Technology does not necessarily improve education. Take a simple
innovation like the pencil: One can use it to write a superlative
essay, to drum away the time, or to poke out someone's eye. The
best television has educated thousands, while the daily network
offerings dull the sensibilities of millions.
The same is true of interactive technology, which is getting so
much ink these days: It could become a valuable education tool,
but only if we use it to capitalize on our new understanding of
how the human mind works. In this essay, we examine one particular
example of interactive media, a CD-ROM about a Civil War battle,
and how it takes advantage of the more complex view of intelligence
that has emerged in recent decades.
THE COGNITIVE REVOLUTION
Just 40 years ago, a new movement in science began to coalesce.
Now termed cognitive science, this field seeks to integrate insights
from several disciplines (including psychology, linguistics, artificial
intelligence, and neuroscience) in order to put forth a more comprehensive
understanding of the human mind. The approach fostered by the
cognitive revolution has enormous, if not yet widely appreciated,
implications for educational practice.
Even in science, one cannot have a revolution without an enemy.
In the case of the cognitive revolution, there were two separate,
though related, foes. The behaviorist perspective, as epitomized
in the work of B.F. Skinner, disdained any concern with the mind
and its contents: All that mattered, from the behaviorist perspective,
was that an organism perceived a stimulus and responded to it
or that the organism acted in some way and was positively or negatively
rewarded for so acting. In education, the apotheosis of the behaviorist
perspective was the teaching machine, which remains central in
computer-assisted instruction today.
The second antagonist, from the perspective of cognitivists, was
the view that what the mind contains is intelligencemore or less
of it. Individuals, according to this perspective, are born with
a certain amount of intelligence, which for better or worse is
essentially fixed. Few asked just what intelligence was or how
it could be improved, increased, or transformedindeed, the not
entirely whimsical definition put forth by psychologists was that
"intelligence is what the tests test." The IQ test and
its descendants, in such measures as the Scholastic Aptitude (now
Assessment) Test, are the contemporary monument to this way of
In direct response to these entrenched perspectives, cognitivists
argue that individuals do not just react to or perform in the
world; they possess minds, and these minds contain mental representationsimages,
schemes, pictures, frames, languages, ideas, and the like. Some
of the mental representations that individuals are born with or
form at an early age prove enduring, but many other representations
are created, transformed, or dissolved over time as the result
of experiences and reflections upon those experiences. The mind,
like a computer, processes and transforms information, and it
is vital to understand the nature of this computing machineryor,
perhaps more aptly, these types of computing machinery.
While nearly all cognitivists would agree with this rough portrait,
disputes abound about the nature of mental representationsabout
what they consist of, how they are expressed, how they relate
to brain structures, and dozens of other issues. Fortunately,
those of us interested in educational progress do not have to
follow, let alone take sides, in these disputes. But two central
ideas in the cognitivist's arsenal do have important implications
TWO KEY COGNITIVE IDEAS
First of all, the mind is not comprised of a single representation
or even a single language of representations. Rather, all individuals
harbor numerous internal representations in their minds/brains.
Some scholars speak of "modules of mind," some of a
"society of mind." In our own work, we speak of the
possession of multiple intelligences, which span the range from
linguistic and logical intelligences (the usual foci of school
work) to musical, naturalist, and personal intelligences.
According to multiple intelligences theory, not only do all individuals
possess numerous mental representations and intellectual languages,
but individuals also differ from one another in the forms of these
representations, their relative strengths, and the ways in which
(and ease with which) these representations can be changed. There
are at least eight discrete intelligences, and these intelligences
constitute the ways in which individuals take in information,
retain and manipulate that information, and demonstrate their
understandings (and misunderstandings) to themselves and others.
For example, in their understanding of the American Civil War,
some individuals would favor a linguistic or narrative approach;
others can be most easily reached through an artistic depiction;
and still others might resonate to the personal dimension-how
an internecine struggle affects neighbors and relatives and even
generates ambivalence within one's own self. While most individuals
can use and appreciate these different perspectives and intelligences,
over time each of us constructs our own amalgam of intelligences.
Surprisingly (and counter to the claims of classical intelligence
theory), strength or weakness in one area does not predict strength
or weakness in other areas. And it is here that we encounter a
seminal educational enigma.
Until now, most schools all over the world have been selection
devices. These institutions have honored a certain kind of mindideally,
one that combines language and logicand tried to select individuals
who excel in these forms. In most schools individuals who favor
other mental representations have received little honor.
