Brave New Schools: Challenging Cultural Illiteracy Through Global Learning Networks
Jim Cummins and Dennis Sayers (1995)
New York: St. Martin's Press
Pp. x + 374
ISBN 0-312-12669-7 (cloth)
In this thought-provoking book, Cummins and Sayers address three topics that currently dominate school reform debates throughout North America: (a) the direction of school reform movements and the role of various pedagogical models; (b) the demand for equitable and quality education for all children; and (c) the value of computer-based technology, including the Internet, as a learning tool. In often passionate discourse, the authors employ theory, case studies, and an introduction to the Internet in an attempt to guide parents, educators, and policy makers towards their vision of an educational system based on collaborative learning through high-tech global networks. In their own words, Cummins and Sayers "set out to argue that the technological changes transforming the realities of virtually everyone in the industrialized countries can either exacerbate the educational disparities between rich and poor or, alternatively, can be harnessed to create communities of inquiry capable of stimulating intellectual, moral, and educational growth among rich and poor alike" (p. viii).
The book is divided into two main parts, the first of which contains the theory behind global networks. This is made up of a series of case studies that illustrate the use and success of global networks, a discussion of the school reform movements, and an introduction to the theories of Celestin Freinet and Mario Lodi, the fathers of global learning networks. The second part of the book contains more practical information, including a guide to the Internet, an annotated listing of more than 800 educational resources accessible through the Internet, and an extensive bibliography for further investigation.
In chapter 1, Cummins and Sayers define the terms central to their educational model, including cultural literacy/illiteracy, and global learning networks. In addition, they introduce the rationale behind their vision. The authors feel strongly that the 21st century will see an increase in intercultural communications and cooperation, and that electronic networks will be the key tools for world-wide problem solving and decision making. Students with experience using these networks for intercultural collaboration will have a competitive edge over those without. Therefore, they conclude, it is the duty of schools to provide all students with an equal opportunity to prepare themselves for this environment. They argue that reform movements like Goals 2000 cannot be successful at providing such equal opportunities, because they fail to address the real socioeconomic conditions that have led to the current situation of educational inequities and underachievement. Instead they insist [-1-] that any meaningful attempt at educational reform must include a sociopolitical dimension. They stress that their book is not just another volume on education and technology, "but a vision of how education can enact, in microcosm, a radical restructuring of power relations both in domestic and global arenas" (p. 8). In fact, they are not shy to admit that "intercultural learning networks provide access to information and possibilities for democratic participation that potentially threaten the top-down control over learning that most societies around the world traditionally have exercised... We view this potential reduction of top-down control over the learning process as one of the most positive aspects of global learning networks" (p. 12). Statements such as this set a bold political tone that is continued throughout the text.
Chapter 2 provides readers with eight case studies or portraits of classrooms that have used technology-enhanced global learning networks successfully. Through these examples the authors hope to illustrate the potential benefits of global networks and stress the importance of equal access to such tools for all students. The groups introduced in this chapter are involved in one of two computer-based global learning networks: I*EARN (the International Education and Resource Network) and Orillas(Shores). They include students from various age groups, in many countries, who communicate using several languages. All of the projects involve the sharing of information and collaborative problem solving. These electronic relationships give students the opportunity to hear a variety of viewpoints on issues that are meaningful to them. The case studies give the reader a taste of the potential of such a tool for promoting knowledge sharing and critical thinking skills. However, Cummins and Sayers cautiously point out that programs such as these are not solutions in and of themselves. Computer-based global learning networks need to be integrated into school curricula and to be recognized as beneficial for promoting critical inquiry and student empowerment, or there is the risk that they will be trivialized as just another educational fad.
In chapter 3 Cummins and Sayers discuss the dilemmas of educational reform, and the necessity to provide equal access to technology and quality education for all learners. In this discussion the authors promote the use of critical inquiry as introduced by Freire. They point out that schools are facing an increase in cultural diversity in their classrooms, as well as an ever-growing sense of interdependency throughout the world. Therefore, it would be beneficial to develop more ways to promote intercultural cooperation, respect for diversity, and mutual understanding. This can best be done by training students to think critically about the world around them, to work collaboratively, and to develop literacy skills in the areas of research and analysis. "The research, critical thinking, and creative problem solving skills that this form of education entails will position students [-2-] well for full participation in the economic and social realities of their global community" (p. 116).
