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Archive for April, 2013

I came across this interview with Lesley Chilcott, the producer of “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Waiting For Superman.” Kind of extending her emphasis on improving education, she produced a short 9-minute video selling the idea of “You should learn to code,” both to adults and children. It addresses two points: 1) the anticipated shortage of programmers needed to write software in the future, and 2) the increasing ubiquity of programming in all sorts of fields where people would think it wouldn’t exist, such as manufacturing and agriculture.

The interview gets interesting at 3 minutes 45 seconds in.

Michelle Fields, the interviewer, asked what I thought were some insightful questions. She started things off with:

It seems as though the next generation is so fluent in technology. How is it that they don’t know what computer programming is?

Chilcott said:

I think the reason is, you know, we all use technology every day. It’s surrounding us. Like, we can debate the pro’s and con’s of technology/social media, but the bottom line is it’s everywhere, right? So I think a lot of people know how to read it. They grow up playing with an iPhone or something like that, but they don’t know how to write it. And so when you say, “Do you know what this is,” specifically, or what this job is–and you know, those kids are in first, second, fifth grade–they know all about it, but they don’t know what the job is.

I found this answer confusing. She’s kind of on the right track, thinking of programming as “writing.” I cut her some slack, because as she admits in the interview, she’s just started programming herself. However, as I’ve said before, running software is not “reading.” It’s really more like being read to by a machine, like listening to an audio book, or someone else reading to you. You don’t have to worry about the mental tasks of pronunciation, sentence construction, or punctuation. You can just listen to the story. Running software doesn’t communicate the process that the code is generating, because there’s a lot that the person using it is not shown. This is on purpose, because most people use software to accomplish some utilitarian task unrelated to how a computer works. They’re not using it to understand a process.

The last sentence came across as muddled. I think what she meant was they know all about using technology, but they don’t know how to create it (“what the job is”).

Fields then asked,

There was this study which found that 56% of students would rather eat broccoli than learn math. Do you think that since computer programming is somewhat related to math, that that’s the reason children and students shy away from it?

Chilcott said:

It could be. That is one of the myths that exist. There is some, you know, math, but as Bill Gates and some other people said, you know, addition, subtraction–It’s much more about problem solving, and I think people like to problem-solve, they like mysteries, they like decoding things. It’s much more about that than complicated algorithms.

She’s right that there is problem solving involved with programming, but she’s either mistaken or confusing math with arithmetic when she says that the relationship between math and programming is a “myth.” I can understand why she tries to wave it off, because as Fields pointed out, most students don’t like math. I contend, as do some mathematicians, this is due to the way it’s taught in our schools. The essence of math gets lost. Instead it’s presented as a tool for calculation, and possibly a cognitive development discipline for problem solving, both of which don’t communicate what it really is, and remove a lot of its beauty.

In reality math is pervasive in programming, but to understand why I say this you have to understand that math is not arithmetic–addition, subtraction, like she suggests. This confusion is common in our society. I talk more about this here. Having said this, it does not mean that programming is hard right off the bat. The math involved has more to do with logic and reasoning. I like the message in the video below from a couple of the programmers interviewed: “You don’t have to be a genius to know how to code. … Do you have to be a genius to do math? No.” I think that’s the right way to approach this. Math is important to programming, but it’s not just about calculating a result. While there’s some memorization, understanding a programming language’s rules, and knowing what different things are called, that’s not a big part of it.

The cool thing is you can accomplish some simple things in programming, to get started, without worrying about math at all. It becomes more important if you want to write complex programs, but that’s something that can wait.

My current understanding is the math in programming is about understanding the rules of a system and what statements used in that system imply, and then understanding the effects of those implications. That sounds complicated, but it’s just something that has to be learned to do anything significant with programming, and once learned will become more and more natural. I liken it to understanding how to drive a car on the road. You don’t have to learn this concept right away, though. When first starting out, you can just look at and enjoy the effects of trying out different things, exploring what a programming environment offers you.

Where Chilcott shines in the interview above is when she becomes the “organizer.” She said that even though 95% of the schools have computers and internet access, only 10% have what she calls a “computer science” course. (I wish they’d go back to calling it a “programming course.” Computer science is more than what most of these schools teach, but I’m being nit-picky.) The cool thing about Code.org, a web site she promotes, is that it tries to locate a school near you that offers programming courses. If there aren’t any, no problem. You can learn some basics of programming right inside your browser using the online tools that it offers on the site.

The video Chilcott produced is called “Code Stars” in the above interview, but when I went looking for it I found it under the name “the Code.org film,” or, “What Most Schools Don’t Teach.”

Here is the full 9-minute video:

If you want the shorter videos, you can find them here.

The programming environment you see kids using in these videos is called “Scratch.”

Gabe Newell said of programming:

When you’re programming, you’re teaching possibly the stupidest thing in the entire universe–a computer–how to do something.

