Book readin’: Mindstorms

This isn’t a full set of coherent thoughts, but Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms detailing the why, how, and the why again of the creation of Logo is too much to try and fully digest before I sit down and process it.  So here’s my two-chapters-in mind dump.

I’ve known about Logo for a long time, but only recently had this book pointed out to me.  The biggest catalyst in reading this now were the repeated mentions of Mindstorms in and around Bret Victor’s critique on Khan Academy’s ProcessingJS-based programming lessons.  “For ****’s sake, read Mindstorms,” he proclaimed to the world in exasperation with us simple-minded proles.

So, I’m reading it.  And already two chapters in, wow, it’s really obvious that he’s read it too.

Remember “Kill Math“, Victor’s other major claim to edu-bloggery fame?  Right, it’s basically all here.

It feels like that scene from Good Will Hunting that I’m halfways remembering from watching the movie whatever-years ago, where the college student in the bar is trying to sound clever to the girl by talking high-sounding philosophy (history? whatever), and Matt Damon’s character shuts him down by pointing out exactly what books he’s stealing those ideas from and how exactly he’ll change his opinion next year when he reads XYZ in his next year’s courses instead.

Kill Math is like an iOS-age redesign of Papert’s arguments against “traditional, dead” mathematics.  Papert talks about how computer technology will allow us to create a “Mathworld” in which learning mathematics is learned naturally just as we naturally learn language today.  In Kill Math, we see Victor doing his best to design tools to make Papert’s vision a reality.

I’m writing most of this off the top of my head, so just to make sure I’m not crazy I went and actually looked back at Kill Math (it’s been a few months or a year or whatever).

From Kill Math, the introduction framing his entire page:

This mechanism of math evolved for a reason: it was the most efficient means of modeling quantitative systems given the constraints of pencil and paper.

From Mindstorms, an excerpt that forms a major theme of the first two chapters:

As I see it, a major factor that determined what mathematics went into school math had to do with what could be done in the setting of school classrooms with the primitive technology of pencil and paper.

Yeah okay, my memory is working okay.  You can see similar parallels crop up all over the place, especially in the role of technology to solve the problem.

So Kill Math is Victor’s answer to how to realize Papert’s vision of the future, and his programming design brainstorm is the parallel on how to teach programming (which is a close fit, seeing as how Papert’s Logo was meant to create an easy-to-use programming environment as a bridge to math, science, and the rest of life).

I still have a number of chapters to go, and reading Papert’s introductory chapters feel a lot like reading Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed – super-ideological, full of good stuff, but so strongly hyperbolic that you feel like you need to work through one paragraph at a time, pin it to the wall, negotiate with yourself on where this would actually make sense and when it would be complete insanity, and then move on to the next.  Still, there’s a strong sense that we should look critically at the gap between Papert’s promises of a technological Mathland and the reality of the last forty years and work out exactly why that gap is there.  Reading Papert and looking back at Victor’s new promises, it feels like Victor has totally failed to think critically about that gap and has simply assumed that no one else has tried to make it a reality and he’s here to bring the Holy Word back down from the mountain for us.

I’m more suspicious and I think that Papert’s ideology, though awesome, needs to be moderated by both where our tech-reality has gone so far and what we are actually capable of doing at this point to correct it.  And I have this feeling that, like Scratch and Alice in teaching programming, there’s a difference between making a good introductory tool, vs actually bridging that to everything useful to learn in the future, and that at some point a lot of that old-fashioned “algebraic thinking” still needs to come into play even in a computational world.

Wow, this feels like I’m being a total jerk.  Bret, if you ever read this, sorry.  You are doing awesome, interesting things, but you sound like someone who has not actually had to teach math to a room full of kids, and this is my defense mechanism vs hyperbole.  Seymour, if you ever read this, well, find my later post because I still have a bunch of chapters to go.

5 thoughts on “Book readin’: Mindstorms

  1. I finally read Mindstorms earlier this year, and found that Papert’s arguments slipped in to most of my conversations. It’s a real concern. 🙂

    That said, I think there’s a real Papert-ian response to your critique of Victor’s work. He probably “has not actually had to teach math to a room full of kids,” but sitting in a room full of other kids learning the same few topics is probably not the best way to LEARN math. Victor’s looking to build the “objects to think with,” tools that will respond to YOUR ideas and impulses. Trying to scale that up to 30 kids in a classroom misses the point.

    • And yet Papert’s own work, as far as I understand, was intended to be a part of creating a learning *environment*, ie. an adult-facilitated space where children would learn.

      The only difference between that and a “classroom”, in my mind, is a) the teacher:student ratio, b) how the teacher/facilitator chooses to run the class, and maybe c) curriculum requirements.

      Which raises more questions in my mind. Yes, Papert’s vision would work great with a small number of kids in this great learning environment supported by an adult. But can you imagine how much better even traditional techniques would be if it were a handful of kids per teacher?

  2. If you have questions about Papert’s evolving classroom vision, ask Gary Stager. Every night I hang out with him ends with these amazing (sometimes rambling) stories about their work in various “school” environments, including several years in a youth detention facility.

    You’re right that we see very traditional teaching methods are increasingly effective with smaller groups, which reaches the class-reinforcing apogee with private tutors. In my reading of Papert, and my teaching experience, class size issue isn’t the central issue. Some combination of your points b) and c) allows students to follow the topics that they find interesting, at the pace where they experience some success.
    The whole class / single subject version of these tools might look more like Dave Major / @ddmeyer ‘s experiments.

    • Yeah, Dave Major / @ddmeyer’s stuff is fantastic.

      I guess I should say, I think I agree with everything you’re saying, but none of that negates what I feel is missing in Bret Victor’s writing. I don’t get a sense that he’s ever worked with kids (other than possibly his own) to teach, well, anything. It feels like he’s approaching this as an outsider with a wealth of design and technical experience but without any serious experience or study of education itself other than reading Papert.

  3. I can agree with that. If I’m not mistaken, the “read mindstorms, dammit” line came from a lengthy takedown of KA programming tools, right? For what it’s worth, I think Sal Kahn’s teaching/pedagogy experience was the same as Victors, minus having read Mindstorms.

    It’s a fascinating place to start, but you’re right that it doesn’t lay a clear or accessible path from where most of teach everyday.

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