Failure to Connect - How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds -- for Better and Worse

Jane M. Healy
Simon & Shuster 1998
350 pp. $25.00, cloth

What is technology doing for (or to) your children?


This remarkable book has some major flaws. Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds -- for Better and Worse lacks organization and coherence. Its central message must be gleaned from a disconnected series of arguments for and against the use of computers in the classroom. It is irritatingly inconsistent -- just when the reader is ready to concede the point that computers do not belong in the classroom, the author backtracks and says that, well, maybe after age 7 computers are good for our children. She then cites alleged triumphs of computer use in grades 2_12, all of which are unconvincing.

"The few studies showing positive results for educational technology have been largely funded by computer corporations or conducted by educators who are (or would like to become) consultants for the technology business."

Yet despite its shortcomings, Failure to Connect is a wonderful book. It's wonderful because it takes courage to stand up to the computer, political and educational establishments and to raise questions about the very wisdom of introducing computers, unthinkingly and en masse, into our children's lives. It's a wonderful book because it contains remarkable insights and reflections. It's wonderful because it is not merely based on armchair speculations, but on endless hours of astute observations of schoolroom realities. It's wonderful, besides, because Jane Healy cares about children.

The book's central argument is that we have engaged children in a vast experiment in the hope that computer technology will improve their quality of learning and prepare them for the future. It is not a cheap experiment: in the U.S. alone the annual price tag hovers around $20 billion. Most Americans believe that computer mastery is the third most important skill for school graduates, outdone only by basic skills (the 3 Rs) and good work habits, and far outranking honesty, curiosity, history or Shakespeare.

Why are computers so popular among parents and decision makers? For one thing, Healy says, they are seduced by "the glitz and novelty" of computers and the software into overestimating their benefit to children's learning. "It takes a while to realize that the remarkable tricks are mostly being played by the computer, not by the child."

Another reason is a well-financed campaign by major corporations with a vested interest in selling computers to parents, educators and the general public.

Then there is the justified concern about our K_12 educational system. We may be "grasping at a technocentric quick fix for a multitude of problems we have failed to address," admits Healy, who questions the wisdom of doing so, pointing out that computerization of our K_12 educational system is based on faith, not on hard facts. "Experience suggests that our enchantment with the computer should be tempered by a critical look at whether anything educational is really being accomplished," she says. "The few studies showing positive results for educational technology have been largely funded by computer corporations or conducted by educators who are (or would like to become) consultants for the technology business."

Further, the money, time, space and creative imagination now dedicated to computers in both homes and schools are draining resources from individualized instruction, physical education, art, music, drama, printed library resources and textbooks. Healy visits, for instance, an urban school whose generous computer lab space "used to be the music room" before the budget cuts trimmed "extras in the curriculum."

Computers are far more expensive than their already high price tag reveals, and they must often be replaced within two to three years. So far notoriously unreliable, they require an expensive army of specialists to keep them running. Schools must often be rewired and teachers continuously retrained.

Innovative social experiments must be judged by their fruits, not by the enthusiasm of their supporters and beneficiaries. Yet, Healy's observations strongly suggest that computer education too often fails to deliver the goods. Computers in schools are often misused or under-used, "owing to lack of technical support, teacher preparation, and software that turns learning into trivial game-playing." In one school, a 10- year-old boy at a computer "effortlessly solves a few simple addition problems and then happily accepts his reward -- a series of smash-and-blast games in which he manages to demolish a sizable number of aliens before he is electronically corralled into another series of computations. Groaning slightly, he quickly solves the problems and segues expertly into the next space battle." The boy has spent more time "zapping aliens" than doing math.

Computer games often take the place of real play, which involves interactions with other children, physical movement and creativity. There are other negatives: a great deal of the information computers provide is propaganda -- somebody trying to sell a product or a viewpoint. This raises moral questions about their use as an educational tool in the first place.

There are health issues, too, not yet resolved: carpal tunnel syndrome, impaired vision, postural complaints, even radiation emissions. Who wants to think about "lack of normal physical activity" or the computer's "effects on the growing brain?"

Children often become addicted to computers, Healy says, at the expense of social lives and studies. Computers offer an easy alternative to learning how to get along with people. And computers may adversely affect language development of young children. Healy cites one study which noted a 50 percent drop in creativity scores in children using a popular drill-and-practice reading software program.

Are there any valid arguments for the computerization of childhood? We are told that computers are virtually indispensable in the world of adults, and so children should prepare themselves for life by mastering computers as early as possible. But computer mastery can be comfortably acquired later in life. As Healy explains, once on campus, computer-illiterate college students who know how to read, communicate and think, can master the computer in a few weeks. And although computers are useful for many things, this does not mean that they are extraordinary teaching aids, or that real, living, teaching aids -- which can be purchased at a fraction of the cost -- could not do a better job of improving our schools.

Healy settles for a middle course, suggesting that computers should not be used before age 7, and only judiciously after that age. Two reasons lead her to this qualified endorsement. The first involves the many computer success stories she witnessed in grades 2_12. The second stems from the poor state of education now: Healy believes computers have some genuine potential "to free the power of children's minds" by "grounding education in projects that have intrinsic meaning, while still teaching critical skills of symbolic analysis and a core base of integrated knowledge."

Here is where many part company with Healy. Educational research is yet in its infancy, and all its conclusions must be taken with a grain of salt. In particular, every success story Healy relates may not be a tribute to the computer, but to other, more traditional, improvements that came along with the introduction of the computer.

Perhaps the way out of the current quagmire is humanization and rationalization of our educational system, not its mechanization. We need to inject a bit more compassion and critical thinking into our schools. We need better training of teachers in subjects such as math, science, art and history (as opposed to endless, virtually useless, instruction about how to teach these subjects).

We need a lower teacher/student ratio and a stronger emphasis on creativity and hands-on experiences, on understanding concepts (as opposed to useless memorization of facts), and on literature (as opposed to grammar-based language instruction). We ought to give poor children a fair chance of doing well. Above all, we shall know that we have succeeded when our kids are as curious -- and know as much math and literature -- as did those gadgetless upper-class kids of fifth century B.C. in Athens.

In my view, Healy's arguments and experiences demand a more radical stance. In K_12, computers may be gainfully used to improve the quality of life and education of children with special needs. A few computers in every school library can meaningfully improve cataloging, information retrieval and storage. But, for the very reasons Healy so wisely marshals in her book, computers should be banned from all other areas of the curriculum.

All in all, this is an important, insightful and courageous book that should be read and taken to heart by anyone concerned with the minds and hearts of our children.

This review first appeared in The Workbook, a catalogue of information about environmental, social and consumer issues, and is reprinted with permission. Contact The Workbook at 505-346-1455 or email

© Copyright by POINT, 1998
Last modified 6/23/97