Recognizing A Demographic Vs. Stereotyping

For more in-depth tips on tutoring seniors, see the complete tutorial. I also have posted a tutorial on elementary decision theory for those who might question a physician’s diagnosis (important for seniors) or anti-terrorist activities (important for everyone) but haven’t had the framework to analyze the data. That tutorial can be found here.

Well, let’s start off the new year with at least on dissatisfied reader and see if we can reach agreement, or at least a truce.

David writes:

I’m a senior [with] little formal computer training, however, I [got] my first computer in 1977 and [have had one] continuously ever since. The idea that ‘seniors’ are a separate group is stupid and those you categorize could apply equally [to] others, youngsters or women, for example. In computing as in other disciplines there are the know nothing, know a bit, know a bit more, [and] know quite a lot categories. There is no know it all category and age has nothing to do with computing. Wish you knew how many times my ‘juniors’ ask me for computing advice :-).

The idea that some seniors are not computer literate and desire to become literate, and that their needs and the best methods of teaching them is different than the best methods of teaching school children is not stupid. It is an observation. Artificial cataloging of alleged different species of humans is indeed stupid, and much harm has been done by it.

Computer illiterate seniors, youngsters, or women, etc., each taken as a separate group, benefit most from different teaching strategies optimized for their group. That is nothing new. Within each group, an individual benefits most from a program modified to fit that person. When the group program has been modified to meet an individual’s needs, it might not look anything like the original group program. That is the essence of my columns. Many times I have written that the key to successful tutoring is listening to the client, trying to understand the client’s mental model of what is happening, and then formulate a course to meet the client’s needs. I would offer much the same advice to anyone wishing to tutor human beings of any known grouping.

Groups are not exclusive. Individuals can certainly belong to more than one group. We can easily imagine a computer illiterate senior woman of limited means who wants tutoring.

Not all seniors are computer illiterate. I anticipated David by almost 20 years in designing and building my own computer out of juke boxes and pinball machines in the fifties because Turing and Von Neumann said it could be done, and I wanted to try it. It worked. And BTW, I am a senior.

Now, having listened to the dissatisfied reader, and having responded, let’s agree that David does indeed have something valid to say. Something that every would-be tutor of seniors, or any other defined group, should understand. One walks a delicate line when trying to distinguish between types of human beings. Distinguishing between types can lead to terrible injustices such as racial segregation, the caste system, and prejudice against women drivers. I’ve even been put down for being left-handed, and I don’t mean in a joking way. I mean like being hit with a ruler for writing with the wrong hand. If David is reacting to the danger of casting seniors (defined variously as aged greater than 65, 62, or 55. It depends on who you are talking to.) into a caste such that they will suffer from prejudice, then I support him. But if he is simply denying that older people have needs, motivations, and learning strategies that can be defined and examined, then I strongly disagree. If he is saying that by nature the boundaries between groups are fuzzy and overlap, then I agree. If he says any group you can define will have exceptions, then I agree. But anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that most of the present day computer illiterate seniors are strapped for money needs to do some field work.

So, David, thanks for your letter. It made me think. With luck, this dialog will make other tutors and would-be tutors think also. No harm in that.