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[HaBi 2]    Fishwagons and smart-alecs
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Fishwagons and smart-alecs

Maybe you've seen it: a TV commercial for a new computer system to teach young kids basic skills. The ad shows cute little girl listening to voice synthesizer ask, "Can a fish ride in a wagon?" The computer screen she is watching shows a smiling fish sitting in a wagon.

Cut to girl's face. She says, "No," giggles, and presses appropriate button. The right answer.

A wide shot shows the kids filing out of the classroom, with voice-over explaining that kids in this pilot program scored high in Important Standardized Tests.

Something about it bugged me. I brought up the question to my inhouse Child Developmental Curricula Evaluator: niece Hannah, age 8. "Can a fish ride in a wagon?"

"Yes," she says. "If it had water in it. Or if it was a fish-seding wagon. But the answer would be no."

Hannah returns to card game - coincidentally, Go Fish - while uncle tediously embellishes child's succinct wisdom.

Hannah knew the answers (emphasis on the plural) - but more revealing was that she knew "the answer would be no." At eight, she can play the game. Not surprising, really. Kids who don't play the game get into trouble. I can't vouch for the truth of this story I heard several years ago, but I am sure similar things happen in classrooms daily:

A class had been studying how air pressure decreases with altitude. A test question asked them how a barometer could be used to measure the height of a tall building.

All the kids dutifully scribbled out the single, predictable answer, except one. He wrote: "There are two ways. First. you could drop the barometer from the top of the building and time how long it takes to fall. You can find the height with the equation
y = 1/2 a t^2 , where y equals distance dropped, a is the acceleration constant (gravitational acceleration is about 9.8 meters per second^2) and t is the time. "Second, you could go to the owner of the building and say, "Here, I'll give you this neat barometer if you'll tell me how tall your building is."

At last report, the child was in trouble with some of his teachers, who labeled him a "smart alec."

Well, nobody will mistake Hannah for a smart alec. When her school cuts teachers' salaries to buy computers, and the machine asks her about fish locomotion, she'll know enough to punch the correct, narrow, bonehead answer that satisfies stupid, channeled circuitry. And the practice she gains will indeed help her do well on Important Standardized Tests, which are as stupid as computers, though cheaper.

What's. remarkable to me is that she can still come up with the right answers at all, but then, she is only in third grade. Thirteen years of computer-aided only-one-correct-answer testing will probably effectively blur the line for her between what's right and what's expected.

The trend toward computers in the classroom - and, for that matter, computers in the real world - is a wonderful thing when humans pose the questions and computers find the answers, for the combination of human creativity and a computer's tireless, plodding research is potent.

But do it the other way around and we'll only rid the world of smart alecs. In that case: good luck to us all.

Brad Lemley
Washington, D.C,


  [Chaos CD]
[HaBi 2]    Fishwagons and smart-alecs
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