Breeding little geeks

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I've blogged about generation gaps in the past. What is possibly more interesting, although intrinsically linked, is not so much the differences between generations gone by, but those generations to come. Or at least the currently youngest one. There has been a lot of talk of the 'digital' generation - those who are growing into a world where connectivity is king. These children haven't known a world without internet access as a necessity in every home, without everyone owning at least one mobile phone, without wireless hotspots, txt and mms, torrented movies and tv shows, USB thumb drives, iPods, 22" flat panel monitors, terabyte hard drives, micro-laptops ... the list can make your eyelashes curl.

What absolutely fascinates me about this is the reluctance of some parents I've come across to acknowledge that their children are growing up in a different world to their own. People who think that children will somehow benefit from things like the Barbie B-Smart Learning Laptop, or the Leappad learning system. Well, okay. Perhaps it's not so much that children won't benefit but more that they will benefit more from something else. I see these things merely as toys, certainly not learning aids. The Barbie laptop will do nothing much more than teach them a QWERTY style keyboard layout, and possibly some basic mouse skills. The Leappad? Nothing much at all except for hand/eye coordination with that pointer, which by rights the kid should have more or less down pat by the time they're playing with Leappad.

Perhaps I'm being a little harsh. The idea of these things is (as far as I can tell) to teach some basic comprehension skills, simple maths and english games. But what about the technical skills? Kids are craving the buzz they get from technology, and I find it hard to believe that these toys are providing that. I wonder if there's a survey of how many kids own these types of devices, and what proportion of them actually use them on a daily or weekly basis?

I bought Tahlia an Asus Eee PC. About two-three times the price of one of those Barbie jobbies, but consider the benefits: firstly, she gets to use a real computer - she has to negotiate startup and shutdown procedures (albeit simplified thanks to the solid state disk and the nature of the operating system), use a mouse or trackpad to navigate the desktop and click on icons for the programs she wants, she has to answer questions like "continue a saved game, or start a new one?" and "do you want to save this document before you exit?"; she gets to write letters in the word processor (teaching basic keyboard skills as well as literacy), draw pictures in the painting programme, and capture her own image on the webcam, all in addition to the plethora of games available. Secondly, and this to me is the best bit and makes the added expense worth it, the computer will continue to challenge her as she grows: as her reading, writing and comprehension skills improve, she will be able to take advantage of more and better games and more complicated programmes; before long she will be using the internet (supervised, of course) and building essential skills for computing through her lifetime, even as the very face of computing changes before her eyes.

Much as we would probably like to shield our children from what many of us view as the devil in technology, the dangers of the internet and the sheer trickiness of programming and other advanced level tasks, these are things that our children are not just going to need to know some day, but what they are going to need tomorrow. Knowing things like regular expressions, if/then loops and shell scripts are essential to being able to interact with technology at an advanced level - regardless of what software, hardware or configuration you use - and like it or not, our children will be interacting at an advanced level from a very young age. We may not be able to teach these things to them directly (I can only barely handle a regex, and I still consider shell scripts as something pretty close to magic), but we can certainly give them the tools that will enable them to learn it for themselves. Perhaps the greatest gift we can offer our children is the building blocks from which they will be able to learn and grow and, eventually, surpass us in knowledge.

Today, my daughter handed me a letter she had written - in coloured pencil, the words "To Mum" and "love Tahlia" were almost distinguishable from the rest of the random letters. I'm sure she copied them off an old Christmas Card, but my heart nearly burst with pride when my preschooler handed this to me. The day she hands me her very first piece of software, in some programming language I've never heard of, perhaps it will.


Anonymous said...

Hello - arjuna_lj just having a look at your blog after your comments on mine re Palerang.

Absolutely agree about this gen. of preschoolers - I work in childcare in Bungendore and am constantly gobsmacked by the gap between what we expect them to know (routinely) and what they *do* know... recently a 4yo whose family donated a computer to our preschool room dismissed my thank-yous with "It's no good, it doesn't Skype very well" :)

Loquacity said...

Hey arjuna-lj ... thanks for stopping by!

I loved your anecdote, it made me think of a Shaw quote - "When a thing is funny, search it carefully for a hidden truth". In this case, the hidden truth is that children really do understand, not just about technology in general, but specifics such as Skype. The cynical would probably respond with a statement that the child had simply mimicked their parents. I would argue that most 4 year olds are able to reason and understand quite well. Even if they don't fully understand what Skype may be, they at least understand that it's something that happens on the computer, and is essential enough that not being able to do it makes the computer worthless. This further implies that they understand the value of computers and technology - the importance of owning technology that performs the tasks that we require of it. And if it can't perform those tasks, it becomes worthless.

You are in a unique position, seeing a whole range of children rather than just a small subset (as parents do). I don't know what your position on the matter is, but I have always been of the opinion that if the child expresses an interest in something, discuss it with them, teach them about it, show them how it works. Of course, the explanations have to be age-appropriate, but why should we shield children from things they express an interest in?


Anonymous said...

In response to the above comment: *definitely* - whether you call it "emergent curriculum" or just plain common sense. Engagement (on the part of the child) is everything. (And the teacher, although that probably doesn't shine through until much later on in school... all the high school/college level teachers I remember loving were *nuts* about their respective subjects - the passion made a huge impression).

There was a lovely lecture excerpt up on TeacherTube a while back - can't remember the fella's name, but he mounted a very convincing argument that today's "Educators" limit children unconscionably by declaring so many things "inappropriate" - up to and including learning to climb trees, light fires and pull delicate machinery to bits to see how it ticks. Couldn't agree more :)

susan said...

hey - admit it - you bought it for yourself!!!

Loquacity said...

Ah, Susan, you know me too well. Yeah, admittedly I had yearned after one for a while. But I couldn't justify actually buying one without using Tahlia as an excuse :P


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