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Computers at School?

by Israel Scheffler - 1986

We are now heading back in the old formalistic direction, with the insouciant amnesia that has become a hallmark of our educational history. Then, the slogans were "excellence," "mastery," "structure," and "discipline"; and the devices were teaching machines, programmed instruction, and new school curricula prepared by experts in the disciplines. Now, the slogans are "excellence," "basics," "minimum competences," and "standards" and the devices are television and, more particularly, the computer.

Presented April 18, 1985, in the Schumann Distinguished Lecturer Series sponsored by the Interactive Technology in Education Program, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with the support of the Schumann Foundation. Not to be quoted or reproduced in part or in whole without the written permission of the author.

In an essay published a little over twenty years ago, I described American education as then in the throes of a return to formalism. What I referred to was the renewed emphasis of that period on academic values, and the rejection of earlier concerns with the child’s growth as center of the educational process. The return to formalism also involved what I described as a

vast . . . emphasis on educational technology, the development of devices, programs, and new curricula for the more efficient packaging and distribution of knowledge. What [had been], in the days of progressivism, a broad concern for scientific inquiry into processes of growth, perception, and socialization [had], in the name of hardheaded research and development, become more and more a preoccupation with the hard facts comprising educational content, and their optimal ordering for transmission to the student.1

Having survived that return to formalism, and the wild swing to the opposite extreme succeeding it in the late sixties and early seventies, we are now heading back in the old formalistic direction, with the insouciant amnesia that has become a hallmark of our educational history. Then, the slogans were “excellence,” “mastery,” “structure,” and “discipline”; and the devices were teaching machines, programmed instruction, and new school curricula prepared by experts in the disciplines. Now, the slogans are “excellence,” “basics,” “ minimum competences,” and “standards”; and the devices are television and, more particularly, the computer. Then as now, the rhetoric was couched in broad educational terms, but economic incentives were also at work, and educational motivations were powered by international rivalry. Sputnik was, to be sure, a Soviet achievement, whereas the feared plan for a fifth-generation computer is Japanese. Are we, nevertheless, simply experiencing a deja vu, watching a rerun where only the names have been changed to protect the innocent of history?

I think not. There are certainly salient parallels of the sort just outlined—parallels of ideological direction and emphasis, of terminology and motivation. But two differences stand out. First, the progressivism against which the earlier formalism reacted was milder than the antiestablishmentarianism of the sixties and seventies and plumbed shallower emotional depths in the nation at large. The antiestablishment trend of the recent period, tied as it was to the upheaval over the Vietnam war, the youth movement, and efforts to improve the status of minorities, had wider ramifications in society at large; it went far beyond the schools. The social, political, and educational reactions it has called forth have been correspondingly stronger and broader.

Second, the earlier formalism was independently narrower in its focus. It addressed the schools primarily, its vanguard composed of disciplinary scholars reforming school curricula, its technologies largely school-based. By contrast, the current technologies are broadly social in their impact; they are transforming society at large, and only secondarily the schools. Our children are living in a world already fundamentally altered by the television environment outside the school. They are growing into a world increasingly computerized in every sphere—industry, commerce, communications, transport, health care, science, government, and the military. Current technology is no mere affair of curriculum scholars. The school is now the tail, the whole world the computerized dog.

Indeed, the feeling that the computer revolution must be reflected in the school’s basic offerings is widespread. Educators solemnly recommend computer literacy as a basic subject of study, advertisers frighten parents into buying computers so as to avert educational disaster for their children, salesmen present the computer as an instrument of achievement both in school and in life. Last year, parents spent $110 million on educational software alone, it was reported by Future Computing, Inc., according to the New York Times of November 11, 1984.2 Swept by computer frenzy, the community is urged to express it in home and in classroom no less than in other major institutions. If the general expansion of computerization is in fact here to stay, what are schools and educators to do? What can they do?

