[Squeakland] Panel discussion: Can the American Mind be Opened?

Alan Kay alan.kay at vpri.org
Fri Nov 23 18:22:02 PST 2007

Hi David --

At 05:29 PM 11/23/2007, David Corking wrote:
>It was not my intention earlier in this thread to challenge the work
>of Viewpoints.

I certainly didn't take it that way - in part because we claim almost 
nothing. What we have been interested in is whether 90% of the 
children we've worked with -- taught by a teacher, not by us -- gain 
real fluency in what we are trying to teach them. We found that it 
took 3 years to introduce each new curriculum element (as described 
in my last post).

>Instead I wanted to get a foothold into understanding
>how the powerful 'progressive' and 'back to basics' movements could be
>rationally compared with alternatives.

I disagree with the simplistic versions of both of these. If 
"progressive" means what it meant long ago - "Dewey education" - then 
I am very much in favor of what he was trying to do and what he wrote 
about. If "back to basics" means "Bennet or E.D. Hirsh", then I'm 
very much in disagreement with what they are trying to do, and their 
general view of "education".

Subjects like real math and real science, with a goal to help 
children get fluent, are best assessed by real mathematicians and 
real scientists. Separate issues are: what parts of the real stuff 
should be taught to children, how should the teaching be done, etc. 
This is very important in its own right - recall the very bad choices 
made by real mathematicians when they chose set theory, numerals as 
short-hand for polynomials, etc. during the "new math" debacle. This 
is why Seymour Papert was so impressive -- he was that rarity, a 
first class mathematician who both cared about and understood 
important principles of how children think. He chose real math that 
was both deep and in rhythm with how children think about relationships.

>Thank you for taking my question as a provocation

I didn't

>  - it is very
>illuminating to read the work of Rose, Kay et al justified from this
>I need to confess now that I have read 'Mindstorms' but not yet
>'Powerful Ideas' - does the book address whether or not there is a
>'Hawthorne effect' in the trials?

"Powerful Ideas" is written to help teachers teach a dozen or so 
projects in real math and real science, using Etoys. It makes no 
claims and leaves a tiny bit of philosophy to the Afterword. 

>  In other words, could simply the
>intensive attention of all involved, coupled with the novelty,
>willingness to persevere for the second and third year, and the
>involvement of real subject matter experts, have been sufficient in
>itself to produce a fluency result that is well above acceptable

Schools should be all about the Hawthorne Effect. The ones that 
aren't should be closed.

I think you misunderstood one part of my description of the process. 
The 3 years is with the same teacher but with three different groups 
of children. Each group deals with the materials and process for the 
same amount of time.

The other part of your question wasn't asked or answered by what we 
did (since we wanted the children to express the math and science 
they learned in terms of working Etoy models). That's what we tried 
to do, and that's what we assessed.

If the "it takes 3 years" story seems reasonable to you, then imagine 
what it would take to do a real longitudinal transfer experiment 
using control groups (about 7 years). We have never been able to find 
a funder that is willing to fund what it really takes.

>  Is it provable(*) that the student creation of computer
>models, for example, is a necessary condition of learning 'real math'

It's provable that it isn't (people have been learning "real math 
fluency" for thousands of years without computers). The important 
thing (Papert again) is what math and when? Computers make a huge 
difference here for pretty much everyone. Also, see the Afterword in 
the book for what science learning is really about (hint: computers 
are not at all required, but they allow more rich choices in the 
world of the child).

I've used many analogies to music in the past. You don't need musical 
instruments to teach music, they just help (and in no small part 
because there are lots of different kinds). A child who is not that 
interesting in singing might be very interested in learning the 
guitar, one that is not interested in guitar might be interested in a 
sax, etc. Different learners need lots of different entry points. 
Computers can provide many different entry points, and can be the 
medium for the kinds of mathematics that science uses. A pretty good 

>* By 'provable', I mean: "could a future experiment be designed to
>prove my assertion, or, even better, could a reasoned argument prove
>my assertion?"

No. But something might be done with a goal of more than 90% fluency 
-- computers could almost be indispensable here ...

>Further, but perhaps drifting off topic for squeakland, is it provable
>that 'back to basics' and 'progressivism' are equally as inadequate?

I said above that the simplistic versions of both are quite 
wrongheaded in my opinion. If you don't understand mathematics, then 
it doesn't matter what your educational persuasion might be -- the 
odds are greatly in favor that it will be quite misinterpreted.

>Or is the poor performance of public education in  some countries a
>consequence, not of the learning theory nor curriculum, but caused by
>the 'received wisdom' not being applied properly, or even some
>external factors, such as low resources, attitudes to authority, or
>the currently fashionable complaint of students' learning styles not
>being catered for?

If you like multiple choice tests, then (e) all of the above.




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