Technology for Learning (1995)

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my my father was a scientist and my mother was an artist and a musician so I
grew up working both sides of the street in fact I could never see any real
difference between the two so call sides of the seat the science side is actually
an art as any scientist will will tell you and it's the newest of the art maybe
the greatest of the art forms of the of the 20th century
now I my awesome task here I was going to say I'm the only thing that stands
between you and lunch but it's actually more dire than that I'm the only thing
that stands between you and the bathroom
so if you start fidgeting I'll realize I
should speed up and get to my final point now in a half hour talk I think
the best thing to do is to just bring up a few ideas to think about as the
introduction indicated I might sort of switched over from being a professional
musician to being a full-time computer is when through looking at the work of
Seymour Papert in the early six in the
60s 1968 or so I realized that what we
had here was not just a tool like a screwdriver but we had a medium we had
something like what the printing press was and it was going to have many
degrees of freedom and the tools were going to be made inside of it now the
tools on the printing press are things like comic books biblical tracts romance
novels political essays scientific papers in other words all the different
forms of rhetoric that have been formed to express things and we realized back
then that the destiny of the computer was going to be one of these things it
was going to be a 500-year invention only one you only get one of these every
five hundred years and that like the printing press that was going to completely redefine childhood and we
were just starting to suffer back then through another technology that was
starting to redefine childhood called television and I don't think television has
redefined childhood for the better I think the printing press did and so
the 60s ethic that we had back then is
let's make sure the computer doesn't turn out like television let's make sure it turns out with the content carrying
the argument carrying the range and depth for artistic expression that the
printing press gave us well the jury is
still out on that and will be out for another 25 or 30 years and this group is
part of that jury because there are lots of different ways of interpreting what a
computer is and can do one of the ways that educational institutions sometimes
sometimes look at it and parents often do as well is as something that is very
important for their children's prospects of getting a job later on something
every parent is very anxious about both for good reasons and also they make
perhaps would like to be assured that the kids will move out of the house and a decent interval and I call this the
driver's ed theory of the computer
everybody needs to learn how to drive particularly down here in Southern
California we all know that we have driver's ed programs for it it's about
getting from A to B that's what I call a to beam us a to beam us there's a
problem so we've worked out some solution to it we'll teach the kids how
to drive now nobody here I think would suggest that because the kids are going
to learn how to drive when they're 16 or so that we should strap them into motorized vehicles at age 6 but think
about it think of all of those extra years they would have learning how to
steer all of those things that we could do but we would say no that's ridiculous
we're going to completely stunt their
muscular growth that's a terrible technology for children it's one that
adults can use more reasonably because they can decide whether they're going to exercise or decide whether there
going to go in a car but if we just
strap the kids into that thing we are actually setting up a process that will
atrophy something that's very important about a child so I think all of us would
agree that if we were going to give a child to transportation technology we
want it to be more like a bicycle because the bicycle allows the child to
exercise flat out and it amplifies that right so I don't believe for especially
for early childhood education that there's any necessary connection between
the vocational aims later on and what we want to do with children in the early
grades what we really want to do with children in the early grades is get them
is help them build the Intuit Intuit intuitions the Intuit intuitive
foundation that they're going to need to learn in CRISPR form later on this
complicated century that are in and the even more complicated century to come so
this is a very complex issue because there's a lot of anxiety and in fact one
of the one of the most horrifying sites
to me having been doing this now for 25 years is happening today when you're
taken to a school to observe and you go into it and this the principal takes you
into this classroom where there are lots of computers on the desk and the kids
are happily working away and the teacher is happy and there's some parents observing they're happy the kids are
happy and you know what nothing is happening nothing important is happening it's just
like a bunch of illiterate sitting around being able to deal with a couple
of words in a book and it only seems like a good thing if you don't happen to
know what the real thing is that's just true in mathematics - it's my introducer
said I have a degree in mathematics and I can't think I can maybe think of one
classroom in 500 that I've been to in an elementary school in the last 25 years
in which I've seen actual mathematics happen what's really going on is
process called learning how to do the arithmetic of accounting and it happens
to be called math just like junk food as
label hamburgers now if you think of there being a dictionary police around
they would get after people who use old labels for things on stuff that's just
plain crap but in fact if you can get millions of people to accept that as the
standard and you do that by simply flooding the marketplace with both
advertising and exemplar of this stuff people adjust their norms accordingly
and so what is likely to happen with computers is that the easiest problem to
solve is putting a computer or 50 of them in every classroom it's just stuff and
there's nothing easier to make in the 20th century than stuff and the easiest
stuff to make in the 20th century happens to be made out of silicon and it's going to be easier and easier as we
