Mindstorms: Minding the gap

Not sure if I’m going to get every idea on my list blogged following up my reading of Mindstorms, but here’s a quick one off the list.

There’s another problem with the samba school comparison that Papert makes that was bothering me … actually it bothered me well before reading that chapter, but the samba school model just served to give it clarity.

I found myself having a really hard time getting past the first half of the book – I would just stall out and set the book down for days, or a couple of weeks.  This isn’t unusual and it’s a tough read (especially those first chapters), but this was something else.  Finally I realized what was going on – I was sick of reading about this utopian vision that completely sidestepped discussion of systematic inequality in education.  If this Mathland was just going to make the rich get richer, I didn’t want any part of it.

Once I realized that was the problem, I could do a bit of hunting and answer that question for myself.  Did the MIT Media Lab people who were creating and working with LOGO care about making a positive difference towards equality?  While I didn’t do a lot of digging, it wasn’t hard to find evidence pointing to a giant YES.

This is good, but I’m still concerned.  There are just too many tech-utopian visions out there that don’t seem to give a rip about equality.  It’s not to say I’m faulting Papert for not addressing it in this particular book – maybe it’s out there in his later works, and he does mention the absence of a connection to feminism or multiculturalism in the 2nd edition foreward.

Still, when we look at the samba school comparison, we can see this problem yet again.  The samba schools described were social clubs with memberships, not public schools available equally to all.  There’s no discussion of fees for membership, but it seems safe to assume they weren’t freely available to all.  The samba school as an ideal requires parental buy-in for their children to be signed up and brought to the dance lessons.  This is all well and good in a world where samba is already culturally valued, but in a world where we’re fighting against a pervasive mathphobia and anti-intellectual attitude in North American culture as a whole, how is this going to help?  How is holding up this ideal going to do anything but make the gap worse?

Given what I know now about the Lifelong Kindergarten group, I think it’s likely that Papert and others running the LOGO environments had these questions in mind too.  They may even have invited students from low-income neighbourhoods into their LOGO sessions free of charge, I don’t know.  But I think they may be missing something fundamentally wrong in this extracurricular mindset.

Frankly I think the ideal is what I’m fortunate enough to do for a living right now.  I get to let kids explore computational thinking using Scratch as part of their Digital Media explorations class in a middle school.  Nearly every grade 6 and 7 student gets a chance to come through my classroom.  No elective, no opt-in, no needing to sign up after school, no competing with sports commitments, etc.  I don’t think this is a solution to everything Papert’s ideal Mathland was hoping to solve, but I think it’s a heck of a lot closer to making a difference than a sign-up samba school.  I may end up running some extra after-school stuff at some point, but right now I’m pretty happy knowing that every kid in the grade, no matter their interests or gender or economic status or race or family stability, is getting a chance to play with powerful ideas in my classroom.

Mindstorms: Destroying Mathland

In my last post I summed up some of the similarities between Papert’s ideal that he saw in the Brazilian samba schools and what his group was creating in their “Logo environments”.  Now it’s time to talk about the difference that he brings up – the relation to culture.

The samba school has rich connections with a popular culture. The knowledge being learned there is continuous with that culture. The LOGO environments are artificially maintained oases where people encounter knowledge … that has been separated from the mainstream of the surrounding culture, indeed which is even in opposition to values expressed in that surrounding culture.

The knowledge he’s speaking of is that of computation and mathematics.  This brings us full circle to what Papert wrote about at length in the opening chapters of the book – the contrast between an ideal Mathland, and the math-phobic Western culture of the 1970’s (and equally much of today).

Mathland, in Papert’s terms, is a social and technological environment in which children would learn mathematics as naturally as they learn language.  (I tried not to cringe too much when he wrote of children learning language “automatically”, as though parents and caregivers had nothing to do with it. But see my last post, I suppose.)  In Mathland, mathematics is something one can grasp and manipulate, play around with, do something creative with.

