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Growing Tech Skills

The 2010 Sept 19 online issue of the NY Times Magazine has many articles on learning. The one titled Achieving Techno-Literacy considers the place for tech in school, in life in the context of home-schooling their son. In case the preceding link limits access in the future, here is the last third of the article. Quote:

Technology will change faster than we can teach it. My son studied the popular programming language C++ in his home-school year; that knowledge could be economically useless soon. The accelerating pace of technology means his eventual adult career does not exist yet. Of course it won’t be taught in school. But technological smartness can be. Here is the kind of literacy that we tried to impart:

• Every new technology will bite back. The more powerful its gifts, the more powerfully it can be abused. Look for its costs.

• Technologies improve so fast you should postpone getting anything you need until the last second. Get comfortable with the fact that anything you buy is already obsolete.

• Before you can master a device, program or invention, it will be superseded; you will always be a beginner. Get good at it.

• Be suspicious of any technology that requires walls. If you can fix it, modify it or hack it yourself, that is a good sign.

• The proper response to a stupid technology is to make a better one, just as the proper response to a stupid idea is not to outlaw it but to replace it with a better idea.

• Every technology is biased by its embedded defaults: what does it assume?

• Nobody has any idea of what a new invention will really be good for. The crucial question is, what happens when everyone has one?

• The older the technology, the more likely it will continue to be useful.

• Find the minimum amount of technology that will maximize your options.

I don’t think my son mastered all those principles in one year, but he got a start. For the most part, learning at home is more demanding than learning in a classroom because it requires more self-direction. On one particularly long day, with books piled up and papers spread out, my son was slumped in his chair.

“Is everything O.K.?” I asked.

“It’s hard,” he said. “I not only have to be the student, I also have to be the teacher.”

“Yes! So what have you learned about being a teacher?”

“You have to teach the student — that’s me — not only to learn stuff but to learn how to learn.”

“And have you?”

“I think I am doing better as the student than the teacher. I’m learning how to learn, but I can’t wait till next year when I have some real good teachers — better than me.”

He had learned the most critical thing: how to keep learning. A month ago he entered high school eager to be taught — not facts, or even skills, but a lifelong process that would keep pace with technology’s rapid, ceaseless teaching.

If we listen to technology, and learn to be proficient in its ways, then we’ll be able to harness this most powerful force in the world. If not, we’ll be stuck at the bottom of the class.

[A version of this article appeared in print on September 19, 2010, on page MM21 of the Sunday Magazine.]

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