I suggest three things. First, they can take a critical attitude toward the pressures for computerization being brought to bear on education, recognizing that educational applications of the computer are not given or foreordained. There may indeed be good reasons of an educational sort for putting computers to use in the classroom. But I emphasize “ of an educational sort.” Mere faddishness, or corporation hype, or status seeking, or parental panic, or widespread social use are not enough. Second, taking an educational point of view respecting the computer, they can raise not only questions of effectiveness but also questions of value, alternatives, and side effects—ends as well as means. Third, they can be alert to the transfer of computer language to education and the consequent hazard that educational ends will be constricted to fit. In the remainder of my remarks, I shall elaborate on each of these three recommendations in turn.

These recommendations, it should be emphasized, are addressed primarily to educators rather than to the computer community. And I make bold to offer them despite my status as an outsider to this community because the use of the computer in education raises basic issues that are general rather than technical, and of serious concern to all of us.


My recommendations, you will note, do not imply an antitechnology attitude. They do not urge educators to mount the barricades and fight the marauding technologists under the faded banner of humanism. There is, in fact, a know-nothingism about technology as there is a know-nothingism about pure science, arts, and humanities. Technology is no “evil empire” pitted in ultimate warfare against the realm of humane values. It is, after all, the transformation of the world through thought and, as such, essential and inescapable. Thought is ineffective without technique, technique impossible without thought. As John Passmore has put it,

Technology, the application of science, is itself an exercise of the human intelligence, the human imagination, the human gift for understanding. The pure mathematician who is reported to have rejoiced: “Well, thank God, no one will ever find a use for that piece of mathematics” is as ridiculous a figure as the Philistine depicted by Matthew Arnold, with his monotonous refrain, “What’s in it for me?“3

The invention and development of the computer, specifically, are triumphs of the creative mind that all can applaud.

Yet it does not follow that the computer must therefore be regarded as a given for education. The illusion of givenness is largely an offshoot of strong independent pressures for computerization. There is, in fact, no necessity that compels an advancing technology to be mirrored in school offerings, nothing fated about it. We do well to note that the Japanese themselves, our primary competitors in the computing field, have not rushed to install computers in the classroom, relying instead on their traditional culture of schooling coupled with intensive academic work and school-family supports.4 And Professor Joseph Weizenbaum has reminded us of earlier technological enthusiasms, pointing to the example of home movie cameras gathering dust in thousands of closets across the nation, by contrast with the rosy promise of home computers humming in a swelling crescendo from coast to coast.5

I have described the illusion of givenness as largely an offshoot of the pressure for computerization. There is, I suggest, also a deeper source, that is, the absolutizing of the computer as a means. Let me explain. The computer as a symbol-manipulating device for accomplishing various purposes in industry, management, research, and so forth, is not ipso facto a means for achieving educational purposes. Its instrumental value does not automatically carry over from the former to the latter. To suppose it does is to absolutize its status as a means.

The point deserves some elaboration. To speak of an object as an instrument is to convey some implicit reference to a purpose. In abstraction from purpose, no object is an instrument or, what comes to the same thing, there are no all-purpose means. To describe a hammer as a tool is to imagine some purpose to which it is to be put, some context in which such a purpose is embedded. The concept of a means is a relational rather than a categorical one.

It follows that instrumentality for a designated purpose implies nothing about instrumentality for any other. A hammer’s usefulness for driving nails says nothing about its suitability as a soup ladle. Nor, on the other hand, does it follow that driving nails is the only purpose to which it can be put. The stereotype of an object may indeed tend to constrict our thought of it to its standard or conventional use, but the stereotype is itself no more intrinsic to the object than its instrumentality. If a hammer cannot serve as a soup ladle, it can serve as a doorstop, or a bookend, or a paper weight. Its suitability for such nonconventional uses is neither guaranteed nor precluded by its stereotype but must be independently established for each case.

What holds for the hammer holds for any technology. That an object is described as a technological device bears implicit reference to a purpose; its usefulness for such purpose in itself neither implies nor excludes its fitness for any other. The property of being a piece of technology is not a physical but a teleological property. It is not given but acquired with purpose.

