The End of School

The schoolrooms of tomorrow won't resemble even the best of those we have today—and they shouldn't
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Already his LucasArts Learning, in cooperation with National Geographic, has produced GTV, an American history course for middle school students. GTV requires only a computer, a television screen, and a videodisc player. If you let the material on the videodisc run to completion, you have a richly textured two-hour survey of American history, with still pictures, moving pictures, charts, narration, and background music. But this is only the beginning. GTV, like all interactive multimedia, is meant not to be viewed passively but rather to be touched, molded and remolded, played with. A trove of information lies just beneath the surface. Using a mouse that controls a pointer on the computer screen, you can freeze the image on the television screen at any point and ask for additional information about whatever is pictured. A photograph of some rather primitive-looking safety pins, for example, yields this caption: "American ingenuity: Inventor Walter Hunt created the safety pin in three hours. He patented it in 1849, and later sold all rights to the pin for $400."

Another click of the mouse reveals that images of thirty-nine American inventions are scattered throughout the program, ranging from the cotton gin to the Apollo moon lander. You can select any or all of these images, put them in any order you wish, write your own captions, and present your own multimedia show on the subject of American ingenuity to the rest of the class.

In the interactive-multimedia world you aren't locked into any one linear sequence. Time doesn't just unreel; it unfolds. You can move swiftly across the entire span of American history, jumping from one decade to another, one century to another, spotting patterns that might otherwise be hidden from view, experiencing the resonance as well as the results of history. The supple all-at-onceness of the new medium comes closer to the workings of human consciousness than does a lecture or a textbook.

When computers were first proposed as learning tools, some people were concerned that children would become little robots, plugged in to their machines, isolated from human contact. In most cases just the opposite has happened. Actually, the conventional classroom, not the computer, is the isolation cell, the lockup. Contemporary electronic technology, used not as an adjunct to the conventional classroom but as something entirely new, inspires cooperation, encourages learning teams, and builds student confidence.

Moreover, this technology can join students with a whole universe of information, allowing them to reach out to other learners and teachers all across the United States and overseas, and to link up with data bases that eventually will contain a goodly chunk of all human knowledge. When these connections are made, the classroom walls will dissolve, the egg-carton model of education will become a memory, and the schoolhouse will become, in effect, the whole world. Metaschool, a truly new educational entity, might well be born from an imaginative combination of highly interactive technology with the kind of nonfrontal, cooperative learning modeled at Köln-Holweide.

Education circles in the United States are astir with talk of something like this, something beyond school as we know it. But most of the talk thus far has led only to piecemeal experimentation: a model classroom here and there, a "school within a school." One exception can be found in Modesto, an agricultural town with a large Hispanic population in California's central valley. "We are not an extension of the past," says Charles Vidal, the principal of the Evelyn A. Hanshaw Middle School. "We're something entirely new and different—a new building, a new kind of teacher, a new educational concept, a new way of thinking of our kids. We don't call them students. We call them citizens."

At Hanshaw, which opened last September with 807 "citizens," 78 percent of them Hispanic, teachers work in teams, children sit around tables rather than in rows, and every room contains a computer lab, in which all the computers are linked into a network. From the beginning Vidal has sought to eliminate the textbook as a prime educational tool. Instead, teaching teams work out core subjects from which related knowledge develops. Social studies provides a core for history and English. Science serves as a springboard into math. During their two-year stay the citizens of Hanshaw must also do eight "exploratories" in such subjects as arts and crafts, home economics, and drama and chorus. The technology exploratory is made up of twenty-eight five-day segments in such specialties as pneumatics, robotics, hydroponics, and desktop publishing.

It's still too early to tell how this metaschool will work, but Vidal's aims are nothing if not ambitious. Hanshaw is made up of seven subschools, which are named for the seven California state universities, and during the year all the children are bused in for a visit to their school's namesake university. "During the visit," Vidal says, "I ask them to close their eyes and see themselves there."

As for the reform movement that began in 1983, even its most avid supporters are beginning to realize the futility of more-of-the-same measures for improving education. In April of last year, inspired by his new Education Secretary, Lamar Alexander, President George Bush called for a "revolution" in schooling. Rather than commissioning more studies, the President said, we should get on with the business of reinventing the classroom. Among other things, Bush also called for nationwide voluntary achievement testing, more freedom of choice for parents and students in selecting schools, and one-time grants of $1 million each toward the creation of 535 model experimental schools.

A good start, perhaps, but a timid one. We need to know how well our students are doing, but undue reliance on standardized nationwide tests can chill innovation and creativity. Choice might encourage efficiency in education, but it can leave socially disadvantaged students in worse shape than ever. Then, too, a choice among institutions that are fundamentally flawed by the very nature of school itself is hardly a choice at all. Bold talk of revolution and a reinvention of the classroom reveals an understanding of the dimensions of the challenge that faces us. The paucity of the proposed new federal funding amounts to a refusal by the present Administration, thus far, to take on that challenge.

What's needed today is a willingness to think the unthinkable—that school as we know it is doomed—and the will to create something new to take its place. Only a consummate fantasist could argue that this can be done without a substantial initial investment of federal, state, and local money. Since all else in our national life follows from the development of our human resources, this is the most important long-term investment we could possibly make. The end of school could mean the beginning of an education that would tap the potential of all our children, and immeasurably increase individual fulfillment and national success as we enter a new millennium.

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