go through years from now the accurate prediction of what was going to happen
to silicon was made in 1965 by Gordon Moore who then went on to found Intel
and that he has been off by less than 5% in those 30 years since then this is how
you guys got to the moon right it was right where Newton said it was going to be so to to me and this is not to
downgrade the space program because I'm a I'm a real have been a real not about
that my whole life but one of the one of the slides I like to show is a
comparison of the earth taken from space maybe even on your voyage with a globe
made in 1780 which is how people who
couldn't get out into space thought the earth might look and it looks exactly the same now which one is more
impressive think about it to know your universe without being able to take that
Olympian view is an incredible feat and
the thing that would have been surprising if they'd gotten out there and they'd found a surprise would have
been surprising if the moon weren't where it's supposed to be it would be surprising if the earth didn't look the
way we think it'd look like now think of what that means and it also would have
been various surprising if Silicon hadn't turned out the way Gordon Moore predicted it
because he was a physicist and he was using really good science to make that
prediction now in spite of that the personal computer has taken everybody by
surprise because nobody believed in IBM didn't believe it Dec didn't believe it
right but in spite of us it was something that is going to continue
again so don't even worry about getting the stuff into the school but consider
the following dilemma suppose and actually we could even imagine this
somewhat seriously here in Los Angeles where we have a lot of show biz suppose
the actual issue weren't computers but suppose it had to do with music suppose the parents we're getting really
anxious maybe because of watching too much MTV that children were not going to
succeed in life as musicians they start
beating on the state legislature and they start beating on the LA County School Board for years and years and
years about our children are not getting any training as musicians and finally the politicians say all right we've got
a solution we will put a piano in every classroom and unfortunately we don't
have enough money to get any musicians to deal with this but we'll do is we'll
take the existing teachers and give them two weeks of training in the summer
think about it every musician knows that
the music is not in the piano if we were we'd have to let it vote if there's
music and this is where the quote from Plato is the right one the music is a soft fire in every child and it's a fire
that has to be fanned and it's fan by doing music you don't need a piano or anything else you just need some people
around and have music happen we already have all the musical instruments we need
and we also have all the instruments we need for thinking and so a piano at its
best is a kind of an amplifier it's not the thing computer at its best is a kind
of an amplifier in amplifiers don't care
much what they amplify right you put bad
signals into them and you're going to get those bad signals back out in a huge
huge profusion now it's precisely what you're going to get and put the
amplifier like the computer in without having some sense of what it is inside
the children that you're going to try and light it not to light it up because
it's already lit that's one of the most marvelous things about six-year-olds is
that they already are terrific scientists they already are terrific
mathematicians they already are terrific computer ist's they're already terrific
artists they've got the whole nine yards I'd rather work with first graders than
any other age including adults they are just the greatest but they can't tell
you what you do with a computer this is
a fond myth that the children will show us with no way the children are great
mathematicians at age six but they can't tell you what you should be teaching
them so that they'll be great mathematicians at age 15 or great math
or break computers or great writers or any of those things what they've got is
the start of the whole thing and it's our job to try and figure out what this
thing is we have to figure out what it is we have to figure out what the what
the ethics are that are connected with it what it's what the appropriate is this is of connected with it so now
here's here's an interesting paradox and this has happened too many times over the past years is I've been invited to
give a talk about the hip about the future of Technology and when
I asked for AV equipment I was told sorry we can't do that now I always I
always give demonstrations I always have supporting media just as we would like
to have in our schools I can say that if
I had to think of a percentage I would say that college schools of Education
probably are the least equipped to deal with the talk on the technology of the
future right because and one of the ways of thinking about it because it was
perceived as it difficulty partly because of the light here you should
think that and realize that this technology is not here yet most of this
stuff is not really here yet there is still time to try and understand it and
to think about it appropriately in fact if you think about it for for a couple
of seconds about 95% of the deep content
that humans have come up with can be printed in the Los Angeles Times can be
printed on newsprint in cruddy old black-and-white and not terribly good
contrast ratio and the reason is is because most of the human content has
been encoded into symbolic forms that don't require a super high resolution in
order to get that rendering perfect right it's now great art you can say
well you can't put that in the Los Angeles Times but the truth is you can't put great art in a wonderful coffee
table book with high resolution color photographs and anybody thinks you can
has never seen the real thing you have to realize for stuff like that the best
you can do and the worst you can do are both ads they're advertisements for the real thing
right but the nice thing about all of the literature in the world and all of the science and the world and all of the
math and the world and all of the music in the world is that you can put it onto
something that is actually quite low tech and in fact the three most
important things you can ever learn through a computer can be done on an Apple - it can be done on a little Casio