To question the educational usefulness of the computer is thus no denial of its usefulness in all sorts of other ways. Nor does its undoubted value in other of its roles imply anything about its value for education. To put the computer to educational use is in fact to transform it from one sort of instrument to another, to change its character as technology by throwing it into a new combination with human purpose. Its instrumental value for education is not a foregone fact, “out there,” decreed by history. What our purposes are, which of these we choose to implement, how we apply our resources to the effort make all the difference—not merely to the application of technology but to its very constitution as such.


What educational purposes might then be served by computers? The answers that have been suggested are numerous and they will no doubt continue to proliferate. I will comment on four of these, not by any means to provide definitive appraisals, but only to illustrate the sorts of questions that should, I believe, be addressed to such proposals.

1. One answer that has been given is that training in computers would provide marketable skills to children growing up in an increasingly computerized world. The computer’s role is that of a vocational educator, preparing the masses of our youth for jobs in the future. This answer has been disputed. It has been argued that while some of our youth will obtain employment as computer experts, the promise of such employment to the general student body is empty. Levin and Rumberger, for example, hold that “the proliferation of high technology industries and their products is far more likely to reduce the skill requirements of jobs in the U.S. economy than to upgrade them.” And Professor Papert has been quoted as saying that because computer technology is advancing so rapidly, “what children are learning today [about computers] is going to be irrelevant when they get out of school.“6

All our youth will of course be affected by the computer in a myriad of ways. They will become familiar with it and its effects in banks, schools, businesses, supermarkets, hospitals, and libraries. But does it follow that, because these effects are widespread, the jobs will be as well? Should the masses of our youth be trained for Hollywood because of the prevalence of the movies, or for Detroit because of the widespread effects of the automobile? The question of future employment possibilities is of course an empirical one. There is, at any rate, no direct inference to be drawn from the social pervasiveness of the computer to the reliable promise of pervasive employment.

Even were such promise true, it would not follow that schools should provide the requisite training. Corporations and businesses have frequently argued, with respect to vocational education generally, that schools can best contribute to the general education of their students and to the development of students’ social skills and character, leaving the rest to on-the-job experience. Whatever the truth may be on this issue, such alternatives must at least be explored. Again, it is worth noting the Japanese experience, in which schools have so far retained their traditional orientations, while the youth have acquired familiarity with the computer through informal means.

2. A second answer is more modest. It argues that schools should prepare students in a general way for the computerized world they will inhabit. This answer does not promise the youth employment in programming for they will, in all likelihood, be consumers of programs rather than producers. However, so the argument runs, any child not prepared to deal generally with computers in the future will be handicapped in a variety of ways-personal, social, and economic, no matter what occupation he or she may follow. For even as a consumer of programs, the child will require facility with computers and at least some understanding of the process of programming. Some such line of thought seems to underlie the notion of “computer literacy,” merging as well with the “minimum competency” rhetoric and the “basic skills” idea. The role of the computer is here envisaged not as a species of vocational education but as perhaps akin to driver education in supplying our youth with abilities without which they would be handicapped in life.

Now let us concede that knowledge of the computer will indeed be essential for adequate functioning in the future and, as such, generally desirable. Does it follow that schools should invest a significant effort in this direction? Exactly what type and what level of knowledge are, in fact, thought to be required? Do the requisite abilities presuppose a theoretical understanding of computer science or only one or another degree of operational facility? The way in which such questions are answered makes all the difference in the world in determining the school’s proper role.

How many drivers understand the theory of the internal combustion engine? How many telephone or television users have analogous theoretical understanding? Driver education, premised on the public interest in traffic safety, leads no one to exalt “driver science” to the level of a New Basic Skill, along with English and mathematics, as A Nation at Risk does for computer science.7 Yet if only operational facility is involved in either case, why the disparity? It might be suggested that the level of operational understanding required of the computer consumer is significantly higher than that required of the automobile consumer, but a detailed argument would have to be made to this effect. In any case, it would further need to be argued that the school is the preferred locus for acquiring such understanding, rather than out-of-school experience. It is ironic that academic formalists, providing neither argument, often advocate a computer literacy that may require no formal schooling at all, or at best at a level comparable to that of driver education.

