Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Thinkers and doers and the OLPC

There's this passage from Holes In The Wall, a BusinessWeek post about Indian physicist Sugata Mitra who installed a computer in the wall of his office facing the slums to see what the local street children would do. They experimented and became computer-literate in an amazingly short amount of time, but could not explain why things worked, only that input X led to response Y.

Mitra: ...it's functional literacy... It's already happened in cable TV in India... The guys who set up the meters, splice the coaxial cables, make the connection to the house, etc., are very similar to these kids. They don't know what they're doing. They only know that if you do these things, you'll get the cable channel. And they've managed to [install] 60 million cable connections so far.

Functional literacy is a great start, but it is only a start. It's great to have functional literacy in many fields, but you need to be able to take at least a few into mastery. As Raymond explained to me a few days ago, it's not enough to acquire skills and take the information that's fed to you; if you want to do more, you've got to continually ask So What? and Why? and figure out how things work instead of memorizing the steps it takes to make them happen. Be a thinker, not just a doer. (Of course, thinkers must also be doers in order to get their thoughts into fruition.)

More on thinking vs doing here.

There's a bad truism among certain activists that education is the key. The key to what? Like all truisms the idea is incomplete. Decades of valuing education over action have left social movements educated and impotent. Thinking about power is more important than thinking about education -- spreading information is only important if people will do something with that information. We've figured out how to spread the information, but people aren't doing anything with it.

To this I would argue that education is lots more than just the spread of information; it include thinking about power and learning how to use it. The trouble is that this kind of thinking - doing-something thinking - is the type that you can't explicitly teach. It's part of what I'm aiming to say tomorrow during my Expo presentation on good textbooks. A good textbook (or a teacher or class, for that matter) isn't simply a way of conveying content from one mind to another. It's a way of creating (or recreating) an experience that transforms the learner's way of thinking. By definition, you can't come up with a standard way to make that happen - the point is nonstandardization, the point is figuring it out for yourself, and that's what makes teaching so tough (and so rewarding).

I found the above quote by following a comment link from a blog post on nonlinear learning that points out that knowledge tools (specifically, the OLPC) are not enough if students aren't taught how to use them. Several comments down the line, someone essentially says "OLPC is about hardware, not about how to use the hardware... other people need to pick up the educational aspect of things." It seems like we need people interested in education and fluent in teaching that can travel and immerse themselves in different school systems while understanding the technology behind the laptop well enough to see how it could be best implemented in various places.

Well, then. I may have found something productive to do with my global wanderings investigating engineering education next year. I'm going to need to do more work and research on this, but I wonder if it's an idea worth bringing up to the OLPC people at some point - and when and how (and to whom). I've been lurking on the project mailing lists since they existed, but have never actually spoken.

PS - David pointed out that I have a huge comments backlog - sorry about that, everyone! I'm not used to moderating these things (actually, I'm just going to turn moderation off and leave the captcha on; trying to cut down on blog spam here). Now to write replies to everyone!

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