Reading and writing is useless

And it really meant something to the child. The child read beautifully, it turned out, and was really very competent. So it actually meant something. And that story has many other anecdotes that are similar, but wow. The key to the future of computers in education is right there, and it is: when does it mean something to a child? There is a myth, and it truly is a myth: we believe — and I’m sure a lot of you believe in this room — that it is harder to read and write than it is to learn how to speak. And it’s not, but we think speech — “My God, little children pick it up somehow, and by the age of two they’re doing a mediocre job, and by three and four they’re speaking reasonably well. And yet you’ve got to go to school to learn how to read, and you have to sit in a classroom and somebody has to teach you. Hence, it must be harder.”Well, it’s not harder. What the truth is is that speaking has great value to a child; the child can get a great deal by talking to you.

Reading and writing is utterly useless. There is no reason for a child to read and write except blind faith, and that it’s going to help you. So what happens is you go to school and people say, “Just believe me, you’re going to like it. You’re going to like reading,” and just read and read. On the other hand, you give a kid — a three-year-old kid — a computer and they type a little command and — Poof! — something happens. And all of a sudden … You may not call that reading and writing, but a certain bit of typing and reading stuff on the screen has a huge payoff, and it’s a lot of fun. And in fact, it’s a powerful educational instrument.

Nicholas Negroponte’s discussing the myth that learning to read and write is difficult during his amazing 1984 TED talk.

This followed an fantastic anecdote of a child teachers believed couldn’t read. It turned out he believed reading was the boring stuff teachers gave him. When he could get something out of it, when it was useful for him, he was perfectly capable of leaving.

Negroponte eloquently makes the point that children learn best when they are allowed to follow their interests, take on challenging tasks and make something that is meaningful to them.

Reading isn’t hard, but it isn’t magical either. It’s a tool, and kids are more likely to use it when it suits their curiosity and interests.