3. A third answer is that the computer would enhance the learning of traditional school subjects. Unlike the previous two answers, which urged the importance of learning about the computer, the present answer advocates using the computer to learn about other things. The idea is to have the computer pick up the rote and repetitive aspects of traditional learning, providing as much individualized drill, practice, feedback, and evaluation as may be needed to reach suitable levels of mastery. The computer is here thought of as a mechanical drill sergeant or, more generally, a mechanical teacher’s aide.

As such, the computer has undoubted assets. It can connect with the student’s learning process at any level and carry it further, in a manner unhampered by personal biases or social prejudices. It is also enormously patient (so to speak), providing as much practice and response as may be needed by the student to achieve any degree of mastery of school subjects. Behind some of the recent talk of computer literacy lurks perhaps this idea as well: that facility with the computer will enable its use to drill students in the basic skills associated with academic subjects.

Whether such use would indeed be generally effective in developing skills and improving academic learning is an empirical question on which I am glad to defer to educational practitioners and researchers. I consider here only whether an affirmative answer would imply that schools should adopt such use forthwith.

Effectiveness would not in itself, I suggest, warrant such a conclusion. Any means effective in achieving a given end will have costs, side effects, further consequences and alternatives, all of which require consideration. A recent New York Times article reports the insight that flashcards may rival the computer in teaching rote materials. “Children may initially be more willing to learn their multiplication tables with a computer-graphics program than with flashcards because of the novelty of the learning device. But the motivation often wears off quickly because the process of rote learning is no more creatively addressed on the screen than it is with cards.“8

In general, one would at least need to consider such questions as the following before moving directly from computer effectiveness to school adoption: What alternative methods might be employed to the same end? What would be the relative social and economic costs? What would be the expected effects on equal access for all children? What consequences might be anticipated for school structure, student motivation, teacher training, school curricula, and the social and moral climate of learning? These questions are not meant to be rhetorical. I list them not as a way of rejecting the proposed use of the computer in the school, but only to argue that they require consideration. Such consideration might well sustain the proposal in question. But it would do so on grounds that go beyond the mere effectiveness of the computer in drilling students in basic skills.

One potential side effect is worth special mention. Effective use of the computer in the manner proposed here might encourage complacency with respect to basic skills; such complacency might, in turn, scant other uses of the computer for education in higher-level skills. A related effect seems already to have occurred in connection with the general recent emphasis on so-called basics. The New York Times of April 14, 1983, thus describes educators as interpreting the recent mathematics survey of the National Assessment for Educational Progress as showing “an emerging trend in the nation’s schools: younger students are improving in the basics and older students are doing worse in high-level skills.” The report attributed “much of the positive change . . . to improved performance on rather routine items.” However, “in general, students made much more modest gains, or no gains at all, on items assessing deep understanding or applications of mathematics.“9

The president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Stephen S. Willoughby, was quoted by the Times as saying that “the only things we see improvement on—basic calculations—are things that a calculator can do better than a person. There is no way we can survive if kids do well only on trivial skills and don’t show an understanding at a high level.” In both reading and mathematics, there seems to be a similar pattern, according to Mary M. Lindquist, quoted in the same Times report: “In both subjects, we may be concentrating on those skills that are easiest to teach and learn and neglecting the thinking skills that are not so easily taught and learned.“10 The moral seems to be that while basic skills need to be learned, higher skills also require nurture. Putting the computer to work on effective drilling in the basics ought not to fill us with such educational self-righteousness that we forget about developing higher-level capacities.

4. This leads us to the fourth answer to our main question. This answer is that the computer should be used to help develop creative problem-solving abilities. Rather than serving primarily as an adjunct to the traditional academic subjects, the computer is to be used to promote logical, cognitive, and reasoning abilities—what may be called, speaking generally, critical thinking, inclusive of inventive approaches to problems. The computer is to be not a drill sergeant but rather a trainer or coach in developing the student’s capacity to solve problems.

