Thinking about teachers and learners

For some people, the internet, the web and social networks are all about A-lists and cabals and cliques and echo chambers. I don’t know about that, I’m not some people. I find the web very useful.

One of the things that distinguishes this continuing-to-emerge space from all that went before is in the context of learning. For anyone who wants to learn, the web is a wondrous place. I want to learn. So for me the web is a wondrous place.

Learners need teachers. On the web, this often means people who sacrifice incredible personal time and energy writing out what they’re thinking about, what they themselves are learning, so that they can teach others. And learn more themselves as a result; teachers need learners as well.

The best teachers are usually themselves lifelong learners; the reason they teach well is that they are learning as they teach, and they take care to do that.


Bob Frankston and Dan Bricklin, the co-creators of Visicalc, are two such people. Lifelong learners, passionate about everything they’re interested in, selflessly sharing what they’re learning with anyone who wants to learn with them.

I discovered their blogs early on, and for a decade or so have been able to enjoy their teachings and learnings from a distance. Bob’s writings can be found here, while Dan writes here. If you haven’t already done so, start reading them today. I cannot recommend them strongly enough.

Over the years I’ve had opportunity to meet both Bob as well as Dan; they’ve always been willing to spend time with me. I now count them amongst my friends and feel privileged in being able to learn from them.

Recently Dan published a book, Bricklin on Technology. A solid two-handed read, 500 pages long. What he’s done is taken the essays he’s written, grouped them into logical sections, commented and enriched them here and there, and all in all produced a wonderful collection of essays and an eminently readable book.

Dan thinks very hard about everything he does, and it shows throughout the book. The principles that drive him are in evidence everywhere, principles that need propagating and embedding far and wide.

One, as technologists we are in the business of building tools. Tools that help people do things simply and easily. Tools that can be used in a variety of ways, in a variety of contexts, for a variety of reasons.

Two, the people that use the tools are also very diverse; they’re diverse in their ability to use the tools, the skills they bring with them, the environments and contexts they operate in and with. They’re diverse in the motivations that drive them to use the tools, diverse in the aims and objectives they have in using the tools. The tools we build have to support this diversity.

Three, our ability to build tools well is increasing. We’re learning more about building tools that others will use to build more tools; we’re learning more about building tools as open platforms upon which others can build over-the-top tools; we’re learning about building feedback loops that take the emotion out of many unnecessary discussions, ways of measuring what is happening easily and cheaply.

Four, all this is being done in a social context, in community rather than as individuals. So as designers we need to remind ourselves there are social and moral aspects to what we do.

There’s no point my quoting directly from his book; there’s too much I would want to quote, and my posts are long enough as it is. So I’m just going to quote one line from his summary:

It is usually the users of technology, not the inventors, who determine how tools are applied.

In some ways that’s what the book is about. Thoughtful, considered discussions on the user perspective. How to make sure we understand the motivations and context. How to build tools that work well yet are intrinsically “free”, versatile enough to let the user choose what to do and how. How to sidestep political/emotional debates by rigorous examination of the facts. And how to keep remembering that value is generated by the usage of the tools and not by the tools themselves.

An exhilarating read, well worth the effort. While I’d read many of the essays first time around, I was particularly taken with three sections: the discussions on what users will pay for; the views on the recording industry; the interview with Ward Cunningham.

I particularly particularly particularly enjoyed re-reading the essay on Book Sharing, a classic example of what happens when two clever and gifted people discuss important things. Thank you Dan, and thank you Bob for pushing him to write it and publish it.

So use your Saturday wisely. Order the book. Now.

[A coda. I’m looking forward to Bob taking a leaf out of Dan’s book and publishing a similar book. You listening, Bob?]

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