Crossing Boundaries of Difference

Enriching Classrooms Via the Internet

By Bob Peterson

A review of “Brave New Schools: Challenging Cultural Illiteracy Through Global Learning Networks,” by Jim Cummins and Dennis Sayers

When I see Internet addresses displayed prominently in advertisements on the sides of buses, I wonder what’s up — and what I might be missing. It’s probably the same feeling some people had at the turn of century when the telephone became popular in the United States. Ironically, it was only this year, 119 years after the telephone was invented, that I finally got a phone in my classroom. Even though our school doesn’t have enough lines to allow teachers to call out, it’s progress.

It’s due in part to my phone experience that I am skeptical toward grandiose claims about the educational promise of technology. “Yeah, right,” I think, “whose schools and when?” With the growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web, the hype around the promise of technology has intensified. It is currently estimated that more than 24 million people in the United States and Canada are connected to the information superhighway. A plethora of books, articles, and advertisements extol the benefits of surfing the net, and a large number are targeted at teachers, parents, and students. Many of these books and articles are useless. A few are helpful. One book, however, is exceptionally good: Brave New Schools: Challenging Cultural Illiteracy Through Global Learning Networks, by Jim Cummins and Dennis Sayers (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995, hardcover, $23.95).

The book contains one of the clearest, most helpful guides to the Internet I have ever read. More important, it analyzes the Internet and its potential effect on education within the context of the struggle for equality and the need to radically change teaching practices.

As part of their 374-page book, Cummins and Sayers bring together data on changing global demographics and increasing economic and social inequality — and then link education reform to the broader struggle for equality. They underscore the need for education reform so that “all children gain access to the communication tools that are essential for genuine democratic participation.” Further, they base their reform on a perspective that “the experience and ideas of all students are used as a foundation for learning.”

Cummins, a professor in the Modern Language Centre of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto, is a widely published and well-respected researcher of linguistic and cultural diversity. I became familiar with his work eight years ago when a small group of teachers and parents started La Escuela Fratney, and his research helped us plan our two-way bilingual program at the school. Sayers, director and assistant professor of Bilingual Education in the Multilingual/Multicultural Studies Program at New York University, has had years of experience in building and studying computer networks throughout the world.


Cummins and Sayers forego the abstract, disconnected, politically neutral positions that characterize so many books on education. They bluntly criticize conservative perspectives on schooling and yet are adamant about the urgent need to restructure schools. They are also willing to criticize what are generally seen as progressive approaches to education, such as shortcomings in some approaches to whole language.

Cummins and Sayers examine proposals for educational reform by contrasting what they call cultural, functional, and critical literacy. They argue that E.D. Hirsch, William Bennet, Dinesh D’Souza and other conservative academics, while seemingly advocating cultural literacy, are actually promoting a form of mono-cultural “cultural illiteracy.” Such academics, they argue, “intellectualize xenophobia.” They take “no account of the fact that cross-national and cross-cultural cooperation is crucial for economic, scientific, and environmental progress and for ending ethnically-based conflicts around the globe.”

Cummins and Sayers also criticize what they call “functional” literacy, which merely gives kids enough skills so they are “functional” in social and employment settings and which reduces literacy to a job skill.

Issues of power and equality, and education as a tool for social change, are at the heart of the authors’ perspective. They argue that schools should promote critical literacy — defined as “the analytical abilities involved in cutting through the surface veneer of persuasive arguments to the realities underneath and analyzing the methods and purposes of particular forms of persuasion.”

Cummins and Sayers quote writer and educator Ira Shor, who encourages teachers to develop within their students “habits of thought, reading, writing and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional clichés, received wisdom, and mere opinions, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences” of any event, text, or form of culture in society.

Given these goals, it’s not surprising that Cummins and Sayers criticize the text-based, teacher-centered approaches which dominate most classrooms in the United States. Such approaches, they argue, “reduce students to passive consumers of information and rarely, if ever, invoke…children’s intrinsic will to learn.” This is especially the case, they argue, “for low-income students whose culture usually is absent from what is being transmitted.”


Cummins and Sayers call for teachers to adopt a form of “transformative pedagogy” 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.” They also think students should discuss “ways in which social realities might be transformed through various forms of democratic participation and social action.”