This proposal has several of the same advantages as those of the previous one. Its interaction with the student is free of biases, it can be prolonged to any degree necessary for the learning task in question, and it lends itself to individualization of instruction. The question of its effectiveness in promoting critical thinking is, as before, an empirical question. But the setting of suitable criteria of success is here more controversial than in the case of drilling for mastery of basic skills, and involves more urgently the question of transfer. And, assuming the method to be effective by any suitable criteria, questions analogous to those raised for the previous case would be relevant here as well, for example, questions of cost, alternatives, side effects, and further consequences.

On one issue, the present idea has an advantage over the last one. It places emphasis on higher-level, creative capacities, offering a maximal rather than a minimal vision of cognitive competences to be fostered. It tends in this way to counter the image of education as bounded by the familiar academic subjects, and to import the notion of problems as primary. Thus it moves to break out of the formalist mold that associates the computer with a hard education in the traditional subjects. But empirical evaluation remains to be dealt with, that is, are there determinate criteria of success by which the computer can be shown to offer advantages in promoting creative problem-solving capacities?

Indefinitely many further applications of the computer to education might be devised. Nothing I have said implies that only the above four are possible or that they are the most desirable. I have used these four examples to illustrate the point that no computer use is inevitable and that every such use ought to run the gauntlet of questions ranging beyond considerations of effectiveness.


I want now to consider a large-scale side effect of computer use—the impact of computer language on our conception of educational ends. Specifically, I address the potential constriction of such ends through our hypnotic fascination with the computer.

The question to be raised here is not one of efficiency in achieving the ends designated; I concede, for the sake of the present argument, that the computer has been empirically shown to be effective in any or all of the ways previously discussed. Precisely if our means are effective in achieving certain ends are we tempted to lose sight of other and more elusive ends. I have already mentioned the emphasis on basic skills as having encouraged the neglect of higher-level capacities. Similarly, “teaching to the test” is easier than teaching for understanding; teaching facts and habits easier than teaching methods and dispositions. I spoke earlier of the absolutizing of means. What concerns me now is the expansion of means at the expense of ends.

Nor is this tendency peculiar to education. We naturally tend to shrink our vision of the world to our mode of access to it. As infants, we have to learn that there are objects beyond our field of vision and, as we grow, continually to expand our imaginative construction of the world beyond experience. Throughout life, our perception favors those things assimilable to our categories, rubrics, and models; what does not fit is noted only with difficulty. As researchers, we tend to identify our problems with those questions answerable by our chosen methods. It is no wonder that the phenomenon repeats itself again and again in the field of education.

The general point is this: As the computer’s presence grows, the whole array of our educational ends tends to shrink to what is achievable or supposed achievable by computer. Instead of understanding the computer as a means to goals independently sought, we tend to redefine our goals so as to match what computers can do. From its initial status as a technology for promoting independently specified educational values, the computer thus becomes transformed into a general criterion of value. And the whole process is facilitated by language transfer.

Even without hard evidence for the educational efficacy of the computer, the mere promise of such efficacy promotes the transfer of computer language to education. Such transfer tends to filter out ends and values that do not fit the metaphor—for example, ethical sensitivity, social perceptiveness, artistic expressiveness—so that the efficiency of the computer is expanded by definition. For it is the merest tautology that ends achievable by the computer are achievable by the computer. It is, however, far from tautologous that all educational ends are indeed achievable by the computer. Indeed, it is false, and impoverishes education in fundamental ways.

