How digital children grow up
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #20

Babies don't need textbooks. They are born with the ability to learn, and do so rapidly, grasping concepts that should be formidably advanced from their point of view. They learn from their environment, using their senses to form an understanding of the world based on the immediacy of their surroundings. Relying very little on 'taught' learning, small children grow through experience of objects and through participation in activities.

Much later in life, adults continue to learn this way. Also able to read, grown-ups use the written word to understand indirectly concepts too complex to live out first hand. Somewhere between infancy and adulthood, children are forced to discover that learning requires reading. Although children's textbooks aim to convey what can be easily and better learnt through direct experience, growing to rely on this hardly immediate and relatively cumbersome source of knowledge is very much a part of early childhood. In this information age where knowledge flows like electricity around the globe, technologies such as virtual reality and interactive multimedia provide a way to retain and bring back some of that immediacy to learning, now usually lost in the first days of school.

When learning about the cultures of Japanese rice growers, or the habitat of the Giant Panda, or the atmosphere of the Great Depression, a physical visit and interaction is obviously the best way. Not only would this provide insights into the small but crucial things that are only noticeable at close quarters, it would also make the learning process very fast and painless -- even enjoyable. Textbooks on the other hand tend to encourage rote learning of raw data without understanding. Somewhere in between lie the technological alternatives to real experience, which is not always possible. Virtual reality or interactive multimedia systems can become knowledge machines -- providing indirect experience rather than facts.

Knowledge machines would also add freedom to a growing child's learning. Babies typically express their curiosity for each and every thing around them, not proceeding in any highly organized manner. This natural way, of learning on impulse, inculcates knowledge more strongly than any formal course. Growing children, with a curiosity similarly growing to encompass far more than just their immediate surroundings, cannot easily find this freedom. They are being taught to organize their learning needs to periods and chapters, and their only source for 'knowledge- on-demand' is the nearest and usually unreliable grown-up. Multimedia tools that can be used without the help of adults (or literacy for that matter) are now becoming available. If wide enough in scope, they will provide the flexibility that infants always had.

It's not as if books are bad; written text is the purest form of communication available to humankind (telepathy not being practical on a large scale), and is often the only way to express and understand abstract concepts. A book when written to express and not to dictate, requires the reader to recreate what the author intended; to reinvent or relive in some way the concepts in the text. Text can be a powerful medium -- more so even than direct experience, if it communicates something beyond it. However, if limited to 'teaching' as in textbooks, then it restricts learning. Perhaps it even impairs learning, making children less receptive to immediate surroundings, less able to learn without being taught.

It is now possible, at least as far as technology is concerned, to change the emphasis from reading to learning, and to bring a degree of immediate experience as never before to a vast number of subjects. It is possible, if we so wish, to ensure that as children grow and acquire new skills, they do not lose that most precious one they were born with -- that of learning.

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