Disinclination to Learn

by Krishna on December 31, 2006

Here is an experiment. Before trying it, put some physical space between you and the subject. Ok, here goes. Call the subject a stupid person who is unable to learn anything. We all know what will happen. Everyone gets angry if they are accused of being inferior intellectually.

Yet, many of the same people revel in their ignorance of some of the basic computer skills. “I am not good at computers.” “My child is so much better at Windows than me.” “I used to be good at this. Now they have automated everything and I am lost.” The list goes on and on. The outlook of such persons is described in an insightful blog by Seth Godin.

My intention is not to mock such people. Change can be disruptive and people need time to learn new skills. The problem is that these people have already given up and have decided that things are going to be difficult. This is after technology companies like Microsoft, Apple and others have spent millions of dollars trying to make computers intuitive and easy for beginners.

When such people are working in an organization, a lot of unnecessary basic training has to be imparted — the effort (and money) which could be better spent on advanced features that could make the employees more productive. There is also a tendency to forget basic routines (like using Windows Explorer or sending an attachment) — frequently this results in interrupting other employees — creating more waste.

If you do a Google search on IT service calls, you will find many such questions and incidents. These are meant to be hilarious, but I find them depressing. Many of these folks are really very intelligent persons in their industry, but for some reason, they do not want to attempt to become better or do that little bit of self-help which would make their lives so much easier. When people use the “my child is better than me” reason, they frequently ignore the fact that they would have been better if they had the same curiosity to learn possessed by their children (who are, by the way, on average, a lot less educated  and knowledgeable than the average adult).

Finally what do you do if you have such people in your organization, family or neighborhood? The typical geek answer is first silently insult and curse them, and then do the whole work for them, while maintaining a sarcastic and patronizing manner — and perhaps even posting the whole incident to friends or on the Internet. Needless to say, the “puzzled person” calls never stop coming.

A tactic that I have sometimes found useful is to provide advice without ever touching the keyboard or mouse. Walk the person through the problem that they are trying to solve and have them use the input devices. Sometimes, if they are in the mood, ask them to locate the shortcut or icon on the screen themselves. But by all means, sound helpful. People can sense when you are feeling irritated with them and this puts them more on a defensive posture instead of feeling ready to learn.

To conclude, one of the significant contributors to the problem is computer gurus themselves who exhibit a superior attitude just because they had the good fortune to spend years in college or the industry learning stuff. After all, nobody is born with innate knowledge of socket programming or web design. Hollywood movies perpetuate this fallacy when all the presumed nerds know is to guess passwords (always on the 3rd try!) and run a few hacker scripts.

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