We all make mistakes, that’s how we learn

I got to make the opening remarks on American Public Media’s MarketPlace radio show this afternoon. I’m thrilled to have been on the show. I hope I didn’t hurt Steve Wozniak’s feelings by being candid about how buggy the early computers were. It’s hard to be a pioneer because there are so many people standing on your shoulders. And the Woz has remained true to his support of education and learning through it all. Thanks, Steve.

Now, let’s clarify a few points made by the show’s editors about the contributions of the inventors mentioned. It’s easy to conclude that an inventor’s contribution is less valuable because he or she didn’t get everything right. For example, film didn’t immediately revolutionize education as Edison predicted. But over the long haul, film, and then video, really has made it possible to expand learning opportunities by many orders of magnitude. It took the concept of film transformed into video and then made accessible through mass digital storage and web communications to realize the enormous impact Edison envisioned. Just look at what you can learn from You-Tube or Kahn Academy. Without Edison we wouldn’t be where we are today.

The contribution of American psychologist, B.F. Skinner, is a little different. He is often maligned because of the radical notions he proposed in his elaborated theory of behaviorism. The public tends to remember Skinner’s baby box and his idea that mind and consciousness were not necessary constructs to effectively train either chickens or humans. The show concluded the section on Skinner with the comment, “Turns out buttons and levers weren’t a great way to learn.”  What we sometimes forget is that Skinner’s notion of positive reinforcement is embedded in every gold star or smiley face we paste next to a student’s name. Every video game is designed with a careful balance of rewards and punishments. This process is so basic to modern education and training that we are likely to forget we owe it to B.F. Skinner. Actually, buttons and levers are a great way to learn but they are the way the learner responds to a stimulus. If the trainer doesn’t present an effective stimulus the whole teaching system will fail.

So the inventors didn’t get it all right and neither have the educational technologists. Teachers aren’t going to get it all right either. One of the other guests on the show, author Patricia Burch, was quoted as saying, “You don’t want to be working out the bugs on kids.” That’s only half right. Maybe not “on” children but we should experiment “with” children — encourage children, teachers and parents to experiment together to discover effective ways to use each new technology as it comes along. None of us is going to get it all right all at once. It’s ok to make mistakes, to generate ideas, test them out, discard the ones that don’t seem to be working and then test them again as conditions change and as people change.

What we need to guard against is the hype. No one technology or invention is going to be the answer to every educational challenge. As this show has pointed out, there is a long history of innovation in educational practice and we have more than 40 years of experimenting with computers in schools to call upon. We need to pay attention to that history and learn its lessons. Before we spend our hard-won educational dollars on some fancy new hardware we need to examine what went before, what was tried, what worked so well that it is now part of our foundational thinking and what failed in the prevailing context when it was first introduced. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea and will work today with a little tweaking. We are all learning and adapting. This process is not going to end.

Check out MarketPlace’s new website on Classroom Tech at http://www.marketplace.org/topics/education/learning-curve/classroom-tech-history-hype-and-disappointment#discussion


About lizaloop

Social philosopher, educator, writer, idea generator, teacher, parent, grandmother, community volunteer, musician, former horseback rider, skier, former dog owner, trouble-maker.

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