Young and Old: Skills, Tools and Points of View

Load just about any game on an electronic tablet and hand it off to a three- or four-year-old. Chances are they will easily learn how to play the game. In fact, you will likely find that they play the game at least as well as you do, perhaps even better. What marvels our modern children must be! Far better than their slower, less advanced elders, right?

Take a look at typical teenagers. Most of them carry mobile ‘smartphones’ and just about all of them have access to the Internet. They are all adept at using devices to socialize online. But it’s not just social networking and gaming. Most of their reading and shopping is also done electronically as is their research, fact checking, and navigation. Many of their ‘get-togethers’ take place online, probably in immersive gaming environments. If not, chances are that some online tools were used to arrange for the face-to-face ones.

Not much like us older people, huh? Unlike our younger counterparts, for whom the online environment is an integral part of their daily lives, for so many of my (older) generation, it’s an add-on; a place we go to from time-to-time—maybe even frequently—to bring some added value to our lives.

Here it comes. You probably know this but let’s just state it anyway:

While the younger people love and respect, very much, us older people that intersect their lives, they are generally of the mind that we are not in touch with what they consider today’s world. They find our efforts at using technology to be crude and clumsy. Yes, they appreciate the fact that we do try and keep up with their world but they ‘know’ deep inside that us poor backward fuddy-duddies are far too stunned (colloquial—means somewhat stupid but in a lighthearted way) to really keep up. While in many respects we are to be taken seriously, it still remains that for most of the things that matter to them we’re really a part of the past, maybe the present, but not really the future.

There’s a companion to this. We, the older generation, are aware of this contention. Not only do we acknowledge that it’s at least partly true but we go so far as to try and adjust ourselves to this new world while trying to prepare them for a world we know will be much different. Well, at least some of us do. Yes, I know there are many who refuse to acknowledge that there may be change ahead, refuse to try and deal with it and yes, there are those who actively try to block it…for all sorts of reasons that may seem justified to them but which, to me, sound just plain nutty. Not that a sober sense of skepticism isn’t a good idea, mind you! But yes, most of us to try and adapt and accept that the next generation’s world will be a different one.

Through all of that, we are still at some level or other viewed as a bit out of touch, and will never be able to fully engage as they do.

Perhaps that deserves a closer look.

From time to time I find it useful to revisit my grade-school-aged self, after first encountering the tools and implements used by my grandparents and great-grandparents. For grandfather: hand tools for woodworking, sails and oars for fishing boats, hand-lines for catching cod. For grandmother: washboard and tub, gardening tools, a coal-fired stove for heating and cooking. The list is, of course longer, but those suffice. They seemed, at the time, so crude and those who used them, well, they had to be so deprived; so backward! How good it felt to be living in the modern age. How…superior! Poor things; they never got to be great and enlightened like those of my generation.

Time, has a way of changing your perspective. You gather more information, make comparisons, run “What if’s.” Time has done its work and it’s become increasingly evident just how much skill want into making those tools that seemed so crude. More importantly, it’s now so clear how much skill went into using those tools well. Today, wooden planks are made in sawmills designed for just that purpose. Because the tools do that one job, you don’t need to be that skilled to make a long straight plank; not today.

The planks that were used to make “The Mystical Rose,” my great-grandfather’s Western Boat (colloquial, two-masted fishing schooner, around 30 tonnes 10-15 m in length and 4-5 m width), though, were made by hand using a pit saw. You try it! Not only is it hard work, requiring considerable strength and endurance, but it takes enormous skill just keeping that beast of a tool running straight so the planks come out even.

And that only gives you the planks for your boat.

You also have to: cut the timbers for the keel then the ribs and then shape them, attach the planks, caulk the hull with oakum and pitch to keep the water out. And, after all, it’s a working boat, used in the cold, windy northwest Atlantic so it had better be made well because it will take a beating. Fine; that gives you the boat. Now you have to sail it out and back. To say the least, sailing is a highly skilled activity.

You also have to know how to fish. That involves launching a small rowboat out there on the open ocean where the swells are generally much higher than you are. Oh, and you are using a hand line—something that’s not easy to do under those conditions. The fish you catch have to be cleaned, salted, cured in the sun and then packed away.

You’re also a businessperson. The boat has to be built and managed. You have to maintain a crew and, of course you have to buy bait and supplies and sell your product.

