Computers for Kids ... Not Schools
By Gary Stager, Educational Consultant, USA (1993)
A funny thing happened recently when I carried my Macintosh LC computer with four megabytes of RAM, forty megabyte hard drive, floppy superdrive, colour monitor, CD-ROM drive, extended keyboard, and mouse into the kindergarten class at Methodist Ladies' College. I held up the mouse and asked the class of twenty-five girls if they knew whether object was. only two gids actually knew what the device was called, but every girl used the mouse expertly when it was their turn to navigate the interactive story.
I only mentioned the technical specifications of the machine because that is often the practice in articles regarding computers in education. The spotlight is too often placed on the computer, rather than on education. Alan Kay, the man credited with the idea for mice and windows, has defined technology as" anything that wasn't there when you were born." Your television might seem mysterious to you if you were born before the 1950's, but it is not mysterious to children. The microcomputer is not technology to a school-aged child either.
The incident in the kindergarten class exposes the absurd way in which computers are viewed by educational policy makers. Schools sought to make computers, which are transparent in the world and the life of the child, and make them into a discipline - hard and worthy of study. Terms such as computer literacy, computer lab, computer coordinator, and courses in for nation technology have become commonplace in elementary and secondary schools. These ideas, at best, are rooted in the educational bureaucracy's deeply-held paranoia about only teaching what is testable and at worst is designed to create an artificial range of good computer users and bad computer users - kids who will earn an "A"" in "computing" and others who will earn an "F" in "computing." Neither case respects what students already know. It seems ridiculous to think that an eleventh grade student in an information technology class needs to be taught what a mouse is.
Since 1990, I have been fortunate enough to be associated with a school, Methodist Ladies' College (MLC), deeply committed to making the potential of computers personal and transparent throughout the learning environment for both teachers and learners. By January 1993, over 1,50O students and teachers at MLC will own their own notebook computers. l This fact not only challenges the status quo of computers in schools, but creates new and profound opportunities for the teaching staff at MLC. Schools often take computers so seriously (ie...hiring special computer teachers, scheduling times at which students may use a computer) that they trivialise their potential as personal objects to think with. Computers are ubiquitous and personal throughout society, just not schools.
The laptop initiative inspired by Liddy Nevile and the MLC Principal, David Loader, was never viewed as traditional educational research where neither success or failure mattered much. Rather, personal computing was part of the school's commitment to creating a nurturing Learning culture. Steps were taken to ensure that teachers were supported in their own learning by catering to a wide range of learning styles, experiences and interests.
Although educational change is considered to occur at a geologically slow pace, the MLC community (parents, teachers, students, administrators) has immersed itself in some areas of profound growth in just a few short years. The introduction of large numbers of personal computers has served as one catalyst for this "intellectual growth spurt." ...children and teachers
Teachers in many schools rightfully view the computer with suspicion as just one mandated fad or as a threat to their professionalism as large Orwellian teaching systems are unloaded on to the market place. The national average of students to computers in the United States is nineteen to one. The state of Florida recently announced that it will spend $17 million (US) this year rewire schools in order to make way for computers.2 $17 million could buy at least 20,000 students their own notebook computer. Schools routinely spend a fortune building fortresses, called computer labs, complete with special furniture.3
The personal computing experience at MLC has been different. Given the changes that have accompanied classroom computer use, this initiative would have been cheap at twice the price.
The act of asking every parent to purchase a notebook computer for their child4 was not nearly as courageous or challenging as the way in which MLC has chosen to use computers. The quaint idea of drilling discrete facts into kids' heads with computer-assisted instruction was dismissed and so was the metaphor of the "computer as tool." The popular tool metaphor is based on the business paradigm of increasing productivity and efficiency. I would argue that there is seldom an occasion in school when the goal needs to be increasing a student's efficiency or productivity.
MLC has chosen to guide its thinking about personal computing by the ideas of "constructionism" and by viewing the computer as "material." Constructionism is the idea of Jean Piaget and extended by Seymour Papert to mean that learning is active and occurs when an individual finds herself in a meaningful context for making connections between fragments of knowledge, the present situation, and past experiences. The person constructs her own knowledge by assembling personally significant mental models. Therefore you learn in a vibrant social context in which individuals have the opportunity to share ideas, collaborate, make things, and have meaningful experiences. After the first year of using laptops, the seventh and eighth grade humanities teachers asked f or history, English, geography, and religious education to be taught in an interdisciplinary three-period block This scheduling modification allowed students to engage in substantive projects.
The computer as material metaphor is based on the belief that children and teachers are naturally talented at making things. The computer should be seen as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression - an integral part of the learning process. In this context a gifted computer-using teacher is not one who can recite a reference manual, but one who can heat-up a body of content when it comes in contact with the interests and experiences of the child. This teacher recognises when it might be appropriate to involve the computer in the learning process and allows the student to mould this personal computer space into a personal expression of the subject matter.
Teachers at MLC were introduced to computers by being challenged to reflect on their own learning while solving problems of personal significance in the software environment, LogoWriter - the software the students would be using. I would argue that educational progress comes when a teacher is able to see how the particular innovation benefits a group of learners. These teachers come to respect the learning processes of their students by experiencing the same sort of challenges and joy. The teacher and learner in such a culture are often one-and-the-same.
LogoWriter is a popular software package that combines the power of the Logo programming language with word processing, graphics, animation, and music in one user-friendly environment. Five year olds and university professors experience the same playful enthusiasm towards problem solving and learning when working with LogoWriter. The learner is free to express himself in unlimited ways - not bound by the limits of the curriculum or artificial (school) boundaries between subject areas.