I see where Newell is going with this, but from my perspective it depends on what programming environment you’re using. Some programming languages have the feel of you “teaching” the system when you’re programming. Others have the feel of creating relationships between simple behaviors. Others, still, have the feel of using relationships to set up rules for a new system. Programming comes in a variety of approaches. However, the basic idea that Newell gets across is true, that computers only come with a set of simple operations, and that’s it. They don’t do very much by themselves, or even in combination. It’s important for those new to programming to learn this early on. Some of my early experiences in programming match those of new programmers even today. One of them is, when using a programming language, one is tempted to assume that the computer will infer the meaning of some programming expression from context. There is some context used in programming, but not much, and it’s highly formalized. It’s not intuitive. I can remember the first time I learned this it was like the joke where, say, someone introduces his/her friend to a dumb, witless character in a skit. He/she says, “Say hi to my friend, Frank,” and the dummy says, “Hi to my friend Frank.” And the guy/gal says, “NO! I mean…say hello,” making a hand gesture trying to get the two to connect, and the dummy might look at the friend and say, “Hello,” but that’s it. That’s kind of a realization to new programmers. Yeah, the computer has to have almost everything explained to it (or modeled), even things we do without thinking about it. It’s up to the programmer to make the connections between the few things the computer knows how to do, to make something larger happen.

Jack Dorsey talked about programming in a way that I think is important. His ultimate goal when he started out was to model something, and make the model malleable enough that he could manipulate it, because he wanted to use it for understanding how cities work.

Bill Gates emphasized control. This is a common early motivation for programmers. Not necessarily controlling people, but controlling the computer. What Gates was talking about was what I’d call “making your own world,” like Dorsey was saying, but he wanted to make it real. When I was in high school (late 1980s) it was a rather common project for aspiring programming students to create “matchmaking” programs, where boys and girls in the whole school would answer a simple questionnaire, and a computer program that a student had written would try to match them up by interests, not unlike some of the online dating sites that are out there now. I never heard of any students finding their true love through one of these projects, but it was fun for some people.

Vanessa Hurst said, “You don’t have to be a genius to know how to code. You need to be determined.” That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. In my experience everything else flowed from determination when I was learning how to do this. It will drive you to learn what you need to learn to get it, even if sometimes it’s subject matter you find tedious and icky. You learn to just push through it to get to the glorious feeling at the end of having accomplished what you set out to do.

Newell said at the end of the video,

The programmers of tomorrow are the wizards of the future. You’re going to look like you have magic powers compared to everybody else.

That’s true, but this has been true for a long time. In my professional work developing custom database solutions for business customers I had the experience of being viewed like a magician, because customers didn’t know how I did what I did. They just appreciated the fact that I could do it. I really don’t mean to discourage anyone, because I still enjoy programming today, and I want to encourage people to learn programming, but I feel the need to say something, because I don’t want people to get disillusioned over this. This status of “wizard,” or “magician” is not always what it’s cracked up to be. It can feel great, but there is a flip side to it that can be downright frustrating. This is because people who don’t know a wit of what you know how to do can get confused about what your true abilities are, and they can develop unrealistic expectations of you. I’ve found that wherever possible, the most pleasurable work environment is working among those who also know how to code, because we’re able to size each other up, and assign tasks appropriately. I encourage those who are pursuing software development as a career to shoot for that.

A couple things I can say for being able to code are:

  • It makes you less of a “victim” in our technology world. Once you know how to do it, you have an idea about how other programs work, and the pitfalls they can fall into that might compromise your private information, allow a computer cracker to access it, or take control of your system. You don’t have to feel scared at the alarming “hacking” or phishing reports you hear on the news, because you can be choosey about what software you use based on how it was constructed, what it’s capable of, how much power it gives you (not someone else), and not just base a decision on the features it has, or cool graphics and promotion. You can become a discriminating user of software.
  • You gain the power to create the things that suite you. You don’t have to use software that you don’t like, or you think is being offered on unreasonable terms. You can create your own, and it can be whatever you want. It’s just a matter of the knowledge you’re willing to gather and the amount of energy you’re willing to put into developing the software.

Edit 5-20-2013: While I’m on this subject, I thought I should include this video by Mitch Resnick, who has been involved in creating Scratch at MIT. Similar to what Lesley Chilcott said above, he said, “It’s almost as if [users of new technologies] can read, but not write,” referring to how people use technology to interact. I disagreed with the notion, above, that using technology is the same as reading. Resnick hedged a bit on that. I can kind of understand why he might say this, because by running a Scratch program, it is like reading it, because you can see how code creates its results in the environment. This is not true, however, of much of the technology people use today.

Mark Guzdial asked a question a while back that I thought was important, because it brings this issue down to where a lot of people live. If the kind of literacy I’m going to talk about below is going to happen, the concept needs to be able to come down “out of the clouds” and become more pedestrian. Not to say that literacy needs to be watered down in toto (far from it), but that it should be possible to read and write to communicate everyday ideas and experiences without being super sophisticated about it. What Mark asked was, in the context of a computing medium, what would be the equivalent of a “note to grandma”? I remember suggesting Dan Ingalls’s prop-piston concept from his Lively Kernel demos as one candidate. Resnick provided what I thought were some other good ones, but in the context of Mother’s Day.