There is a certain irony in this development. While computer language has promoted a reductive view of the realm of teleological and mental process, teleological language has enriched the view of computer processes. Thus, computer scientists and cyberneticists have increasingly employed teleological and, indeed, anthropomorphic language in working with the computer. They have also tried to simulate certain mental processes with their admittedly partial models, then transferring the unreduced teleological descriptions of such processes to these models. At the same time, researchers and educators have increasingly applied computer terminology to the mind, and tried to reduce mental functions to those of the machine, the whole reductive effort threatening to run in a logical circle.11 How far we now are from a genuine reduction of mind may be illustrated by a recent comment of Professor Shimon Ullman, head of the Weizmann Institute’s National Center for Artificial Intelligence. According to Ullman,

The main message of Al research seems to be [that] those areas once considered inordinately difficult—such as designing a computer that can play world class chess—have proven relatively simple, whereas teaching a computer elementary tasks such as understanding English or visually discerning shapes, have proved nearly impossible. The main objective is to learn more about the brain through this research. The reason we’re not sure just how to make computers intelligent is that we still aren’t certain what goes on in the brain.12

Looked at from the point of view of research, the transfer of languages from one realm to another exemplifies a creative strategy, often leading to progress. Certain analogies are suggestive enough to justify such transfers in the present case even if computers do not literally think and the mind is not literally a computer. One needs only to avoid making circular reductive claims. But looked at from the point of view of educational practice, the matter is more serious. For the computer metaphor acts to screen out what may be of the first importance, educationally speaking. The challenge confronting educators is to adopt whatever advantages computer use may be shown to offer, while holding fast to their independent vision of educational values.

“The computer metaphor,” as I intend this phrase, is actually a cluster of several related metaphors, operating in different ways and at different levels. Nor—and I emphasize this—is the computer metaphor bound to the strict understanding of the computer by the experts. It generates its force also, or even largely, from public conceptions of the matter, whether accurate or not. Now I want in what follows to concentrate on one major metaphor belonging to the cluster, that centered on the notion of information.


A prevalent public image of the computer is, surely, that of an information processor. Information comes in discrete bits, each expressing a factual datum. Data may be entered and stored in the computer’s memory, retrieved from memory, and processed in simple or complex ways according to various programs, which instruct the computer exactly what functions to perform. These functions are in the nature of algorithms, specifying determinately how the data are to be transformed. The human operator determines that the solution to his problem might be computed by program from input data, punches in his instructions to the machine to institute the relevant program, and eventually sees the solution displayed on the screen before him.

Now to think of learning, generally, in these terms is undeniably suggestive. But see how much is left out of the picture. Learning takes place not just by computing solutions to problems, nor even just by exchanging words, but by emulation, observation, identification, wonder, supposition, dream, imitation, doubt, action, conflict, ambition, participation, and regret. It is a matter of insight and perception, invention and self-knowledge, intimation and feeling, as much as of question and answer. Even the understanding of an answer in everyday life involves catching not just the information literally conveyed by the words, but also what is expressed by their overtones and nuances and what is carried between the lines or in the silences. Such understanding is not, in general, reducible to computation.

The activity of the computer operator, in the public’s mind, is isolated and cognitive, its vehicles the finger and the eye. But even our cognitive skills are social. They grow in the first instance out of interactions with others more skilled than we, in continuous processes of discussion, demonstration, and exchange. The activity of a learner involves all of his being. It is moral and muscular, visceral and vascular, social and historical, proceeding, in Dewey’s words, by trying and by undergoing.

Learning advances not alone when new answers are gained but when old answers are lost, not alone when problems are solved but when solutions turn problematic. Indeed, the categories of question-answering and problem-solving are too meager to contain such educational successes as new competences formed, new attitudes crystallized, new loyalties shaped, new discriminations made, new appraisals formulated, new emotions felt, new insights gained, new challenges undertaken, new purposes assumed. Interactive technology is but the tiniest sliver of interactive life. Unless, indeed, one had been learning all one’s life and in multifarious ways before one’s first approach to a computer, one could hardly learn anything from the machine. What questions could one put, what purposes could one have, what significance could one possibly attach to the answers received?