Students at MLC have used LogoWriter across the curriculum in numerous and varied ways. A student designing a hieroglyphic wordprocessor, a longitudinal rain data graph, Olympic games simulation must come in contact with many mathematical concepts including randomisers, decimals, percent, sequencing, cartesian coordinate geometry unctions, visual representations of data, linear measurement, and orientation, while focusing on a history topic. A sixth grade girl was free to explore the concept of orbiting planets by designing a visual race between the planets on the screen. Fantastic examples of student work abound.
Two particular projects by MLC students warrant attention because of the ways in which they challenge us to rethink the organisation of schools. Seventh grade students were assigned the task of designing a LogoWriter program to solve a linear equation, such as 3x + 4 = 16. While such a task is typically too advanced for twelve year old students, the girls at MLC have gained much mathematical experience through their computer use and are therefore capable of solving such problems. One girl went well beyond the assignment of solving the equation by not only writing a computer program to solve similar equations- she created an elaborate cartoon of a girl walking into her bedroom, complaining to her mother about her difficult math homework, and then a magical computer appeared and showed the user how to use the equation solving program. The student extended the typical dry algebra assignment with great joy by demonstrating her creative art and communications abilities. Another student's linear equation solving program included the playing of a complete Mozart sonata. Every note of the sonata had to be programmed in away the computer understands. The mathematical experiences of both students were greatly enhanced because their computing environment allowed them to express their mathematical knowledge in their own voice. There is great hope for schools when a student ' s interests and experiences are encouraged to converge with the teacher's curriculum.
The last example I wish to share illuminates how teachers have been forced to reflect on their role in the learning process and take action based on observations of students learning in the computer-rich environment. The French teacher at MLC was provided with a French language version of LogoWriter. It was originally thought that their students might find it interesting to "speak" to the computer in another language. one French teacher was intrigued by the idea, but did not know anything about LogoWriter. She felt comfortable asking a math teacher for help -This type of professional collaboration is now commonplace at MLC. The math department some eighth grade girls the opportunity to do their math assignments, not only on the computer, but in French. Students in several classes were intrigued by the challenge. A math teacher asked his colleague how to say a few phrases in French so that he could leave comments in French on his students' projects. This teacher's demonstrable respect for his student's work and colleague' s subject area is exceptional by contemporary standards.
A few weeks passed before the French teacher visited the math class. The teacher was notably pleased to observe the students learning mathematics, computer programming, and French, but was ecstatic to find that the girls spontaneously speaking French. This veteran teacher later reported that she had never witnessed students of this age actually speaking French outside of a French class lesson. In the LogoWriter environment language is active - the computer does something if you combine words in the right or wrong way and you receive immediate feedback.
This experience has caused a small group of teachers from a variety of disciplines to propose that the school allow them to create a French immersion class in the junior secondary school. Teachers who have not used much French since university are so excited by the learning of their students that they are willing to practice the language along-side the students they are teaching. This sort of professional risk-taking is more common in constructionist environments than in traditional school settings. Risk-taking is an essential element of self-esteem and a critical characteristic of great teachers.
Policy makers must choose between two visions of educational computing. Each of the following proposals convey profoundly different philosophies of education.
In every teacher' s life there 's something that's transformed them professionally, says third grade teacher Myrene Cox. "For me, it's been the Mac." Such remarkable stories among teachers with Macintosh personal computers are becoming more and more common, for two reasons: First, the Macintosh streamlines many of the instructional-management tasks teachers have to do. With innovative software applications like The Print Shop and Classmaster, creating things like lesson plans, seating charts, and instructional materials becomes significantly easier...5 ...Together they drafted a proposal entitled, "Teachers Can't Wait" and set up a pilot program in four classrooms -including Myrene's. With a goal of putting a Macintosh on every teacher's desk within five years, the program is already extremely successful. . .Apple Computer Print Ad (Fall 1992)
"...only inertia and prejudice, not economics or lack of good educational ideas stand in the way of providing every child in the world with the kinds of experience of which we have tried to give you some glimpses. If every child were to be given access to a computer, computers would be cheap enough for every child to be given access to a computer." Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon (1971)
Responsible schools should challenge the status quo and computer literacy dogma by de-emphasising computers and reasserting that the learner be central in the learning process. Used appropriately, computer technology can assist adults in making schools more vibrant, relevant, and humane while students embark on the joyous path of lifetime learning.
1. By 1994, all students in grades 4- 12 will have a notebook computer making the ratio>l computer/student
2. Electronic Learning Magazine, September 1992
3. Corporations, such as Apple Computer, must realise that it is possible to do good and to do well simultaneously. It makes a lot more sense to sell 1,000 notebook computers to a school than to sell 10 for a computer lab. During the summer of 1992 Powerbook 100 notebook computers were being liquidated by Apple for less than S800 each Perhaps hardware manufacturers will wise-up some day and market such low-cost powerful machines to K-12 schools.
4. Each MLC teacher interested in owning a personal notebook computer received a substantial subsidy from the school in order to purchase a computer. The school decided against fully funding the computer for two reasons:
(i) The teacher had flexibility to purchase the computer that met his/ specific needs and
(ii) Teachers were being asked to make a personal commitment to personal computing. Each year a $400- $700 stipend has been available to teachers interested in upgrading their hardware or purchasing peripherals.
5. When did The Print Shop become innovative software? Is this the best educational use of computers and case study that Apple Computer could find?
Franz, S. & S. Papert (1988), "Computer as Material: Messing About with Time," Columbia Teachers College Record.
Loader, D. (1993), "Restructuring an Australian School, "The Computing Teacher. March, 1993.
Loader, D. & L. Nevile (1991), "Educational Computing: Resourcing the Future,' LARTV occasional Paper, Jolimont, Australia: September, 1991.
Solomon, C. & S. Papert (1972) "Twenty Things to Do With a Computer," Educational Technology.