You’re Never Too Old to Learn, But You Might Be Too Young.

A couple days ago, Peter Rawsthorne (twitter prawsthorne) and I were talking over our WikiEducator project. In an aside, Peter said we could make an argument–and he’d be willing to defend it–that we shouldn’t introduce web 2.0 technologies to students until high school–maybe even as late as grade 11.

The idea runs counter to so much of what we hear on the subject these days. Yet, in a Gladwell-blink moment, I had to say I think Peter is right. Informed citizens of the 21st Century will indeed need to be able to use the web to get at information essential for democratic participation in civil society. But they will need good judgement no less than they did 2,500 years ago. I have a hunch that if we were to put Socrates or Lao Tzu in front of a computer it wouldn’t be long before they were making more intelligent use of of the web than most. This article in Science Daily, Is Technology Producing A Decline In Critical Thinking And Analysis? seems to give some support to the Peter’s notion. I dearly love Dorothy Sayers’ essay, the Lost Tools of Learning, and in my reading of it, the write part of the read-write-web corresponds to the teaching of rhetoric, which she thinks ought to be introduced to children of about 14-years old. Lastly, in a 1994 interview Alan Kay says

KAY: Put a prosthetic on a healthy limb and it withers. Using the logic of current day education, we could say that since students are going to be drivers as adults, at age two we should put them in a little motorized vehicle and they will just stay there and learn how to be much better drivers. Now, we would think that was pretty horrible. But what if we gave the same person a bike? We’re not going to feel so badly [because] the bike allows that person to go flat out with his body and it amplifies that. [The bike is] one of the great force amplifiers of all time because it doesn’t detract from us–it takes everything we’ve got and amplifies it. Most computers today are sold like cars, where as many things as possible are done for you. You don’t have to understand how it works and, in fact, you don’t have to understand how to think because the most popular stuff is prepackaged solutions for this and that. When you put a person into a car, their muscles wither. You put a person into an information car, and their thinking ability withers. I wouldn’t put a person within 15 yards of a computer unless I was absolutely sure that it was a kind of a bike for them.

Q: What would make a computer a kind of bike?

KAY: Well, it’s complicated. When we start asking questions about how students are thinking and what they’re doing, we have to realize that–and this is sort of an extreme generalization, but it’s not a bad one–most things that need to be done with students are not particularly user friendly. [They] require work on the student’s part. Like when they’re learning to ride a bike, it’s not [easy]. Think how many students might reject a bike today if it were a new product because it’s hard to learn. Today, computer systems are rejected unless they’re easy to learn. But with young students, it’s absolutely important to challenge their internals–challenge their internal musculature, their internal ability to make images, their internal ability to think about things and to make representations of things.

Q: How do educators ensure that happens with computers?

KAY: They have to learn how to ask extremely hard questions about whether there’s any content there. A lot of technology is just what I call inverse vandalism, which is people making machinery just because they can. When educating, the first thing you need is ideas that you want to have the student learn. There has to be some resetting of what content actually is. If you have the ideas, you can do a lot without machinery. Once you have those ideas, the machinery starts working for you. Paradoxically, the most profound ideas I know about computers are easily done on an Apple II. Most ideas you can do pretty darn well with a stick in the sand.

What do you think? When ought we introduce web 2.0-type technologies to students? Comments welcome.


  1. Reply
    Graeme January 31, 2009

    As you know, I agree with you, but upon further reflection, I wonder if we can’t have it both ways :)What if we introduced Web 1.0 at an early age with extremely specific goals in mind. Instead of giving a Grade 3 student a book on Ducks, what if we gave them one webpage, and then, like a book, showed them how to get some information from it. Moving up the spectrum, what if we gave a Grade 6 student a blog to read each day instead of the traditional “read the newspaper and report” assignment? We chose the content, but it’s Web 2.0 lite.I agree that true 2.0 shouldn’t be implemented until Grade 10/11, in that students are not able (nor should they loose the ability to) read for content and analyze information.The catch? We don’t control their every movement, and they will be using the internet “incorrectly” on their own, teaching themselves bad habits. But if we set up a system from K-10 where the only access to the internet they have at school is directed by the teacher, in larger bits as they move up, I think we will have more success than we do now with “Go look on the internet to find information”.

  2. Reply
    Kristina Dimini February 2, 2009

    I think you have some very valid points, but I also think it is important to teach students to use technology around them to their fullest potential at a young age, rather than waiting until later high school. I think if we were to hold out on teaching our students how to use technology to access information and to help foster their critical thinking ability we would be doing them an injustice. Students today learn differently then they did in the 1950’s. Why not foster this learning to its fullest potential and teach them how to use technology to enhance their learning.While doing this we need to have guidelines in place and make their learning authentic. I think in introducing Web 2.0 at a young age we can help our students become critical thinkers when they are using technology. They need to know how, why, and when to use technology to enhance their learning and to be critical thinkers in the information they find.

