Machine is the Measure of All Things

Per my blog entry on Maine and educational computing a few days ago, Paul Boutin had an additional point (read to bottom): Telling teenagers they'll learn more if they stick to pencils and books instead of using Microsoft Office makes as much sense to me as telling them to go back to slide rules, typewriters, and mimeographs.

In fact, we have a meeting of minds: I don't think kids shuld stick to pencils and books. Rather, most of the examples of technology used in classrooms for learnings is of the gee whiz variety: lookee them kids use PowerPoint! In fact, I agree 100 percent with Paul that students should be fully versed on the technology, but not in the cant of technology.

That is, PowerPoint is not a difficult tool to learn, and it doesn't, by itself, help produce clear thought. Other computer tools could help that. It's just a presentation tool. It's not education to let students create multimedia presentations unless they gather and create the work itself and also, to a lesser extent (this is part of Paul's point) learn how to use the tools to put it together.

Rather than teach presentation for presentation's sake, teach the fundamentals that, in the end result lead to good presentation.

When I studied graphic design in college, way back in 1986-90, my freshman year class started with ink ruling pens and Bristol board. We drew even lines in a 7-by-7-inch square until we got them perfect. Then we drew lines of varying widths. Then we cut up smaller squares comprised of lines to test design ideas. And then we took our ideas and drew them.

Yup, we had computers. Yup, we knew how to use them. Yup, we could have done the exercises on the machine. But the handwork cemented the brain connection between physical reality, communication, and skill. When I went to work on the computer later, I had a set of tools that I could deploy irrespective of the thing I was faced with.

Gödel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstedter's tour de force of the 80s, contains an extended dialog near the end in which Charles Babbage (whose last name forms a musical pattern of sorts) appears and programs a number of "smart-stupids" (idiot-savants, in other words, or, in this case, difference engines) to perform miraculous tasks.

He was no less skilled in this fantasy for never having touched one. He'd learned (or invented) the fundamentals, and just needed to sit down and play.