20 Nov 2007

Computers are not machines

Interesting times indeed. I attended an interesting session on networking yesterday and I want to tell about one of its ideas I took home with me.

Teaching kids computers is a bad idea. Of course, I mean something entirely different from what you just read. But, nevertheless, it remains a bad idea to teach kids about computers in the way we teach them anything else.

Hello kids.
This is a computer. It's a machine and you can turn it on.
Now switch it on, the button is like this.
When the computer has started, which usually takes a while (unless it's an Apple or the latest processor), type this: student_usr123 and then take the mouse.

The mouse is the little oval thing on a wire next to the keyboard. You can use it to point at things.

Now we will learn how to point at things.

Meanwhile, 80% of class has already typed in user name and password, and has just discovered that some websites are blocked, but they can still download their favorite Messenger software. They can't install it, though. That's been disabled.

Now the 20% of pupils who have taken a little longer to log in, are exploring the desktop environment. Meanwhile, one has already crashed Explorer and is now asking attention from the teacher.

Sounds vaguely familiar? It's the way we teach computers. We show how to type, point and click. We show Word and you can type in it, too. Excel can be used as a calculator, but we'd never allow it. For calculus you have pocket calculators. the computer is a tool for more important things.

Never mind the fact that 95% of my use of Excel in the last five years was for adding or other simple calculations. Excel is a serious application. No playing here, kids.

I hope my point has already been made, otherwise I'm quite prepared to spell it out: computers are boring.

Not because they are, but we make them to be so.

But luckily, most kids already know computers are much more fun. You can play with them in ways most adults have never known. The trouble is, not all of our kids get the opportunity to use computers outside school. It's an important observation, into which I will not go now.

What's more disturbing, is the fact that kids learn that adults can even make something as exiting as computers dull. So when they grow up, they know they don't want to do the thing adults do.

So now I'll hint to what to do.
A pupil is interested in something not many other kids are into, something to do with painting, for instance. As a teacher , you might encourage this by letting her or him paint, read about painting etcetera.

But you could also treat the computer that is standing around the way it should be, and let that kid visit newsgroups, chat rooms, anything about painting. You might want to keep an eye on this or make sure the connection is with other pupils of the same age.

Imagine that learning curve! Think of the awe the others might have for someone in such a special social network. And this way, I come to my main point: the computer is social. All interactivity is learning. Even bad experiences provide useful learning possibilities.

Children will learn computers if they realize there is someone on the other end that can teach them something they want to know. Maybe they'll even learn how to type. But they don't want to learn about computers. Perhaps some do and we know quite well how to teach them that. Perhaps some have difficulties using the machine, and we have to make sure they get opportunities, too. But other than that, computers are not machines. They are long distance voices.

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