  3. Reply
    Chris Corrigan February 2, 2009

    I think we can have it both ways. Or maybe there is no dichotomy at all. Let me offer this pure, off the cuff conjecture.Let’s remember that Web 2.0 is not about what kind of content you are reading, it is about what kind of content you are producing. Web 1.0 was content produced by others. Web 2.0 is content produced by us.In that sense, it seems to me that the critical skills for Web 1.0 are reading, judgement, curiosity and critical thinking. Foundational skills for 2.0 are things like writing, presenting information (including by using graphics, sound, video, shape, design and words), collaboration skills, gifting, ethics, and self-expression.I was working with some orthodox Jewish educators last month and we were talking about the Jewish perspective on web 2.0. One principal of a Jewish high school in Los Angeles counsels his students to remember that what they write on the web will be there forever. It will bring into being a world that they may not want visited upon you in 10 or 20 years. So he teaches about web 2.0 is about the power of the word, about the ethics of speech, the power of creation and of course in Jewish tradition this is a high form of ethical and spiritual inquiry and teaching.Seems to me that we don’t need to train for the web specifically, as if it is some kind of holy grail of reading or writing. Rather, the web is a place where you can apply these skills in unique and particular ways, no less so than with traditional media. As kids acquire these skills they make more and more use of the web – both the pre-existing content and the potential for creating new content. The web as technology unfolds them – as Heidegger would say – perhaps in a way unavailable to those of us who grew up before email. We don’t need to train for it specifically so much as we need to use it to as a way to unfold ourselves into the world.

  4. Reply
    Gary Hewitt February 3, 2009

    Interesting viewpoints from all.I agree with much that has been said. Very valid points, especially surrounding the critical thinking issue. I think we need to be aware of what is happening outside our schools though, to answer the question of whether web 2.0 needs introducing earlier vs later. The students who have not yet become critical thinkers are still using the web outside our supervision, so they are making connections without our assistance or guidance anyway. They are leaving us behind so to speak. I feel we are compelled to introduce web 2.0 tools in the younger grades so as to have some sort of educated guidance over the usage of these tools. For us parents out there, how many times have you been scolded by your 5 to 9 year old child because you threw something out that should have been recycled? How do they know what should and shouldn’t be recycled? Education they learned at school and have taken home with them to use when necessary. Using technology at home can be a very similar experience. Learn it at school and use it at home. I don’t see how we can look at it any other way.

  5. Reply
    Chris Corrigan February 6, 2009

    Gary…isn’t it truer that kids who own computers and mobiles are learning the technology at home and using it in school? I’m willing to bet that in any given elementary class, the students could come up with more educational applications of what they already know how to do than the teacher…friendly bet!In all seriousness though I talked to Brad about one way to teach Web 2.0 skills without using computers. What if, for example, we tested kids on collaboration? What if a class of 30 kids was given an exam one day but instead of every student getting a test pape,r there would only be six paper sin the whole rool. The class would need to divide into groups of five and complete the exam together. The Pass mark would be 95% and they would be allowed to talk to each other, steal ideas, look in books, phone a friend, whatever. Each team of five would be responsible for the overall quality of their own answers, so they would also have to make quality decisions. If there were several long form questions, essays and the like, they could divide the work up, or have a couple of kids draw up an outline and bring it to the group for polishing.It’s not just about critical reading or accurate writing…it’s about providing real opportunities to practice collaborating and noticing that when you work together, you get a better result than if you work on your own.

  6. Reply
    Chris Corrigan » Teaching Web 2.0 skills without technology February 6, 2009

    […] I was thinking the other day about how to teach kids in school Web 2.0 skills, prompted by my friend Brad Ovenell-Carter’s blog post on figuring out how young is too young, […]

  7. Reply
    Chris Corrigan February 6, 2009

    Clearly, by the way, it isn’t about good writing, or I would have proofread that comment!

  8. Reply
    Brad Ovenell-Carter February 6, 2009

    Gary, Chris,At the end of last term, I tried Chris’ suggestion (thanks Chris): I had my Grade 8 students work in two groups to write an essay. I’ve just moved to a new laptop and don’t have my notes on the experiment handy, but I’ll pass them on when I get a chance.But I will say that the students were highly motivated and, in particular, two students who usually hang back in class were much more active.Interestingly, although the groups knew they could talk to each other, steal ideas, make phone calls and so on, they initially made little advantage of the opportunity. My hunch is that years of working in a highly competitive structure with an evaluation system that works like commodities trading (students trade products such as essays, poster-boards, tests for grades, with high grades being rare and precious) made them guard their work jealously. The students within each group learned to collaborate reasonably well, although their work patterns still look more like those on a shop floor with a foreman delegating responsibilities than real collaboration. But the two groups never talked to each other, not even when prompted.Chris’ tool is a good one. It certainly illuminates students attitudes towards and skills at working collaboratively which in turn has generated new teaching for me. And it does it without any Web 2.0 technology. I have a feeling that if I carried on teaching collaborative knowledge building this way from K-10 or so, then introduced the “Write” part of Read-Write Web, the kids would not be out anything, not in terms of their ability to work together to make useful content anyway.Thanks for the discussion!

  9. Reply
    Chris Corrigan February 6, 2009

    Cool Brad…I didn’t know you had run the experiment.It is useful, as a thought experiment if nothing else just to graps the magnitude of the challenge of teaching Web 2.0 skills – the real collaboration and co-creation skills – in a context that privilages individual acheivement and protecting knowledge and learning as competitive secrets.This is the essence of the shift from being a media consumer to being a media participator.

  10. Reply
    Jim October 6, 2010

    I was wondering if Gary Hewitt, (who left a comment on February 3, 2009 at 8:33) would be a teacher that lived in Hugheden Rd, High Wycombe, England at one time? If so i just like to say hello. JIM

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