Progress at Any Price?

Marshal Anderson asks us to reassess what we teach our pupils and to encourage them to think about 'progress'.

Key Ideas, Autumn ‘88

When you have been involved in computer aided learning, computer studies or whatever for a few years it seems that the most important things to think about are: What is the latest software? Will the network hold out 'till the end of the week? Like all other actors on the educational stage we are under-funded and short-handed, continuously expected to produce something out of almost nothing. Immediate considerations seem to over-ride all things, just let me get to the end of the day without a disc drive going down!

Having worked this way for the last eight or nine years I was rather shaken recently to be brought face to face with a whole other set of considerations that seemed to have got lost somewhere in the hand to mouth way that most of us have to operate.

Just where are we going? How are we going to get there? Are we sure that's the right destination ? This might seem all rather nebulous but it's a very important set of questions. People more knowledgeable than I have lately been telling me that I am part of the 'third wave' or 'the information revolution’ and, being neither wet from the wave nor bloodied from the revolution, I began to consider, not what am I doing, but why am I doing it and what are the potential consequences of my actions?

Some of the ramifications of the I.T. revolution are really quite frightening. If, as we are led to believe, they are every bit as far-reaching as the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution then surely we should be learning some lessons from what happened in them. Social upheaval on such a huge and comprehensive scale caused many casualties. Surely it doesn't have to be this way, can't we stop it somehow?

Don't misunderstand me, I'm no Luddite, I am enthusiastic for the liberating possibilities of the new technology, I'm just a little concerned about the way we seem to embrace each new development with religious fervour. They tell me that we must teach children to 'cope' with the changes, educate them to 'accept progress'. Why? Why should we accept that that's the way things have got to be? If the future we intend to create is difficult to get on with, to cope with, then why are we creating that future? Why is it a foregone conclusion that the young and old will suffer at the hands of the revolution, that many will become unemployed, many unemployable, that society will divide sharply between the ‘Knows' and the ‘Know-nots’?

I would suggest that there are measures that we, as teachers with a responsibility to present children and future adults to the world, should at least be considering. It seems vital that we must educate a generation to question the views of those who make decisions for them, to question their own motivations and examine the consequences of their own actions.

As an example let's look at some thing that we actually are responsible for. Many schools are beginning to introduce small computers into their office for class lists and form letters. It should free school secretaries to get back to the valuable work they did before, dealing with school visitors, damaged children and confused teachers. The first question that doesn't seem to be asked is; "When are these people going to get trained?" Answer; on the job, learning the hard way, far too often, that a wrong key press will lose a day's work. So we upset some too often undervalued members of our schools, we sacrifice vital human qualities on the altar of hi-tech, often for its own sake.

The idea of progress should be to improve the quality of life for the majority of people, not to allow a few to gain control over many.

And what might we do about it? We might encourage children to question the use of the technology and if they don't get a satisfactory answer, to oppose it. There's no need for unpleasantness here, marches or protests. We just need to create intelligent consumers who express themselves through the goods and services they buy, who see beyond the product to its consequences. I don't want to go to an automatic restaurant, the food is no better, perhaps a little cheaper but even that's unlikely. I don't want to have money paid to me by a machine, I do want to pay for goods with credit cards and I do want to send this article in by electronic mail.

The point is that there is a choice, society can choose its own future, it all comes down to attitude. Do we teach children that the computer and its related technology are threats, that they'd better learn about them or else, to be in awe of them; that's an attitude many of their parents have. Or can they be persuaded that it is a tool, built to help them when they need it and be dismissed when inappropriate - just because it can answer a 'phone, tell a joke, sell you books or correct your English doesn't mean you have to let it.