TITLE: Stalking the Wily Misconception AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: August 20, 2008 2:19 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Recently, someone sent me a link to Clifford Stoll's TED talk from February 2006, and yesterday I finally watched. Actually, I listened more than I watched, for two reasons. First, because I was multitasking in several other windows, as I always am at the machine. Second, because Stoll's manic style jumping around the stage isn't much to my liking. As a university professor and a parent, I enjoyed the talk for its message about science and education. It's worth listening to simply for the epigram he gives in the first minute or so, about science, engineering, and technology, and for the quote he recites to close the talk. (Academic buildings have some of the coolest quotes engraved right on their walls.) But the real meat of the talk, which doesn't start until midway through, is the point. Prodded by schoolteachers to whom he was talking about science in the schools, Stoll decided that he should put his money where his mouth is: he became a science teacher. Not just giving a guest lecture at a high school, but teaching a real junior-high science class four days a week. He doesn't do the "turn to Chapter 7 and do all the odd problems" kind of teaching either, but real physics. For example, his students measure the speed of light. They may be off by 25%, but they measured the speed of light, using experiments they helped design and real tools. This isn't the baking soda volcano, folks. Good stuff. And I'll bet that junior-high kids love his style; he's much better suited for that audience than I! One remark irked me, even if he didn't mean it the way I heard it. At about 1:38, he makes a short little riff on his belief that computers don't belong in schools. "No! Keep them out of schools", he says. In one sense, he is right. Educators, school administrators, and school boards have made "integrating technology" so big a deal that computers are put into classrooms for their own sake. They become devices for delivering lame games and ineffective simulations. We teach Apple Keynote, and students think they have learned "computers" -- and so do most teachers and parents. When we consider what "computers in schools" means to most people, we probably should keep kids away from them, or at least cut back their use. At first, I thought I was irked at Stoll for saying this, but now I realize that I should be irked at my profession for not having done a better job both educating everyone about what computers really mean for education and producing the tools that capitalize on this opportunity. Once again I am shamed by Alan Kay's vision. The teachers working with Alan also have their students do real experiments, too, such as measuring the speed of gravity. Then they use computers to build executable models that help students to formalize the mathematics for describing the phenomenon. Programming is one of their tools. Imagine saying that we should keep pencils and paper out of our schools, returning to the days of chalk slates. People would laugh, scoff, and revolt. Saying we should keep computers out of schools should elicit the same kind of response. And not because kids wouldn't have access to e-mail, the web, and GarageBand. -----