ELECTRONIC MEDIA AND EDUCATION:
Television, video game and computer
Valdemar W. Setzer
Department of Computer Science, University of São
Version 1.0, Oct. 22, 2001
(See also a
translation into French produced by Kate Bondareva)
This paper was originally written in Spanish as the text for a workshop
conducted at the IDRIART Festival La Educación Encerra un
Tesoro [Education Encloses a Treasure], which took place in San
Salvador, on March 1998 (see that version on my web site). An extended
version in Portuguese was published as the first chapter of my book
Meios Eletrônicos e Educação: uma visão
alternativa [Electronic Media and Education: an alternative view],
São Paulo: Editora Escrituras, 2001. This is a translation of
the latter, with some extensions, without the references to later chapters
of that book. For a version in German, see my web site. This version
(1.0) has still the same references of the paper which appeared in the
book; someday they will be adapted to the literature in English.
I describe here, briefly, from a phenomenological point of view, each
apparatus - TV, video game and computer -, and the attitude of their
users. Then, I cover their educational impact. A common approach to
the three media allows for an interesting comparison among them with
relationship to their influence on their users: each one acts mainly
upon a certain area of the userís inner activity. My considerations
are based on Waldorf Education [Lanz, 1998], introduced by Rudolf Steiner
in 1919 and used in more than 800 schools (besides more than 1,000 isolated
kindergartens) around the world.
2.1 The apparatus
The TV set is an apparatus usually based upon a cathode ray tube (liquid
crystal displays are still too expensive, relatively rare and will not
be considered here). In it, a filament is heated up, forming around
it what is called an electronic "cloud." A very big voltage (about 25.000
Volts in the case of color TVs) between the filament and the metalized
screen pulls the electrons of that cloud, making them leave the filament
under the form of a beam and hit the screen; in its hit point the phosphor
of the screen emits light. The electron beam is magnetically moved in
a scanning effect, producing a line path on the screen - first the odd
lines, then de even ones, thus diminishing flickering. It is interesting
to notice that the image is never completely formed on the screen, because
when the beam returns to a point where it has already passed, this point
must have faded completely, otherwise there would be an overlapping
and the image would not be clear. Thus, each complete image is formed
in fact in the retina, due to its light retention; this is not the case
with objects directly observed by the eye. A variation in the intensity
of the electron beam produces points with higher or lesser brightness.
In the case of color TV, there is a mask with sequences of three neighboring
small dots: red, green and blue; the combination of different intensities
of the beam in each dot of a group produces in the viewer an illusion
of colors. In the American standard, each image is formed 30 times a
second, divided in lines formed sequentially by means of the dots. In
cinema, the images are formed through complete pictures (24 a second)
and not by lines of dots In the latter, the illusion is just of movement
(besides the depth given by perspective).
The image is quite coarse: about 300,000 dots - just for comparison,
the retina has about 150 million cells sensitive to light. Thus, it
is not possible to distinguish on the screen a person's face expression
if the whole body is focused. Therefore, in soap operas and in news
programs almost only the face is focused - as it will be seen later,
the person's expression is fundamental in the transmission. Compare
also our visual sharpness as we look at a tree at a certain distance,
seeing the leaves distinctively; if a tree is entirely focused by the
TV camera, the leaves cannot be distinguished on the screen.
As in movies, television can be characterized as a system of serial
images, giving an impression of movement, with synchronized sound. Fundamental
differences are the facts that the TV screen is very small, and the
movies screen is big (this demands movement of the eyes and head), and
the image of the movies is very much finer and projected in its entirety.
2.2 The viewer
The viewer is physically inactive. Considering the senses, just vision
and hearing are active, but in an extremely partial way - for example,
the eyes practically don't move [Mander, 1978, p. 165]. In fact, the
small area of greater vision sharpness of the retina, the fovea, determines
a cone of 2 degrees of total opening in front of the eye (of a total
of about 200 degrees encompassed by fixed eyes, as can be verified by
opening the arms), and the apparatus at a normal distance covers about
6 degrees [Patzlaff, 2000, p. 25]. Therefore the viewer's rigid gaze,
that is, the muscles of the eye are almost inactive. The image doesn't
become sharper if the viewer approaches the screen, unlike what happens
with common objects. Instead of that, one begins to see the dots that
compose the color image. In general, the distance to the TV set is constant,
therefore there is no need for optical accommodation (convergence of
the optical axes and thickness of the crystalline lens); brightness
is also practically constant, consequently the pupil doesn't change
its opening; etc.
Thinking is practically inactive: there is no time for conscious reasoning
and mental associations, since these are relatively slow. This has been
proven in the few researches of neurophysiological effects of TV viewing
[Krugman, 1971; Emery and Emery, 1976; Walker, 1980]: the electroencephalogram
and the lack of movement of the viewer's eyes indicate a state of inattention,
of sleepiness, of semi-hypnosis (usually any viewer enters this state
in about half a minute). Jane Healy justifies this mental state as a
neurological reaction to exaggerated and continuous visual stimuli [1990,
p. 174]. Image blinking, the dim environment and the viewer's physical
passivity, especially his fixed glance, make for a scenario similar
to a hypnosis session [Mander, 1978].
There is still the inner activity of the feelings. It is practically
the only viewer's external and internal activity. This is the reason
why programs always try to cause an impact upon the feelings: soap operas
with deep personal conflicts or extremely ironic situations, dangerous
sports, full of action, and the much debated violence.