The cognitivist's acknowledgment of different kinds of minds opens
up enormous educational opportunities. If individuals do differ
from one another and if we want to reach as many of them as possible,
it makes little sense to treat everyone in a one-size-fits-all
manner. Rather, we need to understand the specific minds involved
in an educational encounter; and insofar as possible, we should
base our education, including choices of technology, on that knowledge.
And so, whether the course be history or physics or dance, we
should try to teach individuals in ways that are consonant with,
or that stretch, their current mental representations. Equally,
we should give individuals the opportunity to exhibit their understandings
by means of media and representations that make sense to them.
A second, quite surprising finding from cognitive research is
that many early representations are extremely powerful and prove
very difficult to change. It is as if, in the first years of life,
the mind/brain becomes engraved with a certain scheme or frame
by which it apprehends parts of experience. Often this scheme
is seen as inadequate, and so educators inside and outside of
school seek to transform the initial engraving. They may well
feel that they have been successful in bringing about this transformation
because the student has acquired more information, especially
more facts. Yet, in a majority of cases, even good students at
good schools do not really alter their representations. Indeed,
when students are examined outside the scholastic context, they
often give the same answers as students who have not even studied
the subject matter or discipline in question. It is as if school
consists of layers of powder that obscure rather than alter the
initial engraving; and once that powder has blown away, the original
representations have changed very little.
The "smoking gun" demonstration of robust mental representations
occurs in physics. Even college students who have done well in
written tests of mechanics actually hold on to understandings
that are close to those offered by young school children. Their
mental representations remain unschooled. Far from being restricted
to physics, however, such misconceptions prove to be the rule
across the curriculum. Whether the discipline is another science,
mathematics, social studies, the humanities, or the arts, the
first mental representations formed early in life turn out to
be quite enduring. Only in those cases where students have been
deeply involved with a topic over the course of months, or even
years, is there convincing evidence that a new, better, and more
adequate mental representation has come about.
If one wants to educate for genuine understanding, then, it is
important to identify these early representations, appreciate
their power, and confront them directly and repeatedly. Only then
is it possible, in a reliable manner, to construct more adequate
mental representations that themselves become robust and enduring.
As we have already emphasized, technologies alone cannot
identifylet alone achievecentral educational goals. That is
the task of the community, and it is hardly an easy or idle one.
Stimulated by reflections on the cognitive revolution, we propose
here two important educational goals:
- the encouragement of deeper forms of understanding within and
across the disciplines; and
- the "opening up" of the educational process to the
widest spectrum of children, especially those who do not stand
out in the traditionally canonical intelligences of language and
WHY STUDY ANY PARTICULAR DISCIPLINE OR CONTENT?
Why study anything we teach in school? That is a question we must
ask of all schooling, whether or not technologically enhanced.
Some disciplines we readily deem worthy of attention. History,
for example, offers us a laboratory for the study of past human
experience in which to anchor our perceptions of contemporary
life and the future. Why study the American Civil War or any particular
battle? If, for example, we believe that knowledge of the American
Civil War helps students to understand many of the tensions in
our nation today, then particular battles warrant inclusion insofar
as they advance understanding of specific aspects of the war or
the study of history in general.
Traditionally, American history curricula include the battle fought
at Sharpsburg, Maryland, on September 17, 1862, on account of
its military and political significance. (Revealing the still
charged nature of the encounter, even today northerners call this
battle Antietam, while to southerners it remains the battle of
Sharpsburg.) The facts are these: the Union army, under the command
of George B. McClellan, stalked Robert E. Lee's Confederate army
as it moved to invade the North to get food and supplies. Both
armies converged just outside the town of Sharpsburg and engaged
in what turned out to be the worst one day of slaughter in American
history. Although neither side could claim a decisive victory,
Lee's first invasion of the North had failed, and no longer did
it seem possible that England would recognize the Confederacy.
Indeed, the very goals of the conflict changed when Lincoln seized
the occasion to announce the Emancipation Proclamation, linking
freedom for the slaves to the war goals.
Most textbooks present this material in such straightforward form.
