I want to document but I need to learn first!

Christopher Sawtell csawtell at paradise.net.nz
Wed Mar 12 23:32:22 PST 2003

I've been reading the thread since the first post by Jerry Balzano, and would 
like to make a few comments.

On Tue, 11 Mar 2003 17:45, John Steinmetz wrote:
> Thank you for these comments, Jerry. I think you're bringing up
> important points.
> I think it needs to be emphasized over and over again that Squeak is
> a research system. It is not a completed product, but a work in
> progress, and that causes ome of the frustrations teachers and other
> novices experience. Perhaps more could be done on the Squeakland site
> to make this clear.
Yes indeed. That site is very professionally put together and does have a 
dot.com address. In spite of the "Under construction but ready for playing".
Without explicitly saying so, you give the very distinct impression that 
Squeak is now ready to be used in the school and home by "mere mortals".
Although I have been around computers for something like thirty years now, I 
have found learning Smalltalk to be one of the most difficult intellectual 
exercises I have ever attempted. There is so much of it to learn and the 
approach to the system is simply out of this world when compared to the 
normal edit a file, compile it, and crash it cycle.

Perhaps you might like to consider making the forward from the .com address 
not quite so transparent, and reinforce the experimental nature of Squeak 
right there on the home page.

> Any programming environment provides challenges to non-expert users,
> and expert help is often needed. In my opinion many who promote
> computers as tools for learning say too little about the amount of
> support teachers and students need in order to get good results.
I'd go so far as to say that in a normal 
> I'm sure most people on this list are excited about the promise of
> Squeak--many kinds of promises, really. It's astounding that Squeak
> has come so far, and that has a lot to do with people helping one
> another. Clearly, to get to the next stage, with ordinary users and
> ordinary teachers being able to use Squeak, much more needs to
> happen.
Yes, that's true, but please don't dumb it down totally by removing the lovely 
advanced features like the development environment etc. Just hide them. _The_ 
feature with which I have had by far the most success in a school setting is 
the Alice system, I had a very intelligent ten year old girl typing commands 
in like as if there was no tomorrow, and we ended up with Alice waving her 
arms about and Rabbit playing the drum silently. After that she asked "Can we 
program this like I can do Basic on my computer at home". Fortunately I had 
installed the full kit and merely hidden the tabs, so we were able to open a 
workspace and do a little bit of Smalltalk scripting to print out the 
multiplication tables.

> The book by BJ Conn and Kim Rose is one step in that
> direction. But you are right to remind us not to confuse
> possibilities and promises with what is really doable now. While
> working to make some of these possibilites real, the Squeak community
> needs to try to stay clear about what's not real yet.

I seem to remember that a few years ago there was a "Stable Squeak" project. 
It seems to have disappeared. Anybody know what happened to it?
Anyway what about having a double release scheme a bit like the Linux kernel?
UserSqueak - Stable, and DevelopmentSqueak - Unstable.
Possibly with mail-lists to go with them. I found the squeak-dev list had far 
too much traffic for the time I have available, to say nothing of the fact 
that many of the threads were intellectually beyond me, yet, in contrast, up 
until now this list has appeared to be virtually moribund. Is there a 
SqueakUser list?

> One other thought: Squeak is interesting not just because it makes
> certain things easy, but also because it is rich and complex. Rich,
> complex things (music, sports, math, art, etc.) are often difficult,
> often need very good helpers to be present, and sometimes need a huge
> amount of infrastructure.

The other thing that everybody is under so much pressure in the school 
setting. What's really needed is time. There's never enough of it.

> For instance, I am a musician today only
> because my school had a very good music teacher and a pile of
> instruments made by expert craftspeople and music manufactured by
> expert composers and publishers--and my parents got me lessons with
> still another expert, and I was able to play in youth orchestras with
> more expertise at hand. Even with all this help and encouragement,
> and even in such a supportive context, it took many years for me to
> get any good at all. Most of the helpers were able to provide very
> satisfying projects at every stage--even students who did not become
> professional musicians were able to have a good time participating.
> Probably very few schools can offer the kind of infrastructure for
> computer learning that my school music program offered. Yet I think
> computers need the same kind of multilayered help and expertise, and
> a supportive context of enthusiasm and encouragement for the activity.