All this means that the viewer is normally in a state of conscience
typical of animals when these are not attracted by an external activity
as hunting, or paying attention to a possible danger, seeking food,
The viewer's state of sleepiness is well known among image directors.
That is why they always produce images that are in constant movement:
if an image would stay frozen for some time, the viewer would tend to
get asleep. Jerry Mander wrote that in the United States there were
image changes from 8 to 10 per minute in average, producing what he
denominated "technical effects." These include zoom effects, change
of camera, image overlapping, display of words in the screen, and same
non-natural change of voice [1978, p. 303]. In advertising transmissions,
he detected 10 to 15 technical effects. Neil Postman, in his extraordinary
book on TV and public speech, brings an average of 3,5 seconds for the
duration of each image [1986, p. 86]. Nowadays, in Brazilian TV, those
changes are much faster, as I could verify. This constant changing of
images and the necessary excitement of emotions (resources used for
preventing the viewer from passing from the normal state of sleepiness
to that of deep sleep), results in that everything transmitted by television
has to be transformed into a show. Postman calls the attention to the
fact that, as a consequence, almost everything in life became a show:
politics, religion, education, etc. [idem, pp. 87, 114, 125, 142]. People
got so much used to the TV show format that they don't accept nor tolerate
other more cultural, simpler and calmer forms of activity, having the
impression that they are boring.
In contrast, reading requires an intense inner activity: in the case
of a romance, imagining the described environment and persons; in a
philosophical or scientific text, constantly associating the described
concepts and developing new ones. TV, on the contrary, doesn't demand
any mental activity: the images are received ready, there is almost
nothing to associate (recall the saying that an image is worth a thousand
words) - neither the time to do it. There is no possibility of thinking
about what is being transmitted, because the speed of changes of image,
sound and subject prevents the normal viewer from consciously concentrating
and accompanying the transmission.
2.3 TV and education
From what has been seen, it may be concluded that TV practically doesn't
have any educational effect. Education is a very slow process - what
is learned in a fast way usually has no deep value -, and should follow
the child's or young person's global development. But with TV everything
must be fast due to the characteristics of the apparatus and the viewer's
state of mind. Besides being a very slow process, education also has
to be highly contextual: the teacher takes into account what was given
in the previous day or week and, in methods with integrated education,
as in Waldorf Education, teachers know what other teachers of the same
class are doing and know each student very well. On the contrary, TV,
being a mass communication medium, transmits something that in general
is totally out of the viewer's context.
I find that the most negative point of television with relation to
education is that the latter demands the student's attention and activity,
mainly when one considers that education should have as one of its main
goals the development of the capacities of imagining and of mental creation.
But TV does exactly the opposite: the constant deluge of millions of
images makes the viewer lose his imagination and creativity. That is
specially preoccupying regarding children and youth, who are precisely
developing those abilities (in an adult that already has them, their
partial loss may be regrettable, but much worse is never being able
to develop them).
The conclusion is that TV can be used as a means for conditioning,
but not for educating. That is, as has already being noticed by Jerry
Mander in the aforementioned book, why a perfect marriage exists between
TV and advertising [1978, p. 134]. For the latter, the ideal consumer's
state of mind is semi-consciousness, because this way criticism is not
possible (advertising is the art of convincing people to consume what
they don't need, has a bigger price or inferior quality). In 2000, about
6 billion dollars were spent in Brazil for advertising; 63% of the total
went to TV ads - because it works! Mander mentions that in the United
States expenditures with advertising on TV in the 70's was 60% of the
total [1978, p. 134]. Marie Winn, and Fred and Merrelyn Emery, show
that the television doesn't have an educational effect [Winn, 1979,
p. 59; Emery&Emery, 1976, p. 107]. What is has, is an effect if
conditioning actions and inner images.
Thus, television represents in many aspects the antithesis of education.
It should only be used in education for illustration purposes, with
videos of short duration, so that the teacher can repeat images and
discuss with her students what they watched, preferably only at high
school or college.
3. Electronic games
3.1 The apparatus
I will consider here only the most typical electronic game: that which
demands speed from the player, who plays against the machine and wins
points when he performs certain actions correctly. I call these type
of games "combat games." They are also called "stimulus and response
The apparatus consists of a screen (relatively big as in the case of
a computer monitor or a TV set, or eventually a very small screen of
a portable game), a computer and some communication medium between the
player and the computer - a keyboard, a joystick or a pistol which detects
the position it is pointing to the screen when the trigger is pulled.
The screen exhibits some figure in movement; the player has to perform
some action with his fingers, e.g. pressing some keys; the computer
detects which keys were pressed and produces a modification in the image
on the screen; and so on.
As it will be seen later, computers are deterministic machines. This
has as consequence that, if a certain image is displayed on the screen
and the player presses a specific key, the change of image will always
be the same. Some random effects can be introduced, but they have to
be always predetermined among a collection of actions which have been
foreseen by the programmer of the game.
