Friday, February 3, 2012

No, Computers & Technology alone don't equal Enrichment

Geophysicist David Deming, in his WSJ op-ed, 'What I Learned From A Brainiac' (Jan. 30, p. A15) has it exactly correct that all the computers, tech and whatzits in the world don't translate into educational assets unless critical thinking is also part of the learning process and mastery of a skill. These are also issues I've blogged on before, including: the inability of today's allegedly high techie kids to properly google subjects, and the overuse of Facebook, Twitter.

In the latter case, in an early blog from 2010 ('Are We Enabling a Generation of ├╝ber-dumpkopfs?)' :

I summarized the results of author Mark Bauerlein's research in his book, The Dumbest Generation, and how he depressingly documented the under-30 crowd foregoing knowledge-based maturity to wallow in a self-confected, solipsistic, electronic social mirror world grounded in their own egos and selves. All writ larger than life in the world of "Facebook", which creates the illusion of instantly uniting with thousands of "friends" (most of whom one's never met) in a parody of Teilhard de Chardin's "Noosphere". (See, e.g. 'The Divine Milieu')

Bauerlein's main thrust was that these social networks and techno-links (now likely to overtake the whole planet what with Facebook's issuance of an IPO plausibly making Mark Zuckerberg $28b richer) and the ancillary digital media used, whether Facebook,Twitter or just dumb cell messages- all contribute to an artificial solipsistic world filtered by the egocentric dispositions of the users. Instead of being a channel of information and knowledge consolidation, the monitor screen becomes a mirror of the young users’ own limited selves and under-developed psyches.

And instead of aspiring to a depth of knowledge all that's on offer in this 'how r u?' digit byte circles is piffle and superficiality masked as "friendship". Meanwhile, all the things that bother and bore them are blocked out. All the people, issues and major global events that obsessive socio-network users don’t know (and don’t want to know) can all be excluded at the touch of key. A new bomb may have been developed by Iran, and an earthquake may have killed thousands in China, but in the case of Facebook users it’s the old monkey show: “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” .

Deming in his WSJ piece elaborates much further the chasm between youngsters growing up today - tied to their Twitter tethers- and those of us who grew up in the late 50s, early 60s. He notes, for example, his 'Braniac' computer kit (Yes, we had computers in those days but we aasembled them ourselves and learned by doing!) Deming recounts that his $18.95 computer kit featured "instructions for constructing a number of computer circuits that could add, subtract, play tick -tack-toe and solve simple problems in logic. "

In much the same way, in 1961 my own $12.95 analog computer kit (from Edmund Scientific Co.) allowed me to construct from scratch my own analog computer which used simple electrical potentiometers to compare voltages and arrive at basic mathematical solutions. Of course, most of these one could do in his or her own head, but the fun was in constructing the machine that obtained the same results.

Meanwhile, as Deming observes:

"So the Brainiac kit taught problem solving skills both in its assembly and execution. If this wasn't challenging enough, the kit contained Edmund Berkeley's handbook on Boolean Logic..... the very existence of the complicated technical materials notified us that there were vast worlds of information and learning to explore. The first task in climbing a mountain is to take note of its existence"

Indeed, but in today's solipsistic Facebook-Tweet era, much of that world is concealed (often deliberately) by the inability of the users to allow the real world to intrude into their little confected social media empires. Thus the predilection for texting and furiously letting fingers fly over a tiny screen rather than the face-to-face “bull sessions” such as we used to partake in - in the college dorms of the 60s. Sessions in which you had to confront actual emotions of the engagers- such as when arguing over civil rights and the Vietnam War, and not mere "emoticons" such as :) or :(.

You were challenged with every argumentative point made, and your logic bashed if not up to scratch. You were compelled to alter the syntax immediately and strengthen your salient points, even as you plumbed your knowledge base to ring up the facts of history needed to support your positions. You were not allowed to run to Google to make up for lapsed knowledge, as kids can do now in the heat of an argument.

As Deming further notes:

"In 1960, children were expected to rise up and meet standards set by adults. Self-esteem was something you attained by achievement."

Deming points to the wealth of imagination provided by science fiction novels, such as from Isaac Asimov ('I, Robot'), Ray Bradbury ('Fahrenheit 451') or Arthur C. Clarke ('The City and the Stars') as well as others such as Robert Heinlein. These then led us to voraciously read for the actual science - indeed, Arthur C. Clarke's early stories (e.g. 'Prelude to Space', 1951) are what incited me to go into model rocketry and build my own rockets with special compartments to loft lizards and roaches to over a mile in altitude then parachute them back to Earth.

Thus, Deming's excellent point:

"Placing a book in the hands of a child is infinitely more beneficial than giving them any type of electronic device. Reading is an active intellectual promise that expands childrens' intelligence, increases their command of language and thought. A modern computer is not an educational asset unless its use is closely monitored, restricted and supervised."


One last point, with which I must fully concur as a former educator:

"Education begins at home. There is little that teachers can do with children who have not been challenged at home but instead have been indulged and entertained with an array of electronic devices."

Devices, I might add, which have engendered the unnatural expectation that kids ought to be "entertained" during teaching hours, and in their classes! Something that would be unheard of for a kid going to school in the 60s. None of us expected our teachers to become instant clowns, comics or entertainers in order to learn. We understood the onus was on us, with some strategic help from parents - but more importantly, their providing the learning atmosphere to facilitate it. Not with toys so much, as books and the right educational resources....whether analog computer kits or assembling 'the Visible Man and Woman' to assist understanding of human biology. (Not to mention slinkies and rockets to teach physics!)

As for games, no problemo. To quote Deming:

"We developed our powers of mental concentration and analytical thinking skills by learning and playing chess."

Btw, no one is asserting here that all computers be relieved of their Facebook connections, but only that the use of social links and networks needs to be more parsimoniously allotted and judiciously used. We don't want youngsters getting addicted and losing their functioning brain cells on crack, 'E', meth or alchohol and neither should we accept overdosing on solipsistic electronic indulgence-which can be every bit as injurious ...turning indiscriminate users into ignorant turkeys!

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