Context reversal

The challenge that faces new programmers today is different from when I learned programming as a child in one fundamental way. Today, kids are introduced to computers before they enter school. They’re just “around.” If you’ve got a cell phone, you’ve got a computer in your pocket. The technology kids use presents them with an easy-to-use interface, but the emphasis is on use, not authoring. There is so much software around it seems you can just wish for it, and it’s there. The motivation to get into programming has to be different than what motivated me.

When I was young the computer industry was still something new. It was not widespread. Most computers that were around were big mainframes that only corporations and universities could afford and manage. When the first microcomputers came out, there wasn’t much software for them. It was a lot easier to be motivated to learn programming, because if you didn’t write it, it probably didn’t exist, or it was too expensive to get (depending on your financial circumstances). The way computers operated was more technical than they are today. We didn’t have graphical user interfaces (at first). Everything was done from some kind of text command line interface that filled the entire screen. Every computer came with a programming language as well, along with a small manual giving you an introduction on how to use it.

PC-DOS, from Wikipedia

It was expected that if you bought a computer you’d learn something about programming it, even if it was just a little scripting. Sometimes the line between what was the operating system’s command line interface, and what was the programming language was blurred. So even if all you wanted to do was manipulate files and run programs, you were learning a little about programming just by learning how to use the computer. Some of today’s software developers came out of that era (including yours truly).

Computer and operating system manufacturers had stopped including programming languages with their systems by the mid-1990s. Programming languages had also been taken over by professionals. The typical languages used by developers were much harder to learn for beginners. There were educational languages around, but they had fallen behind the times. They were designed for older personal computer systems, and when the systems got more sophisticated no one had come around to update them. That began to be remedied only in the last 10 years.

Computer science was still a popular major at universities in the 1990s, due to the dot-com craze. When that bubble burst in 2000, that went away, too. So in the last 18 years we’ve had what I’d call an “educational programming winter.” Maybe we’ll see a revival. I hope so.

Literacy reconsidered

I’m directing the rest of this post to educators, because there are some issues around a programming revival I’d like to address. I’m going to share some more detailed history, and other perspectives on computer programming.

What many may not know is that we as a society have already gone through this once. From the late 1970s to the mid-1980s there was a major push to teach programming in schools as “computer literacy.” This was the regime that I went through. The problem was some mistakes were made, and this caused the educational movement behind it to collapse. I think the reason this happened was due to a misunderstanding of what’s powerful about programming, and I’d like educators to evaluate their current thinking in light of this, so that hopefully they do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

As I go through this part, I’ll mostly be quoting from a Ph.D. thesis written by John Maxwell in 2006 called Tracing the Dynabook: A Study of Technocultural Transformations.” (h/t Bill Kerr)

Back in the late 1970s microcomputers/personal computers were taking off like wildfire with Apple II’s, and Commodore VIC-20’s, and later, Commodore 64’s, and IBM PCs. They were seen as “the future.” Parents didn’t want their children to be “left behind” as “technological illiterates.” This was the first time computers were being brought into the home. It was also the first time many schools were able to grant students access to computers.

Educators thought about the “benefits” of using a computer for certain cognitive and social skills.  Programming spread in public school systems as something to teach students. Fred D’Ignazio wrote in an article called “Beyond Computer Literacy,” from 1983:

A recent national “computers in the schools” survey conducted by the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University found that most secondary schools are using computers to teach programming. … According to the survey, the second most popular use of computers was for drill and practice, primarily for math and language arts. In addition, the majority of the teachers who responded to the survey said that they looked at the computer as a “resource” rather than as a “tool.”

…Another recent survey (conducted by the University of Maryland) echoes the Johns Hopkins survey. It found that most schools introduce computers into the curriculum to help students become literate in computer technology. But what does this literacy entail?

Because of the pervasive spread of computers throughout our society, we have all become convinced that computers are important. From what we read and hear, when our kids grow up almost everyone will have to use computers in some aspect of their lives. This makes computers, as a subject, not only important, but also relevant.

An important, relevant subject like computers should be part of a school’s curriculum. The question is how “Computers” ought to be taught.

Special computer classes are being set up so that students can play with computers, tinker with them, and learn some basic programming. Thus, on a practical level, computer literacy turns out to be mere computer exposure.

But exposure to what? Kids who are now enrolled in elementary and secondary schools are exposed to four aspects of computers. They learn that computers are programmable machines. They learn that computers are being used in all areas of society. They learn that computers make good electronic textbooks. And (something they already knew), they learn that computers are terrific game machines.

… According to the surveys, real educational results have been realized at schools which concentrate on exposing kids to computers. … Kids get to touch computers, play with them, push their buttons, order them about, and cope with computers’ incredible dumbness, their awful pickiness, their exasperating bugs, and their ridiculous quirks.

The main benefits D’Ignazio noted were ancillary. Students stayed at school longer, came in earlier, and stayed late. They were more attentive to their studies, and the computers fostered a sense of community, rather than competition and rivalry. If you read his article, you get a sense that there was almost a “worship” of computers on the part of educators. They didn’t understand what they were, or what they represented, but they were so interesting! There’s a problem there… When people are fascinated by something they don’t understand, they tend to impose meanings on it that are not backed by evidence, and so miss the point. The mistaken perceptions can be strengthened by anecdotal evidence (one of the weakest kinds). This is what happened to programming in schools.

