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Kids, tools, and Ray Bradbury's basement.

Fair warning! The first 90% of this column will consist of seemingly disjointed vignettes. I will make sense of the bits and pieces later. Thanks in advance for beating with me.

Some years ago - when creativity was all the rage - I heard an interesting story about Ray Bradbury's basement. In one corner of his basement the noted science fiction writer reportedly had a drafting table, paints, sketch pads, an easel, and other art supplies. In another corner of his basement there was a complete workshop for wood, metal, and electricity. In a third corner, there was an exhaustive library of reference works, the Great Books, novels, biographies, poetry, a library table, and a comfortable chair with a perfectly positioned reading lamp. In the fourth corner there was a writing center with all kinds of paper, pencils, pens, a typewriter, and so on. Whatever tools Bradbury needed were near him at all times.

Shortly after the Russians beat us to the punch by launching Sputnik - the first earth-orbiting satellite - America was in a panic. In the 10 or so years that followed Sputnik, American educators, with lavish funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), undertook the most massive and expensive curriculum revision ever attempted. This grand effort was aimed mostly at the nation's K-12 science curriculum. (After all, the Russians were clearly ahead of us.) The results were an "alphabet soup" of curriculum materials: SAPA (Science - A Process Approach, elementary science), ISCS (Integrated Science Curriculum Study, junior high), ESCP (Earth Science Curriculum Program, junior high), BSCS (Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, high school), and so on. If you were in school in the late Sixties or the Seventies, chances are that you studied from one of these programs. The curriculum-writing teams for these projects often consisted of 20 to 30 people, including educators, Nobel laureates in science, media experts, lab technicians, child psychologists, curriculum experts, and more. Never before had a more illustrious think tank of experts been assembled for such a mission.

Ironically, almost all of the NSF curriculum-writing teams defined science as "both a body of knowledge [content] and a process for acquiring and refining knowledge." The process involved such steps as "observation, inference, measurement, data collection, and design of experiments." The curriculum materials the teams produced consisted of content (often textbooks) and a sequence of tightly integrated laboratory experiments. Students were expected to spend two to three days a week "doing science." A major goal of these projects was to get students to "do the work of scientists and to think like scientists."

Environmental psychology, a little-known discipline, deals with the relationship between humans and their environment. (See my article on this subject in the June 1980 Kappan.) This relationship is usually viewed as dynamic, but the influence of the physical environment on human behavior is also a concern. Do the attributes of a room influence how we act in it? I am reminded of the answer to this question every time I walk into a university lecture hall and see a hundred students with notebooks on their tablet-arm chairs just waiting to receive the pearls of wisdom the room has told them I will deliver. (Why do I have so much trouble getting a discussion going in these lecture halls?) I often wonder what our K-12 classrooms tell students.

The Beginning Teacher Evaluation Study (BTES) was one of the largest single educational research studies ever conducted. BTES ethnographers spent months in California classrooms carefully documenting what students did during every minute of the classroom day. When the reports came out between 1973 and 1976, most of us were appalled to read that the average student spent 51% of his or her time doing "seatwork." I disbelieved the study so strongly that I replicated it in Florida classrooms and, sure enough, came up with a figure of 53%. Imagine it: for over three hours per day, students pore over papers, dittos, and problem sets; copy spelling words; and write on paper. No wonder we have discipline problems. Needless to say, I was a bit agitated when two separate journal editors refused to publish my research findings because, as they told me, "the findings only prove what we already know."

In several previous columns I mentioned the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT) studies. I don't think I have done justice to the importance of these studies. Maybe a "word picture" will help. Imagine, if you will, putting a computer on every student desk in an entire school. Then, at the end of several years, you do an evaluation of the project, only to find that this massive infusion of technology has done nothing of significance to affect the measured achievement of students! I am sure you would be disappointed, but you might dig further to find out what really happened. Digging deeper, you would find that, at the beginning of the study, 15% of graduates planned on going to college, but at the end of the study over 90% of the students planned to continue their education.

One of my newest projects is working on an edited volume tentatively titled Turning Points: Studies That Changed the Way We Think. If you have ever been under the impression that education is running on conventional wisdom, intuition, and a lot of "old wives' tales," you'll love Turning Points, but you had better have an open mind! Maybe, just maybe, it is time for us to change how we think about technology in the classroom.

Now let me try to pull the bits and pieces of this column together. When I first heard the story of Ray Bradbury's basement, powerful microcomputers did not exist. Today most of the equipment in Bradbury's basement could be replaced by a single microcomputer with an Internet connection, and Bradbury could be from two to four times more productive.

The NSF science projects taught us that process is as important as content. What students learn to do is as important as the content they learn. Microcomputers and the Internet let young people learn to find, assemble, assimilate, and communicate information - not just memorize it.

Environmental psychology helps us understand that classrooms and what is in them have a profound influence on student behavior. Obviously, the technology in a classroom is likely to affect student behavior. And the technology in a classroom just might reduce the three hours of mind-numbing seatwork done by the average student. The ACOT results, which show that students in the program are much more likely to pursue a postsecondary education, are also noteworthy. Would you rather create students who score well on achievement tests or ones who turn out to be lifelong learners?

Webster defines a tool as "anything used to do work" and gives "a scholar's books" as one example. Taken together, the things mentioned above lead us to the inescapable conclusion that we must change what students do in schools and the tools they use there. I guess this overriding belief of mine led to the title of this column. If you ever have the chance to watch a good framing carpenter use a pneumatic nail gun to assemble a wooden wall, you will understand how radically power tools magnify human potential. A framing carpenter with a nail gun can outwork a fellow worker using a hammer by 400%. Why not teach our students to use high-tech power tools? I would rather grant diplomas to students who know how to do something than to students who know something. I subscribe to the old proverb "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him how to fish and he eats for a lifetime."

My goals for this volume include at least one column on higher education, one on technology in the preschool, and one research-based column. A research-based column will be tough for me to write. The research is largely aimed at content learning, and, as you can tell by my comments above, I am not high on cranking up achievement test scores - although I do know how to do it and have done it. Along with the above-mentioned columns, I will include the traditional gift-buying guide and probably one piece filled with prognostications. If you have ideas for future topics, just drop me a note. I try to answer my paper-based mail, but I do admit that responding to e-mail is a lot easier. One letter I received wanted me to collaborate on a project to teach dance using a computer. Having two left feet, I didn't know what to say, so I just didn't get around to responding. If you ever do write me and don't get a response, just try again. Unless, that is, you want me to help you use computers to teach people to dance - I wouldn't be too good at that.

ROYAL VAN HORN is a professor of education at the University of North Florida, Jacksonville (e-mail:
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Title Annotation:educational tools
Author:Van Horn, Royal
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 1, 1996
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