For Cummins and Sayers, this transformative approach is student-centered, like whole language, but also focuses on larger social realities. Under a transformative approach, the students’ culture and language do not become invisible and inaudible to the teacher. Students and teachers jointly pose substantive, challenging questions for the class to answer. The transformative approach also focuses on social justice and the need to help students “become aware of how relations of culture and power play themselves out in our society.”

It is in the context of advocating transformative pedagogy that the authors criticize aspects of some whole language approaches. While they generally agree with the principles underlying the whole language philosophy, they write that they agree more with those critics who suggest “that some children require more explicit forms of instruction and corrective feedback than frequently envisaged in whole-language approaches.” If teachers are interested in helping students to use language as a way to empower the students, Cummins and Sayers argue, then they must help students master standard forms of writing such as report writing and formal letters, and to recognize how language is used in different social contexts. They favorably quote educator, Lisa Delpit, who argues that teachers must learn not only how to “help students establish their own voices, but to coach those voices to produce notes that will be heard clearly in the larger society.” Cummins and Sayers also point out that when many progressive educators approach multiculturalism, they frequently limit themselves to “celebrating diversity.” While such celebrations promote tolerance and build children’s self-esteem, they do little “to challenge inequities of power and status distribution in the society,” according to Cummins and Sayers.

Cummins and Sayers believe that global networking through telecommunications can play a key role helping teachers adopt a more transformative approach in their classrooms. They suggest that collaborative projects in which classrooms in different parts of the nation and world discuss, research, and comment on common problems can help give students a better sense not only of people who are different from them, but of their own identities. Moreover, such connections give students the ability to undertake social action that, because it goes beyond their own classroom and links up with others around the country or globe, potentially can take on broader significance.


The heart of the book is the idea that classrooms in different parts of the world should link up to work on common projects. The idea is rather simple and predates computers by several decades. Unlike some such projects, however, Cummins and Sayers do not want to link classes on the basis of trivial “pen pal” — now called “key pal” — projects. Nor do they think the Internet should be seen mainly as a way to gather and collect information. Rather, they believe that the Internet holds great potential to link classrooms to exchange cultural information and address common problems, and to do so within the framework of “transformative pedagogy.”

Cummins and Sayers note that when people are forced to explain their lives, culture, and country to someone from another country or culture, they are forced to take a step back and re-think the world in which they live — a process they describe as “distancing.” Thus Internet exchanges have the ability to not only introduce students to people from a different culture or background — and thus promote cross-cultural understanding — but they also have the potential to force students to re-analyze their own worlds and enhance their understanding of their own lives.

What I particularly like about the Cummins and Sayers book, however, is that the authors move beyond theory to concretely describe how such interchanges might work. In the chapter “Inner City to Global Village,” for instance, eight networking projects are described in detail, and include many interesting examples of student work. The eight projects range from partnerships between two schools, to larger groupings including scores of schools. They include:

  • A multi-school project in which children from a refugee camp in Savudrija, Croatia communicated via a donated computer and modem to kids around the world and talked about what had happened in their lives as a result of the war in their region. Their communications, in turn, helped spark international concern about the plight of the refugee children.
  • A partnership between a school in Maine and a school in Quebec, in which the students from Maine practiced their French with the students in Quebec, and the Quebec students practiced their English with Maine students. They then jointly published a bilingual magazine. Most interesting, at the end of the school year the students from Maine traveled on a class trip to visit their partnership school. They were amazed to discover the students at the Quebec school were profoundly deaf, and that in fact their first language was French Canadian Sign Language.
  • A partnership between an elementary school in San Francisco and an elementary school in New York, both of which had bilingual programs. In the San Francisco program, the Latino bilingual students were separated from the other students, who were predominantly African American. Tensions were high between the two groups, and one of the teachers decided to contact the New York school, where the bilingual program included Latino students from the Caribbean of African descent. Teachers and students from the two schools exchanged messages via Internet, and also made videos explaining aspects of their various cultures, such as celebrations and children’s games. By showing the links between Latinos and African Americans in the Caribbean culture, the exchange helped break down the racial isolation and prejudice at the San Francisco school.
  • A multi-school project in which parents and children at an after-school program in San Diego exchanged information with parents and children in Denver and in Caguas, Puerto Rico. The exchanges also involved “cultural packages,” which included photos and family stories. One of the positive results for the parents and students in the U.S. schools was that the status of the native Spanish speakers rose instantly when they were immediately able to translate the messages in Spanish that came from Puerto Rico.
  • The Orillas International Proverbs Project, in which schools from several different countries did a project based on oral tradition (see story, p. 10).
  • The Holocaust/Genocide project, in which secondary students from throughout North and South America, parts of Europe, Israel, Russia, and China are involved in studying the Holocaust. As part of the project, which is an ongoing activity sponsored by I*EARN (see box), students used various data bases to gather information. They then joined a LISTSERV (a user group) on the Holocaust, which put them in regular contact with Holocaust survivors and international experts on the Holocaust. For several years now, the project has published an annual magazine on student reflections on the Holocaust from around the world.
  • The Nicaragua Rope Pump Project, in which students from throughout the world communicated with children in a poor section of rural Nicaragua. As part of the project, the Nicaraguan children explained that they had to walk four kilometers each day just to get potable water. Amazed by such a reality, children from more privileged schools raised tens of thousands of dollars for the construction of simple pumps closer to the Nicaraguan homes — thus allowing the children more time to go to school.
  • The Contemporary magazine project, in which students based at the Cold Spring Harbor High School on Long Island in New York, have published an international students’ magazine for over five years. (The project is part of the I*EARN global computer network.) The magazine does not shy away from controversy, and one year a heated dialogue arose over articles by students and teachers in Israel and in Ramallah of Occupied Palestinian Territories, which offered starkly different interpretations of the political situation in the region. At one point, the foundation supporting the magazine became concerned about the magazine’s readiness to take on such a politically explosive topic; the students met with the foundation president, however, and convinced him of their ability to handle such controversies responsibly.

Sayers and Cummins argue that such projects hold enormous potential for teachers and students. First, the projects provide real-life situations in which students can develop their reading and writing skills. Second, the students enjoy the projects, and are highly motivated to become involved. Third, the students learn more about themselves and their cultures through the process of “distancing.” Fourth, the students learn about the cultures, languages, and perspectives of those with whom they communicate. Finally, the students develop their critical literacy skills as they discuss problems and potential solutions to those problems with students from around the world.


The benefits of this kind of “distancing” and networking were first written about by French educator, Célestin Freinet (1896-1966). A virtual unknown among educators in the English-speaking world, Freinet began his 46-year career as an elementary teacher in a one-room rural schoolhouse in the French Maritime Alps following World War I.

In 1926, Freinet established the Modern School Movement, which by the time of his death involved 10,000 schools in 33 nations. His work has been translated into 17 different languages, but it wasn’t until the beginning of this decade that it was available in English.

Freinet developed many innovative teaching techniques. The ones most relevant to Internet projects are his use of technology in the classroom and his “interschool networking.” He advocated that advanced technology — which in his era involved movable-type printing presses — be in each classroom so that students’ writings could be published and distributed to parents and partner schools. His belief in long-distance teaching partnerships included partner classrooms exchanging student-written and produced publications as well as “cultural packages” of photos, tapes, maps, school work and local memorabilia. These exchanges often evolved into joint ventures in which students and teachers jointly planned and implemented common curricular projects. This process, according to Cummins and Sayers, “enabled educators to provide feedback to each other, the type of feedback that encouraged them to reflect upon the way they conducted teaching in their classrooms. It also encouraged teachers to reflect on how their teaching could contribute to beneficial social change in their communities and societies.”

Because so many teachers in the Freinet network organized to demand government support for their interschool networks, to this day French teachers do not have to pay to use the national postal service for education projects.

Sayers and Cummins also explain the work of Mario Lodi, calling him one of “most influential European reformers of recent times.” Like Freinet, Lodi is a virtual unknown in the English-speaking world. In 1951, Lodi helped establish the Italian Cooperative Education Movement to implement the theories of Freinet in the Italian public schools. Given the specific circumstances of the use of language in Italy, the movement relied on audio tape-recorders rather than printing presses. According to Lodi, the tape recorder was of particular use because of the strong oral tradition among speakers of various Italian dialects. As he wrote: “The tape recorder records our ideas in familiar language. In this way the colloquial language, that for centuries has been dominated and subjugated by written language, takes precedence over the written language whose rules have been imposed upon us by the dominant class.”