The success of the strategy of using computers to try to improve higher-order thinking was illusory. John Maxwell’s telling of the “life and death of Logo” (my phrasing) serves as a useful analog to what happened to programming in schools generally. For those unfamiliar with it, the basic concept of Logo was a programming environment in which the student manipulates an object called a “turtle” via. commands. The student can ask the turtle to rotate and move. As it moves it drags a pen behind it, tracing its trail.  Other versions of this language were created that allowed more capabilities, allowing further exploration of the concepts for which it was created. The original idea Seymour Papert, who taught children using Logo, had was to teach young children about sophisticated math concepts, but our educational system imposed a very different definition and purpose on it. Just because something is created on a computer with the intent of it being used for a specific purpose doesn’t mean that others can’t use it for completely different, and possibly less valuable purposes. We’ve seen this a lot with computers over the years; people “misusing” them for both constructive and destructive ends.

As I go forward with this, I just want to put out a disclaimer that I don’t have answers to the problems I point out here. I point them out to make people aware of them, to get people to pause with the pursuit of putting people through this again, and to point to some people who are working on trying to find some answers. I present some of their learned opinions. I encourage interested readers to read up on what these people have had to say about the use of computers in education, and perhaps contact them with the idea of learning more about what they’ve found out.

I ask the reader to pay particular attention to the “benefits” that educators imposed on the idea of programming during this period that Maxwell talks about, via. what Papert called “technocentrism.” You hear this being echoed in the videos above. As you go through this, I also want you to notice that Papert, and another educator by the name of Alan Kay, who have thought a lot about what computers represent, have a very different idea about the importance of computers and programming than is typical in our school system, and in the computer industry.

The spark that started Logo’s rise in the educational establishment was the publication of Papert’s book, “Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas” in 1980. Through the process of Logo’s promotion…

Logo became in the marketplace (in the broad sense of the word) [a] particular black box: turtle geometry; the notion that computer programming encourages a particular kind of thinking; that programming in Logo somehow symbolizes “computer literacy.” These notions are all very dubious—Logo is capable of vastly more than turtle graphics; the “thinking skills” strategy was never part of Papert’s vocabulary; and to equate a particular activity like Logo programming with computer literacy is the equivalent of saying that (English) literacy can be reduced to reading newspaper articles—but these are the terms by which Logo became a mass phenomenon.

It was perhaps inevitable, as Papert himself notes (1987), that after such unrestrained enthusiasm, there would come a backlash. It was also perhaps inevitable given the weight that was put on it: Logo had come, within educational circles, to represent computer programming in the large, despite Papert’s frequent and eloquent statements about Logo’s role as an epistemological resource for thinking about mathematics. [my emphasis — Mark] In the spirit of the larger project of cultural history that I am attempting here, I want to keep the emphasis on what Logo represented to various constituencies, rather than appealing to a body of literature that reported how Logo “didn’t work as promised,” as many have done (e.g., Sloan 1985; Pea & Sheingold 1987). The latter, I believe, can only be evaluated in terms of this cultural history. Papert indeed found himself searching for higher ground, as he accused Logo’s growing numbers of critics of technocentrism:

“Egocentrism for Piaget does not mean ‘selfishness’—it means that the child has difficulty understanding anything independently of the self. Technocentrism refers to the tendency to give a similar centrality to a technical object—for example computers or Logo. This tendency shows up in questions like ‘What is THE effect of THE computer on cognitive development?’ or ‘Does Logo work?’ … such turns of phrase often betray a tendency to think of ‘computers’ and ‘Logo’ as agents that act directly on thinking and learning; they betray a tendency to reduce what are really the most important components of educational situations—people and cultures—to a secondary, faciltiating role. The context for human development is always a culture, never an isolated technology.”

But by 1990, the damage was done: Logo’s image became that of a has-been technology, and its black boxes closed: in a 1996 framing of the field of educational technology, Timothy Koschmann named “Logo-as-Latin” a past paradigm of educational computing. The blunt idea that “programming” was an activity which could lead to “higher order thinking skills” (or not, as it were) had obviated Papert’s rich and subtle vision of an ego-syntonic mathematics.

By the early 1990s … Logo—and with it, programming—had faded.

The message–or black box–resulting from the rise and fall of Logo seems to have been the notion that “programming” is over-rated and esoteric, more properly relegated to the ash-heap of ed-tech history, just as in the analogy with Latin. (pp. 183-185)

To be clear, the last part of the quote refers only to the educational value placed on programming by our school system. When educators attempted to formally study and evaluate programming’s benefits on higher-order thinking and the like, they found it wanting, and so most schools gradually dropped teaching programming in the 1990s.

Maxwell addresses the conundrum of computing and programming in schools, and I think what he says is important to consider as people try to “reboot” programming in education:

[The] critical faculties of the educational establishment, which we might at least hope to have some agency in the face of large-scale corporate movement, tend to actually disengage with the critical questions (e.g., what are we trying to do here?) and retreat to a reactionary ‘humanist’ stance in which a shallow Luddism becomes a point of pride. Enter the twin bogeymen of instrumentalism and technological determinism: the instrumentalist critique runs along the lines of “the technology must be in the service of the educational objectives and not the other way around.” The determinist critique, in turn, says, ‘the use of computers encourages a mechanistic way of thinking that is a danger to natural/human/traditional ways of life’ (for variations, see, Davy 1985; Sloan 1985; Oppenheimer 1997; Bowers 2000).