3.2 The player
Differently than television, the set game-player is a closed circuit:
what happens on the screen, that is, what the machine does, depends
partially on the player's actions. Thus, the player is not physically
passive. But his activity is very limited. Using a keyboard, practically
only his fingers move, quite fast, and his hands practically remain
still; with a joystick, in general only one of the hands makes small,
As in the TV case, vision and audition (when there are sounds) are
partially active, but in the electronic game there is still a small
activity of the sense of touch and, to use the classification of the
12 senses introduced by Rudolf Steiner [Setzer, S.A.L., 2000], the sinesthetic
sense, of movement, is also partially active. Those two, though, as
well as vision and audition, act in an extremely limited way: the keys
don't demand a tactile differentiation and the movements are always
There is still another similarity with TV: thinking is not active.
In a typical game, the points that the player wins depend on the speed
of his reaction. As conscious thinking is very slow, the player has
to react without thinking. Watching TV, the viewer was passive, without
thinking; in the case of an electronic game, the player is active in
an extremely limited realm of movements, but also without thinking.
In other words, games force automatic actions. This makes it very clear
why children have more easiness and more successes with those machines:
they still don't have their thinking and their consciousness so developed
as adults; this development makes the elimination of thinking more difficult
when it is necessary to exercise an action.
Finally, as with TV, feelings are active, restricted to what I call
"feelings of challenge." These feelings constitute the main source of
attraction of the player to the game. In both cases feelings are artificial,
that is, they don't have a relation with the reality of nature and are
motivated from the exterior. Compare with feelings wakened up by reading
a romance: they are based upon an inner creation (the character's or
the situation inner image). Or with the vision a cheerful or suffering
person: in this case the happiness or suffering of another person is
an observed reality. In the case of the game, the main feelings involve
facing a challenge, winning against the machine. Knowing that what is
mostly active in the user are his feelings, combat-type video games
designers do the same as TV producers: present situations in which strong
feelings are aroused, consequently invariably involving violence and
challenge. As with TV, the contents of games are a consequence of the
apparatus characteristics and the state of mind it forces upon the user.
It is interesting to note that automatic reactions are characteristics
of animals and not of adult human beings. In general, adult humans think
before doing something, examining by means of mental representations
the consequences of their acts. For example, let us suppose that a man
sees on the street a very pretty woman and feels a desire to kiss her.
Usually he would not do it, because he would think that perhaps she
would not like it, she could start screaming, creating at least an uncomfortable
situation, and so on. As a consequence of these inner representations,
he controls himself and doesn't act according to his impulses. The same
thing doesn't happen with animals: they immediately act moved by their
impulses and by the conditioning done by the environment. An animal
doesn't think on the consequences of its acts. Thus it may be said that
electronic games, on one side, "animalize" the player.
On the other hand, as the game imposes small automatic motor actions
and those actions are mechanical, they "maquinize" the player. It is
easy to notice that, if machine substitutes the player, with a camera
to detect changes on the screen and a computer to plan and take the
consequent actions, it would play much better than any human being.
In other words, it can be said that the player is reduced to a machine
that detects small and limited visual pulses and performs small and
limited movements with his fingers.
3.3 Electronic games and education
One of the most important objectives of education is to develop the
capacity of taking conscious attitudes. As it was seen, animals always
act following their instincts and conditioning, but human beings do
not. Electronic games go against this objective of education and produce
an "animalization" of the human being; this is the opposite to one of
the supreme objectives of education, that is, turning the young person
more human and less animal.
As in the case of TV, electronic games have no context. All players
are handled in the same way. This way, games go against the western
education's ideal of producing differentiated individuals. On the other
hand, they condition the player to execute limited, mechanical movements
which make him win more points. One of the supreme ideals of education
should be to form adult individuals that can act in freedom, trying
to reach the goals established by themselves, and not to act in a conditioned
Another important point is competition versus cooperation. Traditionally,
education at home and at school has had as one of its objectives preparing
children and young people to face a competitive professional world.
I find this a terrible mistake. It is my strong opinion that education
should aim at cooperation, and not competition. This is the only way
to revert the psychological and social miseries that have been constantly
increasing in the world, because competition is egotistical (in individual
or group terms) and anti-social. If one regards the natural living world,
that is, plants and animals, one sees competition everywhere, aiming
at survival of the individual and of the species. I donít consider humans
to be fully natural, in fact when cave man started to do paintings he
was not a natural being anymore, and one may conjecture that humans
have never been fully natural. Humans can feel and exercise compassion
and selfless love, which do not exist in the natural world. I think
the only way to revert the present trend of increasing the misery in
the world is by developing these abilities and education at home and
at school should take an essential part in this process. Electronic
games (mainly of the combat type) do exactly the opposite: they train
for competition, for acting in violent, cold, anti-social ways. Many
people use a logical reasoning that society is (unfortunately, in my
opinion) full of competition, and training it would help their children
later in life. To these people I say that in education there is a correct
timing for everything. My children were not educated at home and school
to be competitive, but to be cooperative, not to hate, but to love;
when they grew up, they adapted themselves quickly to the present terrible
social situation and have led successful professional lives - which
involved lots of competition. But my children kept a deep sensitiveness
for the human - and animal - suffering, and are highly social responsible,
always trying to help others. And they never, absolutely never, watched
TV or played video games at home (for the simple fact that we never
had them, and I am extremely happy to see that my daughters are doing
he same with my grandchildren).
The electronic game player learns how to do highly specialized actions.
But what he learns can only be applied in the game and cannot be used
in daily practical life. However, in an emergency, stress, or dampened
consciousness situation, the player may react as he did in the game,
but handling what is real as something artificial. This represents a
big danger, because the latter are two completely different things.
In that sense games are much worse than TV. TV records in the viewerís
subconscious all the watched images and situations; the electronic game,
besides the same recording, trains the player to execute certain actions.
In his recent book, John Naisbitt mentions tragedies happened in some
American schools, in which the conditioning and training done by electronic
games provoked tragic violent actions executed by young users. An impressive
case happened in 1998 in the city of Paducah, Kentucky: a 14 year-old
youth entered a class, fired 8 shots aimed at the head or the victims'
thorax, a shot per person, and hit everybody. Naisbitt mentions an analysis
of that case in which it is mentioned that a good policeman or soldier
in general hits 20% of his shots, never shoots just once per person,
etc. [2000, p. 80]. But the most incredible fact is that the boy had
never used a gun before: he trained its use in an electronic game. In
that analysis, it is observed that in real life a policeman seldom uses
his weapon; on the other hand, in an electronic game, just after switching
the game on it is necessary to start shooting and one can never stop,
otherwise points are lost. In the examples mentioned by Naisbitt, the
murderers acted as animals or, worse still, as machines, with fantastic
precision and coldness, without any compassion. A recent case was the
tragic events of the World Trade Center in New York: apparently, the
hijacker pilots continuously trained how to make curves using flight
simulators; hitting a target with a jet while doing a curve is a very
Thus, electronic games also don't have educational effects. On the
contrary, they are harmful for education and miseducate.
4. The computer
4.1 The apparel
Computers are completely different than all other machines. The latter
transform, transport or store energy or matter. For instance, a power
lathe transforms matter, a car transports people (matter), a battery
stores electric energy, etc. Computers don't make anything of that sort:
they transform, transport and store data, which are quantified or quantifiable
symbolic representations and should not be confused with information.
Information should always have a meaning for the person who receives
it, and in some cases cannot be transmitted under the form of data as,
for example, the sensation of heat or of cold (see the paper "Data,
information, knowledge and competency" on my web site). Quantification
is essential for data, otherwise it cannot be introduced into a computer,
which deals exclusively with quantified symbols. Notice that computer
programs are also data.
Data doesn't have physical consistency, it is a product of our thinking.
(It was exactly the fact that data is not physical that lead to the
reduction of computer size. It is impossible to reduce the size of power
lathes or cars, because they have to fit the physical matter that they
transform or transport.)
A computer is a machine that simulates restricted thoughts. A program
that it executes consists of thoughts, which were expressed as instructions.
The execution (rather, interpretation) of a program simulates the thoughts
that the programmer elaborated to process the data which, as we have
seen, is also the expression of thoughts. It is not correct to say that
the computer thinks, because the instructions it interprets are extremely
restricted thoughts, limited to the actions that the machine can execute.
Human thinking encompasses infinitely more than the reasoning used to
do programming or to simulate the execution of a program. Furthermore,
a computer blindly and inexorably interprets the instructions of a program,
so it cannot have the creativity of our thinking, and it obviously has
no feelings. Feelings usually accompany our thinking, influencing it
Due to the recent Steven Spielberg film "Artificial Intelligence,"
let me digress a little bit on the question of machines being able to
feel. It is possible to think universal, objective thoughts, for instance
mathematical concepts. For example, the concept of a circle as the locus
of points equidistant to a given point (its center) is absolutely universal,
and non-temporal. It does not depend on the person thinking about it.
The act of thinking is subjective, depending on the thinker. But the
contents of thinking may be objective, universal. On the other hand,
feelings are subjective by nature. If a person sees a rose, she will
have some feelings of admiration, of joy, of beauty. Another person
may have the same type of feelings, but each person feels individually.
The joy felt by someone is her exclusive, subjective inner reaction.
I cannot feel what another person is feeling. A feeling is not constituted
by the external reactions a person manifests when it is feeling it.
Joy is not the facial expression of joy, it is the inner reaction a
person has, and this inner reaction cannot be transposed to another
person. Having compassion (which is precisely what is missing when fundamentalists
behave according to a theory, be it a religious or a scientific one),
one may suffer with the suffering of another person, but each one has
her own, individual feelings of suffering.
Computers are universal machines, not just in the Alan Turing sense
of every computer being able to simulate the internal actions of any
other computer, but in the sense that they are mathematical machines
(see below). It is possible to understand exactly what a program does,
and simulate it. Given a certain program and the same input data that
a computer running that program receives, a person may simulate the
execution of that program and produce exactly the same conceptual output.
So it is an idiocy to say that computers or any sort of machines may
have feelings, as Spielberg represented in his film, trying to convey
the extremely dangerous theory that humans are machines: according to
him, machines will be constructed with our external form, have thoughts
and actions that make them undistinguishable from humans - in the film,
a kind of x-ray apparatus is used to see if the anthropoid robot has
circuits in its inside, and thus it is not a human -, and have feelings.
Obviously, machines may be built with all human characteristics only
if humans are machines. It is important to stress that this view of
the world is absolutely anti-scientific in terms of our scientific knowledge
(or ignorance) of what a human being, thinking, intelligence and feelings
are. For those that dismiss the importance of Spielbergís message, it
should be remembered that the "avant-première" of the film was
done at the MIT, and many scientists specialized in Artificial Intelligence
took it seriously; some even risked to say that in 30 years machines
would have feelings. They surely forgot the A.I. prophecies decades
ago, of intelligent machines that never materialized.
Back to our theme, instructions or commands - even iconic ones - of
a programming language or of any software are mathematical entities,
because they can totally be described in a formal way, by means of mathematical
constructions. Other machines, that work upon matter or energy, are
not totally subjected to a mathematical description, only an approximate
one. This is so because it is not known what matter is: there is not
an exact physical model for it (it is interesting to notice that there
are good, approximate mathematical models in quantum mechanics, just
for very simple atoms). As data is constituted of formal, mathematical
symbols, it can be said that computer mathematics is logical-symbolic.
Furthermore, there is still another restriction: this logical-symbolic
mathematics should be algorithmic. Thus, programs have to be composed
of well-defined mathematical instructions within some discreet Mathematics,
and they should finish their execution for any input data. Moreover,
the instruction sequence is absolutely fundamental (unlike many mathematical
formulations, for example, axiomatics).
So a computer can be characterized as an abstract, mathematical, algorithmic
machine. On the contrary, machines that are not computers are concrete
machines. Everything that happens in a computer has nothing to do with
reality, unless it controls another machine. That is why it represents
everything in a virtual, that is to say, mental way.
There is another, very important characteristic that computers have
in common with many other machines as, for example, a washing machine:
their operation can be autonomous. A computer program can do a lot of
data processing without any operator intervention. In fact, when a user
gives a text command to a computer or activates an icon (for example
in a text editor, using a command to justify a paragraph), the machine
executes an enormous amount of instructions in an autonomous way. In
this example, mathematical calculations and symbol manipulation: for
instance, a certain line is chosen, its words can be concatenated on
the left side (e.g. moving each character to a blank line) leaving the
minimum possible space between each two consecutive words; then the
number of words is counted; the number of blank spaces which remained
to the right of the line is divided by the number of words less one;
finally, a number of blank spaces equal to the resulting quotient is
inserted between each pair of consecutive words, while moving the rightmost
words to the right.
A last fundamental characteristic of computers to be covered here is
that they are deterministic machines. This means that, if the machine
is in a certain state (its possible states are always finite and discreet,
which means that there is not a continuous transition between each pair
of states), and an instruction is executed (or a command is given, such
as pressing a key or a combination of keys, or even activating an icon
of an iconic language, as in the example of justifying a paragraph),
the machine will always make a transition to the same state. If something
is being exhibited on the screen, and the machine is in a halt state
expecting some action of the user, and the latter executes a certain
action with the machine, the screen will always change in the same way.
This determinism is an absolutely essential feature of computers: it
is this characteristic that guarantees that the result of a certain
data processing is always the same and correct.
Every machine that is not a computer (to be more precise, this should
be applied to "non-digital" machines) is not deterministic: one cannot
foresee with mathematical exactitude the result of an action executed
by the machine. This is the case of a power lathe: even if it is automatic,
it always produces, e.g., an axis of an approximated diameter, such
as 0,05 cm more or less than the desired diameter.
There are many other special characteristics of computers, but what
was exposed here is what I consider most essential from the educational
point of view
4.2 The user
As in the case of an electronic game, a computer and its user form
a closed circuit. The user also looks at a screen, makes small movements
with his fingers - perhaps a little larger than with a game, but nevertheless
very limited, mechanical movements. When the mouse is used, a little
additional motor coordination, touch and movement sensibilities are
required, but these are also very restricted and poor in comparison
to, for example, seizing a ball, playing a musical instrument, painting
with a thin brush, etc. Contrary to electronic games, there is in general
no need for making abrupt and fast movements. But it may be noticed
that the user is also, in a certain way, prisoner of the machine, many
times in a state that I call the "obsessive user's state." This obsession
keeps the user using a computer for hours, frequently forgetting his
personal life, his obligations and needs. Where does this typical obsession
We saw that the computer is an automatic, abstract and deterministic
machine. This makes the user sure that a command that he thought and
gave to the machine will be executed as foreseen. Sometimes, this doesn't
happen: the command is not adequate or there is some error in the program.
When this happens, the user does not see the expected results, and feels
a deep frustration, different from all other frustrations experienced
by people in their lives. Letís take, for example, a game of tennis.
When the player misses a service, she becomes frustrated; but she doesn't
know if the next service will be correct, making the ball drop precisely
within that damned small rectangle on the other side of the net. But
a computer user is always absolute sure that a command or a combination
of commands exist for executing some desired operation. Until he discovers
what is this adequate command or combination of commands, the user is
dominated by an obsessive state of purely intellectual excitement -
recall that the machine is an abstract one, working at the thought level;
there are no restrictions due to unconscious, thus fairly uncontrollable,
motor coordinations, as in tennis or any other ball game.
Being an abstract, mathematical machine, a computer forces the user
to employ command languages which are also mathematical, logic-symbolic.
It could be argued that he is using symbols and representations in a
completely different way than usual Mathematics; nevertheless, it is
still a mathematical formalism. Attention: I am not referring here to
typing a text - this can be done in a semi-conscious way, albeit also
involving some formalism, since each key always produces the same letter
in the same way -, but to the act of issuing any command, e.g. justifying,
saving or printing a text. It is possible to type a text without practically
thinking on it, not even on its meaning. This is impossible when issuing
a command to a computer: it would be analogous to doing calculations
without paying attention - the result would in general be completely
wrong. Furthermore, any command received by the computer produces the
execution of a mathematical function (or a sequence of functions) inside
the machine, as we illustrated with the justification of a text line.
This way, it may be said that the computer forces the use of a mathematical,
purely formal language.
It is important to emphasize the question of thinking. To use a computer,
it is absolutely necessary to give it commands, in any software. As
it was seen, those commands activate mathematical functions (for doing
calculations or symbol manipulation) inside the machine. When giving
text commands to the machine - also when activating icons -, the user
is forced to consciously think on them. In other words, the machine
forces the user to formulate thoughts with a formalism similar as that
of Mathematics, which can be introduced inside the machine and interpreted
by it; I call them "machinal thoughts."
One of the effects of such a scenario is that the user is induced to
act with lack of discipline. In fact, as the workspace is purely mental,
everything that is done has no direct consequences to the real world.
This doesn't happen when one drives a car or operates a power lathe.
Furthermore, everything can be corrected, so that it is not necessary
to follow a discipline to make correct or well done things, esthetically
pretty. For example, a person who writes a letter by hand has to exercise
a tremendous mental discipline, for not having to correct what is being
written (a lot of corrections would leave the text blurred, ugly; some
are even impossible, as moving a paragraph to another location within
the text). Even when starting with a draft, the same thing happens:
once the definitive text is written, it will be necessary not to change
anything, paying attention to aesthetics, etc. Nothing of that sort
happens when using a text editor: the number and type of mistakes does
not matter, because everything can be corrected, moved, etc. There is
also no need for paying attention to spelling: a speller may detect
errors and suggest possible corrections. Grammar correctors are now
quite sophisticated and demand less and less attention and reasoning
when writing. Very few people appreciate following fixed rules and planing
beforehand what should be done. It can be concluded that all this makes
users and computer programmers assume an attitude of mental lack of
discipline. In the programmers' case, it is well known that they rarely
design and implement their programs in a disciplined way, for example
carefully documenting in detail the analysis phase of their projects
or their programs. Furthermore, program verification, testing and correction
are hardly ever made systematically.
Compare these situations with the use of a concrete machine, as a car:
an action performed with lack of discipline may lead to an accident.
The driver is thus forced to drive in a disciplined way. The bad use
of a concrete machine (contrary to a virtual machine such as a computer)
may cause physical accidents. Accidents caused by computers are mental,
psychological and psychic - that's why they are being largely ignored.
4.3 Computers and education
Let us take into account the fundamental facts that the computer user
necessarily needs to exercise logical-symbolic, algorithmic thinking
and communicate himself with the machine in a formal language. The following
question, which is not usually made, should be formulated when people
argue for or against the use of computers in education: what is the
proper age for a child or young person to start using those types of
thinking and language?
To answer to that question it is absolutely necessary to use a model
of children's and youth's development according to age. For this, I
use the model introduced by Rudolf Steiner, which I consider much wider
and deeper than other models, used with success in more than 800 Waldorf
schools around the world (not counting perhaps more than 1,000 isolated
kindergartens). Briefly, according to Steiner's model, three great phases
exist in the initial development of each human being, corresponding
to seven-year periods [see, for example, Lanz, 1998, p. 38 and Steiner,
2000b, p. 51].
In the first phase up to approximately age 7, whose end is physically
marked by the change of teeth, the child is open to the exterior, she
is not aware that she is not separated from the world. For her everything
has life and she lives in her imaginations as if they were realities.
The inner activity which dominates the small child is primarily her
will (which leads to desires and actions). Thus, basic educational resources
should be imagination, rhythm and imitation. There should be no intellectual
teaching, but only an indirect one, by means of stories, games, playing
and very simple handicrafts. The teacher should be what I call a "mother-teacher."
Children should not learn how to read in this period, because reading
forces intellectual abstraction (see my essay on this subject on my
web site). For example, letters are nowadays abstract symbols (they
were not in ancient times, as they still are not in some oriental ideograms).
The inner forces that would be spent in that process need to be applied
to the establishment of a physical base and the extraordinary effort
of growing and (non-intellectual) learning how to walk, localizing in
space, speak, forming the first (intuitive) concepts of the world, and
developing motor coordination.
In the second period, from about age 7 to 14 (see, for example, the
chapter "The evolution of the second 7-year period " in [Steiner, 2000b,
p. 91], and [Lanz, 1998, p. 47]), the young person has already formed
the essentials of her physical base. She can now start dedicating her
forces to intellectual learning. Nevertheless, this should not be abstract,
but always related to the world reality, beginning with the childís
environment. In this period the inner activity of feeling is primarily
developed, so every subject should be presented in an aesthetic, artistic
way. Even Mathematics should be presented with connections to the real
world and in an artistic way, appealing to fantasy (geometry is specially
suited for this). In sciences, what is most important is learning how
to observe and describe the phenomena, without conceptually explaining
them in an abstract way. Everything should be full of life. A classic
counter-example in Brazil is how it is taught in schools, around age
8, what an island is: "a portion of earth surrounded by water on all
sides" (which, by the way, is incorrect, since there is no water on
the top side and, generally, nor in the lower side...). This definition
is a dead abstract concept and doesn't allow for imaginations. On the
other hand, the notion of an island could be introduced through a long
story of a person whose boat shipwrecked, and he swam to a beach; then,
after resting, eating some plants, etc., in any direction he went, he
encountered another beach or stones over the sea. Thus, children can
imagine the whole richness that a real island with vegetation and animals
can contain. A definition is always the same. Ideally, the story should
be told with different details for each class, adapted to the interest
and characteristics of each student in the group. Thus a concept is
created in a living and not dead way. As a matter of fact, fortunately
teachers never define what is a tree (a stick stuck vertically into
the ground, with branches, blah blah). But this has never prevented
every child of developing a correct concept of a tree - stemming from
her own experiences of observing trees, playing with them, smelling
them, climbing on them and eating their fruits. The best teacher for
that age should be a generalist, that is, a person with a broad knowledge
of life and culture. Furthermore, she should have a great social sensibility
to perceive her students, feeling what is happening with each one. She
should be a true artist to detect the development needs of those beings
that are blossoming, thus being able to dynamically configure her classes.
Teaching is not a science, it is an art.
It is interesting to notice that according to old tradition schooling
used to begin around age 7. There was an intuitive consciousness that
for learning how to read and to do arithmetic it was necessary a certain
maturity that came with age. When I entered in 1951 what was then called
in Brazil "gymnasium" (corresponding to grades 5 to 8), it
was necessary to have a minimum age (11 complete years until the middle
of the academic year). Jumping a grade was also not allowed. This showed
an intuition with respect to the relationship between maturity and age.
A couple of years later this restriction was eliminated.
In the third period, from about ages 14 to 21, with its beginning at
puberty (which is unfortunately being accelerated by bad education,
influence of electronic media, etc.) the biggest inner development happens
with abstract thinking. It is now the moment to begin conceptualizing
everything, using strict logical reasoning, so that the young person
starts understanding with her intellect. Previously, the movement of
a ball was dominated instinctively. It is now time to understand why
a ball describes a curve in the air when it is thrown. Physical, geographical,
biological, chemical and historical phenomena should be not only be
well observed and described, as it should have been done in the second
7-year period, but also understood. In Mathematics, this is the occasion
of beginning to do theorem proving (the need to prove a theorem is incomprehensible
for a youth younger than about 15: she sees that the thesis is evident
and cannot understand that need for, or utility of, a formal proof).
An ideal teacher for that age is the specialist, having a specialized
university degree (a mathematician should teach Mathematics; a geographer,
Returning to computers, now we are in the position to answer the question
"when?" Recall that a computer is an abstract machine, which forces
the use of formal, abstract, logical-symbolic thinking and language.
According to Rudolf Steiner's child and youth development model, the
use of such a machine is not adequate before puberty, or before high
school, the period corresponding to the development of the capacity
of thinking in an pure abstract and formal way. Before this period,
it would accelerate the child's or young person's mental development
in an inadequate way, with serious later damages. Steiner said that
the fact that Goethe still made spelling mistakes up to his age 17,
allowed for a preservation of a mental malleability, because he had
not fixed himself too early to rigid mental rules [2000b, p. 129]. Neil
Postman called the attention to the fact that communication media are
inadequately accelerating children's and youth development, transmitting
adults' experiences and ideas and making the former behave as the latter
[1999, p. 112]. Computers do exactly that, but mainly to our highest
Nowadays educators, psychologists and doctors are becoming aware that
walkers are detrimental to babies. What on earth thinks a parent that
wants to accelerate his child's learning how to walk? There is absolutely
no healthy baby who has not learned how to walk, and this should happen
in an individual time, when the muscles, the motor coordination, and
the impulses coming from the examples of walking people are mature.
I call the computer a "mental walker." How long will it take until parents
and educators realize that forcing abstract, intellectual thinking is
detrimental to children and youngsters?
Recall also that I called the attention to the fact that computers
induce lack of discipline. Children don't have enough self-control to
restrain themselves, directing and restricting their computer use. Furthermore,
the induction of lack of discipline is exactly the opposite of one of
educationís main goal. That leads us to the next point.
Some brief considerations about the Internet. A child using the Internet
has no restrictions, unless the parents install the so-called "filters"
preventing the access to some web sites or allowing the access just
to certain sites (I bet the Internet will then become extremely boring).
But if parents generally don't try or don't succeed in limiting the
use of TV, how can be expected that they will do it with the computer?
Most information accessed through the Internet doesn't have any context
in relation to the child. The Internet represents what one may call
"libertarian education": the child does what it wants at any time. This
is exactly the contrary to what education should be: since they are
not adults to decide what is better for them, children and youth need
a constant orientation on what they should learn, read, etc.! Obviously,
one should always leave some space for the exercise of freedom within
the scheduled activities, otherwise creativity is killed. Intuitively,
children wait to be guided on their development path, and a lack of
orientation can provoke serious behavior disturbances. Traditionally,
parents have chosen, for example, the books that their children should
read; teachers, what they should teach and under which form, according
to their students' knowledge, development and environment. This doesn't
happen with the Internet. An adult tool, completely de-contextualized,
is being given to children and young people, provoking again a process
of precocious maturation, allowing them to enter in contact with information
that is not appropriate for their maturity and environment.
