William Bernhardt – On Using Computers as a Tool for Learning

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William Bernhardt

William Bernhardt

For the past few years teachers and students in schools and universities all over the world have been moving into computer “labs.” I feel that I must put that word in quotation marks because the word “lab” (or laboratory) conjures up the image of an atmosphere of experiment and innovation that is really quite foreign to most computer-equipped classrooms. They are really just traditional 19th century “factory-style” classrooms with rows of fixed desks which, instead of being empty on top have machines bolted to them. There is a white board (using dustless markers instead of the traditional chalk) at one end of the room and a special desk for the teacher.

If one of the educational reformers of 50 or even 100 years ago were to look in through the window in the door, he or she would see the familiar scene of students bent over their work (keyboards, in this case) as the teacher moves among them to monitor whatever appears on their screens (surfing the Internet and computer games having replaced sneaking a comic book between the pages of one’s school text), and to make sure that they are addressing the assignment.

The approach to learning shared by many computer scientists, software developers and teachers who use computers pays lip service to concepts such as “active learning” and the “interactivity” of teacher and learner, but most of what actually goes on in computer-equipped classrooms follows traditional methods of instruction. These technologists and educators tend to think that an “innovative” pedagogy is one which derives from the behaviorist psychology of several decades ago. This so-called innovative pedagogy breaks up whatever is to be learned into little bits, arranged in hierarchical sequences. Such an approach may in some cases respect the organization of a particular body of information. However, it doesn’t acknowledge or respect the powers of learners.

Further, much of the software used in computer classrooms has been strongly influenced by entertainment media. Bright lights and loud noises are thought to be “motivating,” especially to young learners. Many of designers believe (and behaviorist psychology would support their view) that learners need external rewards (“positive reinforcement”) in order to participate actively. Hence the rise of “endutainment,” programs which profess educational aims but display the look and feel of advertising or MTV.

Therefore, it’s not surprising that in spite of all the money that has been spent on touting computerization as the cure for all educational ills, it doesn’t always work. Our reformer, looking through the window in the doorway, might observe that many of the students in today’s computer classrooms seem just as bored and distracted as any other group of students down through the ages. In short, there is no magic in filling a room with computers, creating entertaining software and inviting students to sit down and start striking keys and moving a mouse. Computer technology is no more inherently interesting or motivating to learners than any of the other quick fixes that have come along in the past, including the teaching machines of the 1950s, the “relevant” topics of the 1960s and 70s (“drugs, sex and rock and roll”), and the focus on business and job training” characteristic of the 1980s.

Having noticed all of the above, I wasn’t interested in computers when they first started becoming popular in education. The Apple II invaded American classrooms while I was away teaching in China, during 1981-2. When I returned to New York, everyone I knew seemed to be suddenly talking about “wordprocessing,” but I still resisted. It was only when I actually started writing with a computer a year or two later that I recognized why Dr.Gattegno had (for many years previously) spoken so enthusiastically about a technology which seemed so different from charts and rods. I discovered that I could use a computer to accomplish much more within a given time span. My powers of expression were enhanced without the need to become a “computer expert” in any sense. In fact, thousands of hardware and software engineers had worked on my behalf to create a technology that permitted me to swiftly acquire “know how” without requiring me to “know about.” I was eager to share this experience with my students.

Moving my classes into computer labs over the succeeding 12 years has given me the opportunity to work with my students in ways that are compatible with The Silent Way and Words in Color: respecting the powers of learners; subordinating teaching to learning; working on the students while they are working on the material; educating awareness. I have found ways to apply computers to learning in a way that makes sense to me.

During July,1991, I collaborated with Frances Petterson, an English teacher from Dreyfus Intermediate School on Staten Island. We conducted a twelve-day writing workshop for ten students between the ages of 12 and 16 who were considered to be “at risk” of dropping out of school due to physical or emotional disabilities, family problems, poverty or lack of interest.

When the students arrived on the first day we took them into a Macintosh computer lab with all the machines already booted up and ready for use. We asked them to write something to introduce themselves; that request was about the only contribution we needed to make during the entire three-hour session.

Providing them with a prompt each day triggered their creativity and expressiveness. By giving them only the briefest hints, everything they wrote belonged to them and they knew it. Furthermore, we let them teach themselves (and each other) the technical aspects of wordprocessing including use of the keyboard and mouse, inserting text, cutting and pasting. changing fonts and sizes, printing, etc.

