Are we teaching or "giving fish?"

My high school algebra instructor had this saying posted in his classroom and quoted it frequently: “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” When a student was asked to answer a difficult equation aloud, others in the room often wanted to assist by whispering hints. With a twinkle in his eye, our teacher would respond to this with, “Are you giving fish?”

I recently was reminded of “giving fish” when I was asked for advice regarding a Web page “problem.” The site owner wanted to add a feature that would help users locate textual content within some rather lengthy Web pages. In the owner’s mind, the ideal solution was to trigger the browser’s Find/Search on Page feature (Control+F) via an in-page link, much like the Print dialog can be activated from a “Print this Page” link. When my research confirmed that the Find dialog couldn’t be triggered from a link, the owner’s next question was, “Can you code something that will do the same thing?” My response: “Why can’t we just teach them to use Control+F?” Why spend time and effort to replicate what the browser can do already — essentially, develop a costly “fish” when we could instead do a little teaching?

With mindsets like these, it’s indeed an interesting time to be a new software user. Generally speaking, most software is developed for and targeted at those who already know how to use software. After all, the interface concepts — menus, buttons, etc. — don’t generally change much. However, in the last few years I’ve noticed a new phenomenon: software for those who don’t understand software (or PCs) at all. In other words, programs meant to serve those who don’t really understand the technology they’re using. In the attempt to meet the needs of such a user, even the most basic computer operations are controlled by the software, giving the end user few choices for exploration, little chance to learn new concepts/skills, and virtually no hope for taking control of their computing experience (self-sufficiency). Now don’t misunderstand me. I strongly support developing software that can serve users at multiple skill levels, and designing with new users in mind is admirable. Additionally, there is certainly a place for software that helps users accelerate lengthy manual processes (“shortcut software”). What concerns me is software which also shields the user from gaining knowledge of basic concepts that would otherwise be required (or at least beneficial) for everyday computer usage. In short, the software is “giving fish,” and shortcut software sometimes steps into fish-giving territory. Here’s an example…

One of my relatives has several pieces of shortcut software for digital photo organization and transfer. (This software was either handed out by local stores that offer photo printing services, or it came bundled with the digital cameras.) It’s clear he doesn’t quite understand how the software moves image files from camera to PC and organizes the files on the hard disk. Based on the way the software functions, he believes he can only do with digital photo files what the software allows. For example, he once wanted to back up the photos to a CD, but the software doesn’t provide this feature, so he doesn’t know how it can be done. Of course it can be done but not with the limited feature set of the software that is allegedly supposed to be serving new users so well. Now, if he had a firm grasp of file management concepts, this scenario might be different. But as a newer user, he’s been fed fish continually and doesn’t have that self-sufficiency.

So I think my Algebra teacher was onto something. If self-sufficiency only comes by teaching, when and why did we stop teaching new users basic concepts? It’s no wonder the software vendors have tried to compensate. Will the trend continue? Only time will tell. In the meantime, let’s continue to leverage teachable moments. Speaking of which…

For those wondering how the Web page saga turned out, the owners eventually agreed, and the site went live with a “Search on this page” link that simply presented the message, “Press Control+F to search on any Web page.” While not elegant — and admittedly much more of a “triage” solution than redesigning all the site owner’s lengthy pages — at least we helped teach a few more users to fish for themselves.

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2 Responses to Are we teaching or "giving fish?"

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