Years ago visitors to my home province used to love laughing at the ‘dumb fishermen.’ It stung, but, to be honest, perhaps, deep inside, my teenaged self also assumed there was truth in that story. After all, many of them could not read and they certainly could not do the kind of math I’d been taught. That was then. In time I came to see and appreciate all the skills and abilities they had and so, came to appreciate the differences that existed in our needs and approaches. There’s no way I could ever do the things my grandfather did. That is, not unless I’d had the benefit of the particular form of intensive education he had experienced. His education did not take place in a typical school. It was more of an apprenticeship; he worked under the care and guidance of his father and fellow crewmates and, in time, became a highly skilled master at many crafts.

The thing to note in all of this is that his skills were for his particular time, his particular situation.

Likewise, my grandmother, using only hand tools that seem so crude by today’s standards, she was able to make clothing from…sheep (mostly—come on, they did have access to cotton and linen), wash it by hand and prepare food using materials obtained almost exclusively from the local area, the only exceptions being flour and molasses. Molasses has a particularly interesting back-story but that’s for another time.

Now, of course, their time and their situation have passed and while we may mourn the loss of the widespread knowledge of woodworking, of sailing, of fishing and of managing the business we all have lives to live in our own time. We can’t dwell on the past too much. Yes, it’s worth preserving if, for nothing else, to serve as a reminder to all of us down the road that it has, indeed been a long journey and those who came before us deserve respect and gratitude.

But there’s more; far more.

This post is not about fishing or making your own food and clothes.

Granted it’s unlikely that our own children will need to build boats by hand any time in the foreseeable future so let’s not talk about that or, in fact any of the ancient skills now doomed to eternal obsolescence. Let’s think, instead of one part of the back story behind those skills.

What do all the ones mentioned have in common?

Let’s go back to the tablet-based game mentioned at the top of this piece, the one that the three-year-old could master so easily. Do you think it would be possible to build an autonomous device that could play that game? Well of course! The game has some rules that are easily understood, especially by any computer.

How about the act of starting with some hand tools and some trees and ending up with a two-masted western boat? How about the automaton that does that?

Not a chance, because it’s far too complicated to be carried out by a single machine.

Let’s back it off a bit, then. How about just catching a softball batted out from a toss-up pitch from home plate? Most kids in my day could do that reasonably well. How about the automaton? Not so well.

Same reason each time. The act of sensing and selecting sensing the raw objects (trees) and eventually crafting them into a workable sailing vessel, while doable for a highly-skilled person is, for now, an impossible thing for us to do artificially. Even the act of catching a somewhat unpredictable toss is similarly unachievable—although, in fairness, the latter task is getting considerable attention from those who wish to make autonomous cars and killing machines.

Playing the computer game and reading text are, by comparison, rather straightforward things. They are ‘bounded’ in that there’s not a whole lot of uncertainty, and, as such, can be reduced to a set of procedures that a cheap machine can be made to do.

So why are the latter tasks the ones that we make all the fuss about? Perhaps it’s because those are the ones that ‘everyone’ is talking about. You know how it is, when a large group of people start talking about the same thing then that thing, whatever it is, takes on a life of its own. After a while that thing becomes the most important thing. Sometimes the attention is warranted. Sometimes, though, it’s not; it’s just a case of everyone going along with the herd thinking that the collective must be right.

Sometimes the collective is not right. This is one of those times.

Don’t misunderstand the message. This is not to suggest that reading and writing are unimportant and simple. Furthermore, this is not to insist that the skills associated with modern communications technology are unimportant. Reading, writing and, in fact, all forms of receiving, processing and representing information are vital in our time. What’s more, the evidence shows, without any room for doubt, that if we want brains to develop in such a way that these ‘higher level’ processes are done well then we need to start early when those same brains are still at maximum plasticity.

This is not saying at all that we should not work on those skills. Got it?

But that’s not the point here. What is the point? In a word: balance.

The skills that young people are developing when they are running around grabbing and manipulating objects are much more important than we think. We’re busy adults who seek some degree of order and familiarity in our lives. We therefore see the activities as random, wanton acts of physical destruction so we interpret them to be things to be curbed entirely. “Those kids need to learn discipline!” we exclaim as we do whatever it takes to make them stop, whether that is glaring at the parents, passing laws that says they must be on a leash (figuratively speaking of course) or…handing them a shiny tablet to make them stop.

And the last one is easy to justify because we figure we’re giving them something ‘educational.’

Well, in my opinion we are and we aren’t.

How about this as a different way to frame it all up? Yes, young people can’t be permitted to ‘run wild.’ While they do need quite a long time and quite a lot of experience to develop those exceedingly complex physical sensing and manipulative skills there’s no doubt that they also need to learn the social mores that keep us all in a more-or-less functional society. This means that we should expect them to spend considerable time interacting with the physical world but in a social environment that also stresses the adoption of reasonable limits. While it’s always okay to question authority, they also need to know where the limits are—that there are things they simply should and should not do ‘just because.’ Yes, feel free to run around and explore in your backyard, at home at friends’ houses (subject to the owners’ rules) but not at the restaurant, museum or concert. At those places, different rules apply.

And the books, tablets, computers and such? They, too, have a valuable place; a place that is also visited frequently, not just when people need the kids to ‘be quiet.’

They should learn when those quiet times are too, and not have to ‘fake it’ by being distracted by shiny electronic toys instead of learning to become thoughtful and reflective.


About Maurice A. Barry

Coordinator: Teaching and Learning Commons, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Parent & Husband. eLearning consultant/coordinator. Program Development Specialist - eLearning (Department of Education; Retired). Writer: over 40 Math/Physics texts/webs. Developer & Manager of web content. Geek. Not into awards but loves comments.
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29 Responses to Young and Old: Skills, Tools and Points of View

  1. Beautifully written piece. Ranges far afield to come to a sharp point much like Cronon’s essential essay “only Connect.’

  2. Jane Fritz says:

    Excellent, thoughtful coverage of something I think about often. A+, Maurice!

    • Thanks, Jane. Funny about us in education, we find ourselves talking about items that only amount to follow the leader…and the leader is often lost. I find it useful to frequently just ditch the established Canon and survey the landscape with my own eyes. Some things I like and some I don’t :>)

  3. Whew, what you are asking is the proverbial tall order. You’re asking kids to become thoughtful and reflective? This is an impossibility when they are with their peer group – it’s simply not cool to behave that way (too much like and adult …. what would their friends say?) (your previous post notwithstanding). I believe however that the potential to be thoughtful is there as long as peer pressure does not brought to weigh upon them. I think that most kids, of the age of which you speak, are basically good, thoughtful, and respectful … it is their milieu however which makes them otherwise. D

    • Yes and when given the chance they do grow, sometimes even astound. It’s so very hard, though, and takes such a long period of time. We as adults spend loads of time sort of filling their heads with knowledge but fail to acknowledge that for them, as it was for us, the hard part, the part that takes decades is in making sense of it all.
      …and “It’ needs to include significant time and effort on things that are kinesthetic in nature.

  4. Your opening comments reminded me of an older cousin’s youngest son many years ago.

    We were playing a game called ‘Connect’ (I think) where you drop round counters into a frame and try to beat each to complete something. Can’t remember what. The child, maybe five or six, was incredibly fast and defeated my father every single time. The pre-cursor of the computer games I suppose.

    Isn’t it the same though, that when we are all young, we think we know more than our elders (and not necessarily betters)? Can’t put old heads on young shoulders is sadly true. I have learned from younger people and am always happy to do so. There are also times to keep your mouth shut, thinking been there, done that, when I was your age.

    I’ve never had the same view about the past being backward, but maybe that comes of being a historian, rather my view has always been of regret that old ideas and ways of living were rejected as superfluous and past it.

    I can’t wash by hand – not well at any rate. I can make clothes and curtains. I cook using fresh food for the most part and at the finca, our meals come out of the garden as much as possible – I’m finally using up the last of the latest bean harvest. Is that old-fashioned and out-dated? To me it’s sensible and practical. I choose not to eat ready-made meals, but I’ve written plenty about that on Clouds. There isn’t always a need to run with the pack.

    Anyway, your post isn’t about that …

    The equivalent of a tablet for me was a Famous Five story or a Mystery book by Enid Blyton. My parents could chatter away at a restaurant about what ever boring subject they wanted and I would retreat into my book. Not that I was going to be noisy, but giving me a book was so much easier than talking to me. Or maybe I was more interested in a book than them 😉

    I also wonder, comparing our different environments, how much climate has to do with it all. So much easier in a warm country for people, young, old or both, to sit outside and talk together. In a cold climate, all you want to do is curl up inside with a book/computer/television.

    Video killed the radio star comes to mind. Has the internet killed conversation and sociability? Probably no more or no less than television. I remember when someone would come round and the television would be switched off out of respect for the visitor – and Emmerdale Farm or Coronation Street were hardly real life. Later, it stayed on. Or some meals were taken in front of it instead of eating at the table as a family occasion. I see internet usage by young people (and older ones) as a progression of the same inevitability.

    • I have fond and vivid memories of reading the same books…and others, of course. I read most of the Hardy Boys series and particularly loved Tom Swift. I even admit to reading my sister’s Nancy Drew novels. I think that in summary you are right, that the Internet-based communications will, in the end, create their own new modes and new standards. Ans, of course, it’s mostly value neutral. In the meantime, though, I do hope that parents and educators do not forget that the kinesthetic learning is equally important and far more complex and, as such, deserving of a considerable chunk of time and effort.

  5. elkement says:

    You are raising an important point in saying that manual skills are deteriorating when we are developing “abstract online” … whatever … skills. It reminds me of my – often futile – attempts to read historical scientific papers – even though we today claim we have understood so much more. For example I have read papers by Copernicus – I still stand in awe how those guys used purely geometrical proofs. Feynman has once tried to understand Newton’s geometrical introduction of calculus – failed as well and put considerable effort into developing a geometrical proof himself.

    • Today I see many classes rejecting labs in favour of texts and simulations. That’s a shame because the labs appeal better to kinesthetic learners such as myself and, besides, they develop the skills of working with real apparatus, modifying it (and that happens a lot!!!) as well as collecting, analyzing and representing real data. None of this comes very well from any other method.

  6. You promote a core truth. The truth that sense of our world lays in reconnecting to the land at regular opportunities. Beautifully written.

  7. We do get so distracted buy the things that flicker and flash, beep and buzz. I have a 2 year old nephew who is magnetically drawn to anything with a glowing screen. The good news is that he also seems intrinsically drawn to all things water. It’s THAT fascination I hope to nurture!

    • Absolutely! …and sporting equipment (bats and gloves) …and manual drawing technologies (brushes, pens, etc.) …and, for that matter anything that deepens our physical interaction with our surroundings.

  8. jennypellett says:

    The first word my friend’s grandson said was Apple. Not the fruit – he wanted to play with her ipad. True story.

  9. Very thoughtful and interesting piece. We need to nuture that balance both in ourselves and in the young.I never forget the little video I got from my sister 15 years ago where my 3 yo niece sits at her dad’s computer, her little hand on the mouse, looks up and says “I’m on the Winternet”. Luckily she’s grown up to become a great “manual” artist…

  10. marsocmom says:

    What a thoughtful piece, thank you Maurice. There is definitely a balance to be found! I have a friend who is a machinist, making metal parts like screws of all sizes. He manipulates the metal through the machine, but before he starts the job, he uses the machine’s computer to help him set up the job and run it faster. He works hard physically, comes home covered in oil, but he’s made vast quantities of parts in very little time. He plays online games, but also can be found at the park playing frisbee football with friends for hours. Everyone is different and is drawn to different things, like the man who sat at the computer for hours writing the program the machinist uses. Creativity takes so many forms. I hope that in this new age all our kids can find that balance.

  11. johnlmalone says:

    there is noqw evidence that computer games are useful to the development of young brains but as you point out so are quiet times and the need to get out and sdo physical things. This also applies to us older folk too. Our brains still have a certain plasticity. Another well argued post

    • Right you are. It may now take longer to master new things but that old saying about old dogs and new tricks is nowhere near accurate.
      Besides…it keeps things interesting!

  12. My headmistress in the days before electronic calculators came into existence, sausage to me on my last day at school, ‘you will never stop learning,’. A true insight, I am still as she called it in ‘In love with learning’ — so when young friends bring me their gadgets and games to look at that gives pleasure both ways; nature, tadpoles, the things ants carry home to their nests, animals, and the sheer freedom of running around … Are still magnets fit young people, and anyway, I don’t feel old! Many thanks for a well-crafted essay.

  13. very true. My children are only allowed an hour on any one of those shiny devices. But I suspect it might be harder when they become teens.

  14. Brilliant, thought provoking post. Your point about climate is so true. When the weather is warm and dry here (which is luckily a lot of the time) my son is just outside playing ALL the time. When it’s cold and rainy and we’re forced indoors I find it much harder to keep him occupied, the day seems SO much longer and I do resort more to the shiny technological fallback.

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