Should We Teach Software Skills?

Today on the ISED mailing list, someone posted a quotation from Nicholas Negroponte (of $100 laptop fame):

In fact, one of the saddest but most common conditions in elementary school computer labs (when they exist in the developing world) is that children are being trained to use Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. I consider that criminal because children should be making things, communicating, exploring, sharing, not running office automation tools.

The poster asked for people’s opinions and it generated a flurry of wide-ranged responses. Here are some highlights:

Here here! I find the fixation on teaching Word, Excel, and Powerpoint in schools troubling indeed. Are we training our students to think or to be secretaries!


These kinds of ideological pronouncements always make me crazy. As if “making things, communicating, exploring, sharing” and learning how to navigate office tools are mutually exclusive.

I agree that the emphasis in elementary programs should be on the exploratory and creative side. However, we don’t argue that children should not waste their time learning basic math facts, do we?

Mr. Negroponte needs to spend more time in school.


However, I would agree with Stephen snip about the realities of school. Why is using Microsoft Word not being creative? Isn’t the act of writing creative and isn’t it true that Word is a tool that makes writing, editing, revising, and publishing easier? Isn’t Excel a way to analyze information? And I saw Dr. Negoponte’s Powerpoint presentation at NECC in 2006 so obviously there are communication uses for Powerpoint.

I also worry about the “either” “or” nature of some of these arguments – why supposedly certain types of techology applications negate creativity and problem-solving in favor of productivity, for instance. Why isn’t our question “what’s in your toolbox and why and what are you planning?”

In my opinion, it all comes down to how these things are used, what work is being done, what goals we have, how are we encouraging higher order thinking, and what process we are following. And in the end in our schools the teacher is the singlemost important factor in success in spite of their being technology or not.


This and many other educational debates (“Chicago Math” v. Saxon Math, whole language v. phonics, ad infinitum) can never truly be resolved because their basic premise – that these are either/or decisions – is either just plain false or a convenient way for ideologues on either side of a bogus dichotomy to dumb down a much more complicated discussion than they would like to have.

There are many educators out there who respect children enough to create learning environments that are not predefined by someone else’s either/or and acknowledge the practical realities of everyday life while simultaneously embracing the wonder and joy of discovery and exploration.

We generally don’t find them on CNN or quoted in the paper. They are too busy getting things right and serving their students. The quality of our reflections on educational practice would improve greatly if we would take the time spent spouting either/or dogma and instead use it to watch, listen, and learn while these transcendently effective “both/and” people ply their craft.


If I ruled the world, a nod to a James Brown song, I would invite a group of talented English teachers, technologists, child development specialists, etc and put them in a very comfortable place for a year and ask them to come up with a writing tool for students at various levels of development. (Pay them of course!) It would not have to be two or three different programs, but it could be one that could be set up with various features that could be turned on as kids got older. We would then have a program that would be suited for writing as opposed to a tool that has been designed for corporate use with very little thought given to how kids learn. I think the last wp developed for schools was the Bank Street Writer. So by the weight of the two ton lb gorilla we use Word, and yes we can be creative with it but it could be a hella of a lot more creative and useful.

It’s amazing how you first read a quotation and it sounds so right. Then someone spins it in another direction and it sounds so wrong. I think those of us in the ed tech world know what Negroponte was saying. In my mind it translates to learning skills without context. No one need to learn how to use bold. People know how to emphasize words, and there is a difference. This was a major confusion and continues to be for ed tech programs around the world. How to we blend learning skills with higher order thinking? Do we teach kids PowerPoint or do we teach them how to make fantastic presentations using digital tools? If you say obviously the latter, can you do that without a digital slideshow tool like PowerPoint? And if you do, don’t you need to teach them that tool? While someone above argued that we are using overkill tools to teach our kids (which I agree with), I don’t think we are going to find a totally intuitive software package for creating digital presentations. I’m not willing to leave teaching to go design it, are you? So in the mean time, let’s do both, teach skills and context – just don’t pick only one; it’s not fair to the kids. Or you.

Your thoughts? Apologies for the long post, but I wanted to remember this conversation, so I posted it here. Right now we are discussing how private this list should be (archives are public though), so I left names off the quotations. To find the names, use the archives.

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arvind s. grover

I am a progressive educator, a podcaster (, a blogger, and dean of faculty of JK-11 school (building a high school) in New York City.