This wasn’t an entirely magical fantasy.  In their LOGO workshops, children were exploring concepts of number and geometry for their own purposes – to draw a certain picture, or to explore visual patterns.

What’s more, the personal computer was exploding into being on the market.  And for the most part every one of those computers was a gateway into computational thinking in the form of a blinking BASIC cursor.  (Which wasn’t Papert’s ideal – he thought BASIC was far inferior to LOGO for enabling computational exploration. But … well, I’m getting to that.)  This is huge.  At that time, every person’s first experience in personal computing was a command-line powered by an honest-to-goodness programming language.  Even kids who mostly just loaded games onto their C64 were likely to at least type 10 PRINT “HA HA I AM AWESOME”: 20 GOTO 10 at some point.  They may even have typed in some short programs or one-liners from the manual or from a magazine.  They knew that programming was there, waiting for them.

Mathland was seemingly within our grasp.  All that was missing was a culture willing to accept it.

So where is Mathland now?

Don’t need no math here. Go away.

Now we have a world of ubiquitous computing in which computational thinking is entirely optional.  Whereas personal computing used to put programming directly in people’s hands, modern GUI computing hides it from view.  Programming is viewed as esoteric and inaccessible to the layman – and frankly, most programming environments are a royal pain to even get started in.  The most common programming language used in education requires class structures and methods with wonky cryptic keywords just to print “Hello World!” to the screen.  Apple’s revolutionary new iThings have given us Star Trek style computing but have aggressively limited the ability to program their devices for the sake of their business model.  (They’re reluctantly easing these restrictions now. Sort of. I think.)

I’m not at all saying we should throw away the GUI, or that it’s evil (although it’s insane how mystical people’s view of the command-line has become).  The point is simply that business and usability concerns have driven computing in the opposite direction from Mathland.  Ubiquitous computing as we experience it today has done next to nothing to shift the popular culture towards computational thinking or away from its math phobia.

Back to Papert:

…at the same time as this massive penetration of the technology is taking place, there is a social movement afoot … an increasing disillusion with traditional education. …I believe that these two trends can come together in a way that would be good for children, for parents, and for learning.  This is through the construction of educationally powerful computational environments that will provide alternatives to traditional classrooms and traditional instruction.

Maybe they can.  And certainly this has happened on a small scale in small pockets: involved parents getting kids to use something like Scratch, an after-school club here and there, and the occasional classroom like mine.  But Papert seems to have set his hopes on a culture shift towards Mathland, a shift driven by the effects of this new wave of technology.  If we’re going to build on his ideals, we need to own up to the fact that technology alone isn’t going to make that happen.

Mindstorms: Talking about tools, forgetting about people

I’ve finished reading Mindstorms, and bleargh there’s a lot to say. I’m going to try and plow through a small series of blog posts to get some mental closure on this one, so consider this part 1 of howevermany.

Let’s start from the ending. The final chapter of this book is probably where it should have started (as Papert mentions in the 2nd ed introduction).

In it, Papert writes of “Images of the Learning Society”, his vision for where the future should go.  It’s a hazy vision, high on hopes and short on details or driving forces.  Helpfully, Papert admits that he does *not* see his “Logo environments” as the be-all-end-all solution for anything, but just an early prototype of the sort of things that would make the world a more learning-friendly place.

His key analogy is that of a Brazilian “samba school” as he observed when visiting Brazil one summer.  What he saw there was a social environment with both experts and novices of all ages, from children to grandparents.  People would come “to dance, to drink, to meet their friends”.  However these were social clubs with memberships, with specific choreographed dances they were learning, and everyone is trying to learn a part.  The culmination of their learning was a street procession at carnival where every dance troop would perform their piece.

The samba schools would include times when expert teachers would gather children together, teach them a specific routine or part, and then 20 min later the group would dissolve again into the general hum and activity of the crowd.