During subsequent sessions we encouraged them to re-read their own work to see what they needed to do to increase clarity and correctness before receiving any feedback from us. Later, we circled or underlined errors in their printed texts so that they could make their own corrections and changes. Then we accepted whatever they submitted as “finished” work without further comment or criticism.

Samples of their finished work was collected into three class “books,” which they reproduced and distributed to readers. Doing this gave them the experience of becoming “published” authors. Enough copies of their first collection, The Book of Excuses, were sold at $1.00 each to earn the money to pay for a lunch-time pizza party. Each sentence in this book began with the words, “I can’t write today because….”

What was most striking to me about this experience wasn’t what we, the teachers, did, but what we didn’t do;

  • We didn’t try to motivate them.
  • We didn’t explain the prompts or suggest what to write.
  • We didn’t instruct them in how to use the computer.
  • We didn’t correct their work or explain their mistakes except in response to direct questions from them about particular words or sentences.
  • We didn’t give them any advice about writing.
  • We didn’t comment on the content of their writing.
  • We didn’t tell them to be concerned about correctness or the appearance of their words on the page.
  • We didn’t try to keep the room quiet.
  • We didn’t tell them how great they were or compare one person’s participation with another’s.
  • We didn’t evaluate any of their work.

It was difficult to get the students to give us verbal feedback on what they were getting from the course; they felt that they weren’t in school and therefore didn’t need to answer our questions. But they came back day after day, sometimes arriving an hour or two ahead of time and waiting patiently for the door of the computer lab to open.

As I continue to use computers in my writing classes I am always hearing about wonderful new software for other purposes such as language learning (speaking and listening), literature, history, etc. These materials are usually rather expensive, especially when compared to the cost of a set of charts or a couple of boxes of rods. Furthermore, even when they are useful, they tend to have very limited utility and can often be replicated through the use of much simpler (and less expensive) materials.

A program called Timeliner (Tom Snyder Productions) is a good example of what I mean. This piece of software can be used to create “timelines” such as students might use in charting important events in their own lives or in history. It’s easy to use and produces beautifully printed results. It respects the powers of learners and is devoid of “edutainment” features. But is it an instrument that one can use in a wide variety of circumstances? Does it really add resources to what one can do on one’s own without a computer? No, I don’t think so.

Other than wordprocessing software, I haven’t found much to interest me as a teacher who already has access to the rods, charts, wall pictures and printed materials for The Silent Way and Words in Color and knows how to use them across a broad range of situations and circumstances. Storybook Weaver/My Own Stories (MECC), KidCad(Broderbund) and a few other, similar programs are the exceptions. I have been working with Storybook Weaver for about five years and I continue to find new possibilities each time I bring it up on the screen.

Storybook Weaver divides the screen into two “windows:” a “text window” for writing text and a “picture window” for assembling pictures using catalogues of visual images supplied by the program. Basically, it provides an opportunity for the user to work simultaneously with imagery and language. For a teacher familiar with The Silent Way, it provides a powerful supplement to the rods and pictures.

It makes sense to use Storybook Weaver in a Silent Way classroom as soon as students have worked on the sounds of the language and begun their exploration of the functional vocabulary for spatial/temporal relations.Working with one small group of students clustered around a single computer I started by putting the image of a bicycle into the “picture window” (I could also have used the software to immediately supply the spelling of the word “bicycle in the “text window” if I had wanted to) and held up the keyboard. One student took the keyboard from me and wrote, “one bike.” Then I put the images of three more bicycles on the screen. Each image was initially identical but, as I arranged them in the picture window, I quickly made the following changes before holding up the keyboard again:

  • I changed the color of two of the three new bicycles.
  • Of the two bikes that were the same color, I enlarged one and reduced the size of the other.
  • I placed one bike in front of the others.

The students were then able to speak and write statements about what they saw. Later they made changes in the imagery themselves and then changed the text accordingly.

Working with native speakers of English on another occasion, I used essentially the same imagery but demanded a much more precisely worded text. Then, I instructed the program to advance to the next “page”, at which time the students had to write about the image in the past tense (the image was no longer before their eyes).

