Monday, October 30, 2006

catholics storm school heaven

Fascinating vodcast interview of Greg Whitby, executive director of Catholic Education in the Parramatta diocese, by Leigh Blackall, about:
A 24-hour school with no traditional classrooms and where students use mobile phones and laptops to learn is being built in Sydney ... The school will be referred to as a "learning community" and teachers will be known as "learning advisers" ... They can also have access to their work and lesson material at any time on the internet. Staff will provide online tutorials from 8pm to 10pm...Technology would be a major focus of the school that will boast a "meshed wireless environment" ... "It will be an e-learning environment using m-learning [mobile technology] tools." This could mean a student might be sitting in the playground carrying out school work via a mobile phone. Laptop computers will be another learning tool ...The traditional lesson timetable, where students might move from maths to science to English class, will be overhauled. There will be integrated lessons where students will still learn according to NSW Board of Studies guidelines, but may be taught in mixed age groups...
- quotes from evolution of schools, Sydney Morning Herald article
Here are some quick notes I took from the vodcast interview:
  • kids today learn differently
  • the mass production model does not work
  • how can we improve the learning outcomes for every child
  • create a different built environment, open spaces
  • it doesn't look like a school, no classrooms
  • engage staff in the learning journey
  • learning 24/7
  • "learning advisors", not teachers
  • all teachers are team members
  • kids negotiate their learning
  • no traditional timetable
  • free up the working life of staff
  • current models of teaching enslave teachers
  • currently we ring a bell and tell staff when to eat
  • staff need to demonstrate they have improved learning outcomes rather than mechanically put in hours
  • recognise staff as professionals who can make intelligent decisions ... this has been missing for so long
  • the traditional schooling process deskills teachers

My initial thoughts:

Futures: Is this a first? Has anyone else tried this? This is a great initiative! How interesting that catholics schools are the first to try this!
Technical: The meshed wireless environment is a leaf out of the 120 dollar laptop idea
Built environment: It would be nice to teach in a school that does not look like a gaol or a brick shithouse
Language: school will be referred to as a "learning community" and teachers will be known as "learning advisers" - this is specious brave new world freedom talk, which hopefully won't turn into a substitute for the real thing
Freedom: Former slaves find it hard to deal with freedom, lots of issues will arise, some teachers and students will be seen by some to go "too far" or "too fast". What will be the attitude to taking risks? There is a strong culture of risk avoidance in our society. How will they be dealt with, what development / growth model will be in place, how will leadership be exercised?
Assessment: Learning outcomes will still be tied to NSW Board of Studies guidelines, this will prove to be a major sticking point, the more progressive teachers will want to review and alter this. In a negotiated curriculum without tradional subject areas all sorts of hard to measure learning will be occuring. It will often not be detected through traditional assessment measurement. This will create pressure to role back innovation.

TALO discussion link
I particularly liked the contributions from Teemu Leinonen to this discussion.
(a) in rebutting the web2.0 hype and other jargon:
"Of course it is great if people see the light under the brand of "web 2.0", but still, we should more think about the process of learning and less the tools and the widgets used in it.

And if we do we may actually find out that we still need "teachers" who are committed to help the development of their students, "group" that are creating culture and maybe even "schools" that will be the places for all this. :-) "

(b) and his critique of the 24/7 school:
"Probably it is not a surprise for anyone that I also do not find the 24/7 school necessary that good idea at all.

I think the model of the school is totally based on a modern corporate culture where the company claims to own all their employees time: here is a laptop and a phone for us to reach you any moment we may need you. We expect that you are there always for us. BTW if you have a dog why don't you take it with you in your office - this way you are not spending too much time in woods with so bad network connection.

The hidden curriculum is not too hidden, at all. The school will train perfect corporate robots. Is this what schools are for?"

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Nietzsche on starbucks

arti contrasted the artistry of Starbuck's Five Principles for Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary, with the over earnest New Zealand draft curriculum competencies. Starbuck's principles are:
  1. Make it your own
  2. Everything matters
  3. Surprise and delight
  4. Embrace resistance
  5. Leave your mark
Sigh. What is the world coming to if you are not even allowed to be in a grumpy mood anymore when drinking coffee? But a bit of research (preserving starbucks ) led to the discovery that their current big challenge is finding enough people with the surprise and delight while embracing resistance and turning serving coffee into an art form ethos, to fuel their ongoing success.

