From design to meaning: a whole new way of presenting?
Steve Irwin: "Passion, enthusiasm push an educational message"

Is a computer like a bicycle for the mind?

Note: This post seems dated now as tablets, smartphones, etc. have changed the debate somewhat. However, there is still too much focus on tools themselves (which are ephemeral and rather easy to use) rather than on deeper issues of learning, creativity, communication, and so on. A PZ reader recently back in 2006 pointed me to an article on the growing debate about issuing laptop computers to young students. I found these two snippets in the article on the positives of laptop programs interesting:

"...the laptop has helped her twelve-year-old son master critical professional skills like how to compile a PowerPoint presentation."

"...proponents of the programs argue that constant computer access teaches students skills critical to their success in college and at work, such as how to organize multimedia presentations and conduct research online."

Here's one citing a typical downside noticed by many parents today:

"... having a laptop has encouraged her thirteen-year-old son to spend more time dazzling up presentations with fancy fonts instead of digging through library books. "They need to be able to learn to research beyond what is accomplished by Googling a word or phrase."

Beach_bike Whether or not young kids issued laptops in elementary school get a better overall education by the time they graduate high school compared to students who never had their own laptop to carry around is debatable. To me it comes down to a question of whether or not we're asking the young students to use laptops to learn ephemeral applications (pull this menu down, copy here, paste there, etc.) out of our fear that they'll be "left behind," or whether we believe/know that all the time with the computer really helps improve a young student's mind, her critical and analytical thinking, her creativity, her knowledge of science and of the world, in addition to improving basic important math and reading/writing skills. If it's the latter, then I say fine. But does all that time with slideware as a kid teach her about design fundamentals, storytelling, how best to display data, how to edit effectively, etc? With the right teacher, perhaps it does. But I also wonder how much has changed since Alan Kay expressed these concerns in 1994:

"I think the thing that surprised me is that computers are treated much more like toasters, [with] predefined functions mainly having to do with word processing and spreadsheets or running packaged software, and less as a material to be shaped by students and teachers."

                                                              — Alan Kay (1994 interview)

There's no question that a kid and a laptop *can* be a very good thing, but does time spent with an app like PowerPoint as a sixth-grader make it more likely that when the student is, say, 25 she'll be a better thinker and a better presenter, especially when the electricity goes off and she's left with nothing but a whiteboard and some pens? Or think of it this way: does a personal laptop in the school function as a bicycle for the mind, amplifying the student's own capabilities and new knowledge or is it more like a car with pre-packaged formulas that allow the student to become soft in the head while appearing to really go places? I suspect much depends on the specifics of the particular school and program, of course. I am by no means the best judge since I teach university and do not have children yet, so I'd love to hear your own personal experiences with this issue. Whether you are a teacher, student, or parent, what has been your experience?

  Like_a_bike_1  Signs

The audience laughed at the Microsoft slide (right), but it was not a jab at only MS but at all software developers (including Apple) and us consumers as well. We can not rely only on the tools to show us the way much like a car with a navigation system. The best software in many cases does not so much point the way as it does a great job of getting out of the way, helping us to "amplify" our own abilities. Are you using your computer like a bike or like a car? This was my question to the audience.

        "Most ideas you can do pretty darn well with a stick in the sand."

                                                                                          — Alan Kay

The computer is like a bicycle for the mind
More than twenty years ago, Steve Jobs and others at Apple were talking about the great potential of computers and how the tool should be designed and used in a way that enhances the potential that exists within each of us. Take a look at this video clip of Steve Jobs from Memory and Immagination.

"What a computer is to me is it's the most remarkable tool that we've ever come up with, and it's the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”
                                                                 — Steve Jobs

(Watch video of Steve Jobs talking about how the bicycle is like a computer for the mind.)

Can computers teach kids how to think?

Is the application of computer technology today helping kids learn how to think, reason, and create better than their parents or grandparents did when they were the same age? Picasso said that computers are "useless" because they can only give answers. I tell my college students that I am more interested in their own questions and their analysis than in their answers memorized from a book. The genius often lies in the questions students ask not in the answers they've learned from others.

"Most computers today are sold like cars, where as many things as possible are done for you. You don't have to understand how it works and, in fact, you don't have to understand how to think because the most popular stuff is prepackaged solutions for this and that."

                                                                          — Alan Kay

Amplifies "Understanding how it works" doesn't necessarily only mean knowing the nuts and bolts of hardware or writing software, etc. (although some understanding there too would not hurt even for non-techies). What I am suggesting is that in the realm of presentations it's important for students to understand principles of design not merely software application rules to be obediently followed or the "tips and "tricks" of the day. The fundamental principles of design and visual communication, etc. can be applied broadly and not limited to the narrow world of presentation design only. Teaching students about design from an early age, challenging them, and exposing them to wonderful examples from around the world from several disciplines such as graphic design, art, architecture, industrial designs, etc. is something that they can really build on as they develop.

