Sunday, January 25, 2015

Digital natives are neither

"If it don't fit, don't force it.
Turn it over and try again."

Cliff, a dockworker at MJ Rudolpf, ca. 1977

Photo by Debbie Egan-Chin, Daily News

I can drive a car reasonably well. I know its basic functions, can dive under its hood with a reasonable idea of what does what (and even fix things occasionally), and I'm cognizant of what a car can (and cannot) do.

I grew up with cars, they were around long before I was born. I am an automotive native.

Still, when faced with driving a new model, I invariably struggle to find the defrost function. I stil struggle with it in our latest car, and we've had it for over two years. No one worries about this, though, because we are all automobile natives, and we all know that I can figure this out on my own.

Henry Ford was not an automotive native. Neither were the many, many folks who drove his Model T's, cantankerous beasts that needed a lot of loving and logic to keep chugging along. Chokes needed pulling, engines needed cranking, and tires (over and over again) needed replacing.

Yet just about anyone who owned a Model T could finagle their way through the myriad maddening Model T problems.

Not because they were natives, but because they were problem-solvers.

Miss Ramey, a school teacher, 1924, via Shorpy

Maybe the myth that a child can figure out a piece of software faster than her teacher says more about the teacher than the child.

Commercial software is made to be sold. "Intuitive" software sells better than clunky code, and pretty much all commercial programs and hardware meant for mass consumption start up in similar ways.

There is nothing amazing about a reasonably bright child picking up a device and figuring how to power it up, no more than a reasonably bright teacher starting and driving a car they've never used before. Praising your two year old using an iPad is like praising him for pooping in a toilet. I'm all for praising toddlers. But pooping and iPadding are both "user friendly" activities.

Problem solving is a an old, generic skill,  It requires reasoning, experimenting, patience, and (in some cases) chutzpah. Humans are (generally) pretty good at it.

Let's not fetishize the machine, nor the child's relationship to it.
Crows can solve problems. Humans can, too.

We should be able to do it better.

My Dad would say that you should not use a machine until you know how it worked.


Quilbilly-Todd Miller said...

The digital native label drives me nuts. Usually it is used by people who either don't want to fund training on how to use software or like you say, teachers who don't want to learn software, so it is fine to leave it to the kids to learn on their own. And in my experience they don't. Unless there is some organized attempt to teach and learn it, the kids are in the words of my next door neighbor who teachers video production, "digital savages."

doyle said...

Dear Quillbilly,

Makes me nuts, too. I was kind about teachers who marvel at kids' skills at using digital devices.

I bet Miss Ramey, the woman driving the Model T, could have figured it out easily enough.

Jenny said...

I'm no fan of the digital native label either as I feel kids are often less afraid of breaking something and so will just try stuff more than adults. It doesn't mean they have any real understanding of what they did.

Honestly, I often fall on the other side of this. I get annoyed that children don't just know how to do something on a computer. How do my kindergartners always manage to do something that screws up the book they're watching and listening to there? All they have to do is click the arrow to play it and then leave it alone! And yet, inevitably, they do something that closes the window or zooms in on the screen or something. And they don't have any idea how to fix it. Clearly they aren't ready to problem solve this on their own yet. (Of course, all of this likely says more about my lack of patience than it does their ability or lack thereof.)

doyle said...

Dear Jenny,

It's the trying new things without "any real understanding of what they did" that frightens me. As teachers, many of us are marveled by the results, done by the work of machines, not by the kids.

It's the problem-solving that needs fixing, I think--programs are designed to minimize problem-solving. When a program is called "idiot proof," we are the idiots that refers to.