From Now On

The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 13|No 4|December|2003
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One Flew Over
the High School

A Review of Todd Oppenheimer's
The Flickering Mind

by Jamie McKenzie

(about author)

© 2003, Jamie McKenzie, all rights reserved.

New technologies are used well by many teachers, but these teachers and their good works win little of Todd Oppenheimer's attention.

He has a thesis:

"In school after school, when teachers, even good teachers, embrace technology, their next step is to believe that the computer's power relieves them of many of their didactic responsibilities." Page 162

His thesis is patronizing and poorly substantiated.

"Bewitched, bewildered and bedazzled?"

His book is fatally weakened by a focus on the negative:

"Almost every time I visited classrooms where the teacher or someone else had boasted that great technological learning was going on, the actual exercises staged were nearly empty of intellectual content." Page 159

He did not look very hard for good technology use. It is easy to find and quite abundant (note examples below and in companion piece, "Smart Tech in Napa").

It is not hard to find silly uses of new technologies in schools, especially if you go looking for them.

It is not hard to find powerful uses of new technologies in schools, especially if you go looking for them.

Note the companion piece in this month's FNO, "Smart Tech in Napa."

Oppenheimer mainly reports bad practice.

He tells embarrassing stories about teachers who welcomed him into their classrooms. He names names, effectively belittles people, and then he dares to generalize from specifics to the entire nation and world.

He blames technology for the problem instead of probing to see why some schools and teachers are capable of making smart use while others flounder.

A fair and open-minded researcher would find and tell a much more complicated story complete with examples of smart technology uses to balance the bleak view Oppenheimer prefers.

This is a strange book - a disturbing book freighted
with bias and distortion.

Partial Truths?

The Flickering Mind is divided roughly into three sections, but a fourth (and crucial) section is missing. Oppeneheimer starts with tales of disappointment and folly, crisscrossing the nation to look at schools that are under-resourced or technologically fervent. He gathers mostly examples that illustrate his thesis. In his second section, he devotes many pages to the criticism of questionable products like Accelerated Reader and the hard sell of various vendors. The book closes with a section idolizing the Waldorf schools and one small experimental school in New York.

Oppenheimer idolizes or demonizes. Few humans or schools occupy the vast middle. The view is black and white. We have good guys and bad guys, sages and fools. We have high tech schools and stodgy schools.

The missing section? The book should have and could have told the stories of teachers who have made smart use of new technologies and kept them in their proper place. While Oppenheimer maintains that such teachers are rare, merely accidental and mostly just anomalies, perhaps he was so endeared to his thesis and his preconceptions that he flew over such teachers and schools as he sought confirmation of his 1997 claims in "The Computer Delusion," his article in Atlantic Monthly that first advanced his thesis. An online version is available at

While many sections of his book deserve debunking, this review will focus on his portrayal of schools and technologies in Napa, California.

This truck did some serious drilling in its time, but no one expected the truck to find water or oil without a smart operator who knew something about convergence and geology.

Funny thing about technologies. Whether we're talking books, drills or computers, we need savvy operators and good plans.

Same thing with journalism. If you want to find examples of smart technology use in schools, you need to know where to drill.

Oppenheimer blames the technology for bad practice and advances a theory of diminishing returns, but this theory is based on carefully picked negative examples.

He claims that technologies induce flickering minds, yet he relies on "pick and choose" selective story-telling to bolster his theory.

Smart operators are easy to find if you don't mind revising your thesis and achieving a balanced perspective.

I was intrigued by his failure to mention work by Bernie Dodge and others who have provided scaffolded lessons through WebQuests or other strategies that deliver efficiency, require rigorous thought and address many of the complaints Oppenheimer repeats over and over through his book. (WebQuests)

Sins of omission? Absolutely.

The real failure of the school technology effort has been the lack of funding for rigorous professional and program development - what Oppenheimer offhandedly calls, "Education's Holy Grail."

When I made my own visits to Napa I found much that conflicted with Oppenheimer's portrayal.

I suppose it depends on your research design. Perhaps the school Oppenheimer visited way back in 1999 has changed dramatically for the better. Perhaps he owed the school a more recent visit before criticizing it so harshly in this book just released in October of 2003.

But maybe the tint of one's glasses colors the portrait of a school?

I liked the school and saw good work being done even late in the school day when many high schools suffer from fatigue. I saw adolescents concentrating, teaming and exploring in earnest.

I saw none of the mindless, flickering socializing and off task behaviors Oppenheimer reports. It was a warm and industrious climate. The tasks were demanding.

I saw no teachers sidelined, overwhelmed, detached or bedazzled by technology. For more than three decades I have been observing classrooms as a trained and credentialed supervisor. I was impressed by the learning I witnessed.