At other times I have used Storybook Weaver (and My Own Stories, which contains more realistic visual imagery) to generate pictures that would be compatible with stories in Short Passages or other written sources. And students have used Storybook Weaver and My Own Stories to write and illustrate their own stories or create new versions of stories and articles which they have read.

If a school is able to buy multiple copies or a site license, it’s possible for each students to work with his or her own individual copy of the program. However, I have found that working in small groups is often more productive. It is easy to lose focus when one has such a rich program to work with and so many choices of image. And as with the rods, more restricted assignments usually produce greater results than when the learners are given total freedom.

In the near future, my college will be able to project the contents of a computer screen onto the wall without having to darken the entire room. This will make it possible for me to use Storybook Weaver with a full-sized class much as I work now with Silent Way and Words in Color charts and wall pictures.

During 1995 and 1996, I was twice asked to give a course for students in their second semester at the College of Staten Island. These were students planning to specialize in a range of disciplines including Education, English, Nursing and Psychology. The primary focus of the course was on using writing as a tool for research in preparation for whatever fields the students might pursue in the future. The College of Staten Island had just moved to a new campus with a very advanced technology base–including networked personal computers, multimedia stations, access to electronic mail and the Internet as well as computerized library catalogues and search tools. I could introduce all of these applications to the students; indeed, all of the resources of the college were put at my disposal. It was assumed that the students, if not already familiar with such supports for learning, would respond very positively to this opportunity to be “on the cutting edge of information technology.”

On the first day of the term, I showed a video based on a speech given by Dr. Andrew Grove, president of the Intel Corporation, the producer of computer chips for virtually all of the personal computers sold in the U. S. except for those marketed by Apple. In the video Dr. Grove demonstrated, through a world-wide telecommunications hook-up, spectacular computer applications in medicine, business and education and concluded with a stirring quotation from Antoine de Saint Exuebery which left me almost in tears.

During the twelve or fifteen minutes of the video, the students sat with their eyes glued to the screen. The room was totally quiet except for the sounds emanating from the VCR monitor. They appeared to be enthralled by Dr. Grove’s words, if perhaps confused at times by his thick Hungarian accent. Such was my impression but, having been so many times reminded by Dr. Gattegno of how seduced one can be by “mind-reading,” I asked them for feedback. (See note at the end of this article for a brief description of Dr. Gattegno’s work.)

The students’ response was quite dramatic. One and all, they hated the video. One said, “It was the most boring video I have ever seen in my life.” Another said, “I can’t believe that you would waste our time showing us something like this on the first day.” Further discussion revealed that only one person in the group had any interest in technology in general or computers in particular. Words such as “networking,” “multimedia” and “The Internet” had no content for them. One student after another said, “I could never get into computers.”

I was pretty astonished by their response, although I managed to hide it. And I was tempted, of course, to respond to their comments with a lecture, because that is what I used to do for so many years before I worked with Dr. Gattegno. However, I now have the discipline not to get into a debate, but rather to hear and then reflect on the students’ feedback before planning my next move.

Several days later, I took the students into a Macintosh computer lab and sat them down, three or four to a row. Three screens were lit up in front of them, each with a different display. Without telling them what any of the displays were, I asked them to start at the top of each screen and work downwards, looking to see what was there and how they could work with it, using the keyboard and mouse attached to each station. They were also asked to compare each screen to the others, in order to see similarities and differences between them.

The students worked for about an hour. At some point I suggested that they use one of the keyboards to write notes on what they were discovering as they examined, collectively, the three screens. They found that each of the screens was organized in a similar way with what they were later to learn were called “pull down menus” and “buttons” in rows across the top. Although the content of the pull down menus differed slightly from screen to screen, they all worked in an identical way with the use of the mouse. The same was true of the buttons. Further, there were graphics (later to be called “icons”) at the top, sides and bottom of the screens with which they could also interact by using the mouse and sometimes the keyboard as well.

At the end of the hour, the students had familiarized themselves with a word processing program (MacWrite Pro), an Internet Browser (Netscape) and a program for electronic mail (Pegasus). They had seen that the way of working with all three programs was almost identical, so that if one had even slight familiarity with a single program, one also had the basis for entry into the rest. As Dr. Gattegno said, “A lot from a little.”

In their feedback on the day, the students expressed surprise and a sense of confidence. Most of them asked, “When are we coming back to the lab? Can we come back next time?”

