Is our education system teaching our children less?

Thoughts on giving iPads to children in grammar school


I used to fly airplanes. In fact, my fondest dream was to become an airline pilot when I grew up. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.

Even so, I remember we pilots had to learn to do everything by hand, despite all the advances, like instrument landing systems. What if the electronics failed, what would we do? We couldn’t pull over to the side of the sky and call AAA or field service.

This is no small issue. Air France Flight 447 from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed into the Atlantic on June 1, 2009, killing all 216 passengers and 12 crew. It was the deadliest disaster in Air France’s history.

The autopilot failed, and the pilots had to fly the plane by hand. With all the computerized flying we do nowadays, a lot of pilots don’t get enough hands-on practice. These guys literally stalled the aircraft -- something every student pilot learns not to do. It seems there’s no substitute for hands-on experience.

I also like to sail. Once you get offshore, one wave looks like another. You have to learn how to navigate in order to get where you want to go. Just like aviation, there are a plethora of electronic toys available, the best known of which is GPS, global positioning systems. You might even have one for your car. Isn’t it wonderful? It doesn’t just tell you where you are; it also tells you how to get to where you want to go.

Let’s say you wanted your captain’s license. The Coast Guard makes believe such devices don’t exist and tests how you navigate by hand the old-fashioned way. Depending on the license you want, you might even have to learn to use a sextant -- no trivial task.

Again, the rationale – what if the electronics fail? In fact, I’m told even Uncle Sam’s Navy is not immune. A destroyer was hit by lightning and had all their extensive array of electronics fail. It’s a good thing their officers knew how to navigate by hand, or we taxpayers could have lost an expensive ship and the even more valuable sailors aboard.

Remember Chesley Sullenberger and US Airways Flight 1549? On January 15, 2009, he successfully landed it in the Hudson River after being disabled by a flock of geese, saving all 155 passengers and crew aboard. As a senior pilot, dear old Sully had gotten plenty of experience before flight computers became de rigueur.

Which pilots would you want flying your airplane, Sully or the French guys? No doubt, you would agree the folks operating your vessel should know how to do things by hand, just in case.

A wonderful habit

Recently I was asked my opinion on a proposal to buy iPads for kids in grammar school.

When I went to school, thankfully, we didn’t have such toys. We had to learn to do things by hand, as there was no other way. I’ve had no trouble learning to use computers and taking advantage of the impressive power of automation since. Even so, there’s an incredible benefit to learning the old way.

We used these quaint devices called slide rules. They would give you the answer to three digits. You still had to do the calculation in your head to approximate the answer so you’d know where to put the decimal point.

It’s a wonderful habit. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been in meetings where someone presented something that didn’t look right, but nobody seemed to have a problem with it. When I’d say that can’t be right, the calculators would come out.

Interestingly, these folks would get different answers from each other and didn’t seem to have a problem with that either.

Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think we should follow the example of the FAA and the Coast Guard in requiring students to demonstrate proficiency by hand. Computers, especially iPads, are so easy to use, you don’t even have to learn them.

We already graduate students who can’t make change from a dollar and can’t speak and/or write the only language they know using correct grammar. Is our goal to help them learn even less?

Even if your kids aren’t flying a plane or sailing a boat, give them a real chance to become proficient and competitive in the global jobs market. Employers already value such abilities, and they’re becoming even more valuable as so many take the easy way out.

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or