The ideals that Papert sees here include some connections to his “Logo environments” of his then-new research.  They are highly social.  Both experts and novices are learning and participating together.  Experts facilitate and help students, but have no set curriculum in his Logo environments.  (Arguably, that’s *not* true of the samba schools – they have a routine they are all attempting to learn together. But it’s driven by the needs of the project, not the needs of a preset list of skills to master.)

Now, let’s stop a second and try to process why this is giving me a headache.

What I’ve written above is a barely summarized version of what is the best description of how these “Logo environments” were *actually run*.  Like, this is all we’re told.  Nowhere in this book does it tell us where these kids come from, how many kids are in the room, how long they’re there for, or what the instructor / facilitators actually DO.  We don’t know if this is a drop-in activity for kids in the area, or if they come from a local school, or if parents have to sign them up in advance.

There are plenty of anecdotes about the student experiences and the sorts of things they do in Logo.  But basically zero of these anecdotes include teacher interaction or any other context of what this “Logo environment” actually is.  They all have a myopic focus on student-computer interaction, with the occasional peer discussion.

And keep in mind this second-hand description, given only in comparison to something else, is at the end of the freaking book.  I think he meant it as a strong conclusion, but it could just as easily be read as an afterthought.  The book makes references to “Logo environments” all along the way without actually describing the environments at all.

Now let’s connect this with where I’m at.

Right now I quite-nearly get to live out exactly what Papert is writing about.  (I am freaking spoiled, it’s wonderful.)  I’m teaching Digital Media Explorations at a middle school and have been basing a large part of my course work in Scratch.  So kids are making highly visual and engaging animations, games, etc and actually scripting their own code.  There is nearly zero set-in-stone curriculum in terms of skills – I’ve set some targets for myself of things I’d like all the kids introduced to, but primarily I’m getting to reward them for trying out new techniques without having to worry about everyone mastering a specific skill set.

So, speaking from inside, let me just say a few things we need to remember.

People matter. Pedagogy matters. Classroom structure matters. The physical environment matters.

There is nothing stopping me from completely wrecking kids’ curiosity and imaginations while they work with Scratch.  I could wreck this no matter how good the tool is.

And there is nothing stopping me from taking the same creative approach to learning into a classroom with no computer technology at all, if someone would budget the time and space to do so.

I’m also signed up for the MIT Media Lab’s “Learning Creative Learning” MOOC, although to be honest I’ve just cherry-picked bits so far to see how their vision compares to Papert’s views from thirty years ago.  The same thing comes up – focusing on the tools with little emphasis on the social aspects of the learning environment.

If we are to truly learn from the early Logo environments, we need to talk about the whole environment.  We can’t discuss and understand educational tools as separate from the social environment they operate in.  If we do, we will fail to understand how to use the tools properly, and we lose the opportunity to critique and learn from those environments that worked.

I’ll stop there, and next post I’ll go into the contrasts Papert makes between the samba schools and his Logo environments and how those contrasts have already killed Mathland.

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.

Why school itself undermines the message of life-long learning

One of the goals of good teaching that I’ve seen floating around over the last year or three is the concept of “life-long learning”.  The idea is to enable or train students to continue learning new skills and adapting to our wacky, changing world beyond high school.  This seems pretty hard to argue.

What I haven’t seen, however, is a serious look at just how effectively we destroy this in students.

I don’t think I really get it myself. But in the process of growing as a teacher, I’ve had chances to think back to my own key moments as a student.  Events that shaped my own beliefs in learning and what came later in life that had to tear those beliefs down and rebuild.

Here’s an obvious one for a starter, one which I’m sure teachers have heard before: students define their set of “things I’m good at” by the grades you give them.  It took me forever to realize that hey, I am actually capable of being an artist even though I got a C when I tried something unusual for an art assignment back in Grade 2.  (No joke.)

Okay, there’s the warm-up.  Here’s the bigger one that took me until now to see.

We are constantly telling students that they need to learn everything important for their life within the timeframe of K-12, and possibly university.

We tell them this every time we pressure them to be ready for university.

