Dumbing Down


Although I’m only 48, I have been working in educational computing for thirty years. When I started, we taught children to program. We also taught tens of thousands of teachers to teach computer science to learners of all ages. In many cases, this experience represented the most complex thinking about thinking that teachers ever experienced and their students gained benefit from observing teachers learning to think symbolically, solve problems and debug. There was once a time in the not so distant path when educators were on the frontiers of scientific reasoning and technological progress. Curriculum was transformed by computing. School computers were used less often to “do school” and more often to do the impossible.

Don’t believe me? My mentor, Dan Watt, sold over 100,000 copies of a book entitled, Learning with Logo in the 1980s when much fewer teachers and children had access to a personal computer.

Things sped downhill when we removed “computing” from our lexicon and replaced it with “technology” (like a Pez dispenser or Thermos). We quickly degraded that meaningless term, technology, further by modifying it with IT and ICT. Once computing was officially erased from the education of young people, teachers could focus on keyboarding, chatting, looking stuff up, labeling the parts of the computer and making PowerPoint presentations about topics you don’t care about for an audience you will never meet. The over-reliance on the Internet and the unreliability of school networks ensures that you can spend half of each class period just logging-in.

Teachers with post-graduate degrees are being compelled to receive iPad training. My 95 year-old grandmother figured it out all by herself. No tax dollars were harmed in the process. Apparently, we also need to provide teachers with interactive white board training so they may hung unused in their classroom, just like all of their peers.

We have National Educational Technology Standards published by the International Society for TECHNOLOGY in Education that are so vague pedestrian that no computing is needed to meet them. In fact, it’s likely one can satisfy the NETs without the actual use of a computer. Despite standards and district tech plans that are a cross between a shopping list and a desperate plea for teachers to consider modernity, most school kids are powerless over the technology so central to their lives. Nobody even bothers to ask the question Seymour Papert first posed 45 years ago, “Does the child program the computer or does the computer program the child?” This is a tragedy.

What kids do get to do with computers tends to be trivial and inservice of the educational status quo. Gone are the days when educational computing conference programs were home to the most progressive thinkers and revolutionary ideas in education. Teachers were considered thought leaders and scholars who were required to write peer-reviewed papers in order to present at such events.  Today one merely has to promise 75 quick and easy things to do in 37 minutes with the hottest product being peddled to schools. Another popular topic is incessantly about how your colleagues won’t or can’t use the latest fad.

I am sorry, but social media is not a school subject. There are conference workshops on using Twitter and masters degrees in educational technology that culminate in a rap about hashtags.  If social media is any damned good, it needs to be as complex and reliable as a dial-tone.  PLN, PLC, PLP, etc… are just fancy alphabet soup for having someone to talk with. We should not need an National Science Foundation grant to make friends.

I had an educator approach me at a conference recently to volunteer that “Our school is not ready for Google Docs.” Set aside whatever you happen to think about Google Docs; it’s a word processor in a Web browser, right? I told the tech director, “Congratulations, your school district has apparently managed to employ the last breathing mammals in the solar system incapable of using a word processor.” Isn’t it odd that technology directors are not held accountable for such failure over three decades? Could they possibly be enabling co-dependent behavior and helplessness in the teachers they are meant to lead?

If the percentage of teachers using computers remains constant over time, regardless of how we lower expectations, shouldn’t we ask a great deal more of them and set our sights higher?

I’m so old that I knew the guy responsible for “Guide on the side, sage on the stage” (Chris Held) and “Ask three before me,” (Leslie Thyberg) I even knew the gentleman responsible for “computer literacy.” (originally called computing literacy) His name was Arthur Luehrmann. I often find myself mumbling, “I knew Arthur Luehrmann. Arthur Luehrmann was a friend of mine. You sir are no Arhur Luehrmann.”

When Luerhmann coined the term, “computer literacy,” he intended it to mean computer programming the intellectual pursuit of agency over the computer and a means for solving problems.

Don’t believe me? Read this 1980 paper transcribed  from a 1972 talk.