"It's absolutely important to challenge [students'] internals — challenge their internal musculature, their internal ability to make images, their internal ability to think about things and to make representations of things."

                                                                 — Alan Kay

Today business people are accustomed to enduring some pretty awful so-called PowerPoint presentations. I think there is hope for otherwise smart and talented adults who present badly. But the real hope long-term resides in the young students of today who have not yet learned the bad habits of their parents. As Alan Kay said over ten years ago, we've got to challenge the kids not just give them formulas and "time-saving" shortcuts to mediocrity. If a laptop in the hands of a 10-year-old child helps her develop her "internal musculature" long-term — if it serves like a bicycle for her mind — then a laptop is a very good thing. What say you?

A note about Japan

I teach one marketing class to about 25 Japanese students, all about 20-years-old. Only four have a computer of their own and most have never used PowerPoint. As freshman they even "lack basic computing skills" by US standards (though their cell phone surfing aptitude surpasses anything in the US). But it does not matter. By the end of the semester most of the students give presentations (using PowerPoint for visuals) that are as good or better than those of foreign students here who may have had their own computer since childhood. The PPT tool itself is easy to learn, especially when students realize that they can ignore about 90% of its menu options and focus more on research and putting their findings together in a strong, compelling way. And given the freedom, Japanese students can be quite creative indeed. The so-called "PPT savvy" students have to struggle initially to unlearn bad habits such as presenting with slideuments. The business students with no real previous PPT knowledge spend more time on research and internalizing (not memorizing) their material; the visuals tend to serve a stronger supporting role.


nate archer

Great post, you made some really valid points. As a 20-year old myself I was taught the PPT "skills" in high school and would dread having to see what those presentations looked like. It is true that good powerpoint presentations are the ones that aren't powerpoint but from the presenter's mind. To effectively teach kids technology skills, close attention to teaching them correctly is essential.

Dimitar Vesselinov

Steve Jobs: Commencement Address at Stanford University

Vincent van Wylick

Too much focus on presentation-skills? I'm asking this because of Jason Calacanis recent comment in an interview that all these new web2.0 businesses are like powerpoint-presentations, all flashy but no real content.

Are we training our kids to be big fakies? Note that I differentiated between giving a presentation and actually knowing how to do something.

No offence intended at this blog, I love it! The interview can be found here, btw. (linking doesn't work in comments?):

Liz Lawley

Kids use computers in ways that are modeled by the adults around them.

My son was writing HTMl code and Javascript before he was 11, and blogging before he was 12. He uses his computer to create 3D models (it's like a virtual lego set for him), write, and create digital video.

But he does that because he's imitating the uses he sees. If all he saw was me web browsing and creating PPTs, that's probably what he'd be doing, too.

Eric Jurotich

My daughter started using PowerPoint when she was 8. What was interesting was her total rejection of templates as "boring." Every slide had a different color scheme, font, layout, etc. While they certainly wouldn't win a design competition, her presentations were far more interesting and compelling than the typical corporate dreck I see daily.

The tool is what you make of it.


A bit out of topic question. If googling becomes a common term, does Goole lose the sole right to the brand name?


As someone who until recently had to teach PowerPoint to 11-year-olds in the UK, I can vouch for how difficult it is to get them to think about it. All they want is to cover the screen with badly-chosen WordArt and pictures of cars / pop-stars (irrespective of the topic of the presentation) and then zip them around with ridiculous animations and annoying sounds.

I don't think I managed to convince any of them to actually present to the class - they just silently hit Space as it played on screen. Maybe now I'm at college (16-19) I will be able to teach some design ideas in the presentations (and figure out how to use well-designed presentations to enhance my teaching)

Robert Smelser

I think the challenge for teachers and students is in using computers in a way that naturally enhances the learning. Too often we focus on planning our lessons around the computers, so we end up creating limits for the technology use that may stifle or discourage creative and independent thinking.

Instead, we should primarily plan to teach the content of our lessons, and we (as well as the children) should be on the lookout for opportunities to invite technology into those lessons. All to often in schools, the emphasis gets placed on the tools rather than the outcome when tech comes into play.

Good posting!

Michael Chui

Computers, like Powerpoint, are tools and nothing more. While the problem with Google, Wikipedia, and Powerpoint are all the same -- their ease of use makes it easy to abuse them -- in the case of education, the fault rests on the teachers who haven't shown kids how to dig past the first layer.

