April 4th, 2013

Playing Chopsticks With Technology

Alan Kay:

Q. Do our modern personal computing devices augment education? Have they lived up to what was foreseen in the past? Are they really helping teachers teach in the classroom?

A. The perspective on this is first to ask whether the current educational practices are even using books in a powerful and educative way. Or even to ask whether the classroom process without any special media at all is educative.

I would say, to a distressing extent, the answer is “no.”

The education establishment in the U.S. has generally treated the computer (a) first as undesirable and shunned it, (b) as sort of like a typewriter, (c) not as a cheap but less legible textbook with smaller pages, etc. (d) as something for AP testing, (e) has not ventured into what is special about computing with reference to modeling ideas and helping to think about them.

This in spite of pioneers such as Seymour Papert explaining both in general (and quite a bit specifically) just what it is and how it can revolutionize education.

I’ve used the analogy of what would happen if you put a piano in every classroom. If there is no other context, you will get a “chopsticks” culture, and maybe even a pop culture. And this is pretty much what is happening.

In other words, “the music is not in the piano”.

Which is exactly what Gary Stager and others have been saying repeatedly for a long while.

I would add, once again, that for the “revolutionary” aspects of computing to be realized in classrooms, it must first be realized, either in concept or practice, by the adults in the room. Certainly, many kids discover and develop “revolutionary” practice on their own. But the system’s unwillingness to truly celebrate and nurture that practice stems from the adults’ lack of context not just for technology in general but computing specifically. (I wonder how many teachers and administrators even know who Alan Kay is.) 

I’m no poster child for computing in this sense either.  My “preparation” as an educator was bereft of any of this context, and 95% of what I’ve learned about technology and computing came on my own, informally, pushed by my own interest to learn it. 

Even so, I’m mostly playing chopsticks. And if we’re honest about it, most of the practices and tools we talk about in this network aren’t much more than a repackaging of old practice. It’s still about us owning the process and expectations. It’s not really about giving kids a freedom to learn and create with computers. 

By the way, if you don’t think Kay is calling into question the whole enterprise, reread the first two paragraphs of his response. 

For more on Kay’s work, see his Viewpoints Research Institute website where he writes:

We want to start with the teaching and learning of old and new “powerful ideas”; create much better human-computer environments that allow for authoring, sharing and representing the new ideas; create new user-interfaces that can help children and adults “learn and do” the new ideas; and, invent new, fundamental computing technologies to serve as the raw material for the next stage of the computer revolution.


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Welcome! I'm Will Richardson, parent, educator, speaker, author, 12-year blogger at Weblogg-ed and now here. I'm trying to answer the question "What happens to schools and classrooms and learning in a 2.0 world?" Best selling new book: Why School?s...order now!!

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