Computers In Schools Are A Failure, “Tools of Distraction”

November 19, 2010 at 9:51 am 16 comments

An interesting interview with Alan, with the claim “Computers have become tools of distraction” that points to a really important issue.  What we know about learning is that it’s about directed conscious attention to sense-making. Computers today are about multi-tasking and avoiding boredom. Boredom isn’t nearly as dangerous as ignorance.

Kay says the education system has squandered 30 years of technology in classrooms. He likens the modern factory educatory system to a monkey with a microscope. The monkey looks at its reflection in the microscope’s barrel but doesn’t look through the eyepiece — it utterly misses the point.

Computers have become tools of distraction, Kay said, instead of education. He singles out Guitar Hero as the best example of this — players get the fantasy of virtuoso guitar playing without learning a single note.

via Computers In Schools Are A Failure, Says Computer Pioneer Alan Kay [Apple in Education] | Cult of Mac.

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16 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Darrin Thompson  |  November 19, 2010 at 11:43 am

    Words, well, my skills with words, cannot describe my burning anger at Alan right now. That argument was as low as a television campaign commercial and just as ignorant. I hope it was at least better intentioned.

    I’ve been a musician for decades and I learned quite a bit from Rock Band. I learned a lot and that was on top of a good grounding in music theory and my years of technical proficiency and my years of actual performance sometimes many times per week.

    At some point Alan’s message has to go to the students. Ignorant statements like that are going to hurt his cause deeply.

    Alan needs to clean up his act. Beat a couple of those songs in expert mode and then tell us all about what you didn’t learn.


    • 2. Barry Brown  |  November 19, 2010 at 12:55 pm


      I’m curious to know what you learned from playing Rock Band.

      • 3. Darrin Thompson  |  November 19, 2010 at 3:13 pm

        I leaned a number of things, some trivial, some more weighty.

        When I was learning piano I hated playing with a metronome and avoided it at all costs. However, when I got older and got hold of some midi equipment I heard for myself how sloppy I was.

        I was horrified and did some remediation.

        A rhythm game gives you motivation to spend long hours making your body follow a tempo. Naturally when you get excited you want to speed up or if you lose concentration you might slow down. It takes a great deal of practice to keep a disciplined rhythm for an extended period of time.

        Thank you Rock Band!

        When I listen to a new popular song, I “hear” things differently from a non musician. As a keyboardist in Pentecostal churches I leaned to improvise based on melody and known chord progressions. So the thing I know better than anything else is harmonies.

        What I learned from Rock Band was that I was still missing a lot. I was not hearing the syncopations at all. I could probably reproduce the chord progression pretty well, but I’d round their rhythms to quarter and eighth notes, even though the changes on break beats are critical to the song’s identity.

        Thank you Rock Band!

        Another trivial thing I picked up was that even in it’s dumbed down state, the guitar controller captures a lot of the gross physical movement of playing particular songs. As I started to try the more difficult levels I found myself engaging my core muscles in odd ways. I think that’s part of the fun of the game. You find that the movement of a real guitarist isn’t pure performance but is heavily influenced by the demands of the song.

        That was trivial, but thank you Rock Band again!

        So while it’s reasonable to say you aren’t truly learning guitar, you are learning a great deal about performing, using a mock guitar.

        How many times have you heard a novice musicion play a song, miss a note, pause, replay the phrase with the missed note, miss it again, pause, replay the phrase faster (why?!), etc. etc.

        Well, there’s nothing like a rhythm game to help you break that habit, no?

        And that’s just the basic Rock Band 2 guitar controller. I also own the microphone, as well as the drums. Each of these has it’s own lessons to teach.

        Personally I’m mostly a fan of drumming, as the simulation is a lot more real and I find the challenge more motivating and interesting. Am I a real drummer? No way! Have I learned a lot about what goes into a drum beat? Oh my word yes! There’s a lot more going on in those some of those simple pop ditties than I ever realized. (except Mony Mony. Wow that song is simple. I saw a special win reward I didn’t know existed after drumming on that song.)

        Tom Saywer is a drumming masterpiece. That drum part almost has a melody.

