[Squeakland] Panel discussion: Can the American Mind be Opened?
alan.kay at vpri.org
Wed Nov 21 16:23:26 PST 2007
Hi David --
I think "constructivism" (like "object-oriented") has been so
appropriated and redefined as to be a useless term today (I certainly
don't know what it means -- and am not sure I ever did).
I think it's much better to simply try to puzzle out the nature of
the desired learning, and then to find workable pathways for the
different kinds of learners. This has been done quite well in
(admittedly simpler) areas like sports and music, where the learner
has the distinct advantage of being able to watch practitioners and
gain some idea of what the subject area is all about and what might
be fun and rewarding about it.
Two of the biggest barriers to math and science learner are (a) the
prospective learner has very little idea what the activities actually
are (though they still might think they could be "cool" because of
"rocket ships", etc.), and (b) there are so few real practitioners
around (available) to help give them a sense of how to get started.
Schools (and many adults) introduce another barrier, which is a
profound misunderstanding of what it means to be fluent in math and
science (the misunderstanding is usually in the form of thinking that
math and science are fact and pattern based, and that learning the
facts and the patterns is what is required). I've used the " 'music
appreciation' instead of 'music' " analogy for this misunderstanding.
Once we get some sense of what "the doing of math and science" is all
about, the main question remaining is "for learners, what is the best
balance between doing and being advised that should be set up?". This
is pretty well understood for sports and music for both children and
adults. As Tim Gallwey once said about teaching tennis: "the main
problem with traditional tennis teaching is that the parts of your
mind that learn to play tennis don't understand English!" (Of course
he meant that a little English goes a long way, and a lot of English
simply can't be translated into tennis action.)
It is almost certainly the case that different subject matters (and
different learners) can tolerate more or less of direct instruction
in English, so it is worthwhile to get a rough assessment of this
when trying to invent a curriculum. However, I don't think it is
controversial to state that learning to play music or tennis is
really about lots of actual guided and coached (and uncoached) doing
of the activities. Most mathematicians would agree about math
learning, and most scientists would agree about science learning.
If we look at human history, we can see that "pure discovery"
learning by children or adults usually results in weak ideas. On the
other hand, rote learning usually doesn't work very well for any
subject that has some art to it. (Playing lots of scales or
memorizing chord progressions does not a musician make.)
So there has to be discovery and creativity of a sort, and this is
done by good teachers and writers as a kind of "guided discovery"
(sometimes by great environmental design as in classic Montessori
education). Perhaps the most wonderful thing about human learning is
that something that required a genius to invent or discover (like
calculus) can very often be learned by non-geniuses if given help.
One of the best accomplishments of the Etoys work over the years (and
reaching back to Seymour) is that, while no 10 year old has ever
invented calculus, we now know how to help most 10 year olds get
fluent in a number of the most important ideas in calculus. This is
I think science is the most difficult of the "new thinking" to teach
and learn because it is the farthest from normal commonsense
perception and thinking. It is also the most critical of human reason
because the nice crisp logic of math is only approximately mapped to
considerations of the actual universe (it doesn't have to work like
our current math or brains). So just what "doing science" should mean
for children is not nearly as clear as for sports, music or math. I
think that the "Galilean Gravity" project that is done so well by 5th
graders is an excellent example of one of the "real science"
activities children should be doing. But I would be surprised if it
and projects like it are comprehensive enough to cover all that is
needed. Part of the internalizing of the epistemology of science
seems to come from so many examples from so many parts of science
that show "the world is not as it seems", but also allow some pretty
powerful generalizations to be drawn about many of the non-intuitive
workings of the universe.
One of the paradoxes about many kinds of learning is that you can
learn a lot about a subject by reading after you have learned the
subject pretty well by lots of doing. But the subjects we've been
discussing are not often (if ever) learned above threshold without
lots of doing to provide a foundation of deep understanding for later
listening and reading.
At 09:32 AM 11/21/2007, David Corking wrote:
> > Re: attempts with constructivism
> > I hope you're right. I have heard criticisms of constructivism, based on
> > anecdotes, but I've always wondered whether what's been evaluated is
> > actually constructivism or just some group's ideological interpretation of
> > it (the group that says they're implementing the pedagogy, that is). I
> > haven't studied it in detail, but the ideas behind it, as presented by Kay,
> > make sense to me.
>I think it is worth studying in detail, but I am not sure where to
>start. First I think we need to learn to distinguish among
>1. constructivism the psychological hypothesis - as proposed by Piaget
>as I understand
>2. constructivism the pedagogy
>3. constructionism - another pedagogy - and a word coined by Seymour
>Papert. Note the 3rd syllable.
>(There is also constructivism the epistemology, which I can't even
>spell, that also originates with Piaget.)
>I recently read this unsympathetic 2003 article on the US history of
>constructivist pedagogy in maths
>But it is largely anecdotal (which is fine for a historian, but not
>when we are responsible for the education of the next generation.)
>However, beyond such material, I get thoroughly confused by an
>inability to distinguish proven knowledge, accepted wisdom, and pure
>pseudo-science. It seems that a lot of educational research is done
>by anecdote rather than by controlled blind large group studies. Any
>pointers to the good stuff? Or tips to help a natural scientist to
>understand the research methods of the social sciences?
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