[Edu-sig] An OLPC comment ("Why Educational Technology Has Failed Schools")

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Thu Jan 18 06:47:55 CET 2007


Even more on this point.

I think this deeper issue relating to the nature of compulsory schooling
shows why, after fiddling with teaching programming for a little while,
schools don't do it much anymore. Programming is too disruptive a
technology and places too many difficult demands on schools for it to fit
in well into any compulsory schooling curriculum. And I mean disruptive in
more sense than kids cracking into school networks or running illicit
programs. Especially with today's toolkits and today's computer power,
even just a year of serious programming education (like with Python and
its libraries) has to undermine any individual's belief in the value of
Microsoft's monopoly on OS and development tools, or the worth of RIAA's
business model, or the value of copyright extensions and other scarcity
creating regulations in a world of digital abundance, and so on.

  From a school's point of view, it is best to replace that all with
Microsoft Certification training (seen a recently promoted on a sign
outside a K-12 school) and an early message to young children that
"sharing is wrong". See, for example:
  From there: """ "We're trying to educate children at a very young age
about the importance of protecting copyrighted works," said Diane
Smiroldo, vice president of public affairs for the BSA. "It's important to
start talking to them at a very young age about creative works online and
what you can and can't share with your friends."
"Kids may not have such fully formed ideas about how the world works,"
Bucholz said. "For older students, that stuff doesn't wash." He said once
students develop critical thinking skills, read the news and learn about
content owners suing their customers, for instance, it decreases the
industry's ability to "take the moral high ground."  """

[Note: I'm not suggesting people of any age do illegal things; I am just
pointing out the current recently passed laws extending the scope and
duration of copyright (and criminalizing copyright infringement) are
ultimately undemocratic and antisocial as they serve only a narrow group
of people (mainly large commercial content brokers)
and otherwise make information exchange much harder by promoting
artificial scarcity out of a profit motive, and breaking the bargain
whereby creative works (narrowly defined) enter the public domain after a
reasonable time. This extension is becoming more and more problematical to
justify considering that, for creative works, psychological studies tell
us: "Creativity and intrinsic interest diminish if [a] task is done for
gain", see:
For more on this general topic, see:
which includes an explanation of how current draconian US copyright
policies (including infringers now face more potential jail time for
copying a few songs than for murder) are similar to those used in old
Soviet Russia to suppress dissent. Ironically, Russia is now hostign one
of the biggest thorsn in the side of RIAA, a company that sells cheap
audio files worldwide and claims to do so legally under Russian law.
   http://www.neowin.net/index.php?act=view&id=36590 ]

But, the same is true of writing and critical thinking and art and
music and history and industrial arts and democracy. All that stuff really
has no place in a 19th century schooling model intended to produce mainly
compliant workers, unquestioning consumers, and obedient soldiers. Learn
to write business letters? Perhaps. A moving drama? No time. This is
not to say there are not sometimes courses with those names (history,
writing, democracy, etc.), or that even sometimes some of the true nature
of those fields might sneak in to such classes. :-) But when teachers try
to break out and really teach outside the box, consider what happened to
Jaime Escalante:
     "Stand and Deliver Revisited -- The untold story behind the famous rise
-- and shameful fall -- of Jaime Escalante, America's master math teacher.
"Escalante's open admission policy, a major reason for his success, also
paved the way for his departure. Calculus grew so popular at Garfield that
classes grew beyond the 35-student limit set by the union contract. Some
had more than 50 students. Escalante would have preferred to keep the
classes below the limit had he been able to do so without either denying
calculus to willing students or using teachers who were not up to his high
standards. Neither was possible, and the teachers union complained about
Garfield's class sizes. Rather than compromise, Escalante moved on. ...
     This leaves would-be school reformers with a set of uncomfortable
questions. Why couldn't Escalante run his classes in peace? Why were
administrators allowed to get in his way? Why was the union imposing its
"help" on someone who hadn't requested it? Could Escalante's program have
been saved if, as Gradillas now muses, Garfield had become a charter
school? What is wrong with a system that values working well with others
more highly than effectiveness?
     Lyndon Johnson said it takes a master carpenter to build a barn, but
any jackass can kick one down. In retrospect, it's fortunate that
Escalante's program survived as long as it did. Had Garfield's counselors
refused to let a handful of basic math students take algebra back in 1974,
or had the janitor who objected to Escalante's early-bird ways been more
influential, America's greatest math teacher might just now be retiring
from Unisys. Gradillas has an explanation for the decline of A.P. calculus
at Garfield: Escalante and Villavicencio were not allowed to run the
program they had created on their own terms. In his phrase, the teachers
no longer "owned" their program. He's speaking metaphorically, but there's
something to be said for taking him literally."

