Teach kids computer skills, not computer programs

Frequently, in online discussions of the putting of Linux and/or open source in schools, the idea of preparing children for the Windows-dominated workplace comes up. The idea is that most workplaces use Windows and Microsoft Office and will sometimes even require proficiency in certain Windows applications, so how would putting Linux and open source software in schools prepare children for using Windows software in the future?

In “Should students learn Windows? Or Mac? Or What?” Scott Granneman points out rightly that technology changes quickly. Most of his examples have to do with changes in interface (Mac OS 9 is not like Mac OS X), but technology changes are far more drastic than mere changes in interface. I grew up in the 1980s using all sorts of computers that are out of fashion now (the colors were green and black or yellow and black on monitors), and finished my pre-university schooling before Windows 1995 was popular. Never was I taught to use Microsoft Office or any modern Windows interface. In high school, I took one computer science course, which trained me in Pascal, a programming language almost no one uses now.

Somehow, though, I’ve managed to actually get jobs and function in them, sometimes even excel in them. Now, more than two decades after my first exposure to computers, I use Windows XP and Microsoft Office five days out of the week and also use FileMaker Pro and Mozilla Firefox, two programs I’d never used in college or high school. In fact, in college, I could barely find anything on the web, because I had dial-up, and Google didn’t exist. Now, I can do mail merges, create pivot tables, and find information quickly on the web.

Technology changes quickly. It surely does. It really doesn’t matter, from the standpoint of preparation for the future, what operating system or software you use with children in schools. Do you think I’m still using turtles to draw colorful lines all over a tiny black screen now? No. Did all the F-keys I learned to use in my mouseless word processor in high school (I used a program called T3) help me with Microsoft Word later? Well, not directly.

What’s important to teach children is curiosity, not to be afraid of tinkering with things, the playfulness that computer software allows. You have to teach kids to be resourceful and get to know different tricks with whatever software you put in front of them. Do not have them memorize steps (click on this menu, then this menu, then this menu). Have them learn concepts. Really, this is what more schooling (not just from a technology standpoint) should be about.

If you stuck me in front of a program I’d never used before, it wouldn’t take me long to figure out its basic functionality and even how to get things done quickly with it. So putting Linux in schools shouldn’t hurt children’s chances in the workplace if you teach them concepts instead of memorization and exploration instead of rote instructions. And, who knows? Maybe they’ll be using Linux in the workplace twenty years from now anyway. Or maybe desktop/laptop computers as we know it won’t even exist at that point. We’ll have some new technology that’s even better, even more intuitive.

Further Reading
Linux in Education: Concepts Not Applications
In Defense of a Linux Education


  1. “…from the radical feminist Christian antiracist left – some having to do with Ubuntu”

    I love that!

    …and Ubuntu really includes all of that.

    Don’t you LOVE the internet. Where anyone can own their own printing press. And you get to express yourself in your own unique and beautiful ways! ya gotta love that.

    Oh, and yes, I totally agree. And even more so…

    Putting Ubuntu Linux in front of children in schools would, in fact, be the most beneficial thing that could happen to their computer/technology educations!

    It’s so much more suited to the openness and natural learning process. It’s like the difference between an automobile that they could completely disassemble and reassemble…. versus a car with the engine compartment and dashboard soldered shut.

  2. I’m really fascinated by schools like Greater Houlton Christian Academy and the way the tech guy there was able to use Linux to save the school money and build an innovative technology program (I think they use Gentoo in their labs now).

    I’d love to see more of that, even though their website is pants.

  3. You’re talking about what educators and academics call the ability to “generalize”: adapting information and skills across many different domains. When I make lesson plans for the classroom, I try to find ways to teach students how to connect their existing knowledge to new realms. In my previous life as an IT consultant, I was more successful than many of my coworkers even though they had more formal training. People hired me because I learn quickly and innovate by integrating knowledge from different areas into my IT work.

  4. Hrm… I have that ‘not afraid to screw something up’ sentimentality that often gets me in trouble. I learn how to use programs quickly as well, with the exception of really hard or not obvious GUIs, such as GIMP. I don’t know if that is just my curiosity, or how I was raised.

  5. Excellent piece. It is something that I have thought for some time. It is the logical, thinking mindset that is required, not the “skills” to use software or hardware which will be irrelevant in 5 years.

    Many schools purchase hardware along the lines of a bums on seats approach. That is to say a formula where “value” = cost/number of computers.

  6. I am wanting to teacher 1st grade students how to use a computer: keyboard, mouse, etc. Do you know of any programs or software that I can get to do help do this?

  7. Your exactly right. Kids today are not being given the opportunity to experiment. This is down to the curriculum in the UK being too focused on things like powerpoint presentations, excel and word and on the sole reliance of Windows only platform. Using Windows in my opinion is not allowing the kids to experiment due to the licensing issues and the constant worry about Viruses. In the end it forces most or all of the machines on the school network to be locked down. You have to break things in order to learn, this is how I learnt and I should imagine how a lot other people learnt.I wish schools would start leaning towards Linux distributions. They are free to install and free to distribute and every kids in the school and take a copy home. Once you install a Linux distribution the learning possibilities are endless.

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