Talk to the author


Table of contents




Like this Book?
Hear about more



- New York Times
- Newsweek
- Seattle Times
- Boulder Daily Camera
- Contra Costa Times
- Dallas Morning News
- School Library Journal
- Christian Science Monitor
- Publisher's Weekly
- Kirkus Review

Praise for The Flickering Mind:

"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 inflated promises.”

-- William Greider, National Book Award nominee and author of The Soul of Capitalism


New York Times
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 education.
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

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," 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 theme.

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

Seattle Times
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 York City.

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 the community.

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


The Dallas Morning News
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, 1945).
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 to 2003.

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


Boulder Daily Camera
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


Contra Costa Times
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 work.

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' year-end portfolios.

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.

Great expectations
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

School Library Journal
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 Google.

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 screen.

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 sentence.

Back to top


Christian Science Monitor
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 industries.

"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, and rulers.

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.

Back to top

Publisher's Weekly
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.

Back to top

Kirkus Review
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.

Back to top


Home | About the book | About the author | The Back Story | Reviews | Computer Myths and Realities
Meet the characters | Table of contents | Sources & Bibliography | Links | Blog | Talk to the author | Excerpt | Buy the book
Press Gallery