Creating a culture of learning using computers

I have been reading an article by Alan Kay, one of the most important figures in the development of the personal computer, called “Powerful Ideas Need Love Too!”

This article was one of the best I have read recently. It tackles a central issue in our use of technology. Basically, Kay states that technology is O.K. but is only a tool. It is the use of the tool that becomes the key to making changes and having developments in our lives and culture.

He is concerned that we can give schools a tool but it depends on the “culture of learning” if it is to be a success. He gives a concrete example of his own childhood where he went to  a school that wanted each of its students to learn music. It was not  just giving each child a musical instrument that made the project work. It was the development within the school of a “culture of music”.

Musical instruments are fascinating. You can be given the most expensive piano or guitar but you need to learn how to use it. From the basis of learning to use an instrument comes the much more difficult part of learning to master it. I have seen children learn to use a recorder. They become technically proficient in that they can play the right notes, but it often sounds as if it is produced by a machine! Real mastery takes a huge amount of practice and the desire to really want to explore the potential of the instrument so as to make it sound beautiful.

In the process of learning to master the instrument the learner will go through a torrid time of failure to produce the beauty that they desire. The ability to persevere through the failure is based on a desire to master… to achieve an end. The environment in which this can happen though is based on a shared culture that includes a real love for music and a desire to make beautiful sounds.

Kay gives an example of how, if a piano were placed in every classroom in the country, many students would become proficient in playing “chopsticks” but never be able to tackle Chopin! He then goes on to discuss how this relates to computers:                                                                                                                                                                                                                              “Now let me turn to the dazzling new technologies of computers and networks for a moment. Perhaps the saddest occasion for me is to be taken to a computerized classroom and be shown children joyfully using computers. They are happy, the teachers and administrators are happy, and their parents are happy. Yet, in most such classrooms, on closer examination I can see that the children are doing nothing interesting or growth inducing at all! This is technology as a kind of junk food–people love it but there is no nutrition to speak of. At its worst, it is a kind of “cargo cult” in which it is thought that the mere presence of computers will somehow bring learning back to the classroom. Here, any use of computers at all is a symbol of upward mobility in the 21st century. With this new kind of “piano,” what is missing in most classrooms and homes is any real sense of whether music is happening or just “chopsticks.”

I feel that this is a key point in his argument. Just giving the tools does not mean that we are proficient at their use. We do not want “Chopsticks” in the classroom but need the children to have the ability to explore, to have the time to become proficient in the real potential that the machines give them and this can only happen where teachers have a love and knowledge of what technology can bring to learning and create a learning environment that encourages their children to achieve mastery and that means beautiful sounds not mechanical effects.


About malbell

I am a retired Teaching and Learning Consultant. Previously I was a Primary school headteacher and deputy headteacher. I enjoy reading, doing MOOCs and learning new things.
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