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Back to Basics in the Classroom

Michael J. Ring

In his Commencement address here last week, President Clinton placed great importance on bringing computer technology into the nation's schools. Specifically, he called for a reduced "e-rate"for Internet access at schools, libraries, and hospitals. President Clinton's call for such action is nothing new; indeed in the past few years a number of politicians have placed expanding technology in the classroom as one of the nation's primary educational goals.

To hook up each and every classroom to the Internet is a well-meaning idea, but will it be effective? I question the wisdom of such a policy when American public schools have so many other areas of weakness. Our resources are more wisely spent in giving our schoolchildren a solid fundamental knowledge of reading, writing, and arithmetic than in focusing on Internet hookups, at least at the elementary school level.

We have all seen the test scores which place American schools near the bottom in comparison to those with other industrialized nations, so there is no need to go into detail on the results here. What is important, however, is how to improve these results. The Internet, and technology in general, is no substitute for learning basic knowledge the old-fashioned way.

How does a calculating program aid in teaching an elementary school child the basics of mathematics? More likely than not the computer will have a negative impact in this field. With the computer comes the temptation to rely on its computational abilities instead of memorizing the addition and multiplication tables. Everyone should be able to add two-digit numbers or multiply a one-digit number by a two-digit number in his or her head, but learning these simple mathematical operations takes time and practice, not a slavish reliance on a computer.

Any trip to your local supermarket will convince you of the futility of technology in teaching basic mathematics. If the computer is down, all hell breaks loose as baffled clerks struggle to compute change from a dollar on a 59 cent candy bar. Cashiers sometimes look bewildered when you hand them an extra penny if your order's total price ends in a one. One clerk with which I had the misfortune of conducting business recently asked a fellow cashier how many quarters were in a dollar after she ran out of ones in making change. Reading off the cash register display obviously didn't help her learn basic mathematics. Why would the Internet or computer calculation programs be any different?

The Internet is also not the best way to help grammar school children in learning how to read. The most effective method to learn reading skills is to know the rules of phonics and to pick up as many books as possible to practice applying these rules. Such tactics may seem dull to schoolchildren, but phonics works. What does the Internet have to offer this study? Not too much. Again, the memorization of phonics has worked for generations; why should it not work now? Writing also takes the same trial and error practice and patience to learn correctly. The Internet does not give much help in practicing the construction of sentences and paragraphs.

As in the case of mathematics, one comes across a number of examples of unacceptable grammar and writing in everyday life. How many times a day do we see signs which confuse it's and its or the words less and fewer? The group of Americans that know how to properly use the apostrophe or the semicolon can justly be labeled an endangered species. These are terribly important rules of the English language which are successfully taught without the Internet.

Certainly, there is a place for the Internet in some classrooms. The information superhighway offers a wealth of information in current affairs, geography, history, science, and literature. But these are the pursuits of older students, not those in the grammar school grades. Furthermore, they are pursuits best studied and enjoyed with a solid background in fundamental topics such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Certainly, some computer programs can reinforce a teacher's drills in arithmetic and grammar through rote exercises and are important to enhancing primary education. But the Internet is not one of these tools.

The true keys to improving American public education lie in restoring these simple yet important subjects to the focus of teachers and students. President Clinton did give some of the answers to solving these problems. Ending social promotion, expanding charter schools, and strengthening teacher standards will help to improve our nation's schools if these proposals are enacted and enforced.

I am not a technophobe. I use the Internet each day for its unparalleled speed in delivering news and weather updates. But I would not be able to read these dispatches if I could not properly read and comprehend the English language. Those of us who are at MIT now excelled in learning the basic subjects of education without the aid of the Internet. Let's teach our children the basics, those subjects which have been rightly held important for hundreds of years, in the first few years of education. Then they will be ready to explore the wonders of the Internet and gain intellectually from their experience.