30 December 2020

Stories, logic, systems

Alan Kay of Apple Computer, when prompted to talk about science education in computers in 1995, wrote a statement: Powerful Ideas Need Love Too! in which he talked about three kinds of thinking:

it is the way most of the college students that NSF and I talked to had “learned science” — as isolated cases, stories that would be retrieved to deal with a similar situation, not as a system of inter related arguments about what we think we know and how well we think we know it. Story thinking won out. Claude Levi-Strauss and Seymour Papert have called this incremental isolated “natural” learning “bricolage” -— which means making something by “tinkering around.” This is one of the reasons that engineering predates science by thousands of years; some constructions can be accomplished gradually by trial and error without needing any grand explanations for why things work.

Yet if we look back over the last 400 years to ponder what ideas have caused the greatest changes in human society and have ushered in our modern era of democracy, science, technology and health care, it should be a bit of a shock to realize that none of these is in story form!

In order to be completely enfranchised in the 21st century, it will be very important for children to get fluent in the three central forms of thinking that are now in use: “stories,” “logical arguments,” and “systems dynamics.” The question is “how?”

To address how to teach these things — and how to teach an understanding of computers — he offers an analogy.

Suppose it were music that the nation is concerned about. Our parents are worried that their children won't succeed in life unless they are musicians. Our musical test scores are the lowest in the world. After much hue and cry, Congress comes up with a technological solution: "by the year 2000 we will put a piano in every classroom! But there are no funds to hire musicians, so we will retrain the existing teachers for two weeks every summer. That should solve the problem!" But we know that nothing much will happen here, because as any musician will tell you, the music is not in the piano--if it were we would have to let it vote! What music there is, is inside each and every one of us.

Now some things will happen with a piano in every classroom. The children will love to play around with it, and a "chopstick culture" is likely to develop. This is "piano by bricolage". Some will be encouraged by parents to take lessons, and a few rare children will decide to take matters into their own hands and find ways to learn the real thing without any official support. Other kinds of technologies, such as recordings, support the notion of "music appreciation." It seems to turn most away from listening, but a few exceptions may be drawn closer. The problem is that "music appreciation" is like the "appreciation" of "science" or "math" or "computers," it isn't the same as actually learning music, science, math, or computing!

He offers an alternative approach, which is a vigorous challenge to the way we develop computer systems even now, decades later. Check it out.

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