Monday, September 14, 2009

Living on the edge versus living by the book

In a previous posting I mentioned the senior citizen computer basics course I taught. In my ignorance I said yes to this venture without fully realizing how basic a computer basics course could be. What I learned was invaluable, and the experience also validated what I have observed about the current youth generation's use of technology - we'll call this living on the edge; and older generations use of technology - living by the book... except there isn't a book.

I realized how basic the computer class needed to be in the very first few minutes. These were, keep in mind, brave senior citizens who were willing to drive to a community college campus where they were surrounded by young people and who were willing to try to understand the mystifying world of computers and the Internet. I expected to help them learn basic skills such as right-clicking and click-drag but I realized very soon even that was much too advanced when one member of the class picked up the mouse and pointed it at the computer screen like a TV remote control. Later I realized this was about as technological as any of them got in their day-to-day life and it was a pretty understandable way of trying out the mouse.

Here is what is interesting to me about this - I once helped out a kindergarten teacher with her first-ever visit to the computer lab. Many of her students came to school from the farm labor camp so we assumed students may not be very familiar with computer technology. We anticipated having to help them A LOT! We were, in fact, quite shocked to see all the students knew the basics, could work the mouse and could follow our visual and verbal instructions to open a simple drawing program and start drawing.

Having had that experience with 5 year-olds who came from some of the poorest environments in our county, I somehow had gotten the impression there was a baseline of knowledge about computers that everyone had. I was wrong, the senior citizens helped me see this over and over again. This was a group who was starting very much at ground zero. I had trouble defining for myself as an instructor how low the skills needed to be. Many times I realized I had made a leap beyond their knowledge level. In fact, I wish I had been blogging then because I could have chronicled all the faux pas I made in my ignorance.

I learned very quickly they wanted step-by-step instructions in writing. They wanted to learn only one way to do things, in fact, they did not understand why there were several ways to accomplish the same tasks. For example, why would you need to have Ctrl+C as a command for Copy when there was a pull down menu where you could find the command for Copy.

I ended up creating very simple, very clear, directions for every single task, beginning with how to login to the community college system. Many of them had to refer to these written step-by-step directions every single class in order to be able to login. In essence I created a book for them, one handout at a time, which carefully explained every step, showed every menu, and guided them through the tasks.

Eventually this realization dawned on me... This was a generation who expected a user manual with every appliance and every program. They lived by the book. They didn't turn on the new clock-radio until they had read the manual which came with the clock-radio. When I relayed the message that programs did not come with a book, they looked at me as if I had grown a second head. How would you learn to use the programs, they asked, if there was no book?

The current generation however would not open a manual/book for a new program or video game. This would not even enter their thinking. Watch any child with a new game to see how they learn to operate new programs. They open it, they try something, the game ends, they try something new the next time, get a little farther, the game ends... and so on. They collaborate with buddies to find new tactics and strategies but mostly they just keep trying. They live on the edge, willing to see Game End, as they learn and get better with every try. This is a method of learning and an attitude we don't encourage nearly enough in the K-12 schools of today. (Look for a future blog post on this topic.)

By the end of the class most senior citizens had become more comfortable trying new things. They learned they weren't really going to 'break' the computer if they tried a menu item which was unfamiliar. Slowly they had learned to live a little more on the edge and a little less by the book. In the world in which they had grown up every new machine came with a user manual. There is a reason why they believed in working 'by the book.'

I have to admit sometimes I wish there were a few more books to help me work through my areas of ignorance. However learning is about the journey, not the destination, right?!
Yours in ignorance!


  1. Oh the classic constructivist vs. instructivist debate...

  2. Getting very wise about education aren't you?!