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Paul Horton: In Defense of Books

Guest post by Paul Horton.

"The purpose of the storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon."

             Brandon Sanderson

In the Corporate Common Core's rush to create a snippet curriculum that separates reading comprehension from the acquisition of knowledge, book lovers are panicking all over the world.

Textbook publishers, the sworn enemy of book lovers everywhere, are doing everything they can to collaborate on the new book burning: the digitization of all books. Pearson Education, the new Grand Inquisitor/Savonarola, has worked very hard to corner this market with help from Microsoft, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, many Governors past and present, and many Broad Foundation Superintendents.

Many innocent superintendents and schools boards are streaming/screaming the siren song of a Gates/Pearson seduction without being tied to the next available mast. The result is a Dionysian love fest that makes many of us aching to hurl.

They seem to be intoxicated with a "Jetson's" idea of the future where people are happy and technology solves all human problems.

I can remember a boss eight years ago waxing poetic about digital classrooms and an all-digital library ASAP. Before we knew it, we were a "one on one" school with a big Apple lease and a very temporary "marketing edge." There was not much discussion with the faculty about whether this would be the best path to take, but the assistant director had been a manager at Circuit City, so we got plugged in, ready or not. 

Books on tablets, after all, are cheaper, they are not cumbersome, they don't harm backs, and they create a huge "buzz," sending the message that "we" are a "school of the future."

It is very difficult to understand why so many under and well-funded districts are leaping into the moneypit of tablets filled with Pearson Common Core products when the results of "one-on-one" laptop programs are so mixed.

We all know about the Los Angeles fiasco with the purchase of tablets loaded with Pearson Common Core materials that is driving the district toward bankruptcy.

A study cited on the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development website from "Teaching Screenagers" predictably concludes that, "Rather than being a cure-all or silver bullet, one-to-one laptop programs may simply amplify what's already occurring--for better or worse--in classrooms, schools, and districts." 

A far more comprehensive review of the literature on "One Laptop Per Child" (OLPC) programs by Valdemar W. Setzer provides a very thorough critique of the issues associated with OPLC and its most recent incarnation, tablet learning. Here is a partial list of issues that he groups under the heading "Degrading the human being":

  • Induction of an admiration for machines
  • Induction of ideas that machines are more perfect than humans
  • Induction of materialist view of the world
  • Damaging sociability
  • Induction of the impulses of doing everything rapidly and many things at the same time
  • Damaging the capacities of mental concentration
  • Induction of a reductionist view of the world
  • Damaging creativity
  • Damaging memory
  • Induction of the view that learning is the same as playing

The author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,  Sherry Turkle agrees with Setzer. A professor at MIT, Turkle argues in a soon to be published book that we are losing the art of conversation due to our overreliance on digital communication: "

The conclusion she's arrived at while researching her new book is not technically, that we're not talking to each other. We're talking all of the time, in person as well as in texts, in e-mails, over the phone, on Facebook and Twitter. The world is more talkative now, in many ways, than it's ever been. The problem, Turkle argues, is that all of this talk can come at the expense of conversation. We are talking at each other rather than with each other.

The implications of Turkle's ideas are troubling.  My students tell me they are on and off Facebook and YouTube nonstop, often in the middle of homework. Many, if not most, have sacrificed reading books to digital media. Attention span, and impatience with listening seem to be on the rise. If understanding or information cannot be located pronto, anger loads very quickly. The one thing that is guaranteed to get kids hopping mad is a slow or interrupted load. I would not be surprised if we see reading levels plateauing and closely correlating to increasing digital viewing. My colleagues in public and private schools have noticed an alarming decline in social skills in general, and an alarming inability to concentrate and focus in particular. Many of my colleagues agree that this has nothing to do with ADHD. They think it has more to do with not reading closely and dominance of visual scanning of computer screens to find information.

My advisees (who are not taking any of my classes) tell me that students who have laptops and tablets open and claim to be taking notes are fibbing. They say that 99% of these students are somewhere on line, most likely on Facebook.

The idea of blocking social media is naïve at best. Kids everywhere and in all social classes are excellent hackers. It took the Los Angeles kids two days to hack out of the blocks. When I mentioned the Los Angeles situation to our kids, they said they had friends who could get through in fifteen minutes.

There is a growing body of evidence to indicate that reading books, not textbooks or screens, is the only way to go. According to a recent article published in Scientific American, students who read on digital screens do not remember and cannot actively process ideas. It turns out that memory requires a narrative, context, and the framing of a printed page and turning a printed page. 

Nichols G. Carr in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains really drives home this point:"[Patricia Greenfield] concluded that "every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others." Our growing use of the Net and other screen-based technologies has led to the "widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills." We can, for example, rotate objects in our minds better than we used to be able to. But our "new strengths in visual-spatial intelligence" go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacities for the kind of "deep processing" that underpins "mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection."

We need to reexamine the very issue of computer and screen based learning and instruction. Clearly technology is a tool, but it is not a solution. The Common Core Curriculum packages that are built into software and hardware packages like LA's are not cost effective for most school districts. Even if economies of scale were to drive the cost of these packages down, the costs of maintenance and replacement are prohibitive. If money is typically diverted from building maintenance, wraparound services, P.E., the Arts and Humanities, and teacher and staff salaries to pay for these packages, we must ask ourselves whether they are worth such a high price.

When parents are given the opportunity to do their own cost/benefit analysis, they tend to embrace small-scale experiments before they scale up.  The problem is that states and districts have signed memoranda of understanding under Race to the Top that commit to standardized testing that is computer driven. They had no idea of how much funding this would require when they signed on. Now districts are forced to choose between technology and people to adhere to Race to the Top. This is clearly a devil's bargain--a bargain that was made to profit Pearson, Microsoft, Amplify, K-12, and whichever vendors can hang in with these corporate behemoths. Parents of students in cities where school boards are not elected are given no choice.

To paraphrase Emerson, "the machine is in the saddle and is driving mankind."

It would clearly be more cost effective to scale up the production of cheap books like Dover editions than to scale up Apple or Microsoft tablets loaded with Pearson Common Core materials. It would be cheaper to make sure that every three year old learned to love reading. Rather than putting all of the mandated billions into the hands of companies that are driven to expand market share rather than to connect in any meaningful way with kids, we need to pause.

As usual, the Dalai Lama cheerfully gets things right: "Technology is good. It's when we let it control us that it becomes bad. Technology does not produce compassion. The Dalai Lama does not own a smart phone, nor does he watch much TV....

I am all for cheap books and kids and young adults reading books as a way to learn to read, learn to love learning, and absorb knowledge. We need to encourage more book reading and less digital scanning and viewing.

We live in a scary time and the words of Alberto Manguel (A History of Reading) are prescient:

Demotic regimes demand that we forget, and therefore they brand books as superfluous luxuries; totalitarian regimes demand that we not think, and therefore they ban threaten and censor; both, by and large, require that we become stupid and that we accept our degradation meekly, and therefore they encourage the consumption of pap. In such circumstances, readers cannot help but be subversive.

Books are becoming "superfluous luxuries." Technology is not learning. And compassion cannot be digitally transmitted.

What do you think? Is a digitized curriculum going to mean the end of the book? What will be lost if this trend continues? 

Paul Horton has taught for thirty years in virtually every kind of school. He began his teaching career in a recently integrated rural Texas middle school. He then taught for five years in a large urban high school in San Antonio's West side where the majority of young people were ESL. He has been teaching at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the country's most diverse independent school founded by John Dewey, for fourteen years.

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