In October 1981 Seymour Papert and I attended an OPEC meeting in Vienna. It was the one at which Sheik Yamani delivered his famous speech about giving a poor man a fishing rod, not fish--teach him how to make a living, not take a handout. In a private meeting with Yamani, he asked us if we knew the difference between a primitive and an uneducated person. We were smart enough to hesitate, giving him the occasion to answer his own question, which he did very eloquently.
The answer was simply that primitive people were not uneducated at all, they simply used different means to convey their knowledge from generation to generation, within a supportive and tightly knit social fabric. By contrast, he explained, an uneducated person is the product of a modern society whose fabric has unraveled and whose system is not supportive.
The great sheik's monologue was itself a primitive version of Papert's constructivist ideas. One thing led to another and both of us ended up spending the next year of our lives working on the use of computers in education in developing countries.
The most complete experiment in this period was in Dakar, Senegal, where two dozen Apple computers with the programming language Logo were introduced into an elementary school. The children from this rural, poor, and underdeveloped west African nation dove into these computers with the same ease and abandon as any child from middle-class, suburban America. The Senegalese children showed no difference in adoption and enthusiasm due to the absence of a mechanistic, electronic, gadget-oriented environment in their normal life. Being white or black, rich or poor, did not have any bearing. All that counted, like learning French in France, was being a child.
Within our own society we are finding evidence of the same phenomenon. Whether it is the demographics of the Internet, the use of Nintendo and Sega, or even the penetration of home computers, the dominant forces are not social or racial or economic but generational. The haves and the have-nots are now the young and the old. Many intellectual movements are distinctly driven by national and ethnic forces, but the digital revolution is not. Its ethos and appeal are as universal as rock music.
Most adults fail to see how children learn with electronic games. The common assumption is that these mesmerizing toys turn kids into twitchy addicts and have even fewer redeeming features than the boob tube. But there is no question that many electronic games teach kids strategies and demand planning skills that they will use later in life. When you were a child, how often did you discuss strategy or rush off to learn something faster than anybody else?
Today a game like Tetris is fully understandable too quickly. All that changes is the speed. We are likely to see members of a Tetris generation who are much better at rapidly packing the trunk of a station wagon, but not much more. As games move to more powerful personal computers, we will see an increase in simulation tools (like the very popular SimCity) and more information-rich games.
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