I know what some of you are thinking. Not every kid needs to learn programming. You don’t have to be able to fix a transmission to drive a car, blah blah blah…

First of all, the educational technology community and schools seem to have decided that no kids should learn to program. I’d be happy with the same nine-week programming class I was required to take in 1975.

Second, computer programming is not like fixing a car. It’s much more like designing the car, making sure all of its systems work in an integrated fashion, mitigating the environmental impact of cars and imagining their impact on society. Computer science is a legitimate science that has profound implications for learning all sorts of other powerful ideas, working in diverse fields and making sense of the world. You just would not know this if you go to school.

Why would it even occur to educators to deprive children of such rich learning opportunities?

If you have the audacity to speak of digital literacy or technology literacy and do not teach computer science, then this is the first time in the history of education when the functional definition of “literacy” has been so devalued, diminished and degraded. All other expectations for literacy increase over time.

There you go Stager, you radical crank. How dare you ask teachers to develop new knowledge and empower students? You’re just some stupid utopian who happened to have a great 7th grade computer programming teacher 35 years ago. Well, I’m not alone.

In January, I was in London to keynote at BETT. At the same event, the Secretary of State Michael Gove announced that the UK government was scrapping the “harmful and dull” national ICT curriculum and replacing it with computer science at all grade levels. He called the current curriculum a mess and wondered aloud why schools bother to teach Excel or PowerPoint to bored students? Coincidentally, I wondered in 1996 why we were investing so heavenly in ensuring that we create a generation of fifth graders with terrific secretarial skills?

When a conservative politician and I agree on education policy, who could possibly be on the other side?

Related reading:


71 Responses to “Dumbing Down”
  1. Davey says:

    Peter Ross mentioned SCRATCH, developed by the MIT Lifelong Kindergarden Group. I’m interested in any thoughts about SCRATCH as it is being pitched as the “New And Improved” LOGO. Certainly, it’ll be more collaborative; but is it an improvement?

    It seems to me that the children using SCRATCH will not necessarily be coding; they’ll be able to take code written by some else (out of their “backpack”) and use that to build a programme. If this is the route the children will take, this is not coding; it is the equivalent of “sampling” in music. The end result might be admired, but the musician hasn’t learned how to play the guitar and the child hasn’t learned how to type out the lines.

    Gary’s notion of relating learning to code to the design of a car (or a building or anything else) is, to me, exactly right. There are many factors to consider and the best designers and programmers learn first by reproducing great solutions. Then by sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper and reverse engineering, starting again, fresh, knowing the end result required. Do that for a while and, inevitably, two things happen: first, failure after failure – it doesn’t work. But then: It Works! I’ve found a solution! And, once in while, the path opens: “Maybe I can design/programme something new…”. Magic.

    This magic can’t really happen in my opinion if one doesn’t know the basic, the very basic, tools of the trade, programming from scratch – not SCRATCH but LOGO. Technique and craft lead to skill which leads to mastery which brings you to the magic moment. These things are best learned in childhood.

    Is SCRATCH basic enough?

  2. Kim Wilkens says:

    I’m a fan of Scratch and Logo (NetLogo actually). Absolutely you can code from scratch with Scratch, but as you point out you can also reuse and remix (which is actually a pretty great skill to have as a programmer). I like Logo because it helps introduce concepts like syntax and procedures. Scratch is a much less intimidating platform for student and educator alike. Another great thing about Scratch is that it is also quite robust, if you are not afraid to go there and don’t get too frustrated during the process because as with all programming, it gets more challenging. Bottom line, Scratch and Logo are just a couple of programming platforms out of a myriad of choices. The entry point is easier for them for both students and non-CS educators, but at some point, to attain computer literacy in K-12 education, computer science concepts actually need to be incorporated across the curriculum regardless of programming platform.