The computer metaphor, as just considered, projects the situation of the computer operator onto the learner generally. Now consider another, and deeper, application of the metaphor, in which the learner is seen not as the operator but as the computer itself. Like the computer, the learner acquires information, stores it in memory, ready to retrieve and process it in order to solve the problems put to him or her. But here is the catch: The computer does not pose its own problems to itself, but requires an operator to do so, an operator with needs and purposes of his own. Without such needs and purposes, what constitutes a problem? What data require retrieval, and to what end? What functions ought to be activated, what needs fulfilled, what lacks satisfied? What can be the significance of information without appraisal in light of aims? Knowledge of one’s enduring aims and purposes is, furthermore, not just another body of information, but a form of insight into the patterning of one’s chosen problems, the setting of one’s life tasks.

To speak of information and memory, not to mention knowledge, in reference to the computer is itself a metaphorical transfer from the human case. To transfer such terms back from the computer to the mind, now emptied of the connotations of human activity, interpretation, need, and purpose, is an example of the irony I mentioned earlier. This double transfer in the context of practice leads us unwittingly to shrink our initial ideals of education and our conceptions of mind and schooling.

The everyday notion of information refers to material we can understand and interpret in context. Grasping what it expresses, we can paraphrase it and evaluate its contextual relevance, criticize and reject it or back it up appropriately, respond to it with feeling, sense its metaphorical echoes, appraise its bearing on our purposes, and apply it in our activity. The computer itself cannot be properly described as doing any of these things, in the everyday senses of the terms involved. To characterize the electronic state of computer circuitry in terms of “information” is to employ the word under a different interpretation. Further to construe the mind in terms of “computer information” empties the human notion of virtually all its content.

It is important to emphasize that, even in its full-blooded human sense, the concept of information is far from capable of adequately expressing our educational aims. This is so even if we concentrate on the purely cognitive aims of schooling, as they relate to the enterprise of problem solving. For although information is certainly essential to education, it is only part of the story. Consider: You can have been given a piece of information but fail to realize its significance either for the problem at hand or for action more generally. You can accept that such and such is the case but be totally unable to give any good reasons for it, thus disqualifying yourself as really knowing that such and such is the case. You can know it but not recall it at the fitting moment, or recall it but be unable to apply it intelligently to the problem under consideration. You may indeed be able to apply it without being in general disposed to do so, not having formed the suitable inclination or character trait. The suggestion that at least the cognitive side of education can be fully expressed in terms of information transfer, storage, and retrieval would not be worth a moment’s consideration were it not that it is implicitly conveyed by the current formalism, coupled with the public’s awe of scientific facts.

To know a fact requires, however, as Gilbert Ryle has put it, “having taken it in, i.e. being able and ready to operate with it, from it, around it and upon it. To possess a piece of information is to be able to mobilize it apart from its rote-neighbors and out of its rote-formulation in unhackneyed and ad hoc tasks.“13 Now the Baconian image of science as an increasing accumulation of facts has independently distorted the ideal of education since well before the computer age. With “facts ” now translated into “bits of information,” the Baconian image is given modern dress. Just see how contemporary Mr.Gradgrind sounds when his little speech in Dickens’s Hard Times is altered by replacing the word “fact” with “information.” He is explaining his educational views to a teacher in the school he manages. I reproduce here the original passage, but you can mentally make the replacement at each occurrence of the word “Fact” or “Facts”:

Now what I want is Fact. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, root out everything else. You can form the mind of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will be of any service to them.14

The teacher addressed by Mr. Gradgrind agrees. He has learned and proposes to teach his students “about all the Water Sheds of all the world; and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two and thirty points of the compass.“15

Mr. Gradgrind considered the learning of such facts to be hard work. Current formalists think it can be made fun. The educational game selected as the best of 1984 by Electronic Games magazine, according to the New York Times, is one in which the player “must destroy the Fuzzbomb before it spreads across the entire nation. To confront the Fuzzbomb, the player or agent takes trains from city to city to get to the Fuzzbomb’s location, which continually changes.“16 The presumed charm of this game is supposed to facilitate the student’s learning to identify the state capitals. The same principle could no doubt be applied to the Water Sheds of all the world, and other such important facts.

