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Talkin' Smack: Who Educates the Educators?

A plea for creativity in the computer lab By Dave Nagel
There are few things that affect your life as powerfully as your first child heading off to her first day of kindergarten. It's a time for reflecting upon one's own mortality, of envisioning one's child for the first time as a self-sufficient entity and of pondering the future in a completely new light. In short, it's a life-changing event.

My elder daughter started kindergarten last week. It's supposed to be a good school academically, which is one of the reasons we moved to Irvine in the first place, but clearly its I.T. department leaves something to be desired. The school is in the process of changing out its antiquated Macs for an all-peecee computer lab, and, for whatever reason, the technical foundation and principal are utterly unreceptive to the utterly reasonable suggestion that Macs be a part of a child's learning.

Hey, that's a great way to start off a child's education process: turn her into a five-year-old accountant courtesy of Microsoft!

Now, I bring this up not just to voice my disgust at the prospect of my little girl acquiring the taint of Microsoft's inadequacy or my revulsion at the idea that an institution of learning would support the antisocial business practices of the companies that have made the peecee platform dominant. It's certainly not just that.

Here's the thing. It's called "education" for a reason. Literally, "educate" is based on the Latin for "I lead out." So what do we want to lead out of a child, and how do we do it?

What we want to lead out is a thinking, self-sufficient creature, one who can contribute to the species in new ways. Hence, it is differs from indoctrination, or training, in that its goal is ultimately to produce a person who is capable of things we are not, specifically in the area of thought, rather than the performance of pre-defined tasks. It is expansive rather than restrictive. In other words, we want to produce a creative individual rather than a task-oriented drone.

In order to accomplish this goal, we provide our children with certain essential tools that will allow their creativity to be led out. Of course, one of these tools is knowledge in the form of raw facts. "This event happened on this date." "Here is how the English language currently deals with the subjunctive." "That planet right there is Jupiter." Et cetera.

Another kind of tool we provide is a process for thought. In other words, a system for arriving at decisions or drawing conclusions. This can include mathematical formulas. It can include a system of logic for drawing inferences and expanding into new areas of thought. And it can include other methods for solving problems. Essentially, we shape the engine of the mind in order to help it process information efficiently to produce original thought.

And then there are the physical tools. The pencil and paper, the desks, the telescopes, the instruments, the paint brushes, the books and, of course, the computer. These are the tools we use to apply knowledge, to study, to explore and to uncover our capabilities.

In all of these cases, we must provide the best possible tools available, tools that will have the greatest effect given the limited time and resources at hand. You don't teach facts through mere recitation. You discriminate between facts to spark interest, and you present facts in a way that's memorable and that spurs interest in learning new facts. You don't teach a kid a formula just so he or she can get the answer right on a test. You show (or should show) how a formula can solve a problem and how such problem solving techniques can be abstracted to solve new problems. And you don't give a kid a telescope with a plastic lens because such a telescope is useless as a tool. The kid can't see anything worthwhile with it, and any enthusiasm he or she might have felt for astronomy could easily be crushed by a lack of success.

The best educational tools help to lead out the best in our children. You can certainly learn without the best tools. You don't need a pencil and paper to learn. But tools facilitate education, and better tools facilitate better education. And, as better tools become available, we adopt them to this end.

In terms of the topic at hand, the question becomes, "What's the best computer for education? Is it Mac? Windows? Solaris? Linux? Irix?"

My answer might surprise you. It's a combination of all of the above.

For me and for more than half the creative professionals out there, the Macintosh is the preferred tool for creative production. For us, it's simply better as a creative platform. But not for everybody. Some Windows users out there actually prefer to use Windows, not because it's cheaper or more ubiquitous than the Mac, but because they work better in a Windows environment. And I, personally, have no interest in taking away somebody's tool of choice. To do so wouldn't make sense at all. A creative person should always be matched with the tools most suited to him or her.

This is the key to all of education: Provide the best tools for the individual. Facilitate education for the individual. Make the most of the time kids have in a formal learning environment by giving them the tools they can make the most use of.

We try to do this in many cases. But for some reason, at my daughter's school and at many others that you've all probably read about, the I.T. departments are doing away with what could very well be the most important tool in a child's development: choice when it comes to available technology.

If you're anything like me, your kids have been using the Mac from a very early age. My older daughter was using Photoshop at age 2 to make pictures and has since moved on to dedicated painting applications like Studio Artist and Painter and has even tried her hand at a little vector-based animation. You can imagine the excitement of a little girl who can watch her picture moving on the screen. The first time she did it, I could see in her eyes the realization of what she knew she could accomplish now and what she wanted to work on in the future.

And the Mac has not been incidental to this process. The Mac's interface cut out a lot of the frustrations that might have hampered early learning experiences like this. The icons and file structure came almost naturally to her. And the software she uses is, in many cases, not available on the Windows platform. And now she gets to throw away the bulk of her experience and move on to a different platform.


I.T. people don't like Macs, and administrators, whether they be corporate managers or members of a school board, listen to I.T. people on technology issues. Nevermind that Macs are easier to administer, last longer and cost less to maintain in the long run than peecees. My daughter's school, and many others, don't even want donations of Macs. They don't want free tools for education.

That's ridiculous.

Now obviously I don't have a solution to this problem of limited thinking on the part of school administrators. If I did, this would be a column about how I got my daughter's school to accept Macs instead of a rant. But I do know that many of you out there have faced the same problem and that some of you have actually managed to effect change in your children's schools. And I and others would like to know how you did it. So please post your experiences or thoughts in the Creative Mac user forum or, if you prefer, e-mail me so that I can try out some of your techniques and pass the results along to our readers who will be facing this same problem when their kids are ready for school.

Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of several World Wide User Groups, including Synthetik Studio Artist, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion, Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; and executive producer of the Digital Media Net family of publications. You can reach him at dnagel@digitalmedianet.com.

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