Myths and Truths of Explaining Technology to Kids

I often find misconceptions of how much children need technology explained. In fact, I recently had lunch with my colleague, Ryan, who formerly taught computing skills to young children in a school. He confirmed that kids are often initially just as confused or uncomfortable as older adopters of a new technology. Yet, there are two myths I hear repeated again and again by older colleagues…

Myth 1: younger generations are born with an understanding of technology or naturally know how to use technology.

Truth: They learn just like anyone else. While there is plenty of scientific research to show that young children can learn and adapt very quickly — perhaps more quickly than older adults — it’s not necessarily because they’re innately better at using technology. So what is different when it comes to kids and technology? They’re simply at an advantage for the right opportunities and environments for rapidly learning about it.

Most kids have nearly unlimited time to explore at very little personal expense.They don’t shoulder the responsibilities of adulthood. So their minds are free of many worries and stresses, leaving more time to willingly engage and learn something new. School — learning — is their primary occupation. It’s encouraged there, and even outside of school, kids often have more discretionary time. Having the luxury of voluntarily choosing to learn about something, rather than being informed “You need this because your livelihood depends on you learning it and using it” is priceless. In light of that, it should be obvious that kids need fear failure  less — at least in private, since peer pressure does certainly influence them —  because repercussions are not as significant when a parent or guardian is still available to assume responsibility for their actions. When you know you’re not being evaluated, the pressure is off. Without the risks, there is a greater chance a person is willing to explore, to make mistakes, and I don’t think I need to belabor the point that learning comes from having the opportunity to safely make mistakes. (Nor should I have to expound the importance of exploration for understanding technology. It was one of the most important skills I needed to encourage in The Ultimate PC Primer.)

In light of this, kids can adopt technology processes so rapidly because fewer previous technology mental models have been built, requiring far less to unlearn than adult counterparts. With freedom from adult responsibility and time, curiosity and ample resources on their side, it’s no wonder that you can quickly scan YouTube and discover young child electric guitar virtuosos or teens making Lucasfilm-style special effects.

Myth 2: based on Myth 1, they never need anything explained.

Truth: the need for explanation knows no age boundary. Kids still require explanation, but likely not to the extent as older adult learners. With a brand new technology, experiential learning sinks into their fresh mental sponges easily. They’re also willing to take instruction at face value without questioning it or needing to reconcile it with existing knowledge. Yet, if a topic is sufficiently complex or foreign, even youngsters benefit from drawing comparisons to things already known. The truth is, people of all ages need technology explained. I’ve run across teens and 20-somethings who didn’t grasp some of the The Top 15 Most Important Understandings Needed for Solid PC Literacy.

Remember, every old technology was once new. Young users today will one day be the old users, just as the old users today were once the ones saying to their parents how easy the rotary telephone, radio, or television was to understand. It’s not an issue of age; it’s an issue of learning.

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