Education in the Digital Age (1998)

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broadcasting to you digitally from the campus at Cal Poly Pomona this is media
vision wireless cable and the internet
500 years ago nobody's education included the bassoon because it hadn't
been invented yet as new technologies developed education changes how will
today's new technologies affect tomorrows education
we've been fooled for a hundred thousand years in to believing that our
perceptions are correctly revealing what
it was going on in the world it's only been a few hundred years ago that people
started waking up and realizing that by being more careful more probing giving
up the idea of absolute truth that all of a sudden there's a whole nother world
revealed and it's a world that's a lot more reliable and gives us much more
power than the world within two hundred thousand years back when a computer was
a room full of equipment attended only by the e left Alan Kay envisioned a
portable personal computer and directed a group of researchers that developed
the features we now see on laptops all around us he invented the overlapping
windows interface and modern object-oriented programming since
October 1996 Alan has been affiliated with walt disney company as a disney
fellow and vice president of research and development
I had the great good luck of learning how to read fairly fluently before I
went to school and so when I showed up at age five in first grade I'd already
I'd already read
you know probably a couple hundred books and most of them were children's books
but I also started delving around into my grandfather's library and so my rec
one of my recollections from first grade is the teacher saying something and I
would raise my hand and say what I read something different in book X Y or Z and
was you know basically shut up kid because they at some point now of course
I didn't have the concept of a party line so by the by second grade and of
course I mean while I was still reading I was reading I'm probably at least a book a day and so it's some at some but
I was very unhappy of course because I wasn't enough of a loner
pretty much of a longer but not enough of a loner to actually just say the hell
with it and so there's this uneasy balance going off all the way through
but I basically even though I wasn't
happy I realized it was entirely possible if a guy didn't even use the
word education but in fact there were the my grandfather had five or six
thousand books he was an author and there they were and my father was a
scientist my mother was a was an artist in a musician
and so the setup at home was perfectly
reasonable for a kid of six or seven years old and so again I had this
possibility of getting fairly deeply
sensitized to this stuff and I started singing and also the although the school
I was in was not a very good one they had a very interesting way of dealing
with music which is that they only had 200 kids in the high school and by
tradition they had a full band in an orchestra in this little town in
Massachusetts in order for that to be true almost every child had to grow up
being able to play a musical instrument reasonably and so they simply taught
music there as though it was anything else like it anything else there was an
hour a day devoted to it forever from first grade on and it was done kind of
in an old style where they taught the kids solfege the syllables Doremi Faso
latido and I can remember I have a vivid image from the first grade classroom of
the teacher having all the syllables on board not just the seven in the scale
that the ones for the chromatic notes and she would point with her ruler to
one of them and last would have to sing that note and she pointed to her with a
ruler to another random one and you'd have to sing that interval you know so basically in the first year they taught
us to sing all of the intervals and the
keys of C F and G to map the notes in
this in the score into the intervals and meanwhile all the way through I had bad
experiences in school until I got into graduate school which was the first mill
year since kindergarten that seemed reasonable I feel like you do what you wanted to do and there are plenty of
really smart people around that you could talk to and see how smart people
ten years older than you did things and all the things you really need and so
when I met Seymour Papert in 68 almost
30 years ago now and saw that he was
trying to not teach kids to program per se but to
try to teach kids to think more powerfully and particularly to be able
to think powerfully about powerful ideas the ideas that are really hard to learn
and that there are some things about the computer that could make that more
possible for things like mathematics in the large and science and the large that
just completely blew my mind
the experience this said oh yeah this is what we want to do this thing is going
to be like the printing press and literacy is fluency it isn't just being
able to read the words off a pill bottle and fluency is best gained by children
and you know the heck with the adults let's really try and infant media as
opposed to technology Thomas Hobbes political essays were in the mid-1600s
so that's 200 years after the invention of the printing press and that the
printing press in one sense was wasting itself for decades and decades and
decades because they didn't know what the new thing should be there are still just using it to automate the old and of
course we could see that was happening in the 60s of the computer people were
trying to do accounting on the darn thing people were trying starting to trying to imitate paper and in fact most
of the use of a computer today is simply imitating paper rather than doing what
