Computers, Networks and Education
By Alan C. Kay  

PLOT OF TEMPERATURES in the Great Lakes region of the U.S. is part of an international map created from data collected by students in hundreds of schools.
The children took measure ments at the same time of day and pooled them through a network. Making such maps is part of the Weather in Action unit of the National
Geographic Kids Network curriculum. It is also an example of how networks can enhance scientific collaboration-for children as much as for adults.

heroes and villains-would be a well-meaning attempt to use books, computers or other representational media as "delivery vehicles." There could be videodiscs showing plant and animal growth, and the students could have network access to data about crop yields, taxonomies of animals and plants, and so forth. But why substitute a "music appreciation" approach for the excitement of direct play? Why teach "science and math appreciation," when the children can more happily (and to better effect) actually create whole worlds?

What is great in biology and humankind's other grand investigations cannot be "delivered." But it can be learned-by giving students direct contact with "the great chain of being," so that they can internally generate the structures needed to hold powerful ideas. Media of all kinds can now be used to amplify the learning experience, whereas before they acted as a barrier to the "good stuff."

The Open School is nothing if not straightforward. Because "things that grow" is the essence of what is called

the Life Lab program, the children made a garden, tearing up part of their asphalt playground to get good clean dirt. The third graders, while in the midst of their city-building project, spent months modeling and debating designs for the garden. They ultimately arrived at a practical, child-scaled pattern featuring a herringbone-shaped walkway that puts every plot in reach.

Not surprisingly, the children found that the simulation capability of their computers helped them examine the merits of many different walkway designs. Like modern-day architects, they used the computer to help construct models of their ideas. Teachers Dolores Patton and Leslie Barclay facilitated the process, but it was the children who came up with the ideas.

There are many Life Lab schools in California. Because they are engaged in similar pursuits, they have things to say to one another. For them, networks serve as much more than a conduit for retrieving fixed data; they allow students to develop knowledge of their own collaboratively. For example, it is easy to make one's own weather maps

on the basis of simultaneous recordings of temperature and barometric pressure and the like and to argue via network about what the maps mean.

Computer animation can be used to ponder the patterns more readily. A fairly easy inference is that pressure changes seem to go from west to east. Could this have anything to do with the rotation of the earth? The directions of winds are more complicated, since they are more affected by features of the terrain. Do they match up with pressure changes?

We can go still deeper. Children are capable of much depth and attention to quality when they are thinking about questions that seem important to them. Why do animals do what they do? Why do humans do what we do? These are vital issues. Close observation, theories and role playing help. Reading books about animal behavior helps. The teacher can even explain some ideas of the Nobel laureate Niko Tinbergen, such as the suggestion that animal behavior is organized into modules of innate patterns.