Computer literate

Critical tools should take precedence over technological tools

Recently, a friend told me that the same degree of technology it took to put a man on the moon now can be found in a digital watch. He commented on how lucky we were to live in an age where technology improves so quickly and is so readily available. True enough, I thought.

Later, however, I found the anecdote unsettling. I should be pleased our 10-year-olds have access to technology more powerful than NASA needed in 1969, but somehow I wasn't. Why do we need such powerful technology? What real advantages are there in having a computer for such young children? Do we need to spend so much money for technology we hardly use, save for games, typing or cruising the Internet for trivia? As head of a middle school, these questions seemed particularly important given our haste to fill our lives with technology.

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After a while, I wondered if I had the right questions in mind. It seems to me that underlying the question of computer use in schools is a misinformed fear of falling behind some imaginary level of education or knowledge or literacy. As the argument goes, "If computers are not integrated into the daily lives of students, we risk producing children unable to cope in the modern world."

More and more, school resources are committed to computers and their associated technologies. In fact, the Nova Scotia Department of Education has elevated competency in these technologies to the level of English literacy. Students who can watch television "critically" receive equivalent status to those who can read and analyze an eloquent story or poem.

Are schools responding to a fundamental change in our society? I suppose they are, but it is not one that should be uncritically accepted and welcomed.

Computers and associated technologies are increasingly held up to be the future, rather than tools of the future. But unless we teach our children to keep computers in context, we risk them losing their critical perspective and their most important skills.

One teacher told me that many of her young students were unable to tell time on an analog watch. They had no sense of what a 10-minute period was or what an hour meant. To those of us who understand the analog timepiece, a digital watch merely offers precise information in a context we understand. But if a child has no understanding of analog time, the digital watch gives information but no context.

Providing children with unlimited access to information is useless if they are not first taught the skills and provided with the context for that information to make sense.

Whether students become doctors, lawyers, teachers, carpenters or mechanics, they will need to understand and use technology. But what underlies that use is a more fundamental knowledge – basic literacy.

Middle school education should be about building typographic minds; that is, minds that think critically, effectively and creatively. A typographic mind can only be developed in an environment that demands self-discipline, deferment of gratification, and critical thinking – all skills necessary to literacy, and ironically, all skills anathema to new technologies. These technologies encourage immediate gratification, emotive responses, and moment-to-moment amnesia.

The more we allow technological education to erode the painstaking effort to properly develop the minds of our children, the more we reduce our children's capacity to use new technology with creativity, tenacity, intelligence and, most importantly, a healthy skepticism.

If we are going to include computers in early middle school education, we should be very clear about how this inclusion should take place. If, however, we choose to defer the inclusion of computers at the early middle school level until our children have developed typographic minds, then we can use the time to encourage our children's most important skills. When children finally do work with new technologies, it will be as masters of that technology, and not as dependent minds unable to consider the world without technology as their crutch.  

—Steven Laffoley
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