it's really good for and see more heads started honing it homing in on gee what
is the computer really good for in Douglas Engelbart guy invented the mouse was homing in on what is the computer
really good for and one of the answers are this is a new way of augmenting
human intellect and what's new about it
are the things that only the computer can do so that absolutely sees my imagination
to this very day that our basic job is to try and speed up the normal normal
Darwinian evolution of people fumbling around with something new trying to
figure out what it was why do I keep on
fooling around with technology is I think it it has to do with not what it
is but how you can use it to evoke and I
think of it very much as the technology of musical instruments which the music
is not in the piano for where we'd have to let it boat so it's in the person the
person has to make it and piano can amplify it and often the piano kills it
piano has a whole thing about itself that relieves some of the necessity for
listening to the pitch of notes and it has a very mechanical aspect about in
fact you can play it with a rake you can learn to play it like like you are a
rake so the trick about the computer is the
same way they it's its music is not incited it's a it's an amplify it's a
special kind of container and like the
the bow and arrow in the art the zen and the art of archery it has enough things
interesting about it enough of things interesting that it does that you can
use it as a vehicle for for waking up or enlightenment and the special thing the
computer has is its kind of a language machine so it's intimately connected i
would do like way more like us than any
language machine I mean a book is language machine too but the computer is
a dynamic language machine I would like
to live in clearing and bone because it's phone so it's more like us than any
artifact that we've ever made and we can learn more about what we can do with
language and what we can't do with language we can get to true math real
math at an earlier age than we ever could before because of the computer and
we can understand the difference between mathematics and science in a more
profound way at an earlier age than we ever can before so math.max is kind of
an extended form of story telling the stories it tells are perfectly
consistent stories when you're doing it right but they need they're not about anything that's out there they're only
about itself and this is something most people don't realize because they tend
to confuse the things that they say in language with the things that might be
out there and the computer actually makes this clear in a very strong way I
think in a stronger way then is readily apparent in English or in classical
mathematics and it also allows us to
take things that we're wondering about and put them into a dynamic language and
be able to probe our wonderings from a number of points of view in a way that's
never been possible before so I think all of those things about the computer are incredibly profound and important
when looked at in the the travails of
humanity at large
so one of the questions that we asked back in the 60s is can't the internet be
as subversive to humanity as the printing press was and back then we were
we had a simple-minded model of what the printing press had done for instance I
didn't know that only ten percent of Americans in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries were really educated back then I didn't know the
printing press had basically gone from having one educated person in 100 in the
year 1400 to having maybe 20 educated
people in 100 now after four or five hundred years and the power of being
able to read was in the power of science for instance there less than one percent
of our entire population in the US or scientists and engineers and it's from
them we get all of the technology and all the new ideas and stuff and it's so
powerful and the technology to make it
and spread it it's so powerful that one less than one percent of the population could sustain the illusion that we are a
scientific society right our artifacts are everywhere but most people as Neil
postman said once they have to take more things on faith now in the 20th century
than they did in the Middle Ages right because there's more knowledge that most
people have to believe in dogmatically or be confused about but in fact the
number of people actually understand this new knowledge is is maybe five or
ten percent of the population so when
that way of looking at it says the printing press was incredibly successful changing society but it wasn't
incredibly successful at changing humanity right I think the Internet has
the same problem actually good good
anecdote here is Al Gore I had a number
of dinners at his house in Washington where he invited people in who are
concerned about education and the particular dinner I was at and my wife
and i were there and Arno Penzias there's a Nobel Prize winner who ran
bell labs for a while Neil postman was at this particular one and the
discussion was broken up into dinner tables and of about eight or nine people
apiece and one of the things that they did at the end was they have everybody
vote on what the most interesting I thing that was said during this thing I
wasn't at the table were but my wife was at the table with Al Gore and apparently
she got into an argument with him because he was talking he's a great eye but he was talking about kind of a
politician's concern for universal access to the Internet Toby haves and
have-nots and she said look most of the stuff that's worthwhile knowing is still
in books and those books are in free public libraries that was the legacy of
Andrew Carnegie and the real haves and have-nots are the people who have or
