Thursday, March 09, 2006

Laptops for Students

Here's a good post on the Illinois governor's proposal to buy laptops (at $300 apiece) for 169,000 seventh-graders in that state. Seems like an extraordinary waste of money to me. With $300 of books, the kids might actually learn something. It's possible that they might learn something from the computers as well, but not likely: They'll far more likely use the computers (for the most part) for such crucial tasks as email, instant messenging, looking up news about celebrities/movies/music, etc. What plausible reason is there to think that giving a seventh-grader a free laptop is going to improve the learning process in any way?

The post also reports on a similar program in Maine, which unsurprisingly has had no benefit on test scores. A professor had this response:
But David Silvernail, a University of Southern Maine professor hired to evaluate the program, said he didn’t expect the laptops to make much difference on state tests. ‘’The test doesn’t test the right things . . . except possibly in writing,” he said. ‘’Our test is like most tests. It’s still kind of testing recall — ‘Do you know this fact?’ ”
I've never understood these sorts of paeans to ignorance. Yes, as a general matter, it is more important that a student be able to describe and analyze historical forces than that he remember the exact date of the Gettysburg Address. It is more important that a student be able to perceive the important themes of literature than that she be able to identify specific quotes from Hamlet.

But in reality, the ability to think on a higher level comes only after many long hours of immersion in the details of a particular subject. It's not as if students can understand the principles behind quadratic equations without ever having learned how to solve a quadratic equation. It's not as if students can learn to analyze literature without having ever actually read something (in which case, they ought to have some familiarity with what they read). And it's not as if students can learn to analyze history in the abstract, without knowing anything about who did what, and when.

Thus, a test based on factual knowledge is probably going to correlate very well with "ability to think." A student who has been deeply immersed in the "facts" of history/literature/whatever may well have picked up the "ability to think" about that subject along the way. And conversely, a student who is ignorant of all the basic facts about a subject cannot conceivably have "learned to think" about that subject, any more than you could be a professional basketball player without having spent countless tedious hours in practicing basic skills (as well as mastering the rules).

Anyway, back to laptops: If giving students laptops doesn't help them to learn any particular facts, what does it help them learn?



Blogger Dumb Hand said...

If law students are unable to use their laptops for disciplined learning, I doubt that seventh graders can.

Technology will not magically instill children with a desire to learn. That desire has to come from other sources.

11:13 AM  

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