I elaborate, rant-style, on my journal here:

(Sidenote: Kaido, I don't think they do. As a brand name, its usage as a verb increases the strength of the brand. As a legal entity, it's very clear that Google had it first, and Google is still alive, so making a search engine called Googol would probably still be trademark infringement.)


It's a very good question. The government in the UK has always been quick to produce curriculum dictats that list computer skills like 'Be able to send an e-mail', and slow to realise that child who is 5 today will have no use for these type of skills when she enters the world of work because the technology will have moved on. I think the number one IT skill that a child must learn is discrimination - how to evaluate the information you have gathered and assess its quality and bias.

I also think PowerPoint has cursed education, but more through its misuse by teachers (my thoughts here

Christoph Weber

I'm a father of three who are almost out of school by now and have watched them from taking babysteps to doing more on a computer and faster than I do. The "teaching computer skills" angle is vastly overrated. Software is easy to learn and use. The hard part if using the computer to achieve a goal. In the end, my kids still had to draft an essay or presentation, revise it and finally hand in a polished final version. Polished meaning it had to be in proper English with well organized and clearly presented content. The medium and tool certainly never mattered much, except that computers make revisions easier and faster.
So, is the computer a bicycle for the mind in my family? It can be, and actually has been, but mostly it' just a tool. It very much depends what a kid does with it. In our neighborhood we have kids with bikes who are total couch potatoes, and likewise there are kids who had their own computer for ages and never did more than IM their friends with inane banter (if that). My kids are a bit above that, but then I've not let them get away with cheap content and virtual "slouching", and neither did their teachers.

Douwe van der Werf

I myself have been using a computer for only five years. I went from a computer n00b to a computer graphics professional. Within a time-frame of 5 years, I learned to bring the images in my head to a printable or playable product and I haven't stop riding since.

I think there is a big gap socially and professionally now between the bike riders and the ones preferring to walk, or simply not able to cycle. The computer has not only served as a bike to individual minds, but also to mankind itself. If it is a positive or negative thing is debatable, but I just guess it was an inevitable step in our evolution, similar to the birth of speech in our species. It propelled us and took us much further in a short period of time. Too bad it still hasn't taught us to be kind to our fellow man or the earth.

Steve was right; despite his hairstyle in the video.

Keith Burnett

Back to the Alan Kay quote at the beginning, PowerPoint makes an OK tool for presenting screen based learning packages and 'kiosk' applications.

Just switch off the slide transitions and use 'action settings' to link to other slides. Colleagues get into the whole navigation menu/branching links thing then. They also have to abandon the slide layouts as the text is far too big for screen based packages designed to be read by a person at a computer. After a mad linking session comes the idea of planning :-)

I know this is not presentation, but an exercise on linking slides might help break the expectations?

Tracy W

Kids use computers in ways that are modeled by the adults around them.

My son was writing HTMl code and Javascript before he was 11, and blogging before he was 12. He uses his computer to create 3D models (it's like a virtual lego set for him), write, and create digital video.

But he does that because he's imitating the uses he sees. If all he saw was me web browsing and creating PPTs, that's probably what he'd be doing, too.

I don't think so.

I grew up when PCs were first coming into the home and Dad would bring home a luggable from work for us to play with.

I didn't copy my Dad because he only did boring stuff with spreadsheets and writing reports with his computer. Instead I learnt how to use the computer to create art, as that was what I was interested in, and later on taught myself to program in Basic when illness meant I was stuck at home for weeks on end. (Meanwhile Mum managed to run a small business for eleven years before getting her first computer).

And then I nagged my parents to buy new graphics programs for me.

About the only thing I copied from my Dad was that I learnt to write macros for Word when I saw that he'd written one to create smart quotes.

My now husband used to get phone calls at school from his Dad asking how to undo whatever his son had done to his laptop. And hubby always knew how to do that.

One of my Dad's friends eventually hired his son to do presentations for his work.

Kids learn stuff that interest them. They don't just imitate parents - if they did then long plane flights with kids would be a lot less exasperating. :)

David Douglass

"Computers are useless. They can only give you answers."

Pablo Picasso
Spanish Cubist painter (1881 - 1973)

marco  comastri

in 1973 there was no internet yet

Esther Kaplan

I think that computer labs are a waste of time and money when used in Elementary schools. Our public schools have very limited resources right now. I'm blown away that the schools can come up with money for computer labs while band halls are being closed down, art teachers are eliminated and hands on science is being put on the back burner! Technology changes anyway. Why not wait until the children are in high school, and have developed critical thinking skills before giving them this "tool"?


Computers, like Powerpoint, are tools and nothing more. While the problem with Google, Wikipedia, and Powerpoint are all the same -- their ease of use makes it easy to abuse them -- in the case of education, the fault rests on the teachers who haven't shown kids how to dig past the first layer.

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