[Squeakland] the non universals

Bill Kerr billkerr at gmail.com
Wed Aug 15 17:10:41 PDT 2007

hi David

This barrier is puzzling to me, as the key gatekeepers in education
> (teachers, head teachers, inspectors, government education
> departments) are products of the university system, which seems to me
> to exist to propagate and build on the hard ideas (greek math,
> relativity, quantum theory, sociology, musical harmony ... )
> ...

There seems to me a desire among educators to help as many children
> and young adults as possible make the leap from arithmetic to geometry
> and calculus, from literacy to literary analysis, or indeed from
> melody to harmony.    So where is the difficulty?  A lack of proven
> agreed teaching methods, a perception of elitism, or the competing
> desire we all feel to make sure everyone leaves school with basic
> literacy and numeracy?

I think some of the powerful ideas (eg. calculus) are  in the curriculum
statements but  most of the excitement (power) has been taken out of  them.


In part because these ideas are taught out of textbooks which are dry and
didactic and don't capture the earth shaking importance - how these ideas
have dramatically changed the world we live in. Now, you could argue that
some good teachers try to achieve this and I would *partly* agree, but ...

The powerful ideas are also presented alongside a multitude of other (not so
powerful) ideas in the curriculum as though all the ideas and subject
domains were equal and equivalent. eg. in South Australia all 7 curriculum
areas are treated as equal and equivalent and equal amounts of time are
devoted to each one. I could point to extreme examples here (Bushwalking is
equivalent to advanced maths for getting accreditation points at Year 11)
but the overall impact is what really matters. Every idea is treated as
equal to every other idea and in the process the importance of the powerful
ideas is lost

Alan described a similar sort of thing (the context was Doug Engelbart's
work) in 'The Early History of Smalltalk' as a tyranny of subgoals:

"Their larger metaphor of human-computer symbiosis helped the community
avoid making a religion of their subgoals and kept them focused on the
abstract holy grail of "augmentation."

Now what is the larger metaphor of education departments? It's much more
like "no child left behind" than "powerful ideas"

Curriculum committees in Schools are mainly turf wars where the heads of
various departments fight over their ongoing right for equal time -
irrespective of the power of their ideas - and computing is a latecomer to
this feast, normally subsumed into Technology, while efforts are made to
"integrate" it into all the curriculum areas, ie. non specialists who don't
understand the potential of the computer are given equal access to computer
labs. It doesn't work.

If Logo, Etoys and OLPC can teach calculus to 10-year-olds, and
> calculus is essential to every engineering craft, and teachers love
> encouraging students' creativity, why are so many schools teaching
> pupils to use word processors instead?

I've used logo in the classroom in powerful ways in the 90s, eg. emulating
some of the things described in Idit Harel's thesis, and have written up the

1) I was in a school which supported innovation, this is rare
2) Because of my interest I was given a room of old XT computers (some
didn't even have hard drives). I had exclusive use of those computers and
could setup an immersive environment because no one else in the school
wanted to use them, they were too old and broken
3) To understand how to teach it properly I needed to read Idit's PhD thesis
as well as Seymour's books, not many teachers are prepared to do things like
4) When I wrote up my results and sent them to the maths journal - that
students could learn fractions and much else without formal teaching of
fractions - my paper was rejected for publication,  the results  were not
impressive enough or some such feedback. The paper is here:
5) When I ran logo inservice for other teachers in the school then a core
group did come along regularly and the feedback was positive but of the 7 or
so teachers only one of them actually tried the ideas in their . I later
realised that most of the teachers were just taking the opportunity to rack
up some hours required to get a week off at the end of the school year.
6) Later when I tried to do similar things with different classes by
visiting a computer lab twice a week (ie. non immersive environment) it just
did not work in the same way, without the magic of ready access to the

Seymour Papert discusses the interaction between "the children's machine"
and School quite poetically in his writings, for example:

"The shift from a radically subversive instrument in the classroom to a
blunted conservative instrument in the computer lab came neither from lack
of knowledge nor from a lack of software. I explain it by an innate
intelligence of School, which acted like any living organism in defending
itself against a foreign body. It put into motion an immune reaction whose
end result would be to digest and assimilate the intruder. Progressive
teachers knew very well how to use the computer for their own ends as an
instrument of change. Schools knew very well how to nip this subversion in
the bud. No one in the story acted out of ignorance about computers,
although they might have been naive in failing to understand the
sociological drama in which they were actors."

Bill Kerr
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