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.