Richard Thieme's Islands in the Clickstream:

No More Pencils, No More Books?

by Richard Thieme

We are all children of our times.

We frame our worlds as they are given to us by our language and the structures of our education. The frame is invisible until there is a change so pervasive that we see by contrast what we once took for granted. It's like the terminator on the moon, the line between darkness and light where the mountain ranges are thrown into relief.

I did not experience the education I received growing up in America in the 1950s and 1960s as a choice. It's what education was.

In the same way, becoming an "adolescent" was simply a fact of growing up, a universal stage of development. But adolescence is really a modern invention. The word was first used in 1904. The same is true of "childhood" which was really invented by the Victorians.

In the United States, the expectation that adults will graduate from high school is a fairly recent development, a twentieth-century phenomena.

"School" as we know it is a direct result of the printing press. Collections of benches in a central building on which to sit and read are a recent development. Learning had universally been accomplished through apprenticeship. Young people worked beside adults, learning by doing. Most never left the village in which they were born.

The fact of textbooks and universal literacy made necessary a prolonged period of time called "adolescence" that postponed adulthood. During that time we learned the art of symbol manipulation. We learned to internalize typographical symbols and be "reading people." Learning to read transformed who we were and how we understood our lives as possibilities for action.

The process was at least as important as the content.

We called that process "education."

Today the structures of education are out of joint with the structures of adulthood. That's why so many businesses are educating workers. More education takes place today in conference rooms, meeting rooms in hotels, and via remote telepresence and onsite computer-assisted learning than in classrooms. The need for continuous lifelong education is now an unquestioned assumption.

Apple flooded schools with computers, but didn't provide teachers who knew what to do with them. My consulting with schools tells me that money is often budgeted to buy computers, but seldom budgeted for the years of training needed to re- program teachers to use them effectively.

I know a fourth grade teacher who was supposed to teach computers but didn't know how to turn them on. She asked her class, "Who knows how?" Hands waved in the air. She turned the task over to the students and hid behind her desk while they showed each other what to do.

She called it "empowerment."

But she couldn't hide forever. So she asked her three brightest students secretly to teach her after school how to use computers. Then she could teach the students how to use computers.

That teacher's situation as an officer in a command-and- control hierarchy who does not know as much as the people she teaches is analogous to a manager asked to supervise younger workers who understand computer technology and its uses far better than she does.

Older managers as well as older teachers must learn from younger adults as well as teach them. The wisdom of experience is relevant, but relevant in a different way. Command-and-control behaviors do not make for good coaching.

That teacher, like many managers, learned that she still had authority, but authority that had to be exercised in a collegial way. Leadership is exercised in a network by implementing a vision, not by dominating and controlling. Power is exercised in a network by participating and contributing.

That teacher knew, at least, how to get out of the way, but that didn't make her a coach. She needed to learn how to be present but not controlling, available but not directive. Like the best computer assisted learning, good coaches provide information not at the convenience of the curriculum but when learners are most teachable.

Naturally the fact of computer technology has been threatening to many schools. Some responded to the challenge by taking away all the computers and locking them up in a room. They call it a "computer lab" and let the kids in there an hour a day.

Imagine being a teacher when pencils were invented. You pass out pencils and watch as the children discover that pencils can do anything because a pencil is a symbol manipulating machine. Children can write stories, do math, reflect on history. Afraid you're no longer needed, you collect the pencils and lock them in a Pencil Lab, letting the children use them an hour a day. The rest of the time they write with rocks on slabs of broken concrete.

In preparation for a speech for a school district in northern Illinois recently, I was told that the large corporations in which most of their students worked gave the district good grades in much of what they were teaching, but not in preparing young people for cooperative learning and cross- disciplinary teamwork. When I asked what they meant by "cooperative learning," I realized that in my day it was called ... cheating.

A stand-alone human being who learns and works by themselves -- as I was taught to do -- is a brain in a bottle.

The structures of education, like the structures of work, are moving through a sea-change. Symptoms include:

Is there hope? Of course. The solutions begin with understanding the depths of the transformation we are experiencing and asking questions relevant to our real lives. The process of finding answers together will generate the security we need to remain effective during revolutionary times.

Islands in the Clickstream is a monthly column written by Richard Thieme exploring social and cultural dimensions of computer technology. Comments are welcome.

Feel free to pass along columns for personal use, retaining this signature file. If interested in (1) publishing columns online or in print, (2) giving a free subscription as a gift, or (3) distributing Islands to employees or over a network, email for details.

To subscribe to Islands in the Clickstream, send email to with the words "subscribe islands" in the body of the message. To unsubscribe, email with "unsubscribe islands" in the body of the message.

Richard Thieme is a professional speaker, consultant, and writer focused on the impact of computer technology on individuals and organizations.

Islands in the Clickstream (c) Richard Thieme, 1997. All rights reserved.

ThiemeWorks P. O. Box 17737 Milwaukee WI 53217-0737 414.351.2321