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Literal-minded brutes that they are, computers do exactly what they are told. No more and no less. But youngsters of even the most tender age are surprising educators by showing they can master the beasts with startling ease. Computer Software Expert Leona Schauble of the Children's Television Workshop (producers of Sesame Street) recalls getting an eight-year-old boy at Manhattan's Little Red School House started on a simple computer game. The game generated an image of a frog that would leap up and catch a butterfly, provided the right buttons were hit. After a few minutes, she checked back and found the frog jumping in slow motion. When she asked the youngster what happened, he replied, "Well, I wanted to make the frog catch more butterflies. So I got a listing of the variables and slowed him down." In other words, the youngster had broken into the game's program and changed it to suit himself.
To instruct very young children, even Kemeny's BASIC is much too mathematical. Instead, more and more schools are turning to an innovative computer language called LOGO (from the Greek word for reason), developed by Seymour Papert and his colleagues at M.I.T. A mathematician who studied with the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, Papert has become something of a guru of the computer generation, predicting that the machines will revolutionize learning by taking much of the mystery out of mathematics, science and technology. Says he: "The computer can make the most abstract things concrete."
With a deceptively simple set of commands, LOGO enables youngsters who know nothing of geometry or algebra, and barely know how to read, to manipulate a triangular figure, dubbed the Turtle, on a computer screen and trace all manner of shapes with it. At the Lamplighter School in Dallas, teachers using LOGO get youngsters of three or four to write simple computer instructions. In one game, they maneuver "cars" and "garages" on the computer screen in such a way that the cars are parked inside the garages. While playing with LOGO, the youngsters learn simple words, the difference between left and right, and geometric concepts that they would not ordinarily encounter until junior high.
The machines crop up in the lives of youngsters even before they enter schooland sometimes before they learn to walk or talkin the guise of such siliconized gadgetry as Little Professor and Speak & Spell. With a few presses of the button, these computerized games produce flashing lights, squealing sounds and disembodied voices that inculcate the rudiments of spelling and calculating. A record of sorts may have been set by Corey Schou, a computer scientist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando: he rigged up a home computer so his five-month-old daughter could operate it by pressing buttons in her crib and changing the designs on a nearby screen. Says the proud papa: "Basically, it's an electronic kaleidoscope, another diversion, another learning device."
Whatever it is, it prepares youngsters for all those buttons they will encounter soon enough in and out of school. Parents and teachers may shudder at the thought, but it