Facts are, however, not the sorts of things imagined by Gradgrinds past or present. They are expressed in language, clothed in concepts, organized and transformed by theory, appraised by criteria of value, and intelligently or stupidly employed in the conduct of life. Neither the concepts nor the values we possess are automatically derivable from hard facts or data; they serve rather to mold the forms in which our putative facts are cast. These facts provide tests of our theories through their own credibilities but they do not generate these theories by any kind of routine processing. They are, in turn, responsive to our theories and tested by them. That we have the theories and facts we do is therefore a reflection not only of our mental capacities or of the “real world,” but of our history and our intellectual heritage.

Even the capacity for intelligent use of information will not suffice to express our educational aims relative to problem solving. Drawing on accumulated data is inadequate for accommodation to future change. What is wanted in addition is the generation of new information—Information, moreover, that does not result simply from applying old categories to new circumstances. Devising new categories, composing new classifications, postulating new entities, guessing at new connections, inventing new languages and calculi, are desiderata of the highest importance.

Problem solving, further, needs not just the recognition and retention of facts but the recognition and retention of difficulties, incongruities, and anomalies. It does not simply affirm truths but entertains suppositions, rejects the accepted, conceives the possible, elaborates the doubtful or false, questions the familiar, guesses at the imaginable, improvises the unheard-of. An intelligence capable only of storing and applying truths would be profoundly incapacitated for the solving of problems.

When we move beyond problem solving to consider educational aims in general, we find the computer metaphor based on “information” even more clearly inadequate. For we here encounter provinces long cultivated by rival metaphors, alien to the impression or transmission of facts. What I have elsewhere called the insight model”17 one such rival metaphor. It speaks not of information but of insight and perception, vision and illumination, intuition of nuance and pattern, grasp of overtone and undertone.

A second such rival metaphor is that of equipping,18 or the provision of skills and capacities. This is not a matter of storing answers, whether linguistic or numerical, and it cannot be accommodated solely in information-theoretic terms. It concerns rather the forming or strengthening of abilities, the know how commanded by a person, rather than the know that, the capability to deal with the tasks and challenges of practice in the various domains of life. Nor is every bit of know how accessible to algorithm—witness the comic’s ability to make us laugh, the actor’s capacity to make us weep, and the metaphorical ability itself, beyond the regimented interpretation of literal codes.

A third such rival metaphor is represented by what I have called the rule model.19 This metaphor focuses on norms rather than capacities, on the pronenesses, likelihoods, tendencies, and dispositions of a person rather than on his mere abilities and skills—on what one does do rather than what one can do. In this realm we have again left the notion of information behind. For what is involved here is not the storing or transformation of data, but-the shaping of habits of mind and feeling, the growth of attitudes and traits, the development of character. Our concern is not with knowing that nor even with knowing how. For we are dealing not with what people believe, nor with what they are equipped to do, but with what they can reliably be expected to do, with their predictable but typically unarticulated patterns of conduct, taste, and emotion. The inculcation of desirable patterns of this sort, beyond the reach of algorithms, is of the first educational importance, laying the foundations of mutual trust, common feeling, and shared value without which no community can stand, let alone thrive.

These various realms all require to be kept steadfastly in view as we make progress on any educational front. The whole array of ends must serve as the context within which we gauge our educational situation. Rather than cutting this array down to the size of our technology, we should strive to look beyond our technology, to determine the purposes and directions of our further efforts.

The computer has been associated with the recent swing to hard education, with the notion of raising standards, of higher achievement in academic subjects, of increased efficiency in the teaching of fact, of enhanced problem-solving capacity. All these matters are indeed important. There is no positive virtue in low academic achievement, inefficient teaching, or diminished problem-solving capacity. Whatever the computer may be able to accomplish in such areas is all to the good. No such accomplishment, however, should block our vision of equally vital educational goals, or shrink our highest ideals of learning. It is the task of educators to keep both means and ends in view.20

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 87 Number 4, 1986, p. 513-528
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 659, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 2:22:16 AM

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  • Israel Scheffler
    Harvard University

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