have not the discernment to go in and use those libraries the biggest problem
is that there already is a universal access to the most important knowledge
of our civilization and most people aren't using it and I believe that's the
basic problem of the Internet is that it
has those it has those properties that
the library has and it has them a hundred fold and that can be in people's
houses and everything else but there's there's a discernment problem which is a
value problem the values at some point
the kids have to value stuff that's hard it's like tough love right Seymour
Papert calls power learning powerful
ideas tough fun it's like we're going to
hit a baseball or shooting a basket or playing a musical instrument it just isn't easy and part of the joy of it is
what you have to become in order to learn something that's not easy and it's
the value system for that just so easy to find out what Michael Jackson does
buy a television it's so easy to find out what Michael Jordan does buy a
television but buy a television you cannot find out what Michael Faraday did
because a scientist just doesn't do anything interesting when they're doing
their thing there's nothing visually interesting about it or when they're
talking about their thing that's why I'm sitting in all of having all of these different places to have some sort of
visual interest which is what television is interested in but in fact the the
biggest shortfall is that there's nothing strongly in the environment of
most kids that gives them any sense of what the range of adult activities
really is this is why McLuhan really thought that there there would be a
global village because of television electronical media and I for one do not
want a global village I want a global civilization I know not want to
recapitulate a global village culture
traditional village culture back on in
the world here I think it just has almost everything that I think is wrong
with the way humans think about things what's it but that's basically what is
happening and the Internet allows an incredible balkanization as well to
people who are there and the the whole the whole difficulty of in premise and
promise of school was that school was supposed to bridge the gap between a
village culture and a civilized culture I think being a benevolent despot is a
hard way to reorganize the environment so that learning is a main thing because
you there's already a lot of state and beliefs and institutions in plus but you
could imagine an omnipotent God could actually by Fiat arrange something there
and without changing the human nervous system at all and I think what what that
guy would do is simply create take all
the adults that now exist and get them to be enlightened
and they learned it it knowledgeable and then let kids grow up in a village
culture as they have for a hundred thousand years watching what the adults
do that's weds are set up to learn
schools were partly invented after the
printing press because there are hard things that now needed to be learned
that weren't in this natural way of learning and in some some of the better
schools like Montessori schools were set up to recapitulate a village culture but
with special artifacts and ideas in it and so if you didn't want to change the
human genetic structure what you need to do is to find some way of getting enough
adults in a community structure to know
enough so that the kids could learn most of their really important ideas and
particularly what their common sense is going to be like from those from those
adults I think school for most kids is way too artificial I think that it just
even in the smallest sense of that the
the adults to kid ratio or the what you
might call the the student to the teacher ratio is way off now we have a
friend by the name of Betty Edwards who teaches people to draw really well after
30 or 40 hours and we've seen her do it
many many times and it's basically
teaching people how to see she's not trying to teach them art just trying to
teach them the skill of seeing what is actually in their retina so they can
actually draw it down on on paper and
over 25 years she's evolved a very beautiful method for doing it that can
be done in a week and she basically will
guarantee success if you let her have a student-teacher ratio no worse than one
teacher for every seven students and she says it's it's basically it's
not so much for imparting knowledge it's that when you're doing something like
this you do not want to let any student stray too far you want to sort of keep
them orbiting around where the where the real stuff is happening when they're in
this place where they don't have automatic reflexes and skills to do
things and I think that's one of the best things about learning in a home one
of the worst things about learning in a school but i think if i were a
benevolent despot and we're trying to to make something happen i think it'd be
very difficult because what you're really asking you're either doing
something incredibly artificial like the Victorians did in the 19th century to
create Britain's to run the British Empire where you simply took the kids
away from their parents or you did what the Catholic Church didn't in the Middle
Ages which is the same thing from every village they took the children away from
the parents this is Plato's method in the Republic is to use education as a
sorting system take the best ones away from their parents and raise them in an
artificial environment and that is one way recapitulating a culture that is
artificial that you want to have happen so it's a kind of a tough way of doing
and it can be done by drakonian measures
but I think in the democracy what we have today that would be a tough one
even for a benevolent despot to do i