Missing from either version of this critique is any idea that digital information technology might present something worth actually engaging with. De Castell, Bryson & Jenson write:

“Like an endlessly rehearsed mantra, we hear that what is essential for the implementation and integration of technology in the classroom is that teachers should become ‘comfortable’ using it. […] We have a master code capable of utilizing in one platform what have for the entire history of our species thus far been irreducibly different kinds of things–writing and speech, images and sound–every conceivable form of information can now be combined with every other kind to create a different form of communication, and what we seek is comfort and familiarity?”

Surely the power of education is transformation. And yet, given a potentially transformative situation, we seek to constrain the process, managerially, structurally, pedagogically, and philosophically, so that no transformation is possible. To be sure, this makes marketing so much easier. And so we preserve the divide between ‘expert’ and ‘end-user;’ for the ‘end-user’ is profoundly she who is unchanged, uninitiated, unempowered.

A seemingly endless literature describes study after study, project after project, trying to identify what really ‘works’ or what the critical intercepts are or what the necessary combination of ingredients might be (support, training, mentoring, instructional design, and so on); what remains is at least as strong a body of literature which suggests that this is all a waste of time.

But what is really at issue is not implementation or training or support or any of the myriad factors arising in discussions of why computers in schools don’t amount to much. What is really wrong with computers in education is that for the most part, we lack any clear sense of what to do with them, or what they might be good for. This may seem like an extreme claim, given the amount of energy and time expended, but the record to date seems to support it. If all we had are empirical studies that report on success rates and student performance, we would all be compelled to throw the computers out the window and get on with other things.

But clearly, it would be inane to try to claim that computing technology–one of the most influential defining forces in Western culture of our day, and which shows no signs of slowing down–has no place in education. We are left with a dilemma that I am sure every intellectually honest researcher in the field has had to consider: we know this stuff is important, but we don’t really understand how. And so what shall we do, right now?

It is not that there haven’t been (numerous) answers to this question. But we have tended to leave them behind with each surge of forward momentum, each innovative push, each new educational technology “paradigm” as Timothy Koschmann put it. (pp. 18-19)

The answer is not a “reboot” of programming, but rather a rethinking of it. Maxwell makes a humble suggestion: that educators stop being blinded by “the shiny new thing,” or some so-called “new” idea such that they lose their ability to think clearly about what’s being done with regard to computers in education, and that they deal with history and historicism. He said that the technology field has had a problem with its own history, and this tends to bleed over into how educators regard it. The tendency is to forget the past, and to downplay it (“That was neat then, but it’s irrelevant now”).

In my experience, people have associated technology’s past with memories of using it. They’ve given little if any thought to what it represented. They take for granted what it enabled them to do, and do not consider what that meant. Maxwell said that this…

…makes it difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of the role of technology in education, in society, and in politics. We are faced with a tangle of hobbles–instrumentalism, ahistoricism, fear of transformation, Snow’s “two cultures,” and a consumerist subjectivity.

An examination of the history of educational technology–and educational computing in particular–reveals riches that have been quite forgotten. There is, for instance, far more richness and depth in Papert’s philosophy and his more than two decades of practical work on Logo than is commonly remembered. And Papert is not the only one. (p. 20)

Maxwell went into what Alan Kay thought about the subject. Kay has spent almost as many years as Papert working on a meaningful context for computing and programming within education. Some of the quotes Maxwell uses are from “The Early History of Smalltalk,” (h/t Bill Kerr) which I’ll also refer to. The other sources for Kay’s quotes are included in Maxwell’s bibliography:

What is Literacy?

“The music is not in the piano.” — Alan Kay

The past three or four decades are littered with attempts to define “computer literacy” or something like it. I think that, in the best cases, at least, most of these have been attempts to establish some sort of conceptual clarity on what is good and worthwhile about computing. But none of them have won large numbers of supporters across the board.

Kay’s appeal to the historical evolution of what literacy has meant over the past few hundred years is, I think, a much more fruitful framing. His argument is thus not for computer literacy per se, but for systems literacy, of which computing is a key part.

That this is a massive undertaking is clear … and the size of the challenge is not lost on Kay. Reflecting on the difficulties they faced in trying to teach programming to children at PARC in the 1970s, he wrote that:

“The connection to literacy was painfully clear. It is not just enough to learn to read and write. There is also a literature that renders ideas. Language is used to read and write about them, but at some point the organization of ideas starts to dominate the mere language abilities. And it helps greatly to have some powerful ideas under one’s belt to better acquire more powerful ideas.”

Because literature is about ideas, Kay connects the notion of literacy firmly to literature:

“What is literature about? Literature is a conversation in writing about important ideas. That’s why Euclid’s Elements and Newton’s Principia Mathematica are as much a part of the Western world’s tradition of great books as Plato’s Dialogues. But somehow we’ve come to think of science and mathematics as being apart from literature.”