    – why is programming important? it can change the world, more @ http://tmblr.co/ZO7aexBlFckB
    – how to apply to 8th grade English? check out this Ignite talk of HS CS teacher incorporating Shakespeare into programming @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KTBHYWFm8zw&

  3. David Wees says:

    I’m going to disagree with you Davey – I don’t see a difference in the thinking required by students to construct programs in Scratch versus a text-based interface. They aren’t “using someone else’s code”, they are using syntax blocks in their code, which is a practice replicated in most reasonably complex IDEs in the form of code completion. If professionals can use code completion (and syntax correction) on their professional projects and be considered to be coding, students should be able to use the graphical equivalent and still be considered to be programming.

  4. Mike Trucano says:

    This is a fantastic post, Gary (and a very lively and useful discussion here in the comments sections as well)!

    I certainly agree with your statement that

    > What kids do get to do with computers tends to be trivial and in service of the educational status quo.

    Despite rhetoric to the contrary, this is often what I finds justifies the use of such things to many educational policymakers in many of the places where I work. Accompanying ministerial delegations from Africa and Asia as they toured the BETT Show this year, I found (for example) that many were more taken with the fact that interactive whiteboards could be used to embellish a traditional lecture than in the more potentially subversive affordances that present themselves when such things are coupled with, say, interactive voting devices (My point here isn’t to incite a discussion of the pros and cons of whiteboards, or clickers — well trodden territory in the blogosphere — but rather to support your point about supporting the status quo.)

    I do disagree a bit with your next statement, though:

    > Gone are the days when educational computing conference programs were home to the most progressive thinkers and revolutionary ideas in education.

    This may well be the case when talking about events in the so-called ‘advanced economies’ (I don’t attend conferences in such places very often for this very reason, where the faint echo of that Beatles song licensed to help sell sneakers sometimes plays in my head). In many less ‘developed’ countries, I find that educational computing (or ICT or whatever you want to call it) conferences and workshops are _the_very_places to find some of the more interesting and progressive teachers and educational thinkers. In some cases, what is considered ‘revolutionary’ in such contexts may not appear to be so in places where various conversations about computers and education have been regularly occuring for the past thirty years or so, but I find that, in many places where ‘educational computing’ (variously defined) initiatives are a rather recent phenomenon, such events do still sometimes retain a frisson of excitement and daring.

    This is not to deny your larger points, with which I largely agree. Rather, it is to note that, in places where access to computing resources is still a relative novelty, or scarce, the same level of intellectual torpor and sclerosis that you are criticizing in your post here has not (yet) set in.

    I don’t meant to contend that that the warning signs for what you describe are not apparent — in some ways, massive roll-outs of school computer labs in many developing countries to help promote the acquisition of basic vocational office productivity skills is crowding out both the use of computers to support the development of higher order critical thinking skills and an exposure to the basics of programming that can help awaken in students a desire to, in your words, “do the impossible”.

    That said, I find that the subversive educational potential of computers, especially on the desks and in the laps and in the pockets of young people (students and teachers alike) in many less developed parts of Asia, Africa and South America is still quite latent — perhaps because it is in such places that the desire for change is often the most acute.

  5. Somebody please take the thorn out poor Mr. Stager’s paw so that he can clench it again to shake it at all the wee intellects he sees from the Olympus of his porch. Of course his suggestions are just another example of what James C. Scott called the failure pattern of ‘legibility’. Venkatesh Rao has an eyepopping summary of Scott’s work (http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/07/26/a-big-little-idea-called-legibility/) which applies to this post.

    Rao states (and please excuse the long quote and please read the whole post):

    Here is the recipe:

    1. Look at a complex and confusing reality, such as the social dynamics of an old city
    2. Fail to understand all the subtleties of how the complex reality works
    3. Attribute that failure to the irrationality of what you are looking at, rather than your own limitations
    4. Come up with an idealized blank-slate vision of what that reality ought to look like
    5. Argue that the relative simplicity and platonic orderliness of the vision represents rationality
    6. Use authoritarian power to impose that vision, by demolishing the old reality if necessary
    7. Watch your rational Utopia fail horribly

    The big mistake in this pattern of failure is projecting your subjective lack of comprehension onto the object you are looking at, as “irrationality.” We make this mistake because we are tempted by a desire for legibility.”