We tell them this every time we panic on their behalf at the idea of graduating a year late.

We tell them this every time we impress on them how important it is to choose the right college program.

Whenever a student asks, “Why do I have to learn this?” we never, ever answer back “Oh, well if you don’t learn it now you’ll pick it up later when you need to.”  Our system doesn’t let us, but even if it did I suspect we’d never let ourselves.

We tell them this by streaming.  (You didn’t get this now, so you’ll live a life where this isn’t important.)

We tell them this by setting them up in competition with each other.  This one’s got an anecdote, a truly bizarre one: I tried taking piano lessons when I was in grade 4.  I was mediocre at practicing, and when my first recital came up I was grouped with a bunch of other kids my age, nearly all of whom had been playing piano for the last four years.  I felt like a doof, and quit.  It took me until my 30’s to actually pick up music again despite the fact that oh my gosh, I love music.  I really and honestly believed at that point that if you were ever going to be good at something, you had to have started it from age 5 or it was too late.  I thought nine years old was too late to bother learning something.

This overlaps so much with the more obvious, or more general problem of setting up low self-efficacy in students that I’m not sure if it’s drowning my point or not.  It’s not just that we tell kids, “You can’t do this.”  It’s that we tell them, “If you can’t do this now, then you can’t do this ever.”

I don’t know of any solutions to this other than to keep learning.  Find something you thought you were bad at and try it, fail horribly and keep trying.  Let students know you love more than just math class, that you’re taking guitar lessons for the first time, that you’re having fun studying something you missed in high school.

Imagination and three-act lessons

Yesterday I had a good time at a pro-D workshop on Imaginative Education, led by one of the research profs from the Imaginative Education Research Group. I thought I ought to write it up because there’s a lot of good overlap between work I’ve seen by other math teachers online, and some cross-pollination of ideas might be helpful for everyone.

The tl;dr version of imaginative ed: think about students as imaginative people and hook their imagination using tools that fit the way their imaginations work at their age level.

The specifics are pretty helpful, separating layers of how we perceive the world roughly in parallel to how language use develops – going from purely sensory, to oral storytelling and mythic forms, and then onto “romantic” (ie. heroic) structures as reading develops.  A more complete introduction is found here, and actually has a wider scope than what we covered yesterday (we didn’t talk about “philosophic” or “ironic” use).

One bit that was emphasized is how none of this was meant to detract from content, or replace meaningful learning with “finger-painting”.  Rather it’s meant to frame students’ learning in a context where they’re using their imaginations and emotionally engaged.

An example of this is to look for mythic qualities and “binary opposites” in what you’re teaching and emphasize those in how you describe the bit-of-content to students.  Obvious ones are good/evil, survival/death, etc, but there was a long list to draw from.  One example presented was describing the air to primary students and choosing to emphasize “empty / full” opposites – the air appears empty, but isn’t it fascinating how if we shone a flashlight in it we’d see all kinds of dust?  And did you know that dust is 80% dead skin cells, so breathe it in and get to know your neighbours a little better!  (EWWWW) etc.

Later as students are more in a “romantic” mindset, emphasizing heroic qualities in what you’re presenting is the key concept, but again the focus is using an emotional, imaginative hook to kick students’ imaginations into gear.

One obvious parallel I saw here was the three-act lesson format that Dan Meyer is promoting.  At first the mental connection was just the overlap of talk about story and narrative, but I started seeing something deeper.  Dan’s first act is about creating a tension that the student wants to see resolved, following the traditional three-act structure for narrative.  In a similar way, a three-act lesson engages students curiosity with a natural question – and importantly, it encourages them to “make a guess” as to how it plays out.

How does someone make a guess?  They have to imagine what happens next.

Seems to me that those interested in applying IE to math would do well to see what Dan Meyer’s up to.  And those looking for some big-idea theory to situate three-act lessons in, or further tools for creating a good first act, or inspired by three-acts but working outside of math/science, might want to check out the resources from the IERG.