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Computer as Pencil

This image refers to the many uses of the pencil: it is used to scribble, to doodle, to draw, to write, to work sums, or to chew on. It is used for illicit notes as well as for official assignments. I see the computer in the life of the child as equally ubiquitous and equally versatile. I also see it as equally personal. Children own pencils, they are not intimidated by them. This should be equally true of the child's personal computer.

The metaphor of the pencil is a good way to sliminarize some of the ways the image of the computer I am building up here differs from the one that is becoming established in schools.

Suppose that the only access children had to pencils (which I take in a generic sense including pens, crayons, and the like) was at school, and even there "pencil time" had to be scheduled on the one or two pencils available to each classroom. This might (or might not) be better than having no pencils at all, but clearly under those conditions the pencil would not play the important role it now does in the intellectual development of children from infancy onwards. In my vision the computer will become as free a resource as the pencil now is.

Second, there is the question of the power of the computer to be used flexibly for many purposes. The microcomputers in schools today can barely be used flexibly by those few who have the inclination to become virtuoso programmers in BASIC. This is very different from the model of the pencil that can be picked up by everyone--even the one-year-old infant--and also used by the most sophisticated writer or artist. LOGO and Smalltalk are only first steps toward programming languages chat will truly satisfy our slogan: "No threshold and no ceiling." A child of five or less should be able to write a program in the first few minutes of contact with the computer and a computer scientist should find the system congenial and rich.

Third, I mention the use of the pencil and of the computer as writing instruments. The computer is rapidly becoming the standard writing instrument. Most journalists use word processors, as do increasingly many offices. I am using one as I compose this article. But the schools are not offering children this facility, although one could argue that it is children who are in most need of writing aids. The reason is clearly linked to the ratio of computers to students. One or two computers per class simply does not give enough access for the computer to become the primary writing instrument. On the other hand, one computer per child, which is how I think we should be thinking about the future, could lead to massive changes in the way children develop writing skills. A well-designed text editor makes editing--substitution and deletion of words, shifting of sentences or paragraphs, and so on--an easy and aesthetically acceptable process. Compare the situation of a child attempting such a task with paper and pencil: the mess of multiple erasures and labor of rewriting means that the first draft is almost always the final copy. I have seen children who hated writing become avid writers when they have a text editor at their disposal. Wide availability of computers with text-editing capabilities might lead to even more fundamental changes in children's relation to alphabetic representation of language. Consider the implications of the following story:

Recently I observed the first group of nursery-school children working with a computer called the Lamplighter Computer (a Texas Instruments 99/4 personal computer with additional memory to support an extended version of LOGO and a real-time text-editing system) developed over the past few years through a collaboration between our research group at MIT and Texas Instruments. A four-year-old girl (I shall call her "Robin") was working with some dynamic graphics pro. grams that allowed her to make shapes appear on the screen, move, change color, and stick together by pushing one or another of some fourteen keys on the keyboard. The plan was that when Robin was tired of using a program she would ask the teacher to set up a new program. And this is in fact what she did for the first few times. But then Robin took charge of the whole process and began typing the control characters necessary to interrupt a program she no longer wanted and typing the names of the programs she did want, even though this was at a measured rate of about tWo characters per minute. In breaking out of the role of dependence on adults, Robin symbolized the fact that computers will enable children to break out of many of the roles into which technological primitivity and social custom have cast them.

We should not pass too quickly over the significance of the simple fact that Robin could make things happen by typing words. It might well be the first time in her life that alphabetic language actually served a real and personal purpose. The spoken language and its precursors enter from the first year of life into a significant process of interaction with the world. Learning to speak enpowers the child. But for most children the act of writing serves at most to gain the approval of adults. Could this be the reason children learn to talk so easily and so young while they learn to write with so much difficulty so many years later? Watching Robin left me more firmly convinced than ever of a conjecture I have pursued for quite a few years. Children could learn to write as early and as easily as they learn to speak if the environment in which they lived gave as much support to the alphabetic language as ours does to the spoken language. I have no doubt that if Robin had her own computer and could use it whenever she wished, and if this computer gave her access to enough exciting things to do, she would within weeks have mastered the keyboard, the alphabet, and enough of spelling and syntax to put her firmly on the road to the kind of mastery of written language that usually comes, if at all, well into the school years.

Meaning Versus Ritual in Learning

The fundamental question for education is not how to improve schools but how to understand why schools are necessary. Why is some knowledge (like learning to talk) picked up so easily and naturally from the culture, while other kinds of knowledge seem to require deliberate, organized instruction? In Mindstorms, I explore the many factors that make a difference. Here I have space only for one. Children learn to speak because it is a meaningful activity, a meaningful part of their lives. It is not surprising that children do not learn to write when writing serves no real purpose in their lives. I think the computer can change this. For Robin, alphabetic communication was beginning to become purposeful. As computers become increasingly available to children I would expect many children to share Robin's experience of writing as a meaningful activity. This shift -- from meaningless ritual imposed from above to purposeful, self-directed activity -- is also true of Mathland. No activity in school is (perienced as more devoid of meaning than the parody f mathematics known as school math.

The harm done by making children learn ritualistically oes very deep. It develops the worst possible habits of learning. It undermines the individual's self-confidence as an independent intellectual agent: it infantilizes the child. A shift to more meaningful learning of fundamental subjects could have far deeper consequences than improved mastery of these subjects. It could mean that children become more effective learners with greater intellectual self-respect. And if this happens, not only the nature of children's learning but also the role of children in society lay have changed.

I have hinted at a vision of profound, even revolutionary, change in how children learn. I think this might appen. We have the technology to make it possible. But there is nothing inevitable about it. Society has a very bad track record in making intelligent use of new techologies, and, in this case, many vested interests are threatened by the changes I envision. The "system" will react by defending its old ways. Already in schools we see computers being used to reinforce instead of displace the most ritualistic teaching methods. I believe that the most profound effects of computers could be to develop a new respect for children as independent intellectual agents. But most people in our country like to think of children as intellectually dependent.

How will it all work out? It is futile for me to play prophet, but worthwhile to bear some ideas in mind when thinking about the future. I want to end by mentioning an idea that encouraged me to think positively. I can best introduce it by comparing the education market with markets for other products. Suppose you invent a new kind of kitchen machine. If you can prove that there is a market of a million people, you will easily find the capital to develop the idea and get it out into the world. But if you invent a new approach to learning mathematics, the fact that a million people want it may be of no avail--a million people across the nation may still be a tiny minority with no clout in every school district. But once there are a few million owners of home computers capable of carrying powerful learning methods, you will have access to a market of individuals ready to spend personal dollars for the good of their children. The importance of this fact is not that it will enable good ideas now collecting dust on shelves to get out into the world. It will encourage inventive and ambitious people to enter the field of educational innovation in unprecedented numbers. It will be part of the creation of a new class of professionals and of entrepreneurs and perhaps even of "stars" analogous to what happened in the course of the emergence of cinema as a culture. The history of cinema has been the history of that culture. The future of computers in education will be indissociable from the story of the people who will make the computer culture.


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