Without doubt that's the case. I don't know about the situation is other 
countries but here in litle NZ the use of computers in school is very patchy. 
The government is spending a small fortune on providing the hardware, 
operating systems and 'office' oriented software, but there is not only a 
distinct fear of the huge abyss of the unknown, but sadly more often than 
just occasionally a misplaced sense of pride in ignorance. This means that 
the vast majority of computers are badly underutilised and often end up just 
being web-surfing sets, glorified paint-brushes or typewriters.

> Maybe we need to lose the idea that doing interesting and valuable
> things on the computer can happen in isolation. One of the
> constantly-reinforced fantasies about computers is that they will
> make good things happen all on their own. It's an attractive notion,
> but it's a fantasy. If good things are to happen, people will be
> required.

Oh so very true, but not just people, but skilled and knowledgeble people. How 
many of them are going to both want to and be allowed into school classrooms?

> 	John Steinmetz
> 	Squeak enthusiast
> 	bassoonist, composer
> >I am hoping this message will not make a persona non grata on the
> >Squeakdev list, or make me go squeaking back to my little lurker
> >hole in the wall ... but as a competent programmer in many languages
> >(and around Squeak since *before* 2.7), I nonetheless feel the way
> >R. O'Keefe does, *in spades*.  And as for Rachel, cited in H.
> >Hirzel's epigraph/email, she, like so many newbies to the
> >squeaklist, appears to be long gone.  I did begin, awhile ago, doing
> >a kind of ethnography-of-disappearing-squeak-newbies, tracing their
> >initial enthusiastic postings, the helpful replies (always, always
> >including Ned Konz, bless you sir), the dreadfully high percentage
> >of cases in which this initial enthusiasm would fade away ... but it
> >was too depressing, and to what end?

One point to remember here is that it is extremely difficult for an expert in 
any subject to create really good documentation far a lay person about that 
subject. The expert assumes an unreasonable amount of background knowledge - 
the unwritten lore which has become so ingrained that it is second nature. He 
produces a book with lots of what I call 'transparent lines', the simple 
facts just get forgotton. Alternatively he falls into the trap of assuming 
that his reader is a totally witless fool with the intellect of a dumb five 
or six year old. Exaggeration hovering, I know, but there is a lot of truth 
there too.

> >I am not here to trash Squeak -- far from it!  I have been around so
> >long, on and off, because I truly do believe, on the one hand, that
> >herein lies a potentially *great* environment for newbies to
> >programming.  As a teacher of teachers and an advocate of
> >programming, this gets me very excited, as you can imagine.  (And
> >the record 2005 posts to squeak-dev in Feb 2003 was due in no small
> >part to a sudden upsurge in the pedaogical consciousness of the
> >list...also exciting...less so recently...)  But I think that if the
> >Squeak insiders really believe that "kids in fifth grade are able to
> >master etoys" (A. Raab, 2/10/03) without one or more Squeak insiders
> >hovering close by, they are sadly mistaken!
I beg to differ here, I have personally seen a ten year old, and two or three 
12 year olds use the e-toys most effectively. The ten year old is an 
exceptional student, but the others appeared to be pretty normal children who 
made car races and cannons firing in a morning. ok. Squeak e-toys is not for 
the witless child, but any child old enough to have language skills and of 
normal intelligence can learn to think like a computer scientist using Squeak 
and the e-toys. It's just that not everybody wants to learn to think like a 
computer scientist, so they don't.

> >(This is similar to a
> >problem a fellow named Papert had vis a vis the "learnability" of
> >Logo in the late 70's - early 80's....)

That's all for the moment. imho what's really needed is a glossary or 
dictionary to the natural language you gurus have developed over the last 
twenty years while Smalltalk has been developing.

Please keep up the good work.

Sincerely etc.
C. Sawtell.

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