INVITATION TO IMMERSION

Recently a friend -and a very good teacher- distributed an article by self confessed neo-Luddite, Theodore Roszak (Roszak, 1996), to the staff at School. Only two people (I was one of them) among a staff of 80 made any comment at all. This may indicate something about the willingness of Schools to discuss fundamental questions about computers and the curriculum. The neo-Luddite objections are not trivial; Roszak has a point, with respect to how nearly all Schools use computers.

The neo-Luddite Critique

  1. Rip off
  2. Bill Gates and co. are exploiting us with expensive products that rapidly become obsolete. The main thing kids learn from computers is how to use computers, and that will be obsolete within two years. The computer is an expensive way to spend a long time getting ready to do anything. The World Wide Web is primarily an advertising medium; there is no quality control on the Internet like you would find in a decent library.

  3. Not creative
  4. Computers may be good at word and number crunching, retrieval of trivial data or objective right /wrong questions but is this quality learning? When it comes to appreciation of literature, history, creative writing or art then computer software is not in the race. Education does not equal information. Ideas, values, taste and judgement are more important than information. The place you will find these things is in other human minds, not computers.

  5. Games are not Learning
  6. Playing computer games is different from learning. Games are fun and have their place but learning is different, often related to long intervals of dogged attention, persistent questioning, strong doubts, memorising things, looking things up, being bored and overcoming frustration. Moreover, CD-ROM multimedia and hypertext fragment the attention span and encourages kids to skim information without understanding.

I wouldn't want to say that the Luddites have got it wrong with regard to computers and Schools. Far from it. Bill Gates does rip us off and computers are usually not used for creative activities in School.

The point about games and fun (often frowned upon by School) is more complex. Officially Schools don't approve of non Educational games, but what is the reality? Schools counterpose logical, productive metaphors to the neo-Luddite metaphors of rip off, toys for the boys and info-glut. If we go on a School tour we see computers being used productively. Word processing and desktop publishing is better than type writing. Spreadsheets are superior to calculators. But the games are always there and the kids find them more interesting and exciting than the official software. So, kids queue up at lunch if they can find a teacher who lets them play games. Kids load games while the teachers back is turned.

Nevertheless, I do see computers as part of the solution and not part of the problem. Roszak's article is really a critique of the dominant computing culture, not of computers as such or what they could be doing. Schools have never been renowned for their creativity, so why blame the computer? Well, then, who should we blame? That's fairly easy, I'll blame the government!

The Government Model

Bob Hawke once informed us that there would be no more child poverty by the year 2000. More recently Dr. Kemp has suggested that national standardised testing will help ensure that there will be no illiterate eight year olds by the year 2001.

Dr. Kemp is wrong because his model is wrong. Standards do not achieve standards. I have been astonished and enlightened by the claims of two prominent home-schoolers (Gatto, 1992 and Holt, 1989) that functional literacy can be achieved in 100 hours, less than four School weeks. The secret? Wait until the child is ready and then move fast. It just might be that the home schoolers have got it right while those who want to label 6 year olds and put them in remedial class have got it all wrong.

The Teacher Unions like to say it's mainly a problem of cutbacks and excessive workload. That is an important issue but I don't think its central. The Government says its a problem of measuring outcomes, setting clear standards and making sure that teachers are accountable. In my view this governmental model of Education is the main problem.

Increasingly the government is obsessed with two things about Education-- power over teachers and measurement of teacher performance. It is highly likely that these imposed values will filter down into classroom social relations between teachers and students. Well, what is wrong with the government education model:-

In the government model, the curriculum is a logical body of knowledge arranged in hierarchical order. The computer is a fast and tireless logical machine. From this perspective the computer and the curriculum are the Perfect Match. But, is learning the same as logic? I think not.

Who speaks for learning?

Successful learning invariably occurs when a child is immersed into a healthy learning environment from a young age. What are the blocks? Well, clearly many families do not create healthy learning environments at home. Few disagree with this.

I also believe that many Schools do not create healthy learning environments either. This idea may be more controversial but it boils down to the government obsession with power and measurement, which filters down through the hierarchy to teachers and then to students. It's really quite simple. When people are made powerless, when they are given little or no say over what, how, when or why they should learn something and then threatened with measurement of their performance, real or deep learning does not occur. What are the alternatives?

Developmental theorists who have studied how children's minds evolve (Papert, 1993) or who are attempting to grow artificial minds (Emergent artificial intelligence theorists like Minsky, 1988) or who have studied how biological evolution works (Eldredge, 1996) are among those who speak for learning. In these models new things emerge spontaneously from favourable environments. There is no central plan, outcomes are often unpredictable and measurement is irrelevant. In what follows I attempt to outline some of the principles of constructionist learning that emerge from these models and how they can be applied to learning with computers.

Computers are such great tools that even neo-Luddites use them to redraft their critiques of computer cultures. While School and neo-Luddites continue to conceptualise the computer as a logical machine then the computer and the curriculum will continue to evolve in harmony, but at the expense of learning.

