everything wrong with free software
"obedience breeds foolishness"
other pages: [[treating-computerphobia]] | computerphobia | [[letters-to-a-computer-student]] | *originally posted:* jan 2021
i was not a typical student-- when i started school, i was already using a computer without assistance and reading without assistance. i assumed that was normal, and that everybody around me could do that as well.
because of this, instead of just going to school to learn, when i went to school i rated my teachers on their ability to teach me new skills. some were helpful, and those were cherished, but more of them really did more to make learning difficult than they did to facilitate learning. when youre a kid, you only suspect this; you dont have enough experience teaching or know enough about how education really works to test or confirm any of your ideas about how terrible your teachers are at their job. (please note again, some of them were really very good!)
but since my personal experience is a terrible sample, its not from that alone when i say i think the way school works is you have a teacher, who plays defence, and they stand at one end of the field to guard the "lesson", which is a sort of goal or flag or net. on the other end is the student, who has to get around the teacher to score a goal or flag or whatever.
everything that happens in between the starting position and the goal of course, is basically calvinball. if you arent familiar with calvinball, its a game with arbitrary rules that are not only inconsistent but improvised, and frequently change according to the whims of the other player. (in actual calvinball both sides are expected to do this). in order to make it through classes, one must score a sufficent number of these goals within a year.
i dont want you to think that just because i started school with a couple of extra skills, meant i was in any way at all a great student. my grades were average at best, i was frequently miserable, and to this day i am still terrible at math. if i throw a hat into a crowd, it will most likely hit someone with better math abilities than my own. still, i managed to make it through school eventually.
*so where does fear come from?* fear of course, is a survival mechanism that kept our ancestors from putting their manners first when they happened to meet lions, tigers and bears. instead of walking up and bowing or trying to shake hands, people would generally hide or run from such creatures. this in turn, kept us from all getting eaten or that sort of thing.
but even if you dont go to school around any large ferocious animals, that feature is still with us. if you have nothing else to be terrified of, the mind will think of something. one of the things that hurts people the most (which many people spend their lives trying to prevent or avoid) is rejection. so when you are young and there are no tigers around, but theres a person you fancy but the most frightening prospect you can think of in the world is trying to kiss them, you can thank evolution for that small but still ridiculous amount of torture in your life.
for many people, computers are just as terrifying. they wont (yet) reject you if youre a terrible kisser, nor will they reject you if you say the wrong thing or type the wrong keys (unless its a password, but really thats what you actually want it to do most of the time) but the fear is (i think) really one step removed from the computer itself.
im not entirely discarding the idea that people think something catastrophic will happen if they literally press the wrong key. the old fear that an expensive machine will break (or worse!) when they unpredictably respond to a keypress with an event that registers on the richter scale is something people are conditioned to feel, if only as a cruel cinematic joke. but i honestly think the fear of rejection is closer to the root cause-- and this fear manifests itself as "what if i press the wrong button and it breaks this machine?"
i dont claim to be an expert on psychology, so when i talk about first-hand experience working with other people, i dont have large enough of a cross section of society to figure if this is definitely what goes through the ancient cognitive functions of a subconsciously terrified student-- but i think its worth a further look, and probably a lot of it is to do with gender roles.
i dont care either way, i mean if its not gender roles and its simply "general expectations of society or the classroom" thats alright-- i happen to think gender roles are a factor. the reason is that in my experience females (various ages, including adults) are more likely to try new things with computers when instructed, while males (various ages including adults) are more likely to bluff their way through and make claims of things they already know (but wont bother to demonstrate).
and this is in an informal setting where no grading is involved-- a simple tutoring session.
you may think im picking on the boys, but i already have a suspicion about the real cause of the difference here. the difference, plain and simple, is that girls are not expected to know anything about computers (a dreadful stereotype that neglects the fact that women practically invented computing) while boys are generally expected to know everything. i believe society demonstrates that any sort of error shown by a boy is more often treated as a weakness, a frailty, and not simply because males naturally perceive it as such. whatever the reason is, society expects males to deliver, to be correct, to triumph-- or to be unworthy of society itself. note that i am not only thinking of school when i say this, nor the typical boardroom, but also im thinking of homeless shelters.