I can see a market niche for an alternative, Nietzschian Abyss spot, for existential angsty types who are disillusioned by this frenetic race to surf the steam cream . My alternative slogans:
  1. All of life is a dispute over taste and tasting.
  2. Starbucks gave Eros coffee to drink; he did not die of it but degenerated into vice.
  3. Success has always been a great liar.
  4. If this coffee does not kill you, we can make it stronger
  5. The irrationality of Starbucks is no argument against its existence, rather a condition of it.
  6. A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.

africa map game

I've finished (with help) a playable prototype of an african map game with all countries and five levels of difficulty!

This was done as an "eat your own dogfood" experiment in collaboration on a wiki. It took longer than expected but, hey, there are a lot of countries in Africa, 55 to be precise! There was a lot of fiddling around to do, getting their positions and names in the right spots.

To play it you will need Game Maker 6, free download from
Please post critical feedback and suggestions for further improvement, either email to me or post to the wiki

I'll be trialling it with African students in my school, next week and asking them for further ideas. Also the SOSE faculty has expressed interest.

Still planning to go ahead and make further games about africa, so join the wiki if you want to be involved.


Thursday, October 26, 2006

immersion plus

I wrote about immersion in July:
Another argument used for not learning computing is that the Department should provide inservice time for teachers to learn these new things. The reality however is that only IMMERSION works and no Department can ever provide that. The desire to master computers must come from within.
A recent response from Tony has made me think more about immersion, what it is and whether it alone is sufficient.

I still like the Marshall McLuhan quote, "I don't know who discovered water but it wasn't a fish" - that some things seem effortless in certain environments - but have come to think that it doesn't tell us all we need to know about learning. It is too clever. Immersion is essential for learning, but not enough.

The immersion approach, to say, learning a language is to immerse yourself in the language. To learn French, go and live in France. Failing that, in the wikipedia description of language immersion:
  • In total immersion, almost one hundred percent of class time is spent in the foreign language ...
  • In two-way immersion, at least half of the class time is spent learning subject matter in the second language ...
Seymour Papert had this idea of creating a MathLand using computers and logo where learning maths would become as natural as learning French by living in France. Immersion works. Although Papert didn't succeed in his goal (logo is used less now in schools than it used to be) I still think his idea could have worked if it had been implemented as he had intended. I claim to be a teacher who did use logo as intended and believe I had tremendous success with it (ISDP article). But persuading other teachers or educational systems to go down this path was far more difficult.

I just said, immersion works. But immersion doesn't always work. I've spent time working in factories and knew workers there who had lived in Australia for 20 years and who still spoke poor English. I've seen chess players who play far more regularly than I do and yet their game does not improve much. In both cases the people involved did not participate in effortful study, they did not grasp the importance of deliberate practice in acquiring expertise. Just putting in more hours (immersion) is not the same as effortful study with clear goals to improve ones understanding.

Immersion works provided it is combined with effortful study. I attempted to resolve the contradiction between constructivist learning and guided experiential learning here

In reality people immerse themselves in all sorts of things - yoga, TV, reading, blogs, logo, game making, game playing. But the learning outcomes vary quite a lot, depending on whether there is some intrinsic, self directed learning activity going on in all of this

Harel and Papert (1990) argue that some materials are better with regard to the following criteria:
  • appropriability (some things lend themselves better than others to being made one's own)
  • evocativeness (some materials are more apt than others to precipitate personal thought)
  • integration (some materials are better carriers of multiple meaning and multiple concepts)
I love the power of the combination of these three concepts (appropriability, evocativeness, integration) and how the authors link them to technology. So, the learning materials and the learning environment created by the teacher are vitally important! Some situations are more likely to lead to immersion combined with effortful study than others! This turns pedagogy, the art of teaching, into an art form. It is certainly not simple to create rich learning environments.