The following chapter introduces the reader to the historical background of global learning networks, which were first developed by Celestin Freinet in France in 1924, and expanded by Mario Lodi in Italy during the 1960s. Both used the cutting edge technology of their time in their classrooms to promote student authorship and collaboration. In addition they provided real audiences and required meaningful communication by establishing collaborative relationships with students in other schools. Freinet used printing presses and the French postal system, while Lodi took advantage of tape recorders, typewriters and mimeograph machines to distribute students' work. The groups periodically exchanged cultural information, providing the students with a context, an audience, and a motivation to write, as well as new contextualized information to read, contemplate, and analyze. Also important was the concept of distancing: "Distancing refers to the increased awareness of the social, cultural, historical, geographical, and linguistic realities of one's own community as a result of the need to describe these realities in response to questions from distant peers" (p. 137).
Chapter 5 further defines collaborative critical inquiry by contrasting three pedagogical models: (a) Traditional pedagogy, through which language is broken down and taught in parts. The strictly controlled curriculum is taught sequentially through drill and memorization. This type of learning is considered by the authors to encourage passivity, and to be ineffective and xenophobic. (b) Progressive pedagogy, which encompasses whole language and process writing approaches. In this realm language is to be studied as a "whole" through meaningful communication and literature. Learning is collaborative and inquiry based, but often does not provide learners with explicit instruction in the use of language for various genres and discourses. In addition, the authors point out that progressive pedagogies are often focused on the learner and have little to do with the larger social situation; the "critical analysis" component is missing. (c) Transformative pedagogy, upon which the authors have built their approach, which "uses collaborative critical inquiry to relate curriculum content to students' individual and collective experience and to analyze broader social issues relevant to their lives. It also encourages students to discuss ways in which social realities might be transformed through various forms of democratic participation and social action" (p. 153). By pairing up transformative pedagogy and intercultural learning, Cummins and Sayers believe that all students will be aware of, and hopefully develop respect for, the diversity of the global community, as well as an interest in working together to transform their social realities in positive and creative ways. In addition, the educational experiences of marginalized students will be more successful and enriching as these students find an atmosphere of respect and community in their educational setting. [-3-]
Chapter 6 addresses the role that technology, and more specifically computer-mediated communication through the Internet, can have in this educational reform vision. Cummins and Sayers point out that while technology is not a necessary component of collaborative critical inquiry, it greatly enhances the power of this approach, acting as a catalyst for collaboration by providing a means of fast and efficient communication over short and great distances. In addition, the authors claim that computer networks will be one of the key communications tools of the near future; therefore, all students should have the opportunity to learn how to use them. Because of the great power computer-based communications have, the writers are "adamant about the importance of ensuring that all schools have access to this technology and to the instructional strategies required to use it fruitfully" (p. 172).
These six chapters are followed by the resource section of the book, which begins with a simple and practical introduction to the Internet. In this section Cummins and Sayers give a brief overview of the equipment needed to make a connection to the Internet. In addition, they introduce basic Internet tools, such as e-mail, LISTSERVs, Telnet, Gopher, FTP, and the World Wide Web. This is followed by a simulation depicting a user accessing ERIC by using several of the above listed tools. This simulation is accompanied by several screen shots, which enable the reader to see what the computer screens should look like. It is further complemented by some sage advice on conserving online time, planning Internet usage, and acquiring further information concerning the Internet. The book then continues with a series of annotated listings including a reference list of Internet books, LISTSERVs and USENET newsgroups, and information sites accessed through Gopher, FTP and the World Wide Web. These listings include information on a variety of resources, including sites devoted to K-12 education, language arts, multicultural education, and bilingualism. There are over 800 annotated listings, along with a reminder that the Internet grows by leaps and bounds daily.
The book ends with a section of endnotes, an extensive (206 entries) bibliography, and a very useful index, making this a useful resource text.
Due to its dual nature as a theoretical resource and a practical reference book, I think Brave New Schoolswould be a valuable addition to a college of education reading list, especially for courses in the areas of educational media and technology, literacy instruction, multicultural education, educational policy and reform, or second language/bilingual education. In addition, as the book deals with a variety of issues which are presented in a non-technical manner, it would be very accessible as independent reading for any educator, parent, or policy maker who is interested in the challenges faced by school systems today. The one [-4-] characteristic of the book that might alienate a reader is its political overtone. Cummins and Sayers have an explicit sociopolitical agenda for school reform, and make no secret of it. This is not meant to be merely an informative book on the potential of technology in education, but rather a demand for educational reform that provides a challenging, equitable learning atmosphere for all children and prepares them with the technical and intercultural communications skills they will need to be productive members of our future society. The approach is firmly rooted in the ideals promoted by the transformative pedagogy position, which might cause some readers to regard it as extreme. On the other hand, others might find it refreshing and inspiring to witness the assertiveness with which Cummins and Sayers present their ideas. It is obvious that these two scholars have built on their many years of experience and research to create a bold vision for the educational system of the 21st century, and aren't afraid to answer to the controversy their ideas will certainly generate. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in the role technology and collaborative critical inquiry could play in educational reform.
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