Their homework assignment during the first week was to visit a large bookstore, locate the section containing books on technology and find some books on the Internet. They were incredulous. One student said, “How can I go into a bookstore and not buy anything?” Another asked, “What if they don’t have anything on The Internet? I’ll be wasting my time and the bookstore is a long way from my house.” I said, “Did you ever go into a clothing store to look and not to buy? Was there any problem when you said, “Just looking’?”

To the students’ further astonishment, bookstore personnel treated them with courtesy even though they didn’t buy. Even more surprising was the discovery that all of the bookstores they visited had some books on the Internet, some more than a hundred! Some people stayed long enough to read a part of at least one book and return with questions about the subject.

At another session in the computer lab the students explored some sites on the World Wide Web using the Netscape browser and then sent me an e-mail message about what they had found out. When some students found the mouse hard to manipulate, they asked others for help. Working together they managed to do the assignment with very little assistance from me.

During the second week, I showed the video again. This time it didn’t seem so boring. We talked about how that could be. One woman said, “Perhaps because before I didn’t know anything about this subject. All this talk on T. V. and in the newspapers, “Internet, Internet, Internet.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about. I guess I was kind of intimidated. Now it seems more interesting.”

For the past two years, I have been working with Iolanda Cortelazzo of the School of the Future in Sao Paulo on a telecommunications project involving high school and university students in the U. S. and Brazil. During April-May and September-October (the only times of the year when classes are simultaneously in session in both the northern and southern hemispheres), students in New York and Sao Paulo States exchange electronic mail (e-mail) according to a pre-determined schedule.

In this project, each person participates as an individual addressing his or her letters to a group of readers at the “other end.” (This is not a “penfriends” project, although some of the participants do choose to start writing to each other on an individual basis at some point.) Because it is not a “penfriends” project, the writers have to prepare themselves in different ways than for writing to a single reader.

For various logistical and technical reasons, the students don’t always write their pieces on a word processor or into an e-mail program. Sometimes they write with pencil and paper in a regular classroom and someone else types them into the computer a few days later. The technology that we depend on in this project remains more or less transparent to the students. But what is important is that, due to the technology, the participants can get an answer to their mail within a very short time. This extremely brief “turn around time” is the crucial contribution of e-mail. It makes the concept of “audience” truly palpable to the students. Getting a reply when their original letter is still fresh in mind makes them want to keep the correspondence going.

The most recent exchange of mail took place during April-May, 1996. This time, the majority of the students in New York were foreign students studying at the English Language Institute of the College of Staten Island under the direction of Mira Erickson. Sherrie Michos, one of the students’ teachers, also participated in the exchange of mail. The exchange of messages began with each person’s list of approximately 25 statements about herself or himself:

My Name is Ramzi Al Jabeh
I am 19 years old.
My religion is Al-Islam.
My native language is Arabic.
I came to America to study Nuclear Medicine.
I like America.
I like the English language.
I like to be serious.
During my adult life I spent a very nice time with my family and my friends and I miss them very much.
I am enjoying watching TV and movies especially.
I like playing soccer and karate.
I like writing letters.
I like sight-seeing and natural places far from the noise.
I would like to know more about American and other cultures.
I wish everyone in my country had a chance to visit America.
I think I have to study hard and get a higher degree.
I hope I will spend my life in a wonderful world full of peace, science and fun.
I will respect my teachers forever.
Thank you for reading and goodbye.

A second example follows:

Hello, I am Gerson Limeres, from Santos City.
I am 37 years old and I am married.
I am the youngest member of my family.
I am a worker for an Electricity Company.
I have been studying at CCBEU (my school) for about three years.
I am not so good hearing someone in English, thus I have to practice.
I am not so good when I have to talk very fast as well.
I am a little better at reading something.
I am so curious about Internet. I have already bought a new computer and I am starting to learn about it.
I have got some knowledge about computers by myself.
I was always interested in getting in touch with people of another country.
Photography is my favorite hobby, I am a lover of photography.
About sports, I am a frequent watcher of soccer games like all the Brzilians.
But I am a chess player too, do you believe?
I am a book’s reader whenever I can.

