Daddy, Are We There Yet? A Discussion with Alan Kay
Subject:   Interesting... but how?
Date:   2003-04-04 13:15:46
From:   Corvus
The goal of the Viewpoints Institute, "to help make major positive changes in how children are educated all over the world", is very interesting and laudable, but I don't see exactly how a computer programming language can do that.

Cartainly, one can write computer programs to solve science or engineering problems, but is this learning science and engineering, or computer programming?

Now, I have nothing against learning computer programming, but if a problem with science education is that it is "... primarily about memorization", then how is typing a bunch of formulas into a computer any better than memorizing them? In either case, the student has no direct personal experience with the principles involved.

Nor am I very enthusiastic about conducting experiments or research on a computer. Simply seeing something happen on a computer is no evidence things really work that way.

Full Threads Oldest First

Showing messages 1 through 7 of 7.

  • Interesting... but how?
    2006-03-13 23:41:23  JohnSellers [View]

    I like another responder, worked on PLATO in the 1970's. I worked and played on that system for over 10,000 hours. I've also been a Smalltalk consultant in Silicon Valley. Last, in Arizona, when its population was 1.25 million about 40 years ago, I placed first in the state in the state math contest which all high school math students in the state took.

    My take is a little different from Alan's, but he got most of the important parts right, but he is still going have to do more to win the ball game.

    Smalltalk is too difficult. A typical system has 1500 classes and when used on a project, the number of classes tend to bloom. Coming into a new Smalltalk environment can be intimidating. It is like coming into a large city, and as you know, anyone coming into a large city usually concerns him/her self with a very small part of it. I am no dumb bunny, but I would hate to tell you the number of hours I have spent roaming around chasing my tail in Smalltalk environments trying to find out this fact or that relationship. I, and a lot of other people who try, don't have full access or a full grasp to those top notch Smalltalk experts...and I wonder sometimes if they don't fake it some.

    Alan is right that we need play for understanding, but we also need discipline, and well managed computer aided discipline and structure in the right context. This can take us far beyond where we usually go in this day and age. What we can achieve in education, industry, and life can be much more than it is today.

    I went to India when I was 15, about 45 years ago. And at that time I met kids who were studying Calculus in the 8th grade. Forty years later we are seeing the result.

    I am convinced that by carefully taking the right path, that there is no reason we can not reach that level and beyond well beyond by using computers. But certainly not the way we our society is trying to do it now. Why? Because it won't work. I know what testing is about, because I was one of the best. It is not the answer and is a way of doing thing which is stuck in a traditional and limiting past.

    Like I said, I agree with Alan about play, but again that is not the whole story. There has to be a sharper focus on where we are going. We must not use computers as we have taught in the classroom, but must make a definite and clear cut departure from the traditional in order to take full advantage of computers. After all, class room teaching developed and is stable in a way which does not take into account the possibilities of computers. How can it possibly be the best way without a complete understanding of this revolutionary consideration?

    We must blend what we are good at with what computers are good at. A computer can do things which are extremely difficult for us to do. I have no doubt that a day will come when a computer will keep track of every one of our belongings, and to find that book you misplaced 20 years ago, all you will have to do is ask the computer. We can eventually arrange things so that it can help us track our own educational development, so that if you want to master a new set of skills, it is just a matter of conveniently conveying the information to the computer and immediately having everything you need to do the necessary hard work right at hand, all personally organized for your consideration, with infinite remediation right down to 1 + 1 equals 2 if that is what you lack. To become a master of any intellectual skill, in order to be maximally effective, it must be simple as sitting down and pressing next to begin, with everything including play, exploration ,and the opportunities for initiative right there in front of you ready to go.
  • Interesting... but how?
    2004-02-13 22:50:03  mhamrick23 [View]

    My father told me once about a chemistry experiment when he was in college. I can't remember the exact details, but it involved naptha, an explosion, a fire, a cut hand, and very nearly got him expelled from school.

    When I was a kid, we visited the CS labs at UIUC where I got to see PLATO in action. The demonstration I saw involved a simulated a bunsen burner, and a flask filled with naptha. The idea was to melt the naptha without causing it to explode. I spent about thirty minutes playing with it, causing about 50 virtual explosions before figuring out how to avoid them.

    I guess my point here is that there are several real world experiences that are instructive, but carry significant risk. Modeling them digitally is a great way to introduce concepts with less risk.

    Also as a teen, I got to go see several presentations by Papert, and eventually got a LOGO system myself. In retrospect, I think what I learned from both LOGO and Smalltalk was a mode of asking questions about real world object's behaviors.

    One project I worked on in high school was to use LOGO to model an atom. It's one thing to sit in class and listen to lectures, and even to do experiments, but it wasn't until I tried to model a Hydrogen atom in LOGO that I learned how much I didn't know about chemistry, physics, and math. That investigation led me to pursue independent research on the subject in an effort to refine my model. I don't think I would have been motivated to do the extra research were it not for the habit of inquiry I developed with using LOGO (and later Smalltalk.)

    I guess I owe a debt of gratitude to my parents who introduced me to GOOD computing projects at a young age.
  • Interesting... but how?
    2003-04-05 11:39:43  anonymous2 [View]

    Previous poster wrote:

    > how is typing a bunch of formulas into a computer any
    > better than memorizing them? In either case, the student
    > has no direct personal experience with the principles involved.

    This is exactly the point Kay's work has addressed over the past thirty years. Writing a program is not a means to some other, pre-defined end, in exactly the same way that writing a piece of music is not a means to an end. Writing the program, like composing the music, like any other sophisticated, structured creative activity, is about exploring the world and how we can know it. Kay's work points out that computing is a way of knowing the world in the same way that music is a wayt of knowing the world. Forget the means-ends trap and you begin to see what he's been on about all this time.

    • Interesting... but how?
      2003-04-05 19:25:30  anonymous2 [View]

      Play with Squeak (or with the stuff at Squeakland) and you'll soon get the idea. I'm a hopeless programmer, but Squeak has been the only language (or maybe I should say the only dialect) that I've really enjoyed and made useful stuff with.

      The music analogy is pretty apt: last time I heard, AK was constructing some kind of pipe organ......
  • Interesting... but how?
    2003-04-05 09:32:24  anonymous2 [View]

    If you find it interesting, I recommend "The Childrens machine" by Papert. It describes the kinds of ways that kids explore various notions with Logo.

    Squeakland represents the same kind of effort - give kids a tool through which to explore mathematics and modeling, and they'll learn about the world through it.
  • Daniel H. Steinberg photo Interesting... but how?
    2003-04-04 13:23:01  Daniel H. Steinberg | O'Reilly AuthorO'Reilly Blogger [View]

    Thank you for your feedback. I have a couple of replies that will possibly spark further discussion.

    (1) I may not have made it clear, but Dr. Kay certainly believes that children should explore and interact with their environment directly as well. A computer isn't (as he pointed out) a very good way to learn how to play baseball.

    (2) Most computer languages and software does not encourage playing and exploration. I was a math teacher 20 years ago when PC's were being introduced to schools. We watched students play with LOGO and used it to encourage exploration in geometry. At the time, other math software for these grade levels seemed to be little more than high tech flash cards.


    • Interesting... but how?
      2003-04-05 10:25:10  anonymous2 [View]

      I think your point number is fundimental. I would
      add that environments built in themselves from
      the simplest possible components (like the
      world we live in) are the most interesting for
      learning for both children and adults.