There are echoes here of Papert’s lament about mathophobia, not fear of math, but the fear of learning that underlies C.P. Snow’s “two cultures,” and which surely underlies our society’s love-hate relationship with computing. Kay’s warning that too few of us are truly fluent with the ways of thinking that have shaped the modern world finds an anchor here. How is it that Euclid and Newton, to take Kay’s favourite examples, are not part of the canon, unless one’s very particular scholarly path leads there? We might argue that we all inherit Euclid’s and Newton’s ideas, but in distilled form. But this misses something important … Kay makes this point with respect to Papert’s experiences with Logo in classrooms:

“Despite many compelling presentations and demonstrations of Logo, elementary school teachers had little or no idea what calculus was or how to go about teaching real mathematics to children in a way that illuminates how we think about mathematics and how mathematics relates to the real world.” (Maxwell, pp. 135-137)

Just a note of clarification: I refer back to what Maxwell said re. Logo and mathematics. Papert did not use his language to teach programming as an end in itself. His goal was to use a computer to teach mathematics to children. Programming with Logo was the means for doing it. This is an important concept to keep in mind as one considers what role computer programming plays in education.

The problem, in Kay’s portrayal, isn’t “computer literacy,” it’s a larger one of familiarity and fluency with the deeper intellectual content; not just that which is specific to math and science curriculum. Kay’s diagnosis runs very close to Neil Postman’s critiques of television and mass media … that we as a society have become incapable of dealing with complex issues.

“Being able to read a warning on a pill bottle or write about a summer vacation is not literacy and our society should not treat it so. Literacy, for example, is being able to fluently read and follow the 50-page argument in [Thomas] Paine’s Common Sense and being able (and happy) to fluently write a critique or defense of it.” (Maxwell, p. 137)

Extending this quote (from “The Early History of Smalltalk”), Kay went on to say:

Another kind of 20th century literacy is being able to hear about a new fatal contagious incurable disease and instantly know that a disastrous exponential relationship holds and early action is of the highest priority. Another kind of literacy would take citizens to their personal computers where they can fluently and without pain build a systems simulation of the disease to use as a comparison against further information.

At the liberal arts level we would expect that connections between each of the fluencies would form truly powerful metaphors for considering ideas in the light of others.

Continuing with Maxwell (and Kay):

“Many adults, especially politicians, have no sense of exponential progressions such as population growth, epidemics like AIDS, or even compound interest on their credit cards. In contrast, a 12-year-old child in a few lines of Logo […] can easily describe and graphically simulate the interaction of any number of bodies, or create and experience first-hand the swift exponential progressions of an epidemic. Speculations about weighty matters that would ordinarily be consigned to common sense (the worst of all reasoning methods), can now be tried out with a modest amount of effort.”

Surely this is far-fetched; but why does this seem so beyond our reach? Is this not precisely the point of traditional science education? We have enough trouble coping with arguments presented in print, let alone simulations and modeling. Postman’s argument implicates television, but television is not a techno-deterministic anomaly within an otherwise sensible cultural milieu; rather it is a manifestation of a larger pattern. What is wrong here has as much to do with our relationship with print and other media as it does with television. Kay noted that “In America, printing has failed as a carrier of important ideas for most Americans.” To think of computers and new media as extensions of print media is a dangerous intellectual move to make; books, for all their obvious virtues (stability, economy, simplicity) make a real difference in the lives of only a small number of individuals, even in the Western world. Kay put it eloquently thus: “The computer really is the next great thing after the book. But as was also true with the book, most [people] are being left behind.” This is a sobering thought for those who advocate public access to digital resources and lament a “digital divide” along traditional socioeconomic lines. Kay notes,

“As my wife once remarked to Vice President Al Gore, the ‘haves and have-nots’ of the future will not be caused so much by being connected or not to the Internet, since most important content is already available in public libraries, free and open to all. The real haves and have-nots are those who have or have not acquired the discernment to search for and make use of high content wherever it may be found.” (Maxwell, pp. 138-139)

I’m still trying to understand myself what exactly Alan Kay means by “literature” in the realm of computing. He said that it is a means for discussing important ideas, but in the context of computing, what ideas? I suspect from what’s been said here he’s talking about what I’d call “model content,” thought forms, such as the idea of an exponential progression, or the concept of velocity and acceleration, which have been fashioned in science and mathematics to describe ideas and phenomena. “Literature,” as he defined it, is a means of discussing these thought forms–important ideas–in some meaningful context.

In prior years he had worked on that in his Squeak environment, working with some educators. They would show children a car moving across the screen, dropping dots as it went, illustrating velocity, and then, modifying the model, acceleration. Then they would show them Galileo’s experiment, dropping heavy and light balls from the roof of a building (real balls from a real building), recording the ball dropping, and allowing the children to view the video of the ball, and simultaneously model it via. programming, and discovering that the same principle of acceleration applied there as well. Thus, they could see in a couple contexts how the principle worked, how they could recognize it, and see its relationship to the real world. The idea being that they could grasp the concepts that make up the idea of acceleration, and then integrate it into their thinking about other important matters they would encounter in the future.

