TITLE: Stalking the Wily Misconception
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: August 20, 2008 2:19 PM
Recently, someone sent me a link to Clifford Stoll's
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
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
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.