[Squeakland] the non universals

Alan Kay alan.kay at squeakland.org
Sat Aug 25 11:35:09 PDT 2007

Good question --

This is not really about Etoys but about what it takes to make use of 
a variety of perspectives on ideas in math, science (and elsewhere).

One of the big insights of Seymour Papert was that an incremental 
discrete form of differential equations that is extremely simple but 
computationally intensive would fit very well with the kinds of 
thinking that children can readily do. Babbage was one of the first 
who proposed that "these calculations should be executed by steam" 
because he realized that machinery could open up this way of looking 
at calculus.

Gauss upped the ante considerably by being one of several top 
mathematicians in the 19th century who moved geometry from a global 
to a local perspective. Papert realized that the child had this 
"coordinate system" of having all changes be relative to them 
wherever they were. And the additive form of DEs also applied here if 
you used vectors (and that vectors were a very good internal way to 
think about numbers).

Seymour proposed that you could use an interactive computer to make a 
"Mathland" in which a powerful mathematics could be situated as the 
way to talk about and cause phenomena of interest to a child (and 
most importantly to start building some ways to think about things in 
ways different than stories that would eventually constitute a new 
outlook on both thinking and phenomena).

So the key idea here is made of several important insights that 
include new ways to look at things, but also to make them happen. 
This last has partly to do with emotional payoff. For example, in the 
case of Galilean gravity it is possible to use something like 
Galileo's lute strings (see the afterword in BJ and Kim's book) or 
e.g. rolling a toy truck carrying a baggie filled with ink with a 
hole in it down an inclined plane to get the constant acceleration 
spacings that lead to the two stage incremental relations. This can 
all be done without a computer, but it is much more difficult to 
motivate the level of precision that we want the kids to employ, and 
to provide a vehicle for both checking their analysis (this is 
supposed to be science after all), and to make really fun things that 
now use the gravity model (like Lunar Lander, firing a cannon, shoot 
the alien, etc.). This is supposed to be fun after all.

Etoys is just one of a number of approaches done by people who got 
really interested in Seymour's insights (and Etoys itself is actually 
an amalgam of the ideas from many contributors outside of our 
immediate research group).

Right now, to get above threshold science and math, we need highly 
motivated teachers like BJ. But if the highly motivated teacher does 
not have an environment that situates the ideas and approaches (and 
curricula) then many (if not most) important things won't happen 
(except perhaps for a very few children).

An even rarer case is the highly motivated teacher who has a deep 
understanding of the subject and of the learners. For example, Julia 
Nishijima of the Open School (of whom I've written about elsewhere) 
showed what could be done with 6 year olds, and it is really 
impressive. Her curriculum was "almost perfect" in balance and depth. 
A small part of this curriculum used the computer (again for what 
only the computer could do as an "educational material").

If we look out in the world, in the US, Europe, Asia, and much wider, 
we do not find enough adults who can carry the powerful ideas of math 
and science and help children make them their own. This is especially 
acute wrt parents, because here we have a much better 
"student-teacher ratio" and we also have a great social environment 
for learning. Quite a bit of success in children learning to read has 
quite a bit of correlation with how parents deal with reading in the 
home. It would be great if this could be true for "real math" and 
"real science".

So utopian enterprises like OLPC really need to think about using the 
computer not just for an environment, but as a guide (something 
"better than no teacher and better than a bad teacher"). This is 
perhaps the most important and high stakes way to interpret "the 
computer as a dynamic book" (that is it could be a kind of book that 
can also teach people how to read and write it).

I think of this as one of the great and most important "Grand 
Challenges" for the 21st century.



At 11:08 AM 8/24/2007, subbukk wrote:
>On Friday 24 August 2007 4:19 am, Alan Kay wrote:
> > One example on the Squeakers DVD
> > showed 11 year old Tyrone explaining just how he worked out and
> > derived the actual differential equations of motion (in
> > intellectually honest and mathematical version that computers make
> > very practical).
>I read the Powerful Ideas book (over and over!) and watched Tyrone on video.
>What I couldn't factor out in this experiment is the extent of BJ's influence
>in the outcomes. She comes across as a person who helps kids "learn to
>learn". Such talented people are rare. Would'nt such people figure out a way
>to get the same outcome without Etoys? In what ways did Etoys amplify her
>teaching abilities?
>To take an extreme case - what if a child does not have access (or has rare
>access) to teachers? Would Etoys continue to nudge the kids along the right
>direction the same way?
>Regards .. Subbu
>Squeakland mailing list
>Squeakland at squeakland.org
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