so being right, in the context of an unfamiliar subject like computers is for many a higher priority than learning anything. and just to be safe (if youre thinking this is an oversimplification, of course it is) people will learn, but if you put them in front of each other they will compete for who gets the title of not being shamed. and these are tendencies, because some people have managed to go beyond these instincts and put actual learning first.
by no means am i saying that the female is in an enviable situation, because we know she will probably get less credit for whatever she accomplishes. thats the really nasty side of having condescendingly low expectations-- even when they do something (considered) above average, people will automatically accuse them of cheating (it happens, too often) or having a lot of help. if the achiever has a husband, some people will go as far as to automatically credit him without even knowing if he had any involvement.
so what are students really afraid of when theyre trying to learn something unfamiliar? rejection, humiliation and (even when they do well) belittling and false accusations! *isnt it great to be a student?*
but we judge the difficulties that arise from this primarily by outward behaviour and standardised testing. the latter is a horrible measure (in that it tells us more about the ability to do tests than it tells us about what people have learned, but /at least/ it is standard!) and the former is something teachers in general know too little about (some are brilliant, but theyre exceptions-- *even good teachers sadly, are often saddled with an administration that is just as troublesome*).
and what the outward behaviour is based on is whatever coping mechanisms the student has for dealing with pain and frustration-- which is something that most people actually suck at. they will put on a brave face, but sooner or later most people will break down emotionally or lose motivation, and it shows. practically every coping mechanism people have is for delaying or minimising this, while methods that actually teach people to face their fear are often treated as deep, esoteric wisdom.
when people are being gauged by their personal method of putting their feelings aside for later, this is a terrible measure of how well theyre actually doing. so even standardised testing might not be as useless as the most popular alternative.
given that school is essentially a series of torture sessions lasting between half (in some places) and two decades, everyone is building up a subconscious and sometimes visceral *fear of learning* itself. its a miracle (and sometimes it seems a rarity) that anybody wants to learn anything ever again, once school is over.
so my approach to computing (and you dont need to adopt mine, though i hope you will at least know the reasoning behind it) is not only intended to "go easy" on students, but to teach with awareness of the fact that even people who love to learn are on some deeply-seated level, completely terrified of learning-- *especially learning something they know nothing about.*
not everybody is like that and (honestly) good for them, though if your goal is for everyone to be computer literate, youre going to want to make this as easy as possible.
by "easy as possible" i dont mean avoiding things that are necessary. the foundation is the hardest part to build, but thats moot in most instances, where they skip bothering with a foundation entirely!
"so for our first class, we will be learning how to make spanakopita and panna cotta"
i mean you can still learn that way, its just much more painful and almost everybody hates it. id much rather teach people to love learning, if possible-- they tend to learn more that way. a true foundation for learning not only provides an outline or background for the subject, but guides the learner out of the terror of sheer expectation to (at least, temporarily) an understanding of learning in the way that people learn things naturally.
technically, surviving an encounter with a dangerous animal is also a powerful lesson, but conditioning learners to associate all lessons with fear causes many people to seize up-- when they could be broadening their horizons instead. we have designed an educational system that is primarily based on fear, and it is terribly inefficient (and relatively ineffective). fortunately, the pointless and consistent low-level trauma that school induces (just to get simple points across) is frequently reversible ([[treating-computerphobia]]). its so much easier to simply not convey lessons through mild terror in the first place, but even someone who went to school first can still be taught.
"i hate coding. ok, i dont really hate coding... just my teacher."
im not making fun of teachers, either. its alright if they think i am, but a lot of them get sort of drafted into teaching computers because the school doesnt think it requires a "real computer teacher", or there arent enough of those to go around. you do have a lot of computer teachers who are struggling with the lesson before the students are, because they too were never really taught.
and to those teachers who already understand: thank you. even when youre not in the other classrooms, youre helping students to survive your peers.