The Learning Revolution

  • When the personal computer first entered the classroom three decades ago, prophets of the information age foretold a marvelous revolution. The world's storehouses of knowledge would become instantly available to young minds. Captivating digital landscapes would bring history, geography and science alive on a screen. Not since Gutenberg, they exulted, had there been such a powerful new tool for learning. Their bold predictions were not wrong, just premature. Computers are indeed everywhere in American schools, but they are generally used as little more than electronic workbooks for drill, or as places for kids to play games during ``free choice" periods. The promised revolution has failed to materialize. But here and there, in cutting-edge schools around the nation, there are glimmers of what could be. Nowhere is the use of technology more advanced and pervasive than at the Dalton School, an elite private academy in New York City. The 1,300 students at Dalton, situated on Manhattan's posh Upper East Side, enjoy resources that any school would envy: a teaching staff studded with Ph.D.s, a 62,000-volume library and specialized studios for instruction in subjects such as architecture and dance. But what really distinguishes the school is the way it is using technology to change the traditional roles of the teacher as oracle and the student as passive receptacle for hand-me-down knowledge. A visit to some of Dalton's classrooms provides a glimpse of what many believe is the future of education:

    Room 711. A faint scraping sound can be heard in Mary Kate Brown's sixth- grade social studies classroom. The students are on a dig. Each group of three or four has been assigned a plot within an ancient Assyrian site. Their mission: to uncover what is at the site, to analyze carefully each artifact they find, then to formulate and defend a thesis about the nature of the place and the people who once lived there. Not even well-heeled Dalton can afford to take an entire class on an excavation in the Middle East, so these students are working on Archaeotype, a computer simulation of a dig -- shoveling sounds and all -- created at Dalton and based on an actual site. Still, the excitement of the hunt is palpable. As they uncover spearheads and ivory pieces on the screen, these 11- year-olds speak of ``stratification" and ``in situ artifacts" with near professional fluency. This is a course in which kids learn by doing -- absorbing science and ancient history through acts of discovery. ``The material they find will admit of a variety of explanations," says Brown. ``There is not just one right answer." To marshal evidence for their theories, students may consult Archaeotype's six online ``libraries" of scholarly information and images (military, religious, royalty, etc.) as well as the greater resources of Dalton's library or even the Assyrian collection at the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art. ``It was like our own little land inside the computer," says Laura Zuckerwise, 12, who completed the course last year. ``If we found a new artifact, it was as though we were the first people to discover it!" Room 608. Like generations before them, the students in Jacqueline D'Aiutolo's 10th-grade English class have begun the epic journey into the dark heart of Shakespeare's Macbeth. They have completed reading the play, and now, working in groups of three or four, they are digging deeper into the text. Each group sits before a Macintosh computer, linked to an elaborate data base. Three students have been exploring the character of Lady Macbeth for a joint paper. What does she look like? How should she be imagined? A few keystrokes bring up a series of images: illustrations of the conniving noblewoman by a variety of artists, then a scene from Roman Polanski's 1971 film, Macbeth. As the action plays out in a window on the screen, the students discuss the lady's greed and her striking resemblance to a witch in the opening scene of Polanski's film. They can also look at scenes from the 1948 Orson Welles production and a 1988 staging for British TV. As they form theories about Shakespeare's intentions, they may consult any of 40 essays and hundreds of annotated bibliographies, as well as writings about the Bard's life and times. Jacqui D'Aiutolo circles the room as her students work. She has been teaching Macbeth for more than 15 years and, though she first regarded computers and literature as ``strange bedfellows," she has been amazed to see how students can deploy this modern tool to plumb the meaning of old texts. She has found that her own role has changed: she is less a lecturer than a resource and guide, helping students refine their own questions and assisting in their search for answers. The incisiveness of their work has stunned her. Says D'Aiutolo: ``You have depths you would never expect to reach in a 10th-grade class."