Every acceleration of children's and youth's physical and psychological
maturation are highly harmful to them: in education and personal development
it is not possible to jump stages without later damage. One cannot teach
algebra before arithmetic, physiology before anatomy. Another danger
is to develop the capacity for formal thinking without the adequate
feeling and physical base. Jane Healy says: "I would say that a lot
of the of school failures are due to academic expectations for which
the children's brains were not prepared but, even so, were bulldozed
into them." [1990, p. 69 - this is a translation from the version of
this paper in Portuguese; the words "academic expectations" and "bulldozed"
are in her original, but I have to check on the rest].
From an educational point of view, it is very important to stress that
computers force the use of very special formal thoughts: the ones that
can be introduced into the machine under the form of commands or instructions.
As it has already been said, it is not possible to use any software
whatsoever without giving it commands (the italics of the word "any"
was produced exactly in my original with a command Ctrl+I; using the
corresponding icon would mean the same for the user). Thus, in this
action the user's thinking is reduced to what can be interpreted by
the machine. Education should have as one of its higher objectives the
slow development of the capacity for logical, objective thinking, so
that it becomes free and creative in the adult age. This cannot happen
if thinking is framed too early into rigid and dead forms, as the ones
required by any machines, and much more by computers, which work at
a strictly formal mental level.
Due to the types of thinking and formal language imposed by computers,
and to the enormous self-control that they demand, and based upon my
experiences with high school students, I came to the conclusion that
the ideal age for a young person to begin using a computer is 16, preferably
17 (see the paper on computers in education, on my web site, for more
I think that there is no place for transmitted television and for electronic
games in education. The failure of audiovisual teaching showed this
very well in the case of TV. In Brazil, million of dollars are spent
in production of educational TV programs. I could never found any statistics
showing what and how much was learned through those programs. As it
was seen, TV is not an educational medium (neither an informative one);
it is a conditioning medium. But I admit the use of video tape recorders,
in high school, to show short illustrations accompanied by discussions.
In the case of computers, it must be recognized that that they are
useful machines for certain tasks. For example, the original of this
article was written by hand and later typed on a computer for revision,
formatting and sending through the Internet to San Salvador, for publication
in the Idriart's Festival proceedings, in February 1998. The translation
into Portuguese, done by students in the city of Maceió, in the
northeast of Brazil, was also received by me through the Internet, and
it was with a computer that I made revisions and the present translation.
The Internet introduced novelties, such as electronic discussion lists,
where a person sends an electronic message to hundreds of individuals,
establishing a discussion forum that can be quite alive due to the posting
speed. (However, I have seen the failure of several of those lists due
to participants' lack of discipline; the latter ended up exaggerating
the number of postings, changing the subject under discussion, sending
comments of just one line or too big, etc.) Thanks to the Internet,
today it is possible to have access to information that was previously
Thus, it is my opinion that it is necessary to introduce computers
in high school, but to teach how to use them and their main applications
and, very important, to learn what they are. However, as they demand
certain maturity, I propose that this introduction should begin with
the study of hardware, in digital circuit labs (beginning with relays).
Electrical circuits have a physical reality, so they may be introduced
earlier than software, which is pure abstraction. After the basics of
the physical functioning is understood one may introduce, in the last
two grades, application software and the Internet. (See also the papers
on educational tools on my web site, for teaching what computers and
computing are, with possibility of downloading software developed for
that purpose.) This should always be accompanied by a critical vision
as, in fact, recommended in the excellent report of the Alliance for
Childhood [Cordes, 2000, p. 70]. For example, one may show that in the
Internet the growth of information garbage is exponential, and it is
becoming every day more difficult to really find something useful without
knowing beforehand its location. Or that in electronic mail one should
not fall in the extreme of sending telegraphic letters, without greeting
the recipients, treating them as if they were mere machines and not
human beings, etc.
It is interesting to compare the three electronic media in the following
way: the electronic game gives an illusion of action (exercise
of the will), but it is a machine action. TV gives a illusion of
feeling, but it is an unreal feeling, always stimulated from without
in a virtual environment, and not due to one's own imaginations as it
happens in reading, or to the reality of a happy or suffering present
person. Computers give the illusion of thinking activity, but
it is a kind of thinking that can be introduced into a machine by means
of commands or instructions, and it is a caricature of what human thinking
should be. Thus, the three media attack those three activities that
Steiner called "soul activities", reducing them to a non-human level.
This level is very clear: in the case of TV, it is the reduction of
the human being to a condition of a semiconscious animal. In the case
of computers, it is the reduction to a machine, specialized on thinking
those type of thoughts which can be introduced into that machine. In
the case of electronic games, it is the reduction, on one hand, of the
human being to an animal that reacts without thinking and without morals,
and on the other hand to a robot which reacts in a mechanical, standard
The table below summarizes those and other comparative points.
The school system is obsolete (see the paper on the obsolescence of
teaching, on my web site). Not because of lack of technology, as assumed
by many people, but for not having accompanied the inner evolution of
the human being in the 20th century, in terms of acting, feeling and
thinking. There is no more sense in using pressure means such as notes
(grading systems) and grade repetitions, nor treating the students in
an impersonal way, as if they were machines for storing data. The school
of the future should not be a more technological one, but a more humane
one. It should teach the youth at the right time (high school) to understand
machines and to dominate. It should teach how to use technology just
where it is constructive, elevates the human being and doesn't degrade
him, thus placing it in its due place. Only through education can we
revert the present dominance of machines over the human being, who became
their slave instead of their master.
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