Are we insulating our 21C learners from critical thinking?

Today is the 30th anniversary of the ZX Spectrum. This little box of wires, alongside some forward-thinking parents who patiently saved up to buy one for the family, crafted my career plans and interests from a very early age. Five to be precise. I know I am not alone in being introduced to computers at this early an age, especially in the 1980s, but to me there is a clear difference between the children using iPads and those who used ZX Spectrums (or their contemporaries): real critical thinking.

Today’s computers provide so much functionality and are so integral to the day-to-day life of the family there is much less time dedicated to tinkering. Even when your child gets a chance to experiment they are insulated from the core functions of the computer by helpful graphical user interfaces, voice recognition, touch screens and thousands of pre-written apps. So your toddler can swipe and pinch an iPad screen? Fantastic, but in ten years time how much further will they have progressed? Computer experience akin to bubble wrapping the user is rarely going to inspire, but what about if they could move on to change the way the iPad functioned without the need for expensive developer licences or extra hardware? What if they could tinker, knowing that if the worst happened they could reboot to a stable state and start again?

You thought this was another plug for the Raspberry Pi didn’t you? Not this time. To my dismay, the same insulation is happening in the classroom. As teachers we strive to make learning accessible to all, so we create many ways to access the same information: text, presentations, podcasts, video lessons, wikis, blogs. And we keep doing it, adding an extra layer to the fact bubble surrounding our learners. We explain, they absorb and we watch for signs that they aren’t understanding it before adding another layer and starting again. I’ve experienced this more and more in the last seven years of teaching and think the solution is as simple as the ZX Spectrum itself. Users who tinkered with the computer engaged more deeply than those who simply tried to load a tape: learners who tinker with the resources should more fully grasp the concepts contained within them. As teachers we should stop removing the possibility for divergent thinking from our learners by overloading them with all the solutions in all 52 flavours.

Today, in not so many words, I was asked to provide transcripts for videos which I had selected and included in a set of theory notes. Admittedly this was the first time I had heard this kind of request but then again two years ago I wasn’t recording video summaries. Or dividing up my non-contact time into podcast friendly chunks. It made me stop and think – is this approach actually helping or hindering my pupils? Is our eagerness to engage removing the challenge and spark or interpreting knowledge in a unique way?

Retro Day!

So today I’ve been clearing out my cupboards a little and finally making time to try and get the multitude of 1980s computing kit I’ve collected over the years set up and working.

I had limited success. The ZX Spectrum 48k with rubber keys had a broken keyboard membrane so although it powered up no amount of keyboard bashing would make it do anything other than display the phrase which really did burn permanently into my old black and white portable:

Next was the ZX Spectrum 48k plastic key model. I had this one as a child and it set me off on the path to crave a career as programmer and then teacher. This time it worked fine but I couldn’t get the tv to tune precisely so every command was a crazily, distorted blur. It does work but perhaps needs an older tv. I boxed this one up for Martin.
The third spectrum was a grey +2 model. Easily the ugliest of the bunch but unsurprisingly also the most robust. It worked first time and the attached tape deck also had no issues. I was pretty stunned at the build quality to be honest! Amstrad weren’t all bad then.
I tried a few games and soon remembered the length of time it took to load anything. Never mind make a cup of tea, I was able to teach an introduction to a class before returning my attentions to the old dear!
The three Spectravideo joysticks didn’t work so these are to be donated to the art department as still life resources. There was also an extra power adapter which will be winging it’s way to BobToms100 in the next few days. I find it amazing and heartening that so many people still have and use their old computers. Plenty of people around my age no doubt!
The only machine I didn’t have time to try out was the C64. It has all the original bits n bobs but no games. Another friend is going to receive this for their classroom / nostalgic memories.
If this whets your appetite for retro fun, here are a few emulator sites that nearly replicate the entire experience: however, to fully immerse yourself in retro heaven, you’ll need to make yourself a cup of tea before playing.
Can you imagine teaching classes using these machines now? Do you? If so, get in touch as I’d love to hear about it!