Maxwell quoted from an author named Andrew diSessa to get deeper into the concept of literacy, specifically what literacy in a type of media offers our understanding of issues:

The hidden metaphor behind transparency–that seeing is understanding–is at loggerheads with literacy. It is the opposite of how media make us smarter. Media don’t present an unadulterated “picture” of the problem we want to solve, but have their fundamental advantage in providing a different representation, with different emphases and different operational possibilities than “seeing and directly manipulating.”

What’s a good goal for computing?

The temptation in teaching and learning programming is to get students familiar enough with the concepts and a language that they can start creating things with it. But create what? The typical cases are to allow students to tinker, and/or to create applications which gradually become more complex and feature-rich, with the idea of building confidence and competence with increasing complexity. The latter is not a bad idea in itself, but listening to Alan Kay has led me to believe that starting off with this is the equivalent of jumping to a conclusion too quickly, and to miss the point of what’s powerful about computers and programming.

I like what Kay said in “The Early History of Smalltalk” about this:

A twentieth century problem is that technology has become too “easy.” When it was hard to do anything whether good or bad, enough time was taken so that the result was usually good. Now we can make things almost trivially, especially in software, but most of the designs are trivial as well. This is inverse vandalism: the making of things because you can. Couple this to even less sophisticated buyers and you have generated an exploitation marketplace similar to that set up for teenagers. A counter to this is to generate enormous dissatisfaction with one’s designs using the entire history of human art as a standard and goal. Then the trick is to decouple the dissatisfaction from self worth–otherwise it is either too depressing or one stops too soon with trivial results.

Edit 4-5-2013: I thought I should point out that this quote has some nuance to it that people might miss. I don’t believe Kay is saying that “programming should be hard.” Quite the contrary. One can observe from his designs that he’s advocated the opposite. Not that technology should mold itself to what is “natural” for humans. It might require some training and practice, but once mastered, it should magnify or enhance human capabilities, thereby making previously difficult or tedious tasks easier to accomplish and incorporate into a larger goal.

Kay was making an observation about the history of technology’s relationship to society, that the effect on people of useful technology being hard to build has generally caused the people who created something useful to make it well. What he’s pointing out is that people generally take the presence of technology as an excuse to use it as a crutch, in this case to make immediate use of it towards some other goal that has little to do with what the technology represents, rather than an invitation to revisit it, criticize its design, and try to make it better. This is an easy sell, because everyone likes something that makes their lives easier (or seems to), but we rob ourselves of something important in the process if that becomes the only end goal. What I see him proposing is that people with some skill should impose a high standard for design on themselves, drawing inspiration for that standard from how the best art humanity has produced was developed and nurtured, but guard against the sense of feeling small, inadequate, and overwhelmed by the challenge.

Maxwell (and Kay) explain further why this idea of “literacy” as being able to understand and communicate important ideas, which includes ideas about complexity, is something worth pursuing:

“If we look back over the last 400 years to ponder what ideas have caused the greatest changes in human society and have ushered in our modern era of democracy, science, technology and health care, it may come as a bit of a shock to realize that none of these is in story form! Newton’s treatise on the laws of motion, the force of gravity, and the behavior of the planets is set up as a sequence of arguments that imitate Euclid’s books on geometry.”

The most important ideas in modern Western culture in the past few hundred years, Kay claims, are the ones driven by argumentation, by chains of logical assertions that have not been and cannot be straightforwardly represented in narrative. …

But more recent still are forms of argumentation that defy linear representation at all: ‘complex’ systems, dynamic models, ecological relationships of interacting parts. These can be hinted at with logical or mathematical representations, but in order to flesh them out effectively, they need to be dynamically modeled. This kind of modeling is in many cases only possible once we have computational systems at our disposal, and in fact with the advent of computational media, complex systems modeling has been an area of growing research, precisely because it allows for the representation (and thus conception) of knowledge beyond what was previously possible. In her discussion of the “regime of computation” inherent in the work of thinkers like Stephen Wolfram, Edward Fredkin, and Harold Morowitz, N. Katherine Hayles explains:

“Whatever their limitations, these researchers fully understand that linear causal explanations are limited in scope and that multicausal complex systems require other modes of modeling and explanation. This seems to me a seminal insight that, despite three decades of work in chaos theory, complex systems, and simulation modeling, remains underappreciated and undertheorized in the physical sciences, and even more so in the social sciences and humanities.”

Kay’s lament too is that though these non-narrative forms of communication and understanding–both in the linear and complex varieties–are key to our modern world, a tiny fraction of people in Western society are actually fluent in them.

“In order to be completely enfranchised in the 21st century, it will be very important for children to become fluent in all three of the central forms of thinking that are now in use. […] the question is: How can we get children to explore ways of thinking beyond the one they’re ‘wired for’ (storytelling) and venture out into intellectual territory that needs to be discovered anew by every thinking person: logic and systems ‘eco-logic?'” …

In this we get Kay’s argument for ‘what computers are good for’ … It does not contradict Papert’s vision of children’s access to mathematical thinking; rather, it generalizes the principle, by applying Kay’s vision of the computer as medium, and even metamedium, capable of “simulating the details of any descriptive model.” The computer was already revolutionizing how science is done, but not general ways of thinking. Kay saw this as the promise of personal computing, with millions of users and millions of machines.