Tony also connected immersion to situatedness in his comment:
Only immersion works but we can try to provide immersive PD for teachers. We should try to provide the same kinds of situated, relevant and authentic learning in teacher PD as we are trying to provide for kids.
My understanding of situated learning is that it also involves elements that are culturally significant to the learners. eg. an example from Lave is teaching weight watchers fractions in the kitchen. So, situatedness means relevance, which is likely to increase motivation, which is like to lead to immersion and effortful study.

I'm cherry picking from different learning theories here (constructionism, guided experiential learning, situatedness) but it feels like the right way to go, for now. If the combination leads the learner in the direction of immersion combined with effortful study then that is very likely to end up in good learning.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

freedom schools

cj on arti's blog, in a discussion about NZ curriculum:
...there is enuff evidence about at present to be exploring, at the very least, different ways of doing schooling which just happens to be a particular interest/passion of mine and quite a lot of other folk scattered about the planet. Not of the burn the schools/sack the teachers kind but given the inability of all these big machines to control much at all (big machines like curriculum, accountability etc) what is possible in the cracks, the nooks, the spots they can't control or get at? In my limited experience, quite a lot
Following on from political upsurge in the 60s there was a flourishing of alternative "freedom" Schools, with names like Summerhill (AS Neill)

Following on from the two way web upsurge in the 00s will there be a flourishing of alternative online "freedom" schools - given that traditional schools are increasingly blocking these freedoms?

Why not?

There would seem to be developing a political constituency which is ready and willing to exercise closely related freedoms, for example, The Pirate Party , in Sweden

If these conditions exist already or are about to come into existence:
  • parents who would willingly send their students to such a school
  • students who would want to attend such a school
  • teachers who would want to teach in such a school
  • technology which would support the online aims of such a school
  • the political will to make such a school happen
  • the economic knowledge that would make such a school viable
If these things exist, then won't it happen, sooner or later, preferably sooner? Because people such as us whose numbers are growing daily will decide to make it happen. Because the stifling old fashionedness of traditional school will become unbearable to those who have tasted freedom

It just needs a bit of fleshing out

Saturday, October 21, 2006

amazing javascript

amazing and very cool trick with javascript from
  1. Go to a page with lots of images on it, eg. any google images page
  2. Paste the following javascript into your address bar
  3. be amazed and delighted
javascript:R=0; x1=.1; y1=.05; x2=.25; y2=.24; x3=1.6; y3=.24; x4=300; y4=200; x5=300; y5=200; DI=document.getElementsByTagName("img"); DIL=DI.length; function A(){for(i=0; i-DIL; i++){DIS=DI[ i ].style; DIS.position='absolute'; DIS.left=(Math.sin(R*x1+i*x2+x3)*x4+x5)+"px";*y1+i*y2+y3)*y4+y5)+"px"}R++}setInterval('A()',5); void(0);

There are comments at explaining how to slow it down (which I tried and it works) and how to write is as a function too, but I haven't tried that one yet.

I think this is a nice introduction to the power of javascript

Sunday, October 15, 2006

breakthrough innovation

"... breakthroughs help define our species - without them, we get boredom and mediocrity and low expectations for the future ..."
Crisis, threat, survival, fear, fun, embarrasment, nonsense, risk

It mightn't always be comfortable but at these times we know we are alive and often we are creative in response to the challenge

Government will never be at the cutting edge of innovation because it is always trying to regulate or eliminate crisis, threat, survival, fear, fun, embarrasment, nonsense and risk

Government schools are one of the worst institutions for doing this and hence one of the least creative, despite the best efforts of many teachers (not all) who try to be creative and innovative

"Space Ship One, Government Zero"

I love this description of breakthrough innovation by Ethan Zuckerman based on a presentation by Bert Rutan, the inventor of the suborbital rocket plane SpaceShipOne:
Rutan’s focus in this talk is the environment that allows for breakthrough innovation. He argues that breakthroughs help define our species - without them, we get boredom and mediocrity and low expectations for the future. Breakthroughs come from crisis, he believes - a real or percieved threat. Breakthrough innovators are trying to survive (as we might innovate around global warming), to respond to the embarrasment of perceived defeat (the Apollo space program)… or because there’s nothing quite as much fun as having a breakthrough! He believes we’re creative when we’re scared - “we went to the Moon in bad times”, the height of the Cold War and racial tension within the US.