        But I want to focus my exposition on the guitar controller. As dumbed down as it appears to the untrained educator, it has a lot to teach. I didn’t even get into the “hammer on” system and the “strum” rule for getting the notes to register. And that’s the dumbest of the controllers at them moment.

        Never mind that Rock Band 3 is including keyboards, the ability to grade real guitar chording, more accurate drum simulation (it was good to start with), vocal harmonies, and more exacting “pro” modes.

        Never mind all that.

        Alan’s comment was ignorant, and appeals to like minded ignorant educators, and appears to be an attempt to get some emotion stirred. That’s what makes me compare it to a political TV ad.

        In conclusion, it makes me angry. People listen to what he says. I’ve listened to what he’s said. Now this? I’m gravely disappointed.

        • 4. John "Z-Bo" Zabroski  |  November 19, 2010 at 6:45 pm

          You might find this old Alan Kay paraphrased quote from 1995 interesting:

          Also, Alan recently commented here about similar stuff. See the comments of

          BTW, Alan criticized Guitar Hero, not Rock Band. Rock Band does require a bit more than Guitar Hero.

          If you actually look at the content of Alan’s comments, they align with what Alan complained about in the comments of “Finding Hope in a Book-less World”, since he is arguing that we should’ve learned enough from human history by now to know what to attempt to do when new technologies change the way we communicate.

          • 5. Erik Engbrecht  |  November 19, 2010 at 8:22 pm

            I love this quote:
            He feels there is very little chance of change because of the “enormous situated bureaucracy for running education in this country.”

            Seems like the times have been moving in the wrong direction…

            I haven’t played Rock Band, but I have played Guitar Hero. It might teach some rhythm. But it’s mostly just fun. I can’t imagine someone learning much from it.

  • 6. John "Z-Bo" Zabroski  |  November 19, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    Alan, I am curious what you think about systems like Pinocchio [1] that let people wave an iPhone around like a conducting baton, providing little kid’s with a game where they can be a professional conductor.


    • 7. Alan Kay  |  November 21, 2010 at 8:18 am

      Hi John,

      As McLuhan would say “How about *this* one?”

      I haven’t looked at Pinocchio, but it’s easy to imagine that allowing people to conduct in real-time could be done well, and in a way that would allow many parts of conducting to be learned authentically. Barry Vercoe at MIT (and others elsewhere) 20 years ago made listening/playing software that could compare a played score (including the soloist) with what the soloist was playing and could follow the tempos and accommodate missed and glitched notes. So this is really doable and well.

      A key question about most music learning is what are good ways for the learner to get feedback? One of the problems with being under the gun in real time is that it is all too easy to lose awareness of what one is doing.

      However, it is easy these days to record the whole experience (perhaps with MIDI as suggested about, though this is pretty coarse) for immediate playback and listening when not playing. A system that could help spot certain problems would also be helpful (for example, playing in unison and nailing the attacks — sometimes our ears are not as acute as a pro’s).

      One way of looking at the larger issue is to try to “nail down x’s” and then be tough about what is actually going on both within art and psychologically.

      For example, keyboard instruments usually insert a fair amount of technology between the player and the actual degrees of freedom (even with a clavichord). The trade-off is getting polyphony at the cost of some dimensions of expressiveness (most keyboards are essentially “tuned percussion instruments” with no possibilities for crescendos, portamentos, control of attacks and decays, etc. One could imagine a much better modern keyboard with really good aftertouch and “sidetouch” that could make keyboards more expressive than they have ever been — but none of the music companies I’ve talked to will make them because there is no mass market for them.)

      So, it’s always wonderful to hear a really good pianist create “singing music” from a non-singing instrument. Or a classical pipe organist create singing from an instrument that almost cannot respond to attacks in any way.

      These problems are well known to guitar players. Unlike a violin which can produce most effects that can be done with a voice (because the bowing is continuous and there are no frets), the guitar is limited, and one has to really work at helping the listener hear “line”. This becomes quite amazing on an acoustic classical guitar (Christopher Parkening is one of the best at this magic.)

      One of the ways to deal with these problems has been to get children to learn to sing, and to play a more expressive , more “singing”, instrument before and while learning to play a keyboard instrument. The singing should be happening inside, and this starts to impart the nuances via what the instrument can do, which evoke the sense of singing in the listeners.

