Children Don’t Need Dumbed-Down Software

The coming generation of kids, including my own, will take technology to levels that we can’t currently even imagine. From the 10-year-old who landed funding on Shark Tank to the 15-year-old mobile game developer, today’s kids have never been more tech-savvy. If history is any guide, that trend will only continue.

But there’s a difference between ability to use technology and to master and profit from it, a difference between being able to place a telephone call and invent a popular app. Making software helpful and easy-to-use benefits everyone — as long as it doesn’t shield the end user from complexity. Kids can start out with the simple stuff, build on their knowledge over time and eventually master skills. Barring access to complexity, the way apps like CodeQuest and Coda Game do, insults their intelligence and doesn’t give them room to grow. Such ‘dumbing down’ of software introduces children to a form of economic imprisonment that I call digital serfdom — they become software operators and not innovators or leaders.

There are a number of steps parents can follow to prepare children for not only life in the increasingly digital world, but to thrive in it. While most schools already make technology a part of daily life, it is up to parents to encourage the self-reliance and critical thinking required to succeed in the Information Age. And if the school isn’t providing software powerful enough for adults, it is a parent’s responsibility to make sure children get their hands on that, too.

Avoid Software that Hinders Thinking

In schools, the blackboard is supplemented (or even replaced) by the blue screen. Digital games are used in the classroom by 74 percent of K-8 teachers. Fifty-six percent of children aged 8–12 have a cellphone; up to half of “very young children” use tablets and smartphones before their first birthday.

But what are children finding on those devices? Quizzes with only one right answer to vague questions, like Girl Quizzes, pictures to memorize or reorder, like the Preschool Memory Match Game; and a host of other reactive activities that place the authority in the hand of the provider — in this case, the software application. Any tutorial that has children follow a step-by-step guide without explaining the why of the game does nothing but teach subservience. At that point, you might as well just give them an inane app like Hold It! or Burrito Maker, and hope they turn into employable adults.

As author Nicholas Carr has noted, software designed to be helpful can actually “short-circuit … thinking and learning.” One study “had a group of people carry out complicated analytical and planning tasks using either rudimentary software that provided no assistance or sophisticated software that offered a great deal of aid. (P)eople using the simple software developed better strategies, made fewer mistakes and developed a deeper aptitude for the work.” Those using the more advanced software tended to “‘aimlessly click around’ when confronted with a tricky problem.”

Paradoxically, the aforementioned advanced software is actually dumbed down for humans, and does nothing to help us function. In order to raise children to be more than button-pushers, parents have a duty to curate the software they present to children, and encourage them to use it autonomously.

Exposure: Early and Often

Today’s kids are fully capable of learning how to use business-strength software like MS Office, Photoshop, and game engines. Dumbed-down “edutainment” does everyone a disservice. Kids can take it as far as they want to go.

I expose my kids to technology early and encourage using it often. This means, perhaps counter-intuitively, that I let them use their computers essentially as often as they like and for as long as they like. I try to encourage self-reliance in using technology — meaning I don’t handhold them too much and let them mess up early and often. My job isn’t to provide answers, but to help them develop the core skills necessary to get along in today’s interconnected world.

Some skills are critical, like effectively searching the internet. There’s an art to getting what you need out of search engines, and that takes practice and skills development. Understanding security is also a must. Children need to understand what phishing is, how to generate strong passwords, and how to avoid and/or handle internet trolls. Logic skills — from authoring mathematical expressions to understanding if/then/else concepts — are extremely useful and applicable when using software, such as Excel. Anyone who uses computers on a regular basis can benefit immensely from automating work, understanding the command line, and really grokking skills like zipping and backing up files.

On a purely educational front, the most critical skill is to understand how to break complex problems into constituent parts. Reductionist skills are the core of general problem solving skills. This, ultimately, is what I want for my kids — the ability to think critically, decompose complex problems, and generate useful solutions for themselves. If you don’t have that in today’s world, you’re pretty much doomed to digital serfdom, and that’s my biggest fear.

Surfing and Serfdom

What’s digital serfdom? It’s possessing just enough “skill” to operate software for a pittance but not enough to achieve greatness. I believe that it’s in the best interests of some to perpetuate and deepen today’s steep economic divide. Digital serfdom is the latest incarnation of this ancient trend. Mastery of technology is the way out of this, due to the incredible creative force multiplier that it provides. But, this is only true inasmuch as the user has true understanding of the technologies. Knowledge is most definitely power in this case.

Most schools, in my experience, focus on teaching the how and not the why of things. It’s more important to them that the student can correctly answer trivia questions about material than develop true understanding. Is it any wonder we have so many inept graduates? It seems to me that any program that encourages critical thinking and problem solving is minimized.

Teaching software development is one such program. I’ve yet to see a school program for software development that isn’t underfunded and oversubscribed. But the kids love this stuff! They hunger for it. We all know it’s an important skill set. Yet schools don’t allocate enough funds or have the right staff to properly implement these programs.

This is one of the reasons I’m so excited that ‘grown-up’ software and gaming companies are adapting education offerings and project-based curricula without dumbing down the interface. They’re making it turnkey easy for educators of all levels to shepherd their students through learning software development skills.

Don’t Dumb It Down!

As tech grows exponentially, software is rapidly progressing to a post-coding era. This evolution brings challenges, and there will be winners and losers. As with airplanes, the world is split between pilots and passengers. Stay complacent about software and you’ll create a passenger. Instead, aim to build a smarter kid by empowering them with software they can learn from. That way, they’ll have tools they’ll need to fly through life.

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