Perhaps Oppenheimer picked two bad days to visit back in 1998/99. Maybe the school has changed. Maybe he saw what he hoped to see. I know that the school I visited in November of 2003 did not resemble the school he criticizes in his book.

Sour Grapes in Napa

When I read Oppenheimer's chapter on the New Technology High School in Napa, I found myself wondering if he had done the school justice. My suspicion was prompted, in part, by his characterization of the other high schools in Napa as "stodgy." When providing a workshop for Napa High, I had seen nothing stodgy.

I was also troubled by his harsh words and characterizations, especially since he held individuals up to public ridicule. Most educational researchers hold back the names of individuals, especially when writing critically for national publication. While Oppenheimer claims his naming of names enhances his credibility, I think it undermines it.

Judging from numerous accounts from students, a good deal of this after hours work occurred because of what the students weren't attending to their work in class. And that happened because of what they were doing: playing the same games I'd seen in virtually every other heavily computerized classroom.

Page 165

When I visited Napa, I found much that conflicted with Oppenheimer's portrayal. During my visits to both high schools I never saw a student playing any games, for example, in contrast with the statement above. And I am quite skilled at noting this kind of adolescent behavior from a distance before they can ALT-Tab as they did when Oppenheimer visited. The carnival atmosphere he mentions was no where to be found. His theory of technological determinism stumbled and collapsed on both days of my visit.

Napa's two other public high school --both of which are big, stodgy exemplars of education at its most traditional--offer a course lineup that many might regard as much more suited to twenty-first-century success.

Page 167

As one who visits high schools across the world, I found nothing stodgy or especially traditional about Napa High School. If anything, it hums with energy and tilts dramatically towards the progressively hip style of educating one would expect from a good California high school. I really wonder how Oppenheimer surmised its allegedly stodgy nature or how he could justify affixing the label "education at its most traditional" to a school that is far from that stodgy condition. A presumptive strike? Knowing without checking?

Almost every time I visited classrooms in Napa where someone thought good learning was going on, the actual exercises were meaningful, well managed, rigorous and quite impressive. This was the case in both schools, the New Technology High School as well as the more conventional school Oppenheimer called "stodgy" but evidently failed to visit. I encountered no boasting.

As I walked through one courtyard at Napa High School, a math teacher grouped his students outside where they were busy timing sprints around the sidewalk - data to be entered in graphs back in the classroom. Hardly a stodgy approach to math.

I found myself wondering if this journalist had "flown over" more than one high school.

Missing the Truth in Wine Country - Napa Realities

It was fun to note a somewhat stodgy U.S. history text alongside classroom computers in the New Technology High School.

During my visit to the New Technology High School in Napa I saw energy, engagement and plenty of rigorous learning. I also noted the use of books and other materials along with digital resources. I saw almost none of the laziness and socializing Oppenheimer parodies.
Students in Napa making smart use of technologies, old and new, during their earth science class. I spent a few hours observing classes and saw well organized, rigorous lessons that kept technologies in perspective. Examples of smart use were there for the asking. This was the "stodgy" high school Oppenheimer failed to visit. Far from stodgy, Napa High School is innovative, forward leaning and yet discerning.

As is quite typical of Oppenheimer in this book, he is comfortable painting entire groups with broad (and insulting) brush strokes.

"NTHS teachers have been so taken in by the power of their technology that they see little need to ask their students to do what many schools would call hard work." Page 166.

". . . Net searching classes collapse into a social hour." Page 161.

During the final hour of school, I saw dozens of students reading from paperbacks. Many were reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as a class assignment.

Many students were curled up with a good book like this young woman whose computer (and email program) went unnoticed. Concentration. Engagement. The opposite of what I'd been led to expect.

There was an AP Physics class using a computer simulation to gauge the effects of different velocities, and none of these students were playing games.

Oppenheimer claimed the school had no AP classes, but this was true in 1999 when he visited, not true today.

The narrator in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest suffers from delusions and is sure that the mental hospital is loaded with hidden technologies:

"A half-Indian named Chief Bromden begins telling us of his experiences in an Oregon mental hospital. His disturbed mind teems with machine-obsessed hallucinations, yet these hallucinations reveal a deeper truth: far from being a place of healing, the hospital is a place of fear."

Source: The "Great Books, Great Films" Web site at

Evidently, Oppenheimer did not visit either of the two conventional high schools in Napa. He targeted, instead, the special school, noted what seemed to match his thesis and limited his search. I visited two schools - the New Technology High School and Napa High - and saw nothing to confirm Oppenheimer's harsh judgments or his thesis in either school.

Which of these is the "stodgy" high school in Napa?

Perhaps Oppenheimer meant the middle building that emptied a while ago?

Looking for Surprise and Counterpoint

Those with a thesis have a responsibility to seek evidence that might force them to reconsider, revise and even reverse that thesis based on their research.

