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The Human Divide

Education is the wrong career for martyrs.

During a recent panel discussion I shared my discomfort with the topic of the digital divide. While concerns of equity are laudable, discussions of the digital divide are often little more than simplistic distractions. First, most student access to computers is meager and what's done with those computers is pedestrian. Even students in wealthy, well-equipped schools rarely experience the creative and intellectual potential afforded by computers.

My bigger concern about the digital divide is that it represents a symptom of a much larger problem. As long as school education is viewed as a way to rank, sort, judge or label children, there will be winners and losers. The inevitable losers will be those who are already disadvantaged by race, gender, income or ethnicity. Arguments for zero-sum schools often masquerade as meritocracy but are based on the myth that education is a scarce resource. Schools need not create losers.

I just returned home from working with schools in another country. I asked the government to let me work with two of its most disadvantaged or "troubled" schools. I spent half a day in a K-6 school and the other half in a 7-12 school. The objective was to introduce students to a more expansive view of learning with computers and to create some models of what learning might look like in the 21st century.

I demanded the students be multi-age, represent different abilities and be with me for several hours per day, every day for 11 days. These requirements attacked three of the most destructive forces in schooling; age segregation, tracking and a schedule that makes serious work improbable.

The school buildings were unattractive and conveyed the message that the community does not care much for these particular students. The high school suffered from a system that weeds out kids for scarce university places. Teachers made countless excuses for student behavior and underachievement, none of them self-critical or related to the curriculum. "These children" are defective and the teachers are martyrs who care for them against all odds by delivering curriculum in bite-size chunks. The teachers own insecurity created dependency and neediness in their students.

Small Groups, Teachable Moments

In my class, students set up their own laptops, installed software, programmed video games, made multimedia storybooks and engaged in sophisticated engineering with LEGO and MicroWorlds software. Over time, they began to break themselves of their addiction to being taught and managed. They were able to work for long periods of time on sophisticated projects with students of different ages, and even schools.

My teaching was done with small groups at teachable moments, and then students shared their knowledge. I did not have a projector or even a whiteboard. Neither was necessary since I never lectured. I collaborated. We never went online.

There was so much activity from the moment I arrived that I did not notice that my class spanned from ages 5-12 until Rebecca, a kindergartener, hugged me at the end of the first day and said, "Thank you for teaching me so much." Sixth graders don't hug.

On the second day I saw an overweight sloppy boy hiding behind trash cans in the copier room crying. I had seen a teacher screaming in his face earlier that day. He turned out to be Rebecca's brother. Every day I saw him in the office in a fragile emotional state after being exiled. I feared that his bright happy sister might someday share his fate. So, I requested that Danny be added to my class.

He was quite thrilled to work with the robotics materials. Danny was a bit goofy, but cooperative and he did use all of the available LEGO people in his invention. He stayed an hour after class and nobody ever came looking for him.

The last day was open to the public so the students could show-off their accomplishments. Danny arrived early and told me that he had set up all of the laptops. I replied, "Thanks! You the man!" To which Danny said, "That's twice." I apparently had told him that a few days earlier and he was keeping score. Helping Danny join the community of learners and feel valued was not hard at all. I just needed to close the human divide that sends some kids to the principal's office and others to Harvard. DA

Gary Stager,, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.