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Page Three (of Four)

Stimulation or Captivation?

Jean Piaget, the eminent Swiss psychologist who more or less invented modern developmental psychology earlier this century, defined intelligence as the ability to cope with the changing world through the organization and reorganization of experience. The two critical and complementary ingredients of that adaptation, he proposed, are

When an electronic toy is substituted for an immobile or mechanical one, the critical issue is not whether but how kids will be stimulated. Is this stimulation or a form of neural captivation?

assimilation, fitting new information into an old conception of the world, and accommodation, devising a new conception of the world to fit new information that doesn't gibe with the old model. MIT's Seymour Papert, a student and a colleague of Piaget's in the late fifties and early sixties, developed his faith in the educational potential of computers from his own successful experience of assimilation as a child. His infatuation with the mechanics of a car, he says, evoked an intense level of mathematical curiosity at a very early age. "Gears, serving as models, carried many otherwise abstract ideas into my head," Papert writes in Mindstorms. "I saw multiplication tables as gears, and my first brush with equations in two variables (e.g., 3x + 4y = 10) immediately evoked the differential." Since not everyone develops such a passion for car mechanics in particular, Papert reasons, children should have access to a machine that can adapt to their individual interests. "What the gears cannot do the computer might. The computer is the Proteus of machines. Its essence is its universality, its power to stimulate. Because it can take on a thousand forms and can serve a thousand functions, it can appeal to a thousand tastes."

Papert is correct to say that computers are pliable enough that they can be adapted to stimulate almost every child. But the transition from gears to computers invokes far more than the issue of customization. When an electronic toy is substituted for an immobile or mechanical one, the critical issue is not whether but how kids will be stimulated. A lifeless toy that doesn't speak or bleat or flash for attention may not reflexively draw every child's attention every time, but if it does, it will probably be for the right reasons -- the child is curious, the child wants to explore. But what is the nature of the stimulation aroused by a set of squeezeable balls that play exotic, electronic sounds? Or a playpen whose floor and walls are tripwired for different sounds? Is this stimulation or a form of neural captivation? Is the thinking toy sparking curiosity or mere amusement? "Up until recently," says Monty Stambler, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and Boston's Children's Hospital and a toy developer himself, "toys have been animated by the imagination of their users. These toys turn that on its head. The electronic toy animates the user, instead of the other way around. That has to have an impact on creativity." The great danger with high-tech toys, then, is not that they won't excite children, but that the provocation will be of an unwanted -- or unquantifiable -- sort.

I voiced this concern with Resnick during my MIT visit. He is very sensitive to the idea that too much visceral stimulation can kill the creative impulse by subverting curiosity. One simply absorbs the flash of sound or light, is entertained and even hypnotized by it. There is an essential balance to be struck, Resnick agrees, wherein the tools are exciting enough to stimulate interest but are challenging enough to draw the user into a genuine intellectual pursuit. "We sometimes use a phrase around here -- 'hard fun' -- that we've heard kids use when they're working with our products," he says. "We like to hear them use that term, because it's not meant to be easy. If it's too easy, if it's cotton candy, that's not what we want. At after-school workshops that we sponsor, a lot of the kids are working really hard, though no one is forcing them to. Kids who are seen as having attention problems in school will work for three straight hours on a project. Time and again we see that kids are willing to work hard at things that capture their imagination. So that's what we aim for, fun that is engaging but that has a type of depth to it."

From my own experience growing up with computers, I know that Resnick is speaking the truth. The notion of hard fun is real and meaningful, and is the basis for the most hopeful aspect of computer games, and of the Internet. The Net's ability to compel so many people to spend so much time forging personalized, electronic pathways of hyperlinks from subject to intriguing subject makes it the apotheosis of Papert's "Proteus of machines." Howard Gardner, the Harvard philosopher of education and the proponent of the theory of multiple intelligences, proposes that the key ingredient to a truly successful educational culture is the ability to appeal to and inspire the wide variety of abilities and combinations of intelligences that different people possess. This is the best argument I can think of for introducing computers and other thinking machines to children: to motivate kids by giving them the ability to design their own educational destinies.