Breakthroughs require confidence in nonsense, and accepting risks that others might not consider acceptable. You get breakthroughs, Rutan believes, by accident when you’re doing something else. We know you can’t get breakthroughs through massive funding - the goal of the space shuttle program was low cost space access, and in those terms, it was an absolutely terrible failure.
Ethan's comment at the end is great too:
Frankly, I could care less about going into sub-orbital space - if it becomes cheap and safe enough, I can imagine doing it, but it’s not even remotely a priority for me, something I’d need to do before I die. But much faster, cheaper, more accessible air travel is something that would revolutionize the problems I work on, making it far easier for people in different nations to actually see how each other live. To me, at least, that’s a much more interesting problem to solve than making it possible for me to float in space for a few minutes… But hey, that’s why people work on different problems and in different fields
Can do attitude plus social awareness is a great combination.

the future of games and film

"... a medium somewhere between game and film that hasn’t emerged yet"

interesting thoughts about the future of games and film from John Gaeta, who won an Academy Award for his visual effects work in the Matrix movie:
Gaeta is deeply interested in the game industry, which he describes as being in a stage like TV in the 1950s, or film in its first twenty years. “There’s been no ‘Citizen Kane’ in the game industry yet,” which means there’s a long way to go yet.

He observes that Peter Jackson has recently announced that he’ll be producing the Halo movie… an indicator of the idea that films from games may be about to get much more serious. He announced that he plans to “turn his attention to a new medium” - a medium somewhere between game and film that hasn’t emerged yet. Gaeta believes that he’s digging in the right place, that new media will draw in creatives from both film and games.

Asked to speculate more on the future of games and flim, he speculates that the tension between narrative and interactivity will lead towards new art forms emerging. Films are passive narrative - a sculture of sorts - with no rhythym or repetition. Interactive media are all about immersiveness, which often involves reliving the same situations over and over again. Both film and games lay out universes, but games give you a narrative experience without detracting from play. This may lead to a future medium which still has dramatic parts, created by directors and actors, but also spaces - worlds - that can be explored at your leisure… or which can change and reform behind the dramatic scene.
I wonder if it would be possible to experiment with a low tech approach to this idea - by combining movie like AI effects with game play effects?

Saturday, October 14, 2006

North Korea has the bomb but little night life

I support the efforts of those working against North Korea and Al-Quaeda combining to put us back into the dark ages

noel pearson

I heard Noel Pearson (Australian aboriginal leader) speak a few years ago and was very impressed by both the insights of his presentation and his powerful oratory

Pearson is the Director of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership. You can find his articles here. What follows is a brief summary of one of these articles, his Charles Perkins Memorial Oration, On the human right to misery, mass incarceration and early death (October 2001). Read the whole thing.

Pearson identifies the main problems of the aboriginal people as substance abuse and dependency on passive welfare.

This says a lot and risks a lot. These are problems that need to be solved by aboriginal people so he is immediately rejecting victim mentality. It is far better to deal with your own problems than to complain about how enormous they are in such a way as to abandon hope of a positive change for the better

He doesn't reject or dismiss the importance other problems (racism, dispossession and trauma) but he does distinguish clearly betweeen the current main problems and the longer term historical legacy, putting these latter problems in a secondary position for now.
"When abusive behaviour is deeply entrenched in our communities it is not the material destitution , the social ills and historical legacy that fuel the abuse epidemics. It is the epidemics that perpetuate themselves."
This analysis gives hope and real guidance because it means aboriginal and white people can get on with tackling real and urgent issues rather than becoming passive (paralysed by the complexity) and possibly guilty about a huge morass of unresolved issues. Pearson rejects "symptom theory thinking", that the main reason for substance abuse is the despair, hopelessness, social dislocation of aboriginal communities and other "underlying causes". He identifies such thinking as a real problem, causing paralysis.

