Computers, Networks and Education
By Alan C. Kay  
CLOWN FISH IS FEATURED in an ocean simulation constructed by nine and 10-year-olds at the Open School. The fish repeatedly brushes up against an individual sea anemone (left panel) to build immunity to its poisonous stings. After immunity is established (right panel), the fish can take refuge among the anemone's tentacles whenever a predator (here a shark named Jaws) is near. By constructing simulations, the children learn more about the challenges of being a clown fish and the benefits of symbiosis than they would if they engaged only in more passive activities-such as reading books and observing a fish tank. The author argues that adults, too, learn best when they can test ideas through simulation.

Jerome S. Bruner of New York University has suggested that we have a number of ways to know and think about the world, including doing, seeing and manipulating symbols. What is more, each of us has to construct our own version of reality by main force, literally to make ourselves. And we are quite capable of devising new mental bricks, new ways of thinking, that can enormously expand the understandings we can attain. The bricks we develop become new technologies for thinking.

Many of the most valuable structures devised from our newer bricks may require considerable effort to acquire. Music, mathematics, science and human rights are just a few of the systems of thought that must be built up layer by layer and integrated. Although understanding or creating such constructions is difficult, the need for struggle should not be grounds for avoidance. Difficulty should be sought out, as a spur to delving more deeply into an interesting area. An educational system that tries to make everything easy and pleasurable will prevent much important learning from happening.

It is also important to realize that many systems of thought, particularly those in science, are quite at odds with common sense. As the writer Susan Sontag once said, "All understanding begins with our not accepting the world as it appears." Most science, in fact, is quite literally non-sense. This idea became strikingly obvious when such instruments as the telescope and microscope revealed that the universe consists of much that is outside the reach of our naive reality.

Humans are predisposed by biology to live in the barbarism of the deep past. Only by an effort of will and through use of our invented representations can we bring ourselves into the present and peek into the future. Our educational systems must find ways to help children meet that challenge.

In the past few decades the task before children-before all of us-has become harder. Change has accelerated so rapidly that what one generation learns in childhood no longer applies 20 years later in adulthood. In other words, each generation must be able to quickly learn new paradigms, or ways of viewing the world; the old ways do not remain usable for long. Even scientists have problems making such transitions. As Thomas S. Kuhn notes dryly in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, a paradigm shift takes about 25 years to occur-because the original defenders have to die off.

Much of the learning that will go on in the future will necessarily be concerned with complexity. On one hand, humans strive to make the complex more simple; categories in language and universal theories in science have emerged from such efforts. On the other hand, we also need to appreciate that many apparently simple situations are actually complex, and we have to be able to view situations in their larger contexts. For example, burning down parts of a rain forest might be the most obvious way to get arable land, but the environmental effects suggest that burning is not the best solution for humankind.

Up to now, the contexts that give meaning and limitation to our various knowledges have been all but invisible. To make contexts visible, make them objects of discourse and make them explicitly reshapeable and inventable are strong aspirations very much in harmony with the pressing needs and onrushing changes of our own time. It is therefore the duty of a well-conceived environment for learning to be contentious and even disturbing, seek contrasts rather than absolutes, aim for quality over quantity and acknowledge the need for will and effort. I do not think it goes too far to say that these requirements are at odds with the prevailing values in American life today. If the music is not in the "piano," to what use should media be put, in the classroom and elsewhere? Part of the answer depends on knowing the pitfalls of existing media.

It is not what is in front of us that counts in our books, televisions and computers but what gets into our heads and why we want to learn it. Yet as Marshall H. McLuhan, the philosopher of communications, has pointed out, the form is much of what does get into our heads; we become what we behold. The form of the carrier of information is not neutral; it both dictates the kind of information conveyed and affects thinking processes.