Returning to the One Room Schoolhouse

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Many see technology as an answer to the problems in our schools. Information technology certainly can help us solve some of the dilemmas we face in preparing our students for the 21st century; however, we will never fully optimize our investment in technology unless we stand back and completely redesign our approaches to children in the classroom. Before we rush to embrace technology in teaching children, we should look not at teaching but at the ways in which children learn and at how technology can enhance that learning process, not the teaching process.

State legislatures appear to expect answers from our colleges of education, but most of these schools are unprepared to take a leadership role in this arena. Traditionally, colleges of education have concentrated on issues in teaching rather than in learning. But new approaches, like effective changes in the business world, must concentrate on the client, the learner. The standard curriculum for certification includes a myriad of traditional methods courses, with the addition of a single survey course that exposes students to a variety of hardware and software. Little or no exposure to technology has occurred in the methods courses. Therefore, it is not surprising that 80% of teachers say that they are uncomfortable using computers in the classroom.

At a time when most truck drivers and all secretaries have mastered the computer, why have teachers been so reluctant to use this tool? Educators have naively searched for a "magic bullet," one approach that will reach all children. When an approach does not prove to be universally successful, it is often discarded in spite of benefits to many students. As a result, unlike other disciplines, work in the field of education has not produced an inclusive body of knowledge over the years. Educational theory continually reinvents itself, and educators forget earlier approaches. As a consequence, many teachers, who have been presented with one ineffective "magic bullet" after another, have become reluctant to adopt new ideas. To many teachers, technology has been just another new idea that, if ignored long enough, will pass out of favor.

These "magic bullets" address specific learning styles, demonstrating a need for multiple approaches in any classroom. Promulgating the concept of a single best approach has produced useless political battles, such as those between parents and legislators over the merits of bilingual programs versus immersion programs for non-English speaking students or over social promotion versus retention. The continual reinvention of educational theory has eradicated from memory the facts that the immersion method failed thousands of children for many years in border states and that retaining students often produces more failure. One teacher speaking English in a classroom where the children all speak Spanish left many students illiterate in two languages. Technology, however, can offer both immersion and bilingual programs in the same classroom. Retention often results in a child spending an entire year covering material in the same fashion and at the same speed in which it was originally presented. Technology can allow the child to remain with a topic until it is mastered, and allow the material to be presented in multiple ways.

Formerly, a successful model for learner-based instruction was in place. During the days of the one-room schoolhouse, a teacher, with one year of normal school and no other adult support, was able effectively to reach 30 children ranging in age from 5 to 16 because each child's education was based on an individualized lesson plan. Mastery learning was the norm; children did not move on until they mastered the topic they were studying, so no one got lost along the way. Teachers who had very limited training and only a few books and slates were expected to teach 30 individuals. Today technology provides the ability to again offer every child an individualized learning plan and to implement mastery learning using an abundance of resources.. It can allow teachers to find materials that motivate individual students, to provide activities that match the learning styles of individual students, and to have these materials immediately at hand when they are needed.

The World Wide Web, CD-ROMs, and interactive software can provide a wide variety of learning materials that can be easily accessed from a student’s home page. Technology can bring back the model of the little red schoolhouse in a way that will allow us to reduce failure, keep children with age appropriate peers and teach in different ways in the same classroom.

However, unless the teacher can identify how each child learns best, knows the many resources available, and has sufficient understanding of the content area to be able to use multiple approaches, this model will fail. We are presently committed to a model that concentrates on fixed time and content and allows mastery to vary. Students who do not master material in an established time period simply fail. Perhaps the field of education needs to go back to its roots and remember the many "magic bullets" that have been presented and rejected over the years and begin to identify which children were successful and which were unsuccessful under each method.

In order to address the problems of today, colleges of education who lack experience with technology will need to collaborate with those who have it. This collaboration must unite content area faculty who have been integrating technology into the learning process for several years, with researchers in neuroscience and psychology who understand how children learn, and with business school faculty who have experience in implementing organizational changes. Historically, there has been little collaboration or communication between education and other academic fields. Even though psychology and the neurosciences have built a solid body of knowledge on learning processes and colleges of education know of this research, colleges of education still concentrate primarily on teaching about teaching. Rather than collaborating with programs in fields such as psychology, social work, business administration, and mathematics, colleges of education offer their own degrees in educational psychology, counseling, educational administration, and math education.

In order to take a leadership role in integrating technology into the teaching/learning process, colleges of education must collaborate with programs that have the requisite experience. In order to assure that this model does not fail, colleges of education must move from teaching about teaching to teaching about learning, from teaching only techniques for managing classes of children to teaching techniques for managing the learning of the individual child, and from teaching about how to teach a subject to identifying all the approaches and materials available to help students learn that subject. Furthermore, the greater community must move from associating content with time (thus expecting students to learn regardless of how the material is presented) to expecting mastery from individual students and must place the responsibility on teachers to provide students with appropriate learning experiences. Utilizing a collaborative approach, colleges of education can lead public schools by showing how technology will allow the return to a time when every student had an individualized lesson plan, the era of the one-room schoolhouse.