He states frankly that the situation is worse now than ever before, with respect to life expectancy, illiteracy, the abuse and neglect of children, the numbers of aboriginal people in prison and juvenile institutions, alcohol abuse, petrol sniffing, violence against old people for money and grog.
... many of the traditions we purport to follow are too often merely self-deceptions (that we care for each other, that we respect our Elders, that we value our culture and traditons) ... The intrinsic force in the grog and drug epidemic is now stronger than the force of our traditional social norms and values
It takes courage to say these things about your own community but Pearson speaks the hard truths

As well as identifying the main problems, Pearson analyses those problems, traces their history and outlines plausible solutions

Substance abuse / addictions are problems in their own right. The five factors that are needed for an outbreak of substance abuse are present in aboriginal communities: (i) the substance being available (ii) spare time (iii) money (iv) the example of others in the immediate environment and (v) a permissive social ideology

He rejects progressivist solutions of "harm minimisation" and calls for zero tolerance and enforced treatment as the necessary steps to break out of endemic substance abuse:
The absolute intolerance of illicit drugs, absolute enforcement of social order, and mandatory treatment is the core of the strategy
He identifies it as a political struggle rather than a health or moral problem. Because, "The social function of substance abuse epidemics is to make people unable to organise themselves, politically and socially"

Pearson's historical analysis of why things are now worse in aboriginal communities is very insightful. He speaks of the
"irony of our newly one citizenship in 1967 was that after we became citizens with equal rights and the theoretical right to equal pay, we lost the meagre foothold that we had in the real economy and we became almost comprehensively dependent on passive welfare for our livelihood"
Pearson describes both the Australian Labour Party and the Coalition as being "half right" and not capable of making the changes required to turn around the social disaster of the Australian aborginal people:
... the Australian Labour Party will be strong and correct in their policies in favour of the rights of Aboriginal people - particularly land rights and native title - and they will be weak and wrong in relation to the breakdown of responsibility in Aboriginal society occasioned by passive welfare dependency, substance abuse and our resulting criminal justice predicaments. The Coalition will better understand the problem of responsibility but will be antipathetic and wrong in relation to the rights of Aboriginal people: they advocate further diminution of the native title property rights of Aboriginal Australians

political economy of games

I agree with this critical analysis of marc prensky by Daniel Livingstone, in that Prensky tends to celebrate the differences between "immigrants" and "natives", rather than analysing their deeper significance:
One way in which I may misread Prensky is the degree to which he is describing the differences (as he sees them) between “natives” and “immigrants”, versus celebrating them. I usually read his stuff as mainly the latter - and I think this is his take, that the changes are almost uniformly for the better. Am I misreading Prensky? I don’t think so, but I’d be happy to hear otherwise. But onto the review…

The question of whether the change is ‘better’ or just ‘different’ certainly applies here. Indeed, in describing the increasing need for immediate feedback and constant stimulation, Prensky could almost be making the same case as Neil Postman does in ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’. Except with the opposite opinion on whether this is a good thing or not.
Although Prensky might play a positive role initially as a populiser / provocateur, we do have to move on beyond slogans such as "digital immigrant / digital native", "engage me / enrage me" and “50% of the world’s population is under 25″

I like the way prensky talked to and engaged my students when he visited adelaide. He's a nice guy and he knows his games but I would agree that deep critical analysis is not is strong point. However, I noticed how he modified his talk for the adult audience next day, changing the main theme from games to engagement

There was a wide ranging discussion (21 comments) of these issues at the powerhouse museum blog following his talk in Adelaide in March

I've been thinking more recently that another way to look at the whole "gaming phenomenon" is through the lens of political economy

For example, in the new attention economy Prensky can a pack a room of adults at $220 a head. Because he is a provocative advocate of "get off our arses and save education through games" (I'm paraphrasing) he can draw a crowd in a way that a deeper, more thoughtful analyst of educational dilemmas cannot. Isn't the economics of this transaction, the whole weird way in which the education economy works, the bottom line here? Grabbing attention becomes more important than real analysis.