    I have followed Mr Stager’s humorous and curmodgeon-ly remarks for long enough to take them with a grain or two of hyperbolic salt, but I think this time someone needs to say in the nicest way possible to fuck off. So…and I mean this in the nicest way I can manage, “Fuck off.” 😉

  6. Mark Lassoff says:

    @Terry: Do you keep that silly rant on queue and then publish it any time you see something you don’t like. Here’s a question: What specific criticism do you have of Gary’s essay? What do you disagree with? What are your ideas?

    Instead of posting some non-specific philosophical screed, how about adding to the discussion with thoughtful criticism and discussion?

    To be honest, except for some lame excuse for dropping an F-bomb I can’t for the life of me figure out the purpose of your post, or what the hell you’re talking about.

  7. @MarkLassof No, I don’t keep a canned response. And I will write slowly so that you can understand since you either did not read or did not understand the Rao piece. My point is that Stager is guilty of trying to making something legible that is illegible. This the greatest mistake all ‘reformers’ make. There isn’t any practical advice to offer here to a the gramps on the porch or the little grandson Mark by his side. That is the point of the satire here. As far as saying ‘fuck’ in a comment…your delicate sensibilities are just the kind that any ironist pops with delight. Just because you don’t understand doesn’t mean I did not make myself clear. As they say, fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.

  8. admin says:

    @Terry Elliot

    I get it. You don’t like me or my style. Excellent. I’m not sure exactly what your grievance is beyond the old canard that the author failed to spell out a solution in a 7-point plan for you.

    No writer is obliged to do so, particularly in one blog post. I do not wish to be the curriculum police and tell you what or how to teach. If you are interested, you may certainly hire me as a consultant or curriculum developer. Although that changes the equation a bit, I still believe that educators have to take ownership of how, what and why they teach.

    That said, I imagine one could conclude that an action one might take as a result of this article is to begin teaching computer science. Another might be to stop underestimating kids and pretending that the “stuff” they typically do with computers in schools is a) good b) worthy of their time and effort.

    I considered taking down your comments but have decided to leave them up.

  9. Mark Lassoff says:

    @Terry Elliott You can write as slowly as you want. I still don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. The part I did understand were you not-so-thinly veiled insults. If your ego is so fragile that you require to attempt belittle people over the internet in a civil discussion, I won’t stop you. It’s disappointing that you can’t disagree– or further explain yourself– without personal insult.

    Regards and happiness,

    PS. You’re right. I didn’t do your reading assignment. Busy teaching computer science at the moment.

  10. admin says:

    Mike Trucano,

    You make a very good point about Advanced Economies. Papert used to ask, “if we call another country ‘developing’ does that mean we stopped?”

    I wrote an article a dozen or more years ago called, “Until the Circus Comes to Town,” about how less developed countries were so much more receptive to powerful ideas and leaps of progress because they had so little invested in what the would be called the educational status quo in the West and because the giant corporate trade shows hadn’t made it to their part of the world yet to tell them that what they’re doing isn’t the latest fad.

  11. Mike Trucano says:

    Although of course they are invested in other educational status quos, no less (or more) pernicious — and in the intervening 12 years, the ‘giant corporate trade shows’ have begun to arrive (that’s why they call them ’emerging markets’, I supose).

  12. Carl Anderson says:

    I used that Papert quote (or a modification of it) in a PD session this past fall. Teachers & admin at my school looked at me with confusion. I wasn’t even advocating for as much, simply asking teachers to have kids use computers to create, not consume and not assess. The question fell flat…crickets…then someone asked, “What is the best site to use to assess a student’s reading level?” Sigh.

  13. Tattatu says:

    So true myopic corporates only see the bottom line. Teachers are technically challenged and think pp is an advancement in technology to raise test scores. Make the shovel bigger mentality. Instead of giving ipads to students, schools should give them bicycles. More productive learning could be accomplished with a 2e.

  14. Tattatu says:

    Tried to explain how studwnts were using proxies to bypass the ever watchful district server to deaf bureaucrats and nobody understood what i was talking about. studets know more than the teachers. Knowledge is power.


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