It is more forward thinking to use non-logical metaphors of the computer. One of my favourites is the rorschach. Different people will use the computer in their own way, to explore their own interests. Another favourite is the mirror. Every now and again you catch a glimpse of yourself in the computer, especially if you are using it creatively.(Turkle, 1996)

Non logical metaphors of the computer create a tension between the computer and the curriculum whereby the computer becomes the medium that carries the quality and the curriculum becomes the technical instrument. The computers becomes an evocative, flexible medium that invites immersion. Computer games are addictive and fun (as the neo-Luddites point out). It needs to be added, however, that some of the best computing software is an invitation to immerse yourself into a microworld where significant learning is likely to occur, provided you have a teacher who understands how the software is meant to be used. Counterposed to the neo-Luddite critique of mindless play is the constructionist idea of hard play.

Play is OK. We should take a hint from children who learn more by play before they get to school than they learn at school. Play is the enemy of the government model of power and measurement. Play laughs at power and defies measurement. Play is a favourite of bored or rebellious students. But what is the Educational utility of play? Difficult question but a real problem for School at the moment is that its environment makes it virtually impossible to even seriously pose that question.

The emotional precedes the cognitive. Many kids say they dislike school and dislike many of their teachers. How can real learning occur for these kids in these classes? Perhaps personal appropriation, making something your own, is the single most crucial point of successful learning. Deep learning will not occur unless there is that feeling of intimate engagement or falling in love with the subject. Real knowledge is personal knowledge. Any learning regime that neglects the motivational aspect will end in disappointment.

Our knowledge is like our relationships with other people, full of subtle nuances and never ending contradictions. We learn new things by becoming good at making connections and discerning healthy relationships. This is a much healthier way of looking at knowledge than the hierarchical checklists suggested by centralised curriculum like Statements and Profiles.

Trust your intuition. Frankly, logic is over-rated. Logic doesn't give us insights in the first place. It just lets us formalise and rationalise our thoughts after the event.

Take risks! This goes beyond the passive truisms, 'that we all make mistakes' and that 'mistakes are a natural part of learning.' Everyone agrees with these truisms in a disconnected theoretical sense separated from real life situations where we have to admit that we were wrong. How many teachers actually say to their students, 'I was wrong' or 'I don't know'.

'Take risks' encompasses more of the spirit that it is good to make lots of mistakes and make them quickly as part of getting on with learning. The faster we fail the better it is because then we will get onto something worthwhile quicker. Risk taking is an active virtue.

Can you imagine an Education System adopting a policy of fast failure? How would that fit with a model of Standards and Accountability which engenders low risk activity?

Take your time. I am now convinced that learning how to learn techniques that advocate heuristics such as concept mapping, Gowin's knowledge Vee (Novak and Gowin, 1984) or mind mapping mainly work because the process of using the heuristic means the learner spends more time with the problem. A common reaction of students to failure, boredom or disempowerment is to use an endless variety of techniques to spend less time on the task. It follows that anything that bores or disempowers students is bad for their learning. At School (particularly Secondary) we teach kids that specific subjects should be studied for fixed time intervals at certain times of the day and then suddenly stopped, when the bell rings.

A good discussion promotes learning. Good plants won't grow in poor soil. A rich soil for intellectual growth can only come about through active discussion, negotiation, argument and exploration.

The Environment

The environment determines what works, what prospers, what survives, what becomes endangered and what becomes extinct. As well as constructionist ideas an alternative model of education requires an organisational envelope, so that it can remain isolated and not become assimilated into the government model. Could an alternative model of education be developed in a single place? The more I think about this idea the more it makes sense. All successful innovations start in a single place. A big problem with the government model is that it is global, it is grandiose. It makes a single site look small and insignificant.

Invitation to Immersion

I believe that the neo-Luddites are wrong but at the same time any path is only a path. You can try it out as many times as you like. If your heart tells you to go down that path then do it. Quality learning can be achieved with computers using constructionist software and aware teachers. Computer based constructionism (ie. programming) is just an invitation to immersion. No one should be forced into it but everyone should receive an invitation to quality use of computers. Very few do.

REFERENCES

Eldredge, Niles (1996). Reinventing Darwin: The Great Evolutionary Debate. London: Phoenix

Gatto, John Taylor (1992). Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.

Holt, John (1989). Learning all the Time. Derbyshire: Education Now Publishing Co-operative in association with Lighthouse Books.

Minsky, Marvin (1988). The Society of Mind. London: Picador.

Novak, Joseph and Gowin, Bob (1984). Learning how to Learn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Papert, Seymour (1993). The Childrens Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. New York: Basic Books.

Roszak, Theodore (1996). Dumbing us Down. New Internationalist, Dec. 1996, 12-14

Turkle, Sherry (1996). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Bill Kerr, email: billkerr at gmail.com
Teacher,
Woodville High School,
South Australia

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