    Room 307. There's an audible hum in Malcolm Thompson's classroom, known at Dalton as the ``AstroCave." Seven computers are in use, each surrounded by a clutch of students murmuring in continual discussion of their work. The place is littered with 13 1/2-in. square Palomar plates -- grayish films, sprinkled with dark points of light representing stars and nebulae that were recorded by the 48-in. telescope at California's Palomar Observatory. Each student has chosen three stars and has been asked to calculate their brightness and temperature based on what the pupils see on the plates and can glean from a computer program called Voyager. Unlike Archaeotype, Voyager is an off-the- shelf program, but it is a tool of awesome power, simulating a view of the heavens from any point on earth, at any time, past or present. Thompson's course has always been popular, but in recent years it has achieved an almost cultlike status at the school. Though a vivid lecturer and the co-author of what was for years the country's top-selling astronomy textbook, Thompson has traded the chalk-and-talk approach for a task-oriented mode of teaching, using Voyager. His students do not ``study" astronomy; they become astronomers. From September through June, they complete a series of tasks, using computer-based tools like the ones astronomers use. Each task builds on the ones before it, so calculations made in October may provide an essential tool for November's assignment. Thompson's students admit they often begin hopelessly lost until, by dint of their own collaborative labors and their teacher's counsel, they find their way. ``It's the biggest satisfaction," says Simon Heffner, a senior. ``You don't realize you understand it and then it hits you!" In the end, adds Thompson, ``they have knowledge that they can deploy, as opposed to just passing a test." It is no coincidence that Dalton began its plunge into technology with the Archaeotype program. Excavation is an apt metaphor for the kind of ``constructivist learning" promoted at the school: students must actively dig up information, then construct their own understanding from raw, observable facts. What the technology does is extend experience so that many more observations are possible. ``It shifts education from adults giving answers to students seeking answers," says headmaster Gardner Dunnan. The underlying premise: we all understand and remember what we have discovered for ourselves far better than what we have merely been told. Still, the guiding hand of the teacher is a vital element in the process. ``You can't just give kids powerful computers and powerful information and set them loose. The teacher must create a compelling set of educational questions," says associate headmaster Frank Moretti, who heads Dalton's technology group, the New Laboratory for Teaching and Learning. The effectiveness of Dalton's program has been closely observed by outside experts. The school hired John Black of Columbia's Teachers College to conduct a study comparing the analytic skills of Archaeotype students with sixth-graders at a similarly elite private school. ``Kids at Dalton were twice as good at devising an explanation of data and defending it," says Black. ``I've never seen such a big difference in an educational study." On the other hand, the new teaching methods mean sacrificing some breadth for depth. Sixth-grade history, for instance, no longer covers the Middle Ages or Rome, since so much time is devoted to Archaeotype. The goal of any school is to prepare students for the world in which they will live. Dalton's emphasis on collaborative learning -- those little groups around a computer -- ``is perfect preparation," says Moretti, for a world in which most problems, whether scientific or corporate, are addressed by teams. Students often produce their papers collectively. Increasingly, projects are composed in the same multimedia format used for instruction. In addition, students are being primed for the world of the Internet by taking part in the school's own E-mail and bulletin-board system. They log onto the Dalton Network from home or at school to ``chat" with friends, confer with teachers or join online discussions of movies and records. The most remarkable feature of the system, however, is the ``conferences" -- discussion groups associated with certain courses. This year's most popular spins off a senior-class seminar in civil rights. Not only do all 17 students in the class participate, but twice as many outside the class have joined in. An additional hundred or so just log on to read what's been said. The exchange, moderated by the teacher, is both analytical and heated, especially on divisive topics like affirmative action. Observes Moretti: ``When children begin to take their own time outside the classroom to respond to questions that are important to them and become identified with positions within the larger community, that is a kind of personal development that wasn't possible in the old-fashioned school." How relevant are Dalton's experiments to all those old-fashioned schools across the country with strained budgets and less privileged kids? Very relevant, insists headmaster Dunnan. Sure, it takes serious money and expertise to create something like Archaeotype, he concedes. (Dalton received $3.7 million from real estate mogul Robert Tishman to develop technology.) ``But once something is developed, it need not be very expensive." To prove that point, Dalton has begun to offer its learning technology to a few public schools. The Juarez Lincoln Elementary School in Chula Vista, California, for instance, has been using Archaeotype for three years, much to the delight of its largely poor and ethnically diverse students. Ultimately, Dalton hopes to be able to bring its technology to market. Alas, sharing software alone will not bring about the education revolution. Few schools today have the computing power to run multimedia programs like those used at Dalton. Fewer still have the resources to support a complex schoolwide network (though increasingly schools can connect to existing networks). Still, anyone who has seen what technology can do for learning is convinced of its future. ``There's something inevitable about this," says Christina Hooper, a Distinguished Scientist at Apple Computer and an expert on educational technology. She believes it may take 10 years, or more likely 20, before the technology is widespread, but the prophets of the post-Gutenberg age in education will finally be proved right.