They may well provide an illustration or two. They generally convey
the impression that there is a single, authoritative view of the
battle, and, depending upon the background of the authors, often
relate the battle from the perspective of either the North or
the South. Assessments generally ask students to give back this
information in factual form. Such a style of presentation and
assessment is particularly appropriate for individuals who favor
linguistic modes of learning. And such presentations rarely challenge
the widespread assumption among students that there is a single
objective account of a battle and that the Civil War featured
a battle between Right and Wrong.
In what follows, we describe a CD-ROM design, Antietam/Sharpsburg,
that transcends the usual textbook account. (Full disclosure:
One of us, Shirley Veenema, co-designed the CD with James Sheldon.)
First, Antietam/Sharpsburg recognizes and allows us to
take advantage of the fact that intelligences of one student can
differ from intelligences of other students in significant ways.
And, second, it strives to inculcate deeper forms of understanding
and attempts to deal directly with misconceptions and stereotypical
habits of thought.
Our example reflects our belief that applications of the new technologies
should provide ways for a variety of minds to gain access to knowledge,
but in no way are we jettisoning the major rationale for including
history in a liberal education. Indeed, effective use of the technology
reinforces both senses of the word discipline: Students
should apprehend the major focus of thinking involved in a discipline
like history and should do so in a steady, cumulative, and inherently
disciplined way. Our example suggests ways in which new media
might help students to approach an important historical event
and to achieve deeper forms of understanding of that event.
CAN TECHNOLOGY ENHANCE UNDERSTANDING?
The CD-ROM Antietam/Sharpsburg uses accounts and representations
from eyewitnesses to tell the story of the battle and offers a
close-up view of the physical site and artifacts. Carefully selected
primary source material in a variety of media highlights the idea
that our knowledge of this battle comes from the representations
left us by observers who encoded their impressions in specific
symbolic forms, such as the written journalism of the time, photographs,
drawings, and telegraph and signal reports.
Different observers saw particular aspects of the battle. George
W. Smalley, correspondent for the New York Tribune, started
the day near a cornfield where the fighting started and then moved
on to several other sites, including General McClellan's headquarters.
Felix Gregory de Fountaine, the correspondent for the Charleston
Courier, identified his position as "upon the centre"
where he could see little or nothing of the fight upon the left.
Our contemporary narrative is constructed from the physical representations
left us by observers like these. No single observer could see
the whole battle and tell us the comprehensive story or give us
one authoritative interpretation of what happened.
The idea that there exists a singular perspective is surprisingly
hard to change. In fact, too often the seductive idea that there
is a "right" view leads students to readily embrace
the perspective of any perceived authorityteacher, textbook,
or "expert"-instead of realizing that students themselves
need to weigh the evidence, evaluate sources, and come up with
interpretations and justifications. In Antietam/Sharpsburg,
an emphasis on multiple observers counters head-on the idea that
there is a single interpretation and one "right" dramatic
Technologies like CD-ROM that are capable of presenting
both pictorial and textual renderings of a battle from several
perspectives can help to dissolve single-dimensional perspectives;
they counter the bias toward a single narrative for history and
good guy versus bad guy roles in a conflict. As we noted earlier
in our discussion of cognitive representations, such stereotypical
ways of thinking impede deeper understandings and prove hard to
change. Consequently, they need to be addressed directly. The
variety of approaches and media now available may, in fact, provide
fertile opportunities to eradicate these and other common misconceptions
that are formed early in a student's life.
The reality of a battle is also far more complex than what we
typically see in the movies, or what nineteenth-century audiences
saw in paintings and prints that showed orderly ranks of soldiers
responding to the directions of their leader. Often on horseback,
the leader apparently knew exactly where they were to go and gallantly
led forward his obedient and patriotic forces. In reality, battles
are typically chaotic, life-and-death situations, fought by individuals
pumped high with adrenaline. It is a rare post-battle account
that can capture this complexity.
As in any battle, geography played a role at Sharpsburg: Cornfields
offered no cover for troops battling back and forth; hills offered
advantageous positions for Southern troops holding off Northern
troops attempting to cross a stream; and an old roadway sunken
from erosion and the weight of wagons provided a natural trench
from which Confederates could train their rifles on Union troops.
Moreover, troops on both sides had yet to accommodate their maneuvers
to opponents' newly advanced weaponry. Most strategic information
was communicated by word of mouth or notes; signal flags and the
telegraph carried news of the smoke-enshrouded conflict to George
McClellan and the Union troops.
