Pretty Lights and Bouncing Balls in the Classroom of the Future

Harry Potter and his classmates laughed at Professor Trelawney for her lousy ability to predict the future, but actually she is better at it than educationists who deliver prophecies about the Classrooms of Tomorrow. Mr. H., a history teacher who passed through my school in the mercifully short time of one year, was a good example. He was fond of “teaching” class by showing movies. “In the classroom of the future,” he said, “all history will be taught by video.” Video! Many of his students disparaged his classes, calling them by the name of the local cinema chain, but the movies at the chain were much better than the ones in the class. I know because I subbed for him and had to sit through some of them, feeling like a classmate of Ferris Bueller’s while listening to a lecture about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.

Mr. H. was also forward-looking enough to cater to students’ desire to have classes that were fun[1] because that is what students in the vanguard require. His favorite such activity was the “class debate,” a kind of mêlée in which the boys shout at each other and the girls silently wonder when they will grow up. As might be expected of a room full of uninstructed and unconstrained sixteen-year-olds, the favored rhetoric was ad hominem and tu quoque argument. If it had had been criticized when made, the students relying on such argument would have learned something, but Mr. H. said the important thing was to get “the balls bouncing” in the classroom. Maybe he was farsightedly thinking of the weekend shouting head programs of the future, but of the millions of students in training, only a few dozen will become shouting heads. Sounds like a long shot to me. Most of them would be better served by instruction in how to marshal arguments and present them persuasively, preferably without PowerPoint.

Mr. H. anticipated the corruption engendered by high-stakes testing when he cheated “in favor of” his students on their I. B. history papers, which should not have received any detailed comments or editing from their teachers. He went over the drafts thoroughly and required rewrites to eliminate the shortcomings he saw.

It was therefore with a flashback to Mr. H. that I read a recent article in The New York Times entitled “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores.” Even though the “Classroom of Future” was thankfully not shown to be a locus of academic malpractice, it had earmarks of the H. approach to study. Something called “engagement,” i.e., fun with bouncing balls, is evidently considered desirable in such classrooms. An astonishing Example of the Future was the boy who was supposed to be doing his sums by shooting at rockets on his computer screen. The problem, which anyone should have been able to anticipate, was that the boy played to shoot rockets, not to get sums. He would shoot at any rocket that looked like a good target, not just the “correct” ones. But that’s all right, said the boy’s teacher, because “[e]ven if he doesn’t get it right, it’s getting him to think quicker.” It may be all right “In Classroom of Future,” but it is not all right at, say, the Hyatt-Regency in Anaheim, where I once watched a young cashier come to grief as a guest of the hotel asked her to make change for $100. She couldn’t do it, but she was adept at using her keyboard and screen to summon help.

This visionary gleam of rockets, failed sums, and bouncing balls persists even though there is little or no evidence (as how could there be?) that the wired classroom produces better learning. Not that that matters to the companies selling the technology. A representative of one of them said, “Test scores are the same, but look at all the other things students are doing: learning to use the Internet to research, learning to organize their work, learning to use professional writing tools, learning to collaborate with others.” I note that of the four desirable abilities learned, three of them can be learned without “Classroom of Future.”

The article also has much to say about the way high-tech classrooms seem to go in tandem with increases in class size; about the way high-tech purchases seem to crowd out other purchases such as soap, Kleenex, and books; and the way their proponents seem to persist in their visions not just, as I see it, against the “educational experience of the human race[2]” but also, as the article points out, in the face of a complete lack of evidence that the gadgets produce better students. Like Mr. H. these frothy futurists seem as lightweight as bouncing balls.

[1] “Too much fun is of all things most loathsome.”—William Blake

[2] Richard Hofstadter’s expression in Anti-intellectualism in American Life


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