I first heard about the “If I was a Poor Black Kid” controversy on NPR of all places. Since the racism involved was obvious and ham-handed, I didn’t actually read the Forbes column in question until I saw that my friend Jeff Hess* had written about it. Here’s the part of that column that I found most interesting:
If I was a poor black kid I’d use the free technology available to help me study. I’d become expert at Google Scholar. I’d visit study sites like SparkNotes and CliffsNotes to help me understand books. I’d watch relevant teachings on Academic Earth, TED and the Khan Academy. (I say relevant because some of these lectures may not be related to my work or too advanced for my age. But there are plenty of videos on these sites that are suitable to my studies and would help me stand out.) I would also, when possible, get my books for free at Project Gutenberg and learn how to do research at the CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia to help me with my studies.
I would use homework tools like Backpack, and Diigo to help me store and share my work with other classmates. I would use Skype to study with other students who also want to do well in my school. I would take advantage of study websites like Evernote, Study Rails, Flashcard Machine, Quizlet, and free online calculators.
Leave the racism aside here (and I know that’s pretty hard): The whole column isn’t entirely about technology, but it’s pretty close. The word “teacher” doesn’t appear in it once, but there certainly are a lot of web sites that get name-checked.
Jeff takes care of the problem with this approach to education very quickly:
The advice…reminds me of an experiment I conducted several years ago. I wrote a letter to my 13-year-old self, filled with advice on how to make my life easier and future self a better person. That letter too was filled with solid advice. Guess how much my adult self implemented? Not much.
This whole controversy reminds me how much I hate the term “digital native.” My 7-year old has been giving me lessons in how to play Super Mario Brothers on the Wii. Trust me, it is a truly humbling experience. However, if he’s taking his online reading tests before the school bell rings in the morning, I’m the one who has to explain to him that the reason it’s not working is that he pressed the wrong part of the two-button mouse.
The ability to surf the web, write an e-mail or download an app only comes with experience. More importantly, it requires a mindset of experimentation that only comes with years of trial and error while acquainting yourself with many different applications and programs. Just imagine what it’s like for a 95-year old person to get online for the first time. It’s the same for children of any race, especially children whose schools might not offer them a whole lot of computer time to get the hang of things.
Teachers (and in my son’s case, his father) are there, in part, to help students get acquainted with the ins and outs of the online world. Handing a kid a mouse and expecting he or she to educate themselves, by themselves, is like dropping an 18-year old in a library and expecting them to spend four unsupervised years there getting their B.A.
It’s not going to work. And it’s no coincidence that the only people who think it might work are not professional educators.
* I know Jeff from years of writing a blog about Walmart together. If you are interested in such things and have plenty of time on your hands, you should check out our archives sometime. If you want to see my favorite stuff, read what’s listed under the category “meat.”