Whether this new paradigm will present more opportunities than hazards, though, is another matter. Sherry Turkle has characterized the introduction of a machine consciousness into children's lives as a fundamentally social, fulfilling enterprise. As these psychological machines begin to pervade our culture, she says, kids "will be more likely to take the machines 'at interface value' -- that is, to accept them as dialogue partners, even as companions of a sort." This echoes what Microsoft's Erik Strommen explained to me back at Toy Fair about the radical new role his toys will play in kids' lives. "These dolls are treated by children as if they are another person," he said. "They talk back to them, they laugh at their jokes. The dolls respond in a way that a good friend and a good learning partner would respond -- they praise their successes, offer hints when you want them, that kind of thing." After our meeting, Strommen e-mailed me a paper elaborating on the nature of the companionship provided by his ActiMates dolls, which he equates with the bedrock developmental process of scaffolding. From his paper:
Scaffolding is the process whereby an adult or more mature peer supports a child's acquisition of a new skill by providing assistance at key points during the execution of the skill itself, in a form of collaborative effort. An example of scaffolding might be helping a child learn to count by filling in numbers in the count sequence when the child is unable to remember them, or manually guiding the child's finger to each object being counted while counting along, to structure the task as it is executed. The metaphor of the scaffold is meant to capture the temporary and transitional nature of the learning intervention. Just as a scaffold is gradually removed from a new building as it is completed and can stand on its own, support of the child is gradually reduced as repeated effort leads to mastery of the new skill....

The goal of ActiMates Barney's design was to use the social mimicry of pretend play, combined with the differential responsiveness of interactive technologies, to provide scaffolded learning experiences for young children, both during toy play and in combination with other learning media.
I showed this to Harvard's Monty Stambler, who was horrified. Strommen's claim "does violence to the concept of what a scaffolding experience would be like," Stambler says. "All the sophistication of the adult is completely missing. He gives this example [elsewhere in the paper]: the child is supposed to pick the triangle and he gets the wrong one, and then Barney says to the child, 'A triangle has three sides.' He's calling that scaffolding -- but that's not really what scaffolding is. That's correcting. Scaffolding is where you, the adult, start with what the child's perceptions are and work in a sort of Socratic method to help the child advance their understanding from where they are, individualized for them. What he's got here is formularized. It always says 'A triangle has three sides.' There's no individualization, no calibration to where the child is at." (Other psychologists, including some cited in Strommen's paper, agree that his scaffolding claim is a wild stretch. It's "highly exaggerated," says Inge Bretherton, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin. "I feel sad that he is citing my article in support of his claims.")

In Stambler's view, then, the so-called machine consciousness is bound to be nothing more than a thin facsimile of humanity. "It puts so much stress on learning fact and so little on feeling that it worries me," he says of ActiMates. "Do we want this Barney modeling our kids' involvement with television? I would find it objectionable to have a plush being unreservedly positive about a television program, because that's not how I am when I watch television. It's one thing when you're an adult and you know that it's just a feeling state that can be evoked and that it's not for real. It's another thing when you're a kid who's having this relationship with this talking plush. Emotional intelligence has certain components. One of them is a certain capacity to understand what someone else feels -- the ability to link certain feeling states together, to know how to cope with a bad mood, and so on. These toys have no moods. Like Pinocchio, they're animated but they can't cry."

Of course, someday, Stambler allows, perhaps in time for our children's children, these toys may actually exhibit and read moods. Will they then place enough emphasis on real feeling to help kids navigate emotional terrain, or will the eery proximity to humanity be all the more creepy and objectionable? Stambler's instinct is that there might be something beneficial there. I'm less sanguine.

Conclusion ... Shaped by Our Toys

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David Shenk, the author of Data Smog (1997), lives in Brooklyn. A collection of his essays on science and technology will be published next fall.

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