Each group sent its messages on a Thursday or Friday and received the other group’s messages when they returned to school the following week. After reading the messages, they immediately began preparing themselves to reply on “e-mail day” of the second week:

Hello everyone!!!
I read all your messages yesterday and I wanted to know you personally. I think you are lucky, because you are mostly very young. You have the opportunity to learn English and Computer now. When I was in high school I did not know the computer and I did not know any foreign friends. As my part, I never saw Brazil. Brazil is famous for soccer, rain forest, and samba. How is your weather these days? I want to study about environmental problems. I am concerned about your decreasing rain forest in the Amazon. Is your nation concerned about this issue? My nation is Korea. I know Brazil and Korea are in similar economic positions in the world. And many Koreans are moving into your nation to live. Someday I want to go to your country for sightseeing.
My hobby is watching movies. Whoever wants to talk about movies, please call me right now.
Weon Cheol Koo

Hello, how are you? We hope you are fine.
We received your messages and realized that you have somethings in common: –Most of you have different names from us. Do they have any special meaning?
–Most of you talk about religion. Here we are Catholics.
–You are above 21 years old, our group is above 15 years old.
–You love sports and traveling. Here we love soccer.
–Most of you have plans for the future.
We would like to know if you don’t care about money because you didn’t talk about it.
Why have you chosen America?
Do you think living in America is more difficult than living in your country?
Why do you think traveling is important?
What do you think about living alone in a foreign country?
Do you like sunny days? Because here we have them all the time.
We’d like to know more about you and your countries. Please write back soon, don’t ignore us!!!
Sabrina, Marcela, Eliane, Helder, Marco, Andrea, Rogerio

During the third exchange the students tried to answer each other’s questions. Their fourth and final scheduled messages contained suggestions for a “Virtual Time Capsule” reflecting today’s “Hemispheric Youth Culture.” Following that “last message,” the Brazilian students’ teacher sent us the following e-mail:

In our last meeting, our students read the messages and the time capsule list you sent us. They also sent theirs; however, they were sorry those were the last messages, because you got to the end of your term. We teachers were talking about what should be done to avoid finishing the project abruptly. We say that because we have the feeling a conclusion is missing. Maybe, the groups could send messages with their feedback towards the project. What do you think?

For a teacher such as myself, moving with my students into a computer lab represents a change of site, but not really a departure from my customary way of working. My primary concern is with the learners and not with tools whether they be rods, charts, wall pictures or computers. What matters most to me is using myself and whatever instruments I have access to in such a way that the students become more aware of using themselves; so that they can say, “I learned it, I did it.”

Caleb Gattegno (1911-88) created learning materials and techniques covering a wide variety of fields. He is perhaps best known for his contributions to the teaching of elementary mathematics, literacy in native languages (“Words in Color“) and the “Silent Way” approach to the study of foreign languages. His numerous books and articles are both theoretical and practical in nature. However, his influence during his lifetime was largely disseminated through the workshops and seminars for teachers which he presented over many years in Europe, the U. S., Japan, and a host of other countries. Gattegno is not a thinker whom it is possible to describe in a word or a sentence. His ideas are profound and often depart from convention and tradition. They are more easily grasped through direct experience in a workshop setting than through reading his difficult texts. The Silent Way attempts to recreate the conditions for learning which, according to Gattegno, each of us enjoyed as a baby, conditions which allowed us to function as autonomous learners, guided by our own sense of truth, need to know and self-generated mental tools. Teachers in Japan are particularly fortunate in having access to outstanding representatives of the Silent Way in Fusako Allard and her colleagues at The Center for Language and Intercultural Learning in Osaka.

Originally published in two parts in Learning Learning 3/3 (January, 1997), 2-4. and Learning Learning 4/1 (April, 1997), 2-5. Bill Bernhardt, 1997, editor Steve Cornwell.

© Bill Bernhardt
College of Staten Island
City University of New York


William Bernhardt teaches at The College of Staten Island, City University of New York.

He studied with Dr. Gattegno starting in the early 70s, and all of his teaching and writing since that time has been part of an effort to integrate what he learned from Gattegno with his everyday life and work.

In recent years, he has been particularly concerned with applying the principles of Words in Color and The Silent Way to teaching and learning with computers, while trying to always keep in mind that technology is a human invention and must be used with respect for the powers of learners that transcend all technologies.

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On Using Computers as a Tool for Learning by William Bernhardt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.