Rare exceptions excluded, I would suggest, following Gatto,
that there is simply no room in conventional schools for real programming.
If you want to teach real programming, or real math, or real writing, or
anything else of real significance, you need to change the compulsory
schools which were designed intentionally to prevent individual
differentiation or true excellence. But the compulsory schools can not be
changed (too many people have tried and failed). See:
"Control of the educational enterprise is distributed among at least these
twenty-two players, each of which can be subdivided into in-house warring
factions which further remove the decision-making process from simple
accessibility. The financial interests of these associational voices are
served whether children learn to read or not. ...
Some of this political impasse grew naturally from a maze of competing
interests, some grew from more cynical calculations with exactly the end
in mind we see, but whatever the formative motives, the net result is
virtually impervious to democratically generated change. No large change
can occur in-system without a complicated coalition of separate interests
backing it, not one of which can actually be a primary advocate for
children and parents."

So, indirectly according to Gatto, compulsory schools are in the way of
"Computer Programming for Everybody" and so have to go. :-)

You can of course, like Gatto, bend or break the rules and really teach,
even in K-12 compulsory schools. I'm sure some here do so.
But you can't do it within the formal system openly for very long
or without the special case of an unusual boss higher up. Yes, maybe a
few "gifted" classes might provide unusual opportunities -- but never to
the masses, never to anyone who wants it, as Escalante's case shows,
never to "everybody".

Despite your legitimate reservations, OLPC at least offers a coherent
alternative to, say, more of the same compulsory schooling.
Maybe not the best alternative, granted, compared to a
loving family and a caring village of real people that can help educate a
child. But at least the ersatz family of other local OLPC owners and the
ersatz village of the internet are likely better than the ersatz family of
the compulsory classroom and the ersatz village of TV we have now raising
most kids. At the very least it seems worth a try, given the current
system clearly doesn't work anymore (see the previously linked report "To
fix US schools, [bipartisan] panel says, start over").

But I'll agree, it is, at best, a second choice, compared to involved
people free to interact outside the confines of standardization-oriented
compulsion. But to make that happen requires even deeper thought about,
say, the nature of "work" and our economy, see for example:
We would need to remake an economic world where parents of young children
are the most financially stressed people in our culture, when the opposite
should be true if we really cared, as a society, about the next
generation. The first few years of life are when most brain growth
happens; that is when you get the biggest bang for the buck of time and
resources invested with children. And those early years are probably best
kept computer and TV free, see for example:
The early brain is evolved to learn from manipulating physical objects,
watching nature, having social interactions, moving around, and so on.
Using computers takes away time from those early nurturing experiences.

OLPC can do practically nothing positive for those ages -- other than,
say, if parents used it to educate themselves about child rearing issues,
or if it helped parents and neighbors work less so they had more time for
interacting with young children, say, by running a matter replicator; see,
for example:
     " 3D Printers To Build Houses"
"The robots are rigged to a metal frame, enabling them to shuttle in three
dimensions and assemble the structure of the house layer by layer. The
sole foreman on site operates a computer programmed with the designer's
plans. Inspired by the inkjet printer, the technology goes far beyond the
techniques already used for prefabricated homes."
See also:
So, beyond OLPC, we also need a personal fabricator per family (PFPF?) :-)
Powered by Python of course. :-)

--Paul Fernhout

Arthur wrote:
> What I hear when I look over the Squeak shoulders is that of course we 
> are not claiming that any of this is a substitute for an involved, 
> caring, creative teacher working in a caring, creative environment. But 
> given such a teacher in such an environment do you really suppose that 
> Squeak, or the OLPC, or Python, or PyGeo, or PataPata is actually of 
> much importance?
> I don't.

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