I haven't seen much written about this side of it. But I recently heard a paper (Cairns, ACEC) by Sylvia Martinez at a poorly attended presentation which:
"offers an analysis of why the nature of video and computer games is antithetical to traditional forms of school curriculum, content and assessment. In addition, both consumer and school markets are explored to explain why there are so few successful educational games so that we may find ways to encourage the design of educational games that provide compelling, immersive educational experiences"
I've put a link to Sylvia's paper on my learningEvolves wiki and hope to pursue this analysis further.

enlightened pedagogy

arti's curriculum lament led to me thinking more about monks and motor cars.

I see the curriculum as the control mechanism that central authorities won't give up. Not sure whether I can be bothered trying to reclaim "their" word.

Curriculum seems to be a School based word, rather than a Learning word. If you put a motor in a carriage, it's then called a car, so I might be on to something. Or, if an enlightened monk had used a printing press to churn out simulations of hand written Bibles, then would that have delayed the separation of Church and State? Will the schools of the future, if they are still called schools, have a curriculum or will they just be Learning environments, or some such thing?

I have always instinctively avoided electronic whiteboards, as a modern day coach with a motor added. I was happy to see my old logo friend, Gary Stager, agree in his Jump the Shark paper:
“Intelligent” white boards may appear as cost-effective strategies for advancing a school’s technological capability, yet these Pre-Gutenberg technologies may ultimately reinforce the worst of existing classroom practices. They reinforce the dominance of the front of the room and omniscience of the teacher. Facilitating increased lecturing and reducing education to notes on a board represents a step backwards. We should question the widespread appeal of these products. The sales success of clever furniture is undeniable, but its actual use is less clear.
At Cairns, ACEC, it was suggested that enlightened pedagogy, the art of teaching, should lead the way in front of technology.

It's hard to refute this but it is not a mechanical one way truth. Good teachers are good teachers and ought to be in control of the learning environment and understand the needs of their students. But good teachers also need to know when to get out of the way of capable students, to let them do their thing. Then the student works with the technology to produce something great. The good teacher starts that, the student and the technology finish it off.

It's also difficult for enlightened pedagogy to lead the way when school systems are shutting down (regulating) technological innovation, destroying the new soil that nourishes the pedagogical flower.

Recently, I've seen and heard about "web2.0" innovators banning the use of electronic devices during their high powered web2.0 presentations. I can't even remember their reasons for doing this. My built in BS detector flipped the circuit breaker before their reasons came out.

The real spirit of technological innovation originates from outside of education. The internet was invented by the military in preparation for a Soviet nuclear first strike. The www was invented to improve scientific research at CERN. These people had real problems to solve.

Of course schools have real problems to solve too. It's just that they don't appear to be as urgent. I think that strategically, we have to put our minds outside of the School, in order to rethink it. I still think educational bloggers ought to read more non educational blogs. It would have helped the monks too.

I like the Mission statement of The Berkman Center for Internet and Society, with its emphasis on learning about cyberspace by building for themselves in cyberspace. Learning dynamically by construction and reflection.
The Berkman Center's mission is to explore and understand cyberspace, its development, dynamics, norms, standards, and need or lack thereof for laws and sanctions.

We are a research center, premised on the observation that what we seek to learn is not already recorded. Our method is to build out into cyberspace, record data as we go, self-study, and publish. Our mode is entrepreneurial nonprofit.
It would be nice to have a government school with a mission statement like that. Why not? You would easily get the teachers, parents and students. The only real barrier is the government, or is it, the curriculum?

Thursday, October 12, 2006

world poverty statistics

The African percentage of world poverty
2015: 68%
2000: 35%
1970: 11%

button #3 of the Gapminder Human Development Trends site

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

simulation on paper

A simulation on a piece of paper
We aim to create a tool that allows the engineer to sketch a mechanical system as she would on paper, and then allows her to interact with the design as a mechanical system, for example by seeing a simulation of her drawing. We have built an early incarnation of such a tool, called ASSIST, which allows a user to sketch simple mechanical systems and see simulations of her drawings in a two-dimensional kinematic simulator.
- design rationale
A Shrewd Sketch Interpretation and Simulation Tool = ASSIST
The video is amazing!!!!!!!!!

the blindness of expertise

I was surprised to discover that Paul Graham thinks that hacking is easier than writing and he seems to be putting this forward as some sort of general truth, not something that just applies to him:
With hacking, you never have to worry how something is going to come out. Software doesn't "come out." If there's something you don't like, you change it. So programming has the same relaxing quality as building stuff out of Lego. You know you're going to win in the end. Succeeding is simply a matter of defining what winning is, and possibly spending a lot of time getting there. Those can be hard, but not frightening.