      One of my main complaints over the years about the institutional schooling in the US is that it tends to substitute formal behaviors for contentful behaviors but claim that it is teaching the actual subjects. This is especially egregious with respect to mathematics and science. In a larger sphere, this is done by giving diplomas that are quite disconnected with the actual degree of real education acquired.

      In the pop culture we see ever more powerful desires for a sense of identity and for a sense of participation. Many of these desires can be satisfied with forms rather than content. There are many industries that are catering to a marketplace that is willing to buy a form rather than learn a content. (There are so many interesting ones, but certainly we have to be somewhat nonplussed that television celebrates lip-synching contests, air guitar and Guitar Hero contests, etc.) Rap is really interesting when looked at from this point of view. And so are fantasy sports. And so is “painting by numbers”, which may still be around. And something as simple and now invisible as people getting most of their news from 22 minutes of television, and now from mostly non-vetted low res sources on the web.

      I don’t know enough about Rock Band to comment on it. But I think one can learn a lot from “Guitar Hero” about the “designer jeans” syndromes in the “form over content” and “attitude over feeling” culture we are embedded in.

      I think most people, once primed with the possibility of an analogy with Guitar Hero will readily see it in spades in a visit to most schools with computers in their classrooms. It is certainly the case that one almost never sees real content in the sense of what the computer could be most strongly used for. It is very often the case that the teaches and parents and school systems think that real content involving the computer is actually going on, even though it isn’t.

      I was a professional jazz guitarist for about a decade 50 years ago, and did a fair amount of teaching. What bothers me about Guitar Hero is that it could just as well have taught people to play real guitar with just a little more effort and hand-holding.

      Best wishes,


      • 8. John "Z-Bo" Zabroski  |  November 22, 2010 at 2:37 pm

        @Alan Kay
        @What bothers me about Guitar Hero is that it could just as well have taught people to play real guitar with just a little more effort and hand-holding.

        Why don’t you talk to the people at Guitar Hero about that possibility? Capitalists are always looking for new ideas on how to make money.

        Recently the NFL and Electronic Arts’ EA SPORTS Active division partnered on NFL Training Camp, which lets people simulate what it is like to go through an NFL Training Camp. It probably isn’t as intense as a Jillian Michaels training video, but it might be more fun for some. The program is part of the NFL’s campaign to keep kids active and fight the trend of people leading progressively more sedentary lifestyles. NFL Training Camp uses the Wii, but I imagine more possibilities might open up with markerless tracking technologies and devices like Microsoft Kinect.

        Didn’t the movie Back to the Future have stuff like this?

        • 9. John "Z-Bo" Zabroski  |  November 22, 2010 at 2:39 pm

          Here is a recent article about a physics professor helping to improve the gameplay in Tony Hawk:

          Why couldn’t you fill a similar role as that physics professor?

        • 10. Alan Kay  |  November 22, 2010 at 4:51 pm

          Hi John,

          Actually, I have periodically tried to “get games people to ‘be better’ “, including the Guitar Hero people, and before that the SimCity folks, and before that “Interactive Physics” (which isn’t a game but was too canned to be really illuminating.

          Best wishes,


          • 11. John "Z-Bo" Zabroski  |  November 22, 2010 at 4:59 pm

            I sense underlying frustration. What sort of feedback have you been getting?

            Why do you think the Tony Hawk people were receptive to the physics professor?

            If the Guitar Hero people won’t budge, I predict the only thing that will change their mind is the forces of capitalism. Microsoft could be developing products to compete with them right now, for all we know. If they’re not careful, their space in Harvard Square could be empty in 15 years.

  • 12. mark  |  November 22, 2010 at 12:25 am

    I think Guitar Hero and other computer apps have their place. Computers become a distraction is when occupy our time just for entertainment.

    My computer is just a tool like a hammer is to a carpenter. I don’t think much about it unless I loose it or it breaks.

    Personal choice.