or sharp wizard that you can put in your pocket buy it for 200 bucks the most
important things you can ever do now you can't imitate
all the things that paper can do on a sharp wizard and some of those things we
do want to do but we have to separate out the distinction just as we should
separate out the distinction in learning to read between actually reading and
understanding complex ideas now the state framework for English in the
language arts just my favorite framework a framework by the way that is not is a
perfect example of I think what happens when you have very talented people who
did an outstanding job formulating the ideas in that framework it is a model
you could use it for science you could use it for math it is fabulous it has
almost completely failed in the state of California over the last 10 or 12 years
I've been following it very closely now they had a wonderful idea based on
some of the ideas of Frank Smith who is a marvelous educator in Canada that the
core of any literature program is ideas powerful ideas the kinds of ideas and
issues that human beings need to think about and talk about and that is what you have to get into
the classroom before literature makes any sense why go to all that trouble
reading those long sentences if the they
aren't about something and so Frank Smith's idea is you should start off
with the ideas that's the teachers have
to be comfortable at dealing with ideas
that many of them which have no good answers and have to deal with the notion
that they're going to be arguing about these ideas with the kids and that's what they want and if there's a
supporting literature and there's a reading and writing process that supports that and I think that's a
wonderful model should be adopted for the computer and the number one thing
about it is that because we've had this stuff around for hundreds of years it
was easy for Frank Smith to say that the issue has to do with ideas now we don't
know what to say about computers what is
the issue with computers are they adding machines are they things
are designed to imitate other like being more erasable paper slightly better
calculators you know are they a philosophical form is there something
like the essay yet to come that's going to allow us to change our conceptions of
the way humans live together these are going to be a new kind of science fact
we know there is going to be a new kind of science based entirely on the
existence of the computer because it allows us to deal with models that don't
that can't be handled with ordinary mathematics there's a whole bunch of
stuff coming but to me the most important thing before we worry about
teaching the computer so much is that would make our first research project to
ask what is it and actually the the is
you know English is a tough language because it has hard nouns you've
whenever somebody says a noun you start looking around for the thing so a better
word is to say what isn't what is the computer isn't what science
isn't so civilization for instance is not a thing it's a process it's the
process of trying to be more civilized science is not a thing that's the process of trying to be more scientific
and thinking is the process of trying to think better there isn't a place on it
but there are thresholds that are that are very important so a cautionary tale
just to throw in here is at an educational technology that I'm
very fond of which is called the basic
organization of knowledge you may not have heard about this educational technology but it was invented a while
ago and it had some wonderful characteristics of a solid state self
powered super high resolution capacity
one to one hundred megabytes the cost is only about five to ten dollars per
megabyte many millions of different
titles available and it can hold the
highest thoughts that human beings have ever formulated does anybody guess what
that basic organize yeah the book the Bo okay
in case you've forgotten since I can't show slides I actually brought some
concrete okay here's a B oh okay and
here's one of my favorite ones Tom pains common sense this is a short
one it's only fifty pages long but consider the following this thing was
written in about seven weeks later
months of 1775 published in January 1776
we were already fighting the British and we weren't sure quite why except there
are some things about taxation without representation and so forth and this
book is an argument it's a 50-page argument about why monarchies might not
be the best way of organizing things remember this is complicated because monarchies came from God the king was
God's representative on earth and there were stained-glass windows that attested
to that now imagine trying to argue
against a monarchy as the representative of God using stained-glass windows have
to do it this way and what's astounding about this there are only 1.5 million colonists and
600,000 copies of this were made and
distributed in six months between
January and the Declaration of Independence almost every family in
America got a copy of this thing and a lot of them were able to follow the argument that defined what the Hulton
was about and the Declaration of Independence was a manifesto that
outlined just in no uncertain terms what the what the issues were this is the
context of it now imagine trying to do this today need a hundred and twenty
million copies of this not an inconsiderable feat not even TV Guide
has that many think about it and the
mass medium that we have today television cannot carry this argument
you cannot put Tom Payne's argue no matter what you do
it doesn't go into television because television is not about arguments
television is about showing you various kinds of things that personalities Carl
Sagan's Cosmos was not about science was about Carl Sagan but what was great
about it is that it got four million people to buy Carl Sagan's Bo okay and
that Bo okay without science science was
in there so television was until you could make a pretty good ad campaign to
get people to go out and buy this but even the Los Angeles Times would be
hard-pressed that's rotary presses to actually supply the discourse that built
this country and we have no other discourse to replace it the television
is not a replacement me now think about this now here's the other thing to think about is this thing is almost impossible
to read off of CRT you ever notice when
anything long happens on a CRT you printed out you ever wondered why we