The multiple media of a technology like CD-ROM make possible complex
renderings of an event, but particular understandings need to
be a design priority. For example, photographic sequences and
text that "walk" the battlefield in Antietam/Sharpsburg
are designed to help students understand the relationship of the
geographic terrain to strategies and course of the battle. In
decoding telegraph reports that convey a sense of just how hard
it was to know what was going on during the battle, students may
realize how difficult it was to communicate under fire, and why
there were so many missteps and conflicting messages.
CAN TECHNOLOGY OPEN UP EDUCATION TO MORE STUDENTS?
What observers reported at Sharpsburg went far beyond sheer physical
location. While we can't know what any observer actually thought,
the form of representation and symbol system used by each witness
profiles a characteristic way of thinking. Reporters from the
New York Tribune and the Charleston Courier used
words to fashion strikingly different descriptions of events,
actions, and personalities. Alfred Waud, the artist who did pencil
and chalk sketches for Harper's Weekly, drew aspects of
the conflict in which he paid careful attention to the nuances
of soldiers' positions and facial expressions. The signal officers
did more than just wave flags to encode messages; by the force
and speed of their motions, they conveyed to those far away the
pace and tension of the battle.
If we believe that the mind is neither singular nor revealed in
a single language of representation, our use of technologies should
reflect that understanding. Technologies like CD-ROM that include
a variety of media may well be able to help more students form
rich representations of an event and cultivate deeper understandings.
However, it is unrealistic to expect this to happen by simply
adding more information and more media. Instead, our authoring
has to have the explicit goal of greater access for more students,
and we need ways to assess what and how they have learned.
The guided paths in Antietam/Sharpsburg provide
one example of what such authoring might be like. There are four
paths, ranging from structured to exploratory, for learning about
the battle: map, observers, battlefield walk, and archives and
activities. None relies exclusively on language, and each instead
provides several means of representing the battle. The "map"
path uses a collage presentation of photographs, historical images,
text, and audio to present an overarching narrative of the battle
and suggests some of the reasons why the battle was important
in the war.
The "observers" path uses physical representations left
by the eyewitnesses to convey details of events from multiple
perspectives. At any point it is possible to leave both the map
and observers paths in order to browse additional related material
and then return to the presentation.
Some people may find the ebb and flow of battle to be incomprehensible
without a walk through the landscape to trace out the movements
of troops at each site. By means of virtual reality movies, the
"battlefield walk" path in Antietam/Sharpsburg allows
one to "walk" the sites and learn things about the battle
that can be understood only by experiencing the landscape. Through
photographs assembled as motion sequences, it is possible to feel
what it was like to fight in the dense tangle of trees in the
North Woods or what it was like to look over the hill at the approaching
enemy from the Sunken Road.
Like the other paths, the "archive and activities" path
provides different modes of interacting with the materialthis
time with only one's own direction. There are options to browse
the image, text, or reference archives. Here, too, the goal is
to help more students know an event in its complexity, in ways
that encourage richer mental representations and forms of understanding.
For unless students have opportunities to learn in ways compatible
with their variety of minds, school will continue to benefit only
students who are strong in traditional linguistic and logical
ways of thinking.
HOW CAN WE KNOW WHAT STUDENTS LEARN?
Students who understand the battle at Sharpsburg should be able
to show this understanding in several ways. Some students might
use language to argue, question, and make connections to other
battles, other units of study, and their own lives. Others might
explain the course of the battle and thereby show that they have
worked out a narrative story. Students might also display their
understandings by means other than words. They might put on a
play, make a series of sketches or a short video, compose martial
or funereal music, or portray the battle in signal or Morse code.
They could even use several media to publish a page on the World
As more students use virtual environments like CD-ROM, we must
be resourceful in providing ways for students to demonstrate what
they have learned. We cannot assume that these new media are better-or,
for that matter, worse-than more traditional modes. Rather, we
must search for direct evidence that students more fully appreciate
the need to take into account multiple perspectives, the partially
subjective nature of interpretation, and the risks of a simplistic
"good/bad" interpretation of complex events. New technologies
provide avenues for demonstrating these understandings; but producing
assessments that differentiate genuine from surface understanding
constitutes a significant challenge.
We also need to think critically about the risks and benefits
of products like Antietam/Sharpsburg. For example, students
might seem engaged but understand little because their response
reflects more an attraction to the medium than an understanding
of the battle. Interpretation may become overly subjective and
relativistic in the absence of canonical text. Additionally, working
extensively with one battle requires time, which means sacrificing
coverage of other relevant aspects of the war.
