The Narrow Sightedness of the High-Tech Heretic

Clifford Stoll brings up some interesting points in the Makes Learning Fun section of High-Tech Heretic. But more often than not, he neglects important facts, and shows remarkable short-sightedness.

“Most Learning isn’t fun. Learning takes work. Discipline” (12).

“Equating learning with fun says that if you don’t enjoy yourself, you’re not learning” (12).

Learning certainly does take work and discipline. But it should also be fun. Being challenged at the right level is fun, and when education is done right, this is what happens. Moreover, there are plenty of game-like activities in which children can learn important material. Sure, while growing up I did my homework and tried in school because my parents and teachers said it was important for my future–but I also did it because I honestly did enjoy the “work”. In 3rd grade I played shopping board games to learn math and money skills, in 4th grade I competed against my classmates to solve arithmetic problems for candy, in middle school I played typing games to learn keyboard skills, and dissected animals to learn about biology. These are all basic examples of me having a great time learning. I didn’t need to have fun in order to learn, but it sure as hell helped I don’t think I would’ve learned it better or faster by more conventional techniques. When learning is fun the discipline comes naturally–the work melts away as you get in a flow to learn the skills you care about.

“A real teacher might well ask, ‘Seven equals what?’ A fascinating question with an infinite number of answers: ‘Three plus four,’ ‘Ten minus three,’ ‘Days in a week,’ ‘The dwarfs in Snow White,’… These answers, incomprehensible to any computer, make perfect sense to a real teacher . . . ” (17).

A real teacher might well ask, “Seven equals what?”, but most teachers probably won’t. Most teachers will teach the rote “4+3=?” format, just like the software that Stoll is crusading against. Besides, Sporcle can ask “a fascinating question” like that given by Stoll.I know he wrote the book in 1999, but could he not see the potential of computer programs? The simple programming behind Sporcle games was certainly doable in 1999.

“Motivation–the will to move–comes from yourself. You choose what puts you in motion and causes you to move. Computers cause you to sit in one place and not move” (19).

Computers cause countless people to get motivated. Most people have at one time or another asked themselves, how does this magic box that is a computer even work? That very question can motivate someone to learn science, or do research to learn more about these important tools. And guess what Stoll? You could do all this research on a computer. You could practice building a virtual computer on a computer. Even before google gained popularity, electronic encyclopedias allowed access to information much faster than print volumes. Computers cause you to sit and one place and not move no more than reading a book, or doing traditional homework.

“The field of educational technology is filled with such empty cliches…Student-centered learning will be tutor-led and context-based rather than rote plug-and-chug. Child-centered classrooms. Blah, blah, blah” (19).

Wow. Just wow. Could you make me take you any less seriously, Stoll? You defend plug-and-chug and follow it up by saying blah blah blah to the alternatives? I want to think you’re trolling in order to make people realize how stupid it is to close your eyes to the benefits of new innovative teaching methods, but I don’t give you that much credit.

“Teachers need only open a closet door to find stacks of obsolete unused teaching gizmos: filmstrips, instructional television systems, Apple II computers, and any number of educational videotapes. Each promised a revolution in the classroom. None delivered” (21).

Yeah, because most teaching material gets used every day of the school year (/sarcasm). Secondary school physics teachers pull out their Bill Nye videos as often as they do their tuning forks, but tuning forks aren’t being burned at the stake. I’d also like a pull a few more examples from my (what I consider) successful education. I competed with my classmates to get the high score in number munchers and word munchers on the macintosh in our 2nd grade classroom. I also practice writing stories on little keyboard computers (with 3 lines of screen space) that my elementary school had. I consider both experiences beneficial to me. And if you expect pieces of technology that a school buys not to get outdated, you’re crazy. That doesn’t mean the old stuff stops working though.

“Doubtless, even the worst teacher is more versatile and adaptable than the finest computer program. Come to think of it, aren’t teachers interactive? It’s hard to think of a classroom without interaction” (21).

I respectfully disagree that the worst teacher is more versatile and adaptable than the finest computer program. Even a computer program from 1999 (Hell- Rollercoaster Tycoon, Half-Life, Age of Empires II, System Shock II, Shenmue, and Baulder’s Gate were all out by year’s end). I just thought of a classroom without interaction. It’s called a lecture.

“Famous scientists–and obscure ones, too–don’t have time to answer email from distant students” (22). “Astronomers who enjoy working with kids would far prefer to meet the kids, not answer a slew of messages over the net. That inquiring mind directed to the net will likely dead-end in some press release or a mountain of indecipherable jargon” (22).

I bet if I asked Stoll if sending a hand written, physical letter to a scientist were a good idea, he’d be elated. Guess what? Scientists love that they can get people interested in their studies without having to spend more than a few minutes or the cost of postage to do so. And then the scientist realized they could save more time and get MORE people interested if they answered the questions on a web site that ANYONE could access, not just the single person asking the question. These kind of FAQs definitely existed in 1999.

“To turn learning into fun is to denigrate the two most important things we can do as humans: To teach. To learn” (22)

The only thing I can say to this is: Stoll, you’re a narrow-sighted grinch.

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