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My Thoughts Exactly, Mr. Kay

January 25, 2009

Reading a great interview with Alan Kay about computers and education, I came across this gem:

Q: What do you think of the current trend toward one-to-one computing in schools, in which every kid has his or her own laptop or handheld?
A: Well, that’s why I invented the idea of the Dynabook [Kay’s 1968 prototype for a wirelessly networked, multimedia laptop]. That’s the whole point of that concept. As Seymour Papert once pointed out, just imagine the absurdity of a school that has only two pencils in each classroom. Or imagine a school where all the pencils are locked up in a special room.

But I think the big problem is that schools have very few ideas about what to do with the computers once the kids have them. It’s basically just tokenism, and schools just won’t face up to what the actual problems of education are, whether you have technology or not.

Think about it: How many books do schools have—and how well are children doing at reading? How many pencils do schools have—and how well are kids doing at math? It’s like missing the difference between music and instruments. You can put a piano in every classroom, but that won’t give you a developed music culture, because the music culture is embodied in people.

On the other hand, if you have a musician who is a teacher, then you don’t need musical instruments, because the kids can sing and dance. But if you don’t have a teacher who is a carrier of music, then all efforts to do music in the classroom will fail—because existing teachers who are not musicians will decide to teach the C Major scale and see what the bell curve is on that.

The important thing here is that the music is not in the piano. And knowledge and edification is not in the computer. The computer is simply an instrument whose music is ideas.

Educators have to face up to what 21st-century education needs to be about, and start thinking about solving that problem long before they bring the computer
on the scene.