In her disturbing book Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds For Better and Worse, Healy offers numerous such stories based on her remarkably extensive observation of computer-based education around the country. The stories range from good to bad to ugly with the great majority being decidedly ugly. It's enough to make any sober-minded reader despair of the American educational system.
Healy herself struggles mightily to see benefits, real or potential, in the classroom use of computers. Her typical positive scenario runs something like this: here's an example of a reasonably healthy exploitation of the computer in a richly textured classroom setting; but given the healthy setting, much the same thing could easily be achieved without the massive expenditures on high-tech equipment and support.
"There's no question that one's initial reaction to much children's software is bedazzlement," she says. It may take a while to realize that "the remarkable tricks are mostly being played by the computer, not by the child" (p. 48). It's a measure of our extremity today that Healy is driven to spend a good deal of time repeating such basic truths. For example:
The mere presence of computers guarantees nothing about their educational value.
Just because children like something does not mean it is either good for them or educational.
Using a computer will not automatically make your child smarter.
Facility with a computer signifies nothing special about a child's intelligence.
"Information" is not the be-all, end-all of learning.
But Healy's advice is by no means all so elementary. She is a psychologist and educator of some thirty-five years' standing, who previously wrote Endangered Minds: Why Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It. Her more recent book, grounded wonderfully in wise observation of actual classroom work, is a vital resource for educators. By way of the endnotes, it provides excellent access to the research literature. And throughout the book there are valuable checklists for parents and educators: forexample, how to
evaluate software for different age groups
encourage girls to use computers
boost motivation with computers
avoid "online addiction"
control video-game use
protect against health hazards
plan for the introduction of computers in a school and much more.
I found some of this advice about how to make the best use of computers slightly disconcerting especially when it immediately followed a series of horrific pictures illustrating our society's systematic inability to engage the computer sensibly. This was particularly true in the discussion of pre-schoolers and children in the lower grades, for whose use of the computer Healy could find few redeeming benefits to offset the many disastrous consequences. Given her awareness of our society's "irrational obsession with high-tech solutions" (p. 81), and given the computer's near perfection of our prevailing imbalances, I half expected her to say (as I myself am always tempted to say) "Ban the cursed machines from the classroom; in today's social context they are almost certain to workdestructively."
But instead (for which we must thank her) she offers her eminently sensible advice about how to get the most from the machine. As a practical, feet-on-the-ground guidebook for parents and educators, and as an admirably comprehensive introduction to the massive literature bearing on computers in education, Failure to Connect will be hard to surpass.