In 1972, Alan Kay gave a speech at the ACM conference on the design of a computer for children (http://mprove.de/diplom/gui/kay72.html).  This presentation introduced the world to the Dynabook, a concept of Alan’s from the 60’s that he was pursuing at Xerox PARC in the 70’s.

His comment, at the time, is that much that passes for “change” in education (and elsewhere) is simply “painting over rust.”  It looks pretty for a day or two, but then the paint falls off and you are back where you started.  When we look at the world of personal computing since the 1970’s, we’ve seen lots of attempts to force fit failed educational models inside the new tools, giving the illusion of change where none existed.  Like Seymour Papert, Kay was one of the few visionaries who understood from the beginning that the power of computers in kids hands came from the artifacts they created themselves.  This model (Papert calls it “constructionism” says that it is the act of creating something in which a child shows her true learning.  Whether (as Papert suggests) it is a sand castle, a poem, or a computer program, the point is the same – the student is not treated as some vessel to be pumped full of stuff.  Instead, the child’s mind should be triggered to do what comes naturally – to make observations about the world around him, and to create and test models of this world in the quest for understanding.

Which brings us to tablets today.  All across the world, we are seeing huge installations of tablets as the next big thing in education.  While there is much to like about these devices (their true portability, long battery life, etc.) I am still waiting to see the kind of child-appropriate programming environment envisioned by Kay and by Papert (to name two examples) with which children can build and run their own models.  This software exists on netbooks, laptops, and all the other computers we now seem to have put on the back burner and, as a result, we may be (in the short term) making a huge step backwards.  Search for Logo, Squeak or Scratch to see what I mean.  At this point, precious little exists to let kids harness the true power of the tablets they will be getting.

Textbook publishers love tablets.  Be afraid.  Be very afraid.  This romance is destined to drive tablet use as a distribution medium for the same content that has failed to meet the needs of all learners for generations while creating the illusion of newness.  It is, in fact, just another layer of paint over the rust.

Will this change?  Apple banned Scratch (a logo-ish language for kids developed at MIT) from the iPad.  This was one of the most stupid decisions that company ever made.  In the Android world, I expect Scratch to appear sometime in the next few months (at least that is my hope).  There is a language called Frink that runs on Androids, and while not based on Logo, still allows kids to write their own programs.

As schools race to embrace tablets, let’s stand up and ask: “Are you painting over rust?”  That is a question worth asking.

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