
"The Flickering Mind" is an informative, insightful,
and broad presentation of public education's ongoing struggle
for survival in competition and in collaboration with all the
next new things.
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August 11, 2003
Are computers the ultimate innovation that will
lead us into a 21st-century educational utopia? Or are they merely
distractions, part of a long line of technological advances that
are incompatible with proven traditions of learning? Oppenheimer's
book, titled after a metaphor for the short attention spans of
today's students, locates the waning educational computing craze
in the historical context of an ed-tech trajectory that has brought
visions of accelerated academic achievement followed by disappointment.
Like B.F. Skinner's teaching machines of the 1950s, computer-based
learning promises more than it can deliver, says journalist Oppenheimer.
He visited elite public schools, under-resourced schools, high-tech
schools and even a school for juvenile offenders, and has interviewed
many experts. He draws compelling portraits of excellent schools
in which computers play a peripheral role, arguing that the tried-and-true
methods of progressive education-inquiry, exploration, hands-on
learning and focused discussion-do more to develop students' intellectual
capacities than technological gadgetry does. His well-researched
and intelligible argument also takes aim at such current obsessions
as standardized testing. Oppenheimer doesn't advocate removing
computers from the classroom, but argues for a hard look at what
can and can't be accomplished with the enormous investments they
require ($70 billion just during the 1990s). Policy makers and
teachers might be better off, he writes, remembering the basics:
good teaching, small classes, critical thinking, meaningful work
and the human touch.
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August 1, 2003
Twenty-five years after computers started to make
inroads into the education of children, it's appropriate to ask
exactly what effect they have had on the intellectual development
of American youth. Oppenheimer travels far afield–to Napa,
the hill country of West Virginia, Texas, Maryland, Las Vegas–to
measure the impact of computers, and his conclusions are both
revealing and predictable. Computers really are a supplementary
tool, valuable for word-processing or drawing information from
the Web, but they are also costly, time-consuming, and mechanically
vexing, plagued by a system that lacks teacher training and support
service, and constrained by the inherent inflexibility of software.
Oppenheimer doesn't prefer the halcyon days of the three Rs, but
he does question the evolution of American society's slavish relationship
with tools–from the tablet to the keyboard-in this case
at the expense of downplaying education's crucial people process.
"[There] is limited, speculative, but intriguing material"
on the ability of computers to fire students' imaginations, but
they will never replace the encouragement, nurturing, tutoring,
and attentiveness of an energetic teacher. Nor will they create
an atmosphere of high expectations, something that comes from
people, especially ones who are "well trained but also sufficiently
well paid." To prosper, students need to think critically,
have fertile and flexible imaginations, be able to listen and
communicate, possess broad knowledge, and these traits come from
"a handful of embarrassingly well known" elements: smaller
classes, longer periods, time for teachers to prepare their lessons,
exploratory reading, student collaboration, and help programs,
not to mention full engagement on the home front.
Evenhanded, judicious, and observant: a valuable contribution to the literature of education.
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