In his book, Oppenheimer reports almost no effective uses of new technologies and dismisses those few as accidental exceptions, peculiarities and accidents. Most of his stories focus on failures and embarrassments

Learning to Debate at the New Technology High School

In one class I visited at the New Technology High School, students were working in teams to prepare for an upcoming debate. These teams were seated comfortably around and on top of tables. They were chatting with good concentration as one team member took notes on lined composition paper. They were outlining arguments and identifying research that would need to be conducted.

"Resolved: Public funds should be set aside to purchase artistic work for public buildings."

There were no computers at these tables and the students seemed happy with paper. The teacher met with one team while the other teams worked without any need for teacher strong arm tactics. There was no chaos, no off task behavior and no inappropriate socializing.

Oppenheimer titles this chapter "Starting from Scratch with a Computer on Every Desk: Napa, California" . . .

Maybe that was true when the school first opened, but there are now many tables that have no computers sitting on them at all.

Does it matter? Only if one cares about false impressions, exaggerations and distortions. You read the book and you get one idea. You visit the school and you may be surprised by the differences.

Issues of Fact (or was that Conjecture?)

There were quite a few times when I wondered at the veracity of Oppenheimer's claims.

Most everyone does take classes at the community college, either on campus or through special classes given at New Tech. But most of these are either business classes or entertaining electives.

Page 173

The Fall 2003 community college enrollments present a somewhat different picture:

Introduction to Film Editing
Introduction to Administrative Justice
Image Editing for Artists
Psych. 120 (General Psychology)
Cisco Networking
Speech 124 (Career Communications)
English 200 (Intro Creative Writing)
Engineering 110 (Engi., Tech., & Society)
CISA 180 (Web Pages w/HTML)
CISA 181 (Web Pages w/DHTML

Oppenheimer faults the school for what he sees as its narrow focus and compares it unfavorably to comprehensive high school programs nearby, but he seems to miss the point that this is a school for students eager to make an early choice. It would be just as silly to attack a magnet school for the performing arts because it had a narrow focus.

While New Tech administrators constantly boast about how much time students put in on their computers --coming in on their own at night and on weekends, for instance--the truth on this score is another matter. Judging from numerous accounts from students, a good bit of this after hours work occurred because the students weren't attending to their work during class. And that happened because of what they were doing: playing the same games I'd seen in virtually every heavily computerized classroom. Page 165

The language used in this passage begs further investigation, as administrators constantly boast and students are playing games in virtually every heavily computerized classroom. Oppenheimer asserts the truth on this score but never offers credible data. He cites numerous accounts from students.

At the end of November, 2003, an informal survey of nine New Tech students (out of 25+) working late several afternoons on computers in the research center turned up the following data:

1. Why are you here?  
All nine students answered, "Doing school work."  One student also was reviewing the bracket for his Rugby tournament that weekend.

2. What specific school projects are you working on?  
Projects included professional portfolio development, Algebra II and Physics projects, Digital Media and Economics/Political Literature.

3. When are the projects you're working on due?
Six of the nine students were working on projects due more than one day out and 3 were working on projects due the next day.

This data is only a glimpse of student use, but it calls into question Oppenheimer's claim that after school use is merely a way of compensating for game-playing. To make his assertion stick, we would expect to see more desperation and last minute scurrying. There were not even that many students staying late.

More Cheap Shots

Oppenheimer is very critical of the New Technology High School's focus on project-based learning and contructivism as he equates these approaches with educational surrender. He misunderstands, misconstrues and misrepresents this teaching method (project-based learning) and this school of learning psychology (constructivism) by caricaturing "the Guide on the Side" as a strategy that means good teachers stop teaching. He lumps the strategy and the school of psychology together and heaps scorn on both.

Once the teams have been set up, the main pieces of New Technology's pedagogy begin - seen in Curtis' method of sitting back a bit, inserting himself only occasionally as a facilitator for the students' individual explorations. The style is widely celebrated by education's technology enthusiasts, who consider the computer's powers and offerings so substantial that students can often be left to their own devices.

Page 160

An interesting by-product of this dynamic is an overall atmosphere of laziness. In school after school, we have also seen that as teachers struggled to give individual students the attention they needed, others had little to do but socialize.

Page 161

In school after school, when teachers, even good teachers, embrace technology, their next step is to believe that the computer's power relieves them of many of their didactic responsibilities.

Page 162

This section of his book is filled with nonsense and distortion. He suggests, for example, that this approach to teaching had its beginnings at Summerhill - a thoroughly discredited educational experiment with excessive freedom and license. Serious proponents of constructivism expect teachers to structure activities well so that students can keep moving forward without frequent teacher interventions. The teacher is not a guide banished to the sidelines. The teacher moves frequently and performs many of the following tasks:

Some of the Actions
of an Effective Guide on the Side
circulating encouraging validating challenging
moderating redirecting guiding facilitating
clarifying diagnosing disciplining modeling
moving suggesting trouble-shooting fascinating
questioning motivating monitoring seed planting
observing assessing directing watching

The teacher is on the move, checking over shoulders, asking questions and teaching mini-lessons for individuals and groups who need a particular skill.

