Huntsville’s ban on book learning will backfire

Ray Bradbury ain’t got nothing on Huntsville’s government schools.

Sure, the author may have imagined a dystopian future in which books were abolished in Fahrenheit 451, but this school system in north Alabama is actually pulling it off.

And now it’s getting worse.

After switching from physical books to a laptop-only education a few years ago, some textbooks were allowed to remain in classrooms to ease the transition. They were helpful to those who still wanted real books, and they proved invaluable when the network went down, as networks are wont to do.

But now the school superintendent has told teachers they must scour their classrooms and collect all remaining physical textbooks – those contemptible relics of a bygone era – and hand them over to the authorities administration.

The firemen of Bradbury’s nightmare would approve. “A book is a loaded gun in the house next door,” said the fire chief in Fahrenheit 451. “Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?”

No more pencils. No more books. No more teachers … well, teaching. Because once the curriculum, the materials, the tests, the schedule, and everything else are sucked into some giant standardized network, our teachers become more like facilitators of a program than educators of children.

Transformations like those in Huntsville aren’t without serious critics. Paul Thomas, a teacher and professor of education who authored a dozen books about educational methods, told the New York Times “a spare approach to technology in the classroom will always benefit learning.”

“Teaching is a human experience,” he said. “Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy and critical thinking.”

Some of the brightest minds in computer science agree. There’s even a low-tech school in Silicon Valley where the tech wizards of Apple and Google send their children. No computers can be found there until high school, only pens, paper, and real books.

Others will defend Huntsville’s move by pointing to the fact that the texts – the actual words – remain, but only in digital format. That’s only partly true. The words are still there, but their effect and the results are certainly different. There’s a great deal of discussion on the issue, from researchers claiming that children learn better from printed material, to studies showing large doses of screen-time during childhood causes learning problems, to people being able to more accurately recall material read from a page rather than a screen.

These are real issues that should cause everyone to stop and reevaluate the all-screens-no-pages approach, but older generations still cling to dreams that computers will solve all our problems. Parents seem to demand it, too.

This is further complicated because when modern leaders encounter challenges, some first look for computer-based solutions rather than relying on their people. If complex algorithms are involved, it must be better than whatever some guy down the hall could attempt, they think.

It’s a cheap trick, though. A false promise. It’s the traveller who takes a short cut through a treacherous swamp rather than expend the effort needed to walk the long, winding, yet ultimately safe road.

And when results aren’t worth talking about, high tech decorations serve as helpful distractions. We rarely hear about improvements to grades, test scores, or graduation rates in Huntsville’s schools, but they’ve never failed to remind us that every student has a laptop.

Handing a student a computer is an activity, not a result. We could have hired BestBuy to operate our schools if all we wanted was more technology. But we’re looking for something else, something a bit more elusive, challenging, and I guess old fashioned: learning.

If we have any effort and expense to spare, it should be directed to giving teachers better pay, more freedom in their classrooms, and the opportunity to teach in the tried and proven methods of generations past.

Years from now, when these laptop-educated children are parents themselves, and teachers and principals and even superintendents, they’ll look back on Huntsville’s experiment with great disappointment.

“What were they thinking,” they’ll wonder, “shoving these laptops in front of our eyes all day, as if we needed more screens and less books in our lives.”

Allow me to provide the future with our answer: We’re not thinking. Not at all.