think the death spot having evil in order to make it work and i think the
end result of it as the Victorian culture would lack a really important
element of art they became the best art credit in the
world but their ability to produce great art suffered incredibly because of their
educational system I I think we would not that's really throwing out the baby
with the bathwater so I think that's a that's a toughy and I don't think
anybody has really great solutions I remember I guess five or ten years ago I
was in the UK at a dinner party talking about education is one of these typical
ones in the woman across from me at some point said oh you Americans have the
best high school education in the world I I looked down and said what and she
said what a pity you have to go to college to get it and there was a very
British way of you know twitting the cousins across the pond but she was
basically right that if you look at what people had to mass if you even look at
mcgaughys reader which has been reprinted now it's it's absolutely worth
paying whatever it is 75 bucks to get it's a bound set of the six volumes of
mcgaughys reader and to look at what sixth graders were expected to read is
beyond installing because most college
students couldn't read what sixth graders were expected to be able to be
fluent enough to read and so I think what and this happened also in the US
when the baby boom came to college immediately they need to be many more
professors if there wasn't a plan for it and so the academic standards went down
so if you look at that standpoint the some of the best schools that I've seen
in this country what you've solved all
the problems people are wearing about nonetheless are the worst possible
schools to send kids in the 20th century to because they are simply not getting
any whiff of the 20th century ways of
thinking about things and doing things in their most formative years their
common sense is that same old common sense that is going to lead them
completely astray when they go any distance from these sort of ritualize
cookbook methods that they're basically taught and our human brain
is set up to like case based things is why engineering has been around for five
thousand years and science has only been around for 400 years and it's because
there are a lot of things you can do with the world by trial and error by
case based reasoning and having a recipe for this in a recipe for that and we
found that this works and that a lot of great things have been done that way but
there's a whole area of human existence that cannot be approached that way at
all most of the things in modern medicine cannot be approached that way at all most of the things in modern
technology cannot be approached that way at all you just can't do it do it's like
me learning to play the pipe organ now the fact that I wanted to do it was not
a big factor in what happened the
problem was I had to I only had an hour or so a day to do it and I basically had
to do it for five or eight years before
things started happening that we're pleasing right and just one of like I
say it was the hardest thing I've done partly because I just didn't have the
time I was already doing things out delts are already doing things teachers are already doing things so the idea of
learning something that is harder than learning another for you know another language in what adults normal life is
like is is basically unrealistic most of them simply won't be able to muster the
will power of the motivation to do it and that is what our biggest crisis is
and so the real question is now what is
the probability that you can get kids to learn by themselves probably the most
important thing they'll ever discover in their education is the world is not as it seems and from there there's lots of
things that it can do they don't have to learn nuclear physics or chemistry
because of course science in the terms i'm talking about is how can you
correlate the real world of things you can say in language that's that's 24
hours a day type stuff that has to do with politics it has to do with every
aspect of life it has to do with being married you know one of the famous
activities in history was when Galileo
took his telescope to Rome and the Cardinals with
look in it to see the moons of Jupiter because according to their beliefs there
could be no centre of motion besides that of the earth that's what Aristotle
said and Aristotle had been rationalized by Saint Thomas Aquinas and that was
part of their doctrine tied together in using logic and logic is kind of like
clockwork where there's anything wrong and if the whole clock doesn't work and
the Cardinals knew that if there really were centers of motion other than the
earth that this would bring this whole thing down which in fact it did however
the Catholic Church only acknowledged Galileo recently that's another
interesting one because the other way of doing it is this what cats do when they
don't know what to do which is to groom themselves so you have some displacement
activity which is get interested in something else when there's something
going on that you don't want to want to confront but I think I as I say I like
to use I like for me education and I
have to say it carefully because people most people think of science as learning physics and chemistry but when I say
education is about science I mean it in this sense of science as making the most
honest attempt we've ever been able to do in the hundreds of thousands of years
that humans have been on this earth to actually try and find out as much as
possible about what's actually going on render it as reasonably as we can in our
symbolic systems and then to act reasonably on top of it
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