found out 20 years ago at Xerox PARC I'm a really good reader and we designed the
best displays that money could buy back at Xerox PARC and I was astounded even
with all of the typography that we put in there that I couldn't read it nearly
as well as I read a book and it looked like it so he finally tracked people's
eyes who are reading the CRTs and we discovered that the better of the reader
you were the less easy it was to read off a CRT and the reason is is that in
everybody if you can do this without poking your neighbors is an interesting thing if you look straight ahead and
wiggle your hands out here go ahead this is California
so wiggle your hands outside your field of vision then gradually bring them in
at some point you'll see a flicker out to the side but you won't see what it is everybody notice that you can't see its
fingers okay now why did nature do that well the reason nature did it is that
all of the resolution in our I almost is concentrated in a little thing that's
smaller than a quarter and our eyes see by bounce around like this to compensate
for that nature built into our eyes that out in the periphery where we're almost
blind that our sensitivity to brightness
change would be a factor of a hundred more than it is straight on every pilot
was this one okay and so when there's a flicker out here what is your idea
because what is it looking for the saber-tooth Tiger right we don't have
eyes in the back of our head so why so every time you try and read something
extensive officee are your eyes are constantly looking for the saber-tooth Tiger around the periphery of the screen
because you can't see it blinking when you're looking straight ahead but your
peripheral vision can see it blinking you just have to realize this so people
who try and teach reading on a computer
that has a CRT are giving the kids
something that is anti what the process of reading is physiologically do you
suppose anybody cared to even test that out no it's been known for a long time
but nobody in education has ever I say at every talk just to give you a point
of view that there's always a Faustian bargain you make with technology right
if you walk up and there's a knife on the ground you've never seen one before you might pick it up by the blade
instead of the handle and that is what you're starting to do with computers if
you can't tell the blade from the handle on tool you should probably just let it
lay there until you find out what the blade and the handle is now fortunately
there is a solution which is flat panel displays don't blink and the reason we
thought of the this kind of this kind of
computer was thought of back in 1968 and it was partly thought of in the terms
not just to be portable like this but to have a display that
actually would match up with what our eyes and physiology can actually do
notice I got that out of the way and the reason is is if you step on one of those
it breaks whereas when you were a kid
did you ever hit a baseball with a book so it Utah 25 years ago I did shock
tests to see what the acceleration
imparted to a computer would be if you hit a baseball with it now it's about
750 G's right so we're ways from being
able to do all of the things that books have served us every culture has done
science if science is being interested
in how the world works every culture has done mathematics because every culture is interested in counting things right
so every culture computes in every culture but the problem is is that there are
thresholds and what you really need to be worried about is not whether the kids
have access to the stuff at whether their access is in a form that's above
threshold because if it isn't all you're gonna get is form and no content you'll
just get another thing to dumb the kids down just be another waiving it okay and
I think the perhaps the second one is in
league with the first point and that is that illiteracy is not nearly as
dangerous or non literate not nearly as dangerous as unlit er Asiya we have
maybe 30 million to 60 million depending on who's counting of people who don't
read at all in any functional way in the US and people worry about it
but the thing I worry about is the 200 plus million people who cannot follow
the argument in this book those are the non literate right I'm sorry those are
the unlit err 'it's so we have people who don't know anything about science
but the worst people we have might be a high school chemistry teacher who actually doesn't
understand how chemistry works right so that's unscientific and whenever we get
this we get this substitution that allows us to act as though we're doing
something important well I think a good way to close is a couple of weeks ago is
that vice president Gore's house for dinner with a bunch of other people
talking about the information superhighway talking about problems of
education very similar set of concerns that that you have here today and Al
Gore is very concerned about getting access for every child in America and it
sounds good it sounds like a good idea but my wife actually had a really wonderful argument
that she countered him within her argument went like this she said look
most of the important information in the world is already in free public
libraries accessible to all it's really
not on the internet yet and it isn't it's already there in books and the big
problem is who goes and makes use of it and who doesn't go and make use of it and she said the real haves and
have-nots now and in the future are going to be those who either have
discernment or have not discern mminton it's not a question of processing
information and there was a statement earlier that the the LA Times only
publishes 1% of the stuff it gets it would even be better I think if it published a quarter percent of what it
gets that is one of the most important functions for both educators and
institutions like the news why the newspaper will never go away although the paper form of it might
because the editorial function is what is important about any newspaper and the
editorial function is going to be 10 times as important when people start getting more things off the internet and
the editorial function is part of what
discernment meant now Thomas Jefferson said something very similar I was very
proud of my wife had it right on the nose he said
he knew of no safer repository for the
powers in a country than in the people and if the people's discretion was not
finely tuned enough then it was up to us to better inform their discretion thank
you [Applause]