Support is customized and individualized.

The "Guide on the Side" sets clear expectations, provides explicit directions, and keeps the learning well structured and productive.

Somehow, Oppenheimer failed to research constructivism with any thoroughness. His notes for this chapter ignore the entire research base for this approach to teaching. There are no references cited at all, yet he acts as if he were familiar with the literature and manages to discredit the entire movement dismissively and securely. He muddles Summerhill with John Dewey and more recent thinkers as if no one has learned anything in the past hundred years.

It is unfortunate and troubling that he did not spend a few minutes reading and reporting the literature on constructivism, which is all it would have taken to clear up the muddle he had created.

A responsible and thorough investigation of constructivist thinking and thinkers would have explored the writings of Jerome Bruner, for example, who clearly articulated a case for carefully structured learning in contrast to Oppenheimer's offhanded caricature.

For a good summary of Bruner's basic approach, take a look at, a resource provided by the Arts in Education Program at the University of Western New York.

Bruner (1966) states that a theory of instruction should address four major aspects:

1. Predisposition towards learning,
2. The ways in which a body of knowledge can be structured so that it can be most readily grasped by the learner,
3. The most effective sequences in which to present material, and
4. The nature and pacing of rewards and punishments. Good methods for structuring knowledge should result in simplifying, generating new propositions, and increasing the manipulation of information.

For a comprehensive listing of dozens of other important thinkers, take at look at, a bibliography provided from Colorado University at Denver.

While it is true that Oppenheimer is a journalist, not an educator, and can not be expected to research complex psychological issues as if he were trained to do so, even a layperson should be able to do more than a "fly over" when it comes to an entire educational approach such as constructivism.

Other Issues

It would take an entire book to outline the many problems embedded in Oppenheimer's "fly over" of educational technology. There are problems of fact, distortion and inaccuracy. Added to these are tendencies to view life in simplistic, unreal terms - black-and-white or clusters.

At one point in his book he is very critical of computer simulations for their distortion and oversimplification of reality, but later he idolizes Tom Snyder as if he were unaware that much of Tom's product line employed simulation as a prime strategy. In many ways his own book is a simulation - an over-simplified model of reality constructed with a narrow focus and a strong ideological bent.

Those of us who see some value in smart use of technology are lumped together with Bill Bennett and the promoters of Accelerated Reader. He seems unaware of varying segments, camps, schools of thought or conflicting approaches. We are all simply joined together in one derisive phrase - "education's technology enthusiasts." This misrepresents reality and hides some very important information. Some approaches to new technologies are more fruitful than others, but you would hardly know that from reading Oppenheimer.

Throughout the book, Oppenheimer peppers his own thoughts, judgments and strongly held points of view with sound bites from other thinkers, many of which are quoted without context but almost always echo or applaud Oppenheimer's own point of view.

He idolizes MIT's Judah Schwartz and quotes him frequently.

In Schwartz's view, all classroom instruction methods fall into main camps: those who strive to teach skills and those who aim for understanding. Page 288

He lines up expert sound bites as if the briefly stated opinions of others were sufficient to prove points, many of which are quite questionable. He criticizes (or has others criticize) others for this very tactic:

"What Terry Paul does is he takes the most faddish theorist and creates a frame where it looks like this simple little test of his fits this complex learning theory." in doing so, Upham said, Paul "gains sexiness--by yoking what he's doing to a known learning theorist." Page 267

He is harshly critical of others who distort the truth but seemingly unaware of the irony of his accusations:

"Terry would go looking for data to support his ideas," Beck remembers. Plenty of people do that, he acknowledges. But, he noted, "we don't call it research. We call it a belief system." Page 269

Frozen in Time

Back in 1998-99 when Oppenheimer visited New Technology High School, the world was flirting with the dotcom revolution and the speculative fervor of new technologies that promised to turn life upside down and inside out. Many schools with the courage to explore these potentials found themselves disillusioned and swiftly moved to shed the ineffectual and inconsequential. Some remain captivated and captive.

Oppenheimer fails to mention this learning process or to credit schools and pioneers for lessons learned. While good schools, especially experimental schools, are always in motion trying to figure out the best ways to promote student learning, Oppenheimer was satisfied with a gallery filled with still life after still life - images and sketches that recapture his 1997 original view of educational technologies. He is doing Technology 1997 Déjà Vu.This does such schools and the teachers he described an injustice.

The book offers little in the way of illumination. Its title suffices as a warning to those easily seduced by new technologies.

Embrace new technologies uncritically, fail to fund professional development and ye shall reap flickering minds!

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie .

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