Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Bag Full Of Laughs

When we were kids, my brother had a cool toy called "A Bag Full of Laughs." It was indeed a bag and inside of it was a speaker the size of a fist. If you squeezed the bag in such a way that you depressed the button, the bag would issue several seconds of a man laughing uproariously. It was quite a popular toy in its day and was even considered "educational" by virtue of it being electronic. It was from this toy that I learned to change batteries.

One Christmas I received an electric football game. The idea was to arrange your teams of 11 little posed plastic players on the metal surface of the field, then when all was ready you flicked the switch and the game would vibrate, causing the players to move about in a random manner until the ball carrier was "tackled" by coming into contact with an opposing player. There was about a 50-50 chance that your team would move the proper direction on any given play, but then we figured out that if we carefully arranged the little plastic bits on the bottom of the players, we could have some influence on their direction, especially if we used our fingers to gently vibrate the field rather than rely on the motor.

Did you know that if you type the number 07734 into a pocket calculator, then flip it upside down, those little square numbers read "hELLO?" We learned to spell all kinds of words on our calculators, some of them naughty, like 8008." (Remember, the numbers were all made of straight lines.)

This was considered state-of-the-art technology at various points during the 1960's. Dad, who drove a blue car with fins that we called The Batmobile, used to bring home stacks of cards printed with numbers, some of which were punched out. He explained that this was how they told the computer at his office, the one that took up a whole room, what to do. We would use the discarded cards for making arts and crafts. By the 70's he bought our family the first commercially available video game system called Odyssey which essentially made little square lights show up on your television screen. If you wanted graphics, the system came with a collection of thin plastic sheets that adhered to the screen with static electricity and then you could move your little square lights around behind them. We grew quite skilled at the Odyssey version of Pong which had no "walls" off which your "ball" could bounce, but instead allowed players to control the ball's motion with a little dial. A couple years later, Dad brought home an Apple II, which took up an entire tabletop.

Sometimes we felt like we were living in the future, but we weren't. I'm not sure if my parents really bought into the "educational" angle for the electronic toys, but most of the specific skills we learned -- changing batteries, arranging little plastic bits, writing words on calculators, sticking plastic sheets to TV screens -- were either useless in the actual future or were skills we could have just as easily acquired in other ways.

Today, there are charlatans pushing the idea of more, more, more when it comes to classroom technology. School districts are spending billions on continuously upgrading their screen-based devices at a time when budgets are shrinking and teachers are fleeing the profession for greener pastures. I keep hearing that this or that "innovation" will revolutionize how we teach this or that, but no one has ever shown me a single thing worth learning, at least in the early years, that isn't already being taught as effectively (and usually far more effectively) using the methods that have been around since the days of Socrates. No, that rational doesn't hold water: the push for classroom technology is just a sales pitch from technology companies trying to sell their technology. It's a classic grift.

But still, they insist, even so, the kids are going to at least need those "technology skills" for their future. The argument in a nutshell, as one self-described "radical unschooler" puts it on a meme that has been circulating in my corner of the internet:

Technology is here to stay. So why would I choose to keep my kids illiterate in a language they may need in the future? A half an hour a day does not give kids time to explore the landscape.

Indeed, technology is here to stay. That's because it has been with us since we first started fashioning tools from stones. And I'm here to tell you that the technological gadgets we use to today are emphatically not the language of the future. They are not a language at all, but rather tools, and children already know how to use them without any special help from us. Yes, there is a technology gap between the middle class and the poor, something we should address in a targeted way perhaps, but for most children in our society, there is no need to make special allowances or to provide special instructions, any more than they need special instructions in walking or talking because one of the defining characteristics of human beings is that we are tool users. When tools are available, we learn to use them. If tools aren't available for what we need to do, we make them. Of course, some of it will translate into the future, but any adult who claims to know what the future holds, especially with regards to technology, is running a scam.

You see, the future does not belong to us. It belongs to the kids who will create it. Sure, they'll learn some transferable skills from monkeying around with today's technology, just as I learned to change batteries on my brother's "A Bag Full of Laughs," but when it comes to the future, it's always our children who lead us. Technology is part of the landscape of the present, just as are rocks and sticks and fire and hills and balls and cardboard boxes. Technology is the tool of today, but if it doesn't allow us to better perform the work of mankind, which is to figure out how to get along with one another, then it will rapidly become a tool of the past. 

There is no special place in our world for tools that no longer serve us, except as collectors items or as prompts for nostalgia. Screen-based technology (which is what most people are talking about when they're talking about technology) is a tool that may or may not be here to stay. It's a tool of today. Our children will invent the tools of tomorrow, but if the only current tools they've been allowed to explore are screens, then they will be the ones who struggle to adapt to what's next. 

It's important to learn how to use all of our tools. Every tool we learn to use opens up the world a little more, making it bigger, giving us more agency, allowing us to glimpse a little more of the great truths about life. But when someone tries to raise one tool over another in the name of the mythological things we call "the future," it's a grift worthy of a bag full of laughs.

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1 comment:

Cynthia Mackey said...

I work in a parent participation preschool too. It is a fine line we walk with children and parents. I've seen this too... a child who does not even realize he is the 'victim'. This is one of the most difficult types of play to facilitate. Hard to know what to do or say to help them learn something.

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