On the other hand, such mediated experiences may enable students
to engage rich, textured material in ways that give a more rounded
understanding. They may also be encouraged to think more creatively
and critically by encountering material and mastery that goes
beyond summary text. Structures like guided walks can minimize
media meanderings or cul-de-sacs. In fact, an experience that
encourages understanding in a closed environment like a CD-ROM
may ultimately benefit students more than unlimited access to
unstructured information on the Internet. The CD-ROM might help
students develop a search strategy for the Internet, one based
on information needed to further their understanding of some particular
aspect of the battle or war. One student might use the American
Memory collections at the Library of Congress, for example, to
see how Alexander Gardner's photographs of the battlefield at
Sharpsburg compared with his earlier work; another might want
to read soldiers' letters from the battlefield.
But beyond a specific technology like CD-ROM, we need to think
about any technology in relationship to our educational goals.
For how we use our technology is but one way students will learn
to value deeper forms of understanding and find ways to use their
own abilities. For example, how we use an application like Antietam/Sharpsburg
will depend on whether our goals are to teach historical reasoning,
to allow individuals to make sense of original sources, to sensitize
students to the radically different perspectives of various observers
and various participants, to appreciate analogies for the battle
of Antietam (for example, contemporary Bosnian battlefields),
or to explore the relationship of traditional historical texts
to a television series such as The Civil War by Ken Burns
and fictional works like Gone With the Wind. Unless educators
are clear about these goals and their own priorities, the technology
will becoming a tool of obfuscation rather than clarification.
Unlike some spheres of society, few ideas in education
are wholly new. There have always been educators who have sought
to enhance student understanding, educators who have tried to
understand the minds of all of their students, and educators who
have exploited the latest technology. By the same token, none
of the aims we have outlined depend specifically on CD-ROM technology.
The ingenious teacher of times past could make available different
perspectives of an event, use various media of representation,
and even lead students through a real or imagined trek across
Yet sometimes a series of quantitative differences can yield a
qualitative difference. New multimedia work, such as the CD-ROM
we have described, may enable ordinary students to gain an understanding
that may have been accessible only in the extraordinary classroom
in years past. Moreover, the actual procedures used in such a
mediated presentationfor example, the guided walk, the ready
shift across perspectivesmay stimulate the development of new
mental representations that can be used in the study of other
topics, even when a CD-ROM may not be available.
To be sure, the technology in itself cannot spawn a revolution
in educational approaches or results. Even as it was possible
in earlier days to have a rounded understanding of the Sharpsburg
battle, it would be possible tomorrow to use the CD-ROM to pursue
quite banal goals, such as a comparison of the facts that are
provided in the different written reports. Here teachers' favored
forms of assessment give away the game: It matters enormously
whether a well-crafted unit on the battle of Antietam culminates
in an objective multiple-choice test, a straightforward request
to recite or narrate the principal events of the battle, or the
posing of a provocative comparison to be discussed in essay form.
It is even possible to fashion more ambitious and adventurous
forms of assessment, such as the creation of a multimedia work
of art that captures the response to Alexander Gardner's photographs,
or a teaching lesson for younger students using Antietam/Sharpsburg.
These more adventurous forms give maximum opportunities for students
to draw on their own distinctive blend of intelligences, thereby
both giving them new venues for demonstrating their understandings
and broadening the ensemble of possibilities for their peers and
Nearly every serious student of contemporary education
agrees that we need to make concerted efforts to reach a greater
proportion of youngsters with a variety of intellectual strengths
and styles, and that the education we offer them should proceed
from the mastery of facts to the capacity to understand and interpret.
These more ambitious goals do not themselves depend upon the cognitive
revolution, but the cognitive revolution has stimulated a better
understanding of how students learn as well as the production
of more effective educational materials.
European and Asian countries routinely surpass the United States
in educational accomplishments, not because their technology is
more glitzy, but because the educational enterprise is taken more
seriously. Technology in itself cannot alter our scholastic trade
deficit. But by reorienting our educational mission and judiciously
designing and using technology that meshes with that mission,
the United Statesand other nationscan achieve far more success
with much larger numbers of students. The approach we have described
represents one of a growing number of promising innovations that
can be readily put into practice and rigorously assessedand even
enjoyed for their intellectual and sensory pleasures.
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