Thursday, September 07, 2006

On the value of computers for primary education

Daniel Lemire commented on a previous post of mine, and I thought I had an elaboration that merited a post, rather than burial in a comments thread. I had written that computers could be useful as tools in primary school, but not as objects of study themselves. He suggested a parallelism with pencils, etc., and yes, those other things are tools, too. But, while those are necessary, I don't believe that computers are necessary tools. Potentially useful, yes, but kids can learn the same things without computers. Here's a quote by Alan Kay from "Revealing the Elephant: The Uses and Misuses of Computers in Education":

Suppose it were music the nation is concerned about. Our parents are worried that their children won't succeed in life unless they are musicians. Our musical test scores are the lowest in the world. After much hue and cry, Congress comes up with a technological solution: 'By the year 2000 we will put a piano in every classroom! But there are no funds to hire musicians, so we will retrain the existing teachers for two weeks every summer. That should solve the problem!' But we know that nothing much will happen here, because as any musician will tell you, the music is not in the piano!


  1. I don't think it is fair to compare pianos and computers in 2006.

    What fraction of the population makes a productive use of pianos in their daily lives? 1% maybe? Probably less than that.

    Computers? I'd be tempted to say everyone uses a computer and I don't think I'm far off. Even our maintenance staff at my school has to use computers these days (small hand helds).

    Computers in 2006 are like electricity in 1960. Maybe it is new, but it is still ubiquitous.

    I can easily make fun of the analogy:

    " The nation realizes that it has the worse percentage of electrification in the world. After much discussion, it is decided that all schools will be electrified in the next 5 years, and all teachers will be taught how to use a light switch. "

    How many teachers don't use a computer in their daily lives?

    Come on. 60 something teachers who can't put a DVD in a tray should be retiring anyhow. I don't know anyone under the age of 50 who can't use a computer in a semi-decent way.

    I'm not talking about programming... few people *should* ever have to program. I'm talking about opening the computer, typing a keyword in wikipedia and showing the result to the students as an answer to a question.

    Sure, studies will tell you that the use of computers in a the classroom does not help. Duh! The electrification of schools probably didn't help the students per se either. Should we go back to oil lamps in schools?

    And you know what? Whether you like computers in the hands of students or not, they'll have cell phones, gameboys or similar toys soon enough. And these things are computers!!! The average cell phone has a more powerful computer than what I had when I was 13 years old... (I owned a TRS-80 running Microsoft BASIC.)

    BTW there is no freaking need to train students in the use of computers, not anymore than you have to train them to use a pencil. Some training is required, but mostly, informal training will do just fine.

  2. Note that my daughters use computers, and as I said in my previous post, I consider the eMate to be a good fit for their needs. However, I'm going to disagree with you, again saying that computers are useful but not necessary (in the mathematical sense of the word). As it is, there's not enough time in the day to cover all of the things students need to learn. At the elementary school level, this often means that science is given short shrift, in favor of reading, writing, and mathematics. Remember, we're talking about elementary (primary) school here -- K-6 grades. By the time these students enter university, never mind the workforce, computer use will be totally different (at least, we should pray to God that it will be). Light switches have not changed significantly since the beginning of electrification, but the use of computers ten or twenty years from now might have no resemblance to the use of computers today (think back to how one used an IBM PC/AT or your old TRS-80 [I had a TI 99/4A, which probably tells you something about me]). I'm willing to accept that the skill of touch typing probably won't be completely obsolete by that time, but is learning touch typing worth sacrificing science? I'd rather that my daughters spend some time learning fundamental concepts such as evolution, and that schools spend their money decreasing class size.

    As far as programming is concerned, I actually believe that there is great value in learning mathematical concepts behind things like algorithms, that this could be included in the elementary school curriculum, and is necessary, at least before high school. But, as any theoretician will tell you, the mathematics isn't in the computer.

    Summary: Computers good, computers useful, computers not as important as language arts, math, science, or small classes.