Learning Learning/Parable 2/More on Foobar
I first used this parable in the early days of computers to warn against basing negative conclusions about computers on observations about what happens when computers are used in a manner analogous to that pencil experiment. At that time I ended the story with something like "And not surprisingly, the Foobarians concluded that pencils do not contribute to better learning." Subsequent events have indeed shown my fears to be well-founded: Conclusions of a Foobarian kind have in fact slipped into the accepted wisdom of American educators. For example, educational experiments in which children's access to computers and to computer culture was far short of what would be needed to learn programming have been accepted as proof that programming computers is not an educationally valuable experience for children. But in telling the Foobar story today I would give it another, even more insidious, ending. In fact what I now understand that the Foobarian educators would actually do is not reject the pencil but appropriate it by finding trivial uses of the pencil that could be carried out within their meager resources and that would require minimal change in their old ways of doing things. For example they might continue their oral methods of doing chemistry but use the pencils to keep grade sheets. Or they might develop a course in "pencil literacy" which would include learning what pencils are made of, how to sharpen them and perhaps how to sign one's name.
I qualify this kind of appropriation as "more insidious" than merely drawing misleading conclusions because its retarding effect on future developments is cast in the concrete of a culture, including a profession of specialists who see their (often tenured!) jobs as implementing schools' construct of "penciling" or, to come back to the literal plane, of "computing." I see it as the critical issue that must be understood if one wants to make sense of the situation of computers in schools and to participate in steering its future in a constructive direction.
This is the first third of an article published in The Washington Post Education Review Sunday, October 27, 1996.