  • 13. Alan Kay  |  November 22, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    To: 11. John “Z-Bo” Zabroski | November 22, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    Dipping in and out of the game space is something I’ve been doing since the 70s, and took a direct shot in the early 80s as Chief Scientist of Atari. There were several great 8-bit micro games back then (such as the classic “Rocky’s Boots”) which were both great fun and deeply educational.

    Three of the large factors in this space are (a) the special talents needed to make a great game of any kind, (b) the production values and amount of content, etc., needed, and (c) the great desire of marketing people especially to be able to sell to as large a market as possible.

    So for example, the Maxis (SimCity) people are excellent game designers, but there was no financial or popular motivation for them to take any of the suggestions made to them by educators (including me).

    In the old days I would use this rather than Guitar Hero as a metaphor for what is problematical with this kind of environment in a largely unsophisticated world. I.e., there was no particular reason to make the underlying model of SimCity good, but it wound up being adopted in many schools, and actually won quite a few educational awards. So it was quite successful at teaching children and adults *something* (but just not much that was good or rich enough to count as education — and much of it was dangerously misleading if learned).

    As Neil Postman once said about television “It is at its worst when it is trying to be good”.

    One way of looking at all this is that in the small, it is a bit silly to try to get all entertainment to be educational in some serious fashion.

    In the large we have consumer products companies trying to create the next of a long series of legal drugs for consumers to eat, drink and experience. They are aiming wittingly or not at things we are wired to desire, and there is little counter information and learning to help deal with this.

    Desperate educators often point to the popularity of video games and make unwarranted generalizations about how they might be used in education. They miss the enormous differences between most of today’s game play and the character of modern knowledge.

    60 years ago there was a popular card game called Casino, which required a fair amount of mental arithmetic to play. Many schools rightly used Casino as part of their repertoire to help young children learn arithmetic (and it did help for parts of it), but no one confused playing Casino with actually learning mathematics.

    Best wishes,


    • 14. John "Z-Bo" Zabroski  |  November 22, 2010 at 7:37 pm

      SimCity is kind of amusing, seeing how the creator has gone on to create Spore, and the story there is very interesting. The design team there was split on whether to make the creatures created in the game realistic, or cute. See the Wikipedia article on Chris Hecker [1], which has some great references on the direction Will Wright took in developing the Spore team and also the controversy of cute vs. real.

      I also know first-hand that really good simulations, or even “better than the rest” quality can create a completely isolated subculture. For many years I would participate in Front Page Sports Baseball Pro 1998 online simulation leagues, and Front Page Sports Football Pro 1998 online simulation leagues as well. It was really interesting and I learned a lot about how to negotiate through experience (e.g., the power of “no”), especially when the best GMs did negotiations professionally and were just geeks like me who had weird hobbies. These old video games by Sierra (now Vivendi) were “cult classics” because they were so much better than their contemporaries. The Baseball sim even had a config file — pb.ini for “Play Ball” — that let you control the actual physical constants used in simulation. Just about everything was customizable, and it made it really easy to simulate 1920s era baseball, 1950s era, or even the booming bats of the 2000s…

      Actually, this sort of stuff is what inspired me to become a programmer. Sadly, I never have had the free time since college to pursue the idea of building an amazing simulation engine like Will Wright has. As you say, building great games requires a unique combination of skills, which I did not possess as a teenager. Although I probably have (most of) the skills now, I don’t have the time for it with adult concerns.


  • 15. Alan Kay  |  November 23, 2010 at 10:29 pm

    Interesting timing here …

    Check out PowerGig … a new hybrid game with a “real guitar” controller with several modes including “real playing”.

    Worth seeing how decent the guitar is and what the possibilities for real learning might be.

    As mentioned before, I was quite disappointed with Guitar Hero because real Rock and Roll guitar is not terribly difficult, so a game with real RnR would make a lot of sense, and possibly be a good entry point for more challenging genres on the instrument.

    (e.g.. one of the stoppers for many beginners is the physical challenge of pain in the fingertips and in developing enough grip strength to play many of the chords. An RnR entry point could be a good one to get past these problems.)



    • 16. Steve Wald  |  November 24, 2010 at 1:37 pm

      Rock Band 3 also uses real guitars that have been extra instrumentation for the game, but which can be plugged into an amp and used without the game.


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