Whereas writing is like painting. You don't have the same total control over the medium. In fact, you probably wouldn't want it. When it's going well, painting from life is something you do in hardware. There are stretches where perception flows in through your eye and out through your hand, with no conscious intervention. If you tried to think consciously about each motion your hand was making, you'd just produce something stilted.

The result is that writing and painting have an ingredient that's missing in hacking and Lego: suspense. An essay can come out badly. Or at least, you worry it can.
I guess he doesn't understand because he's such a great hacker, even though he's a very good writer too. I wondered how this fitted into the Laws of Ignorance. It could be an unknown unknown, error or taboo but I guess I'll never know. It's interesting how very smart people can have blind spots.

Minimal Guidance during instruction can work

This is a rebuttal of:
Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching (pdf)

Their argument is that inquiry learning approaches:
…ignore both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies over the past half century that consistently indicate that minimally-guided instruction is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches that place a strong emphasis on guidance of the student learning process. (Kirschner et al (2006).
There is commentary by artichoke at this wag the dog blog entry and also at this wiki entry which provoked some critical discussion. Read both arti's original and the comments.

also go here for gel papers: gel = guided experiential learning.
there are quite a few papers that look interesting, including one on the role of deliberate practice in the role of acquiring expertise, which I agree with, Ericsson

the contradiction b/w the Kirschner and Ericsson papers is resolved thus
constructionism / constructivism does work provided it helps to motivate individuals in effortful study - constructionism can achieve this more readily than other methods, not for all, but does work for those who become motivated - the teacher needs to be expert and understand what is happening

constructionism as developed by Papert et al is a method of subtle (environmental) intervention, yes, there is scaffolding but it is relatively unobtrusive - with scaffolding being removed (the teacher getting out the way and letting students create) where appropriate - other approaches may not enable able students to flourish in this way, they may always keep students chained up

the point is that constructivism used in this way is a form of guided experiental learning, it is just that the method of guidance is much more sophisticated and can create more interesting / enjoyable classroom environments, for both students and teachers

this was certainly explained clearly by Harel and Papert - only Papert's 1980 book Mindstorms is cited in the references, a lot of very good research is ignored in this "authoritative" study

constructionism / discovery learning does not work as some sort of generalised "weeties for the brain" in traditional School environments - however, the claim that children often learn more (through play) before they come to school than they learn at school ought to be not forgotten in thinking these issues through:
"Games are... the most ancient and timehonored (sic) vehicle for education. They are the original educational technology, the natural one, having received the seal of approval of natural selection. We don’t see mother lions lecturing cubs at the chalkboard; we don’t see senior lions writing their memoirs for posterity. In light of this, the question, ‘Can games have educational value?’ becomes absurd. It is not games but schools that are the newfangled notion, the untested fad, the violator of tradition. Game-playing is a vital educational function for any creature capable of learning." (Crawford 1982)
the bit in Kirschner et al about long term memory I think is refuted in this paper, The Expert Mind. Read the section on chunking, particularly the last couple of paragraphs:
"Ericsson also cites studies of physicians who clearly put information into long-term memory and take it out again in ways that enable them to make diagnoses. Perhaps Ericsson's most homely example, though, comes from reading. In a 1995 study he and Walter Kintsch of the University of Colorado found that interrupting highly proficient readers hardly slowed their reentry to a text; in the end, they lost only a few seconds. The researchers explained these findings by recourse to a structure they called long-term working memory, an almost oxymoronic coinage because it assigns to long-term memory the one thing that had always been defined as incompatible with it: thinking. But brