Children have innate abilities for learning everything we know. They can learn to see and to listen, to walk and to run, to understand and to speak, to count, to sing, to draw, to throw and catch a ball, all without instruction or aid. They absorb the culture that surrounds them like a sponge. Children also have the ability to invent, again without instruction. Children can create songs and stories, can draw or paint or mold things that have never been seen before, can create games and toys for themselves out of whatever comes to hand, and can make friends. All of this is common experience.
A few can learn to read or play music without instruction, or show other outstanding abilities. Since we don’t know in advance which ones these are, it would make sense to provide a wide range of opportunities to all children.
We do not know the full potential for children to learn and create, because every society tries to redirect the boundless energy and enthusiasm of childhood into the forms approved by the surrounding culture, which generally means inculcating what the adults think they know, and teaching children not to go outside the norms of their culture. Coloring inside the lines, for example. Getting the right answers on a math, or science, or history, or any other test.
Children should learn what is already known, of course, and should understand what society expects of them. But children should also learn about the vastness of human ignorance, and be encouraged to explore within it.
It is difficult to appreciate, even to discuss our ignorance, because by definition it concerns things we don’t know about. Nobody in the 19th century could discuss what we didn’t know about quantum physics, or DNA, or jet planes, or rock music, or the wars, famines, plagues, and other disasters of the 20th century.
But in addition to these unknown unknowns, there are other known unknowns. We call these the frontiers of knowledge. Before space travel, nobody could have seen the far side of the Moon, but nobody doubted that it was there. Sustainable technology, including renewable power, cradle-to-cradle design (designing products from the beginning to be inputs for making other products at the end of their useful lives), and ending poverty are all frontier topics. There is always a new frontier in politics and economics, and in technology and the arts. More than ever before, we need a new generation of children to find their way along and across these frontiers. So it behooves us to think about the obstacles that tradition puts in the way of children, and to remove them to the greatest extent possible.
This is the premise of the hardware and software design of the XO laptop. It is all designed to be discoverable, and experience has shown that it is nearly all discoverable. A YouTube video demonstrates that children can take the laptop apart with a screwdriver and put it together again, giving us confidence that children will be able to repair broken XOs. The basic idea is replacing broken parts and assemblies with good ones taken from other XOs that have broken in different ways.
The original Hole-in-the-Wall Computer experiment (reference) demonstrated that a group of children could figure out how to use a computer with no guidance or training, and was motivated to do so. We have seen the same effect with the XO, even among children who have never seen a computer before. If you do the exercises in this book, you will have a chance to understand why this is so.
Children can also learn to use almost all of the software on the XO on their own. As far as I know, only the Measure activity for data acquisition and analysis definitely requires assistance in setting up a signal to measure. The Measure software itself is not at all difficult for children to learn to operate.
Although there is a large literature on child development and learning, we are really still in the early stages of understanding their capabilities.