“The thing that jumped into my head was that simulation would be the basis for this new argument. […] If you’re going to talk about something really complex, a simulation is a more effective way of making your claim than, say, just a mathematical equation. If, for example, you’re talking about an epidemic, you can make claims in an essay, and you can put mathematical equations in there. Still, it is really difficult for your reader to understand what you’re actually talking about and to work out the ramifications. But it is very different if you can supply a model of your claim in the form of a working simulation, something that can be examined, and also can be changed.”

The computer is thus to be seen as a modeling tool. The models might be relatively mundane–our familiar word processors and painting programs define one end of the scale–or they might be considerably more complex. [my emphasis — Mark] It is important to keep in mind that this conception of computing is in the first instance personal–“personal dynamic media”–so that the ideal isn’t simulation and modeling on some institutional or centralized basis, but rather the kind of thing that individuals would engage in, in the same way in which individuals read and write for their own edification and practical reasons. This is what defines Kay’s vision of a literacy that encompasses logic and systems thinking as well as narrative.

And, as with Papert’s enactive mathematics, this vision seeks to make the understanding of complex systems something to which young children could realistically aspire, or that school curricula could incorporate. Note how different this is from having a ‘computer-science’ or an ‘information technology’ curriculum; what Kay is describing is more like a systems-science curriculum that happens to use computers as core tools:

“So, I think giving children a way of attacking complexity, even though for them complexity may be having a hundred simultaneously executing objects–which I think is enough complexity for anybody–gets them into that space in thinking about things that I think is more interesting than just simple input/output mechanisms.” (Maxwell, pp. 132-135)

I wanted to highlight the part about “word processors” and “paint programs,” because this idea that’s being discussed is not limited to simulating real world phenomena. It could be incorporated into simulating “artificial phenomena” as well. It’s a different way of looking at what you are doing and creating when you are programming. It takes it away from asking, “How do I get this thing to do what I want,” and redirects it to, “What entities do we want to make up this desired system, what are they like, and how can they interact to create something that we can recognize, or otherwise leverages human capabilities?”

Maxwell said that computer science is not the important thing. Rather, what’s important about computer science is what it makes possible: “the study and engagement with complex or dynamic systems–and it is this latter issue which is of key importance to education.” Think about this in relation to what we do with reading and writing. We don’t learn to read and write just to be able to write characters in some sequence, and then for others to read what we’ve written. We have events and ideas, perhaps more esoteric to this subject, emotions and poetry, that we write about. That’s why we learn to read and write. It’s the same thing with computer science. It’s pretty worthless, if we as a society value it for communicating ideas, if it’s just about learning to read and write code. To make the practice something that’s truly valuable to society, we need to have content, ideas, to read and write about in code. There’s a lot that can be explored with that idea in mind.

Characterizing Alan Kay’s vision for personal computing, Maxwell talked about Kay’s concept of the Dynabook:

Alan Kay’s key insight in the late 1960s was that computing would become the practice of millions of people, and that they would engage with computing to perform myriad tasks; the role of software would be to provide a flexible medium with which people could approach those myriad tasks. … [The] Dynabook’s user is an engaged participant rather than a passive, spectatorial consumer—the Dynabook’s user was supposed to be the creator of her own tools, a smarter, more capable user than the market discourse of the personal computing industry seems capable of inscribing—or at least has so far, ever since the construction of the “end-user” as documented by Bardini & Horvath. (p. 218)

Kay’s contribution begins with the observation that digital computers provide the means for yet another, newer mode of expression: the simulation and modeling of complex systems. What discursive possibilities does this new modality open up, and for whom? Kay argues that this latter communications revolution should in the first place be in the hands of children. What we are left with is a sketch of a possible new literacy; not “computer literacy” as an alternative to book literacy, but systems literacy—the realm of powerful ideas in a world in which complex systems modelling is possible and indeed commonplace, even among children. Kay’s fundamental and sustained admonition is that this literacy is the task and responsibility of education in the 21st century. The Dynabook vision presents a particular conception of what such a literacy would look like—in a liberal, individualist, decentralized, and democratic key. (p. 262)

I would encourage interested readers to read Maxwell’s paper in full. He gives a rich description of the problem of computers in the educational context, giving a much more detailed history of it than I have here, and what the best minds on the subject have tried to do to improve the situation.

The main point I want to get across is if we as a society really want to get the greatest impact out of what computers can do for us, beyond just being tools that do canned, but useful things, I implore educators to see computers and programming environments more as apparatus, instruments, media (the computers and programming environments themselves, not what’s “played” on computers, and languages and metaphors, which are the media’s means of expression, not just a means to some non-expressive end), rather than as agents and tools. Sure, there will be room for them to function as agents and tools, but the main focus that I see as important in this subject area is in how the machine helps facilitate substantial pedagogies and illuminates epistemological concepts that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to communicate.

—Mark Miller, https://tekkie.wordpress.com

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