Sayers and Cummins draw many lessons from these two educators. They argue that by “combining access to advanced communications technology with a pedagogy of collaborative critical inquiry,” teachers can nurture the intellectual abilities of their students within a context of fighting for social justice and equality. What is different, for Sayers and Cummins, is the use of the Internet. No longer, they point out, do teachers have to limit themselves to printing presses, tape recorders, Xerox machines, or the postal service.

In the second half of the book, Sayers and Cummins explain how the Internet can become more than an object of theoretical study in their classrooms.


Even without its framework of transformative pedagogy, Brave New Schools is useful to teachers and parents because it explains in simple terms how to get hooked into the Internet. To do so, the authors present a fictitious story of a teacher new to the Internet who is exploring how to get onto the information highway. In 15 pages, the reader accompanies this Internet novice on her accessing materials from the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC). I was particularly impressed with Cummins’ and Sayers’ step-by-step instructions, even to the point of including reproductions of what appears on the computer screen at various stages of Internet travel.

The bulk of the guide is a well-organized listing of over 800 human and curricular resources available to educators on the Internet. The listing includes categories such as Partner Class Clearinghouses, Parent Involvement, Multicultural Education, Bilingual Education, Arts in Education, and Mathematics and Science. For each category, LISTSERVs are listed along with Gophers and WEB sites. (A LISTSERV is a discussion group of people around a particular interest area. Using e-mail, you can send and receive messages from everyone in the group. The types of LISTSERVs are nearly limitless, including educational topics from deaf education to a discussion group committed to preserving the Iroquois language.) The book is easy to use and has a fairly detailed table of contents; it would have been strengthened, however, by a more thorough index and a glossary of Internet terms.


Cummins and Sayers are acutely aware of the inequalities within schools and acknowledge that computer-based technological changes “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.”

They point out that while most post-secondary educational institutions are connected to the Internet, very few K-12 schools are — and that this will not change unless there is a massive social investment in rebuilding the aging infrastructure of the K-12 school system. They call for universal and free access for all schools to the Internet, and even advocate that all schools be given the capability to run their own Internet server. They support the National Information Infrastructure proposal of the Clinton administration, but were disappointed when the administration bowed to the threat of a Republican filibuster when the measure came to a vote in the Democratic-controlled Congress last year. They note the difficulties of calls for universal and free access, given pressure from telecommunications companies who are concerned with maximizing the profitmaking potential of such technology — but are adamant that universal and free access are essential to any democratic vision of the 21st Century.

Perhaps we educators could learn from the experience of the French and demand free access not only to the postal service but also the Internet. My experience tells me, however, that actual access to Internet is only the beginning. The outdated electrical and phone systems in many urban schools, to cite just one problem, require massive upgrading if access is to become a reality.

To learn how to hook up with the Internet, Cummins and Sayers encourage teachers to request help from the “local school computer coordinator.” In many schools, at least at the elementary level, such coordinators usually don’t exist; if they do, they are unlikely to have the time or training to maintain a network linking each teacher and classroom to each other and to the outside world. Without experienced technology coordinators at each school, and without adequate money to initially train teachers in the new technology, there is little hope for a school to enter the computer age.

There are reasons, of course, that schools don’t have sufficiently trained personnel to deal with computer technology — the same reason many urban and rural schools are in dire need of physical repair. Our society does not sufficiently value the education of all children and has shown little interest in providing equitable financing and resources.

As Cummins and Sayers ask: “Do we plan for the common good by enabling all students to navigate difference, develop intellectually and academically, and gain expertise in employing technology for enhancing democratic participation, or do we curtail the development of these social, intellectual, and technological skills in order to restrict potential challenges to the current distribution of power and resources in our society?”

It is clear to me how most political and corporate leaders in this country answer that question, at least in terms of what they do as opposed to what they rhetorically espouse. But as one whose classroom just received the century-old technology of a telephone, I believe that without a social movement demanding universal and free access to Internet, those who would benefit most from this new technology will be left in the surf.

Bob Peterson is a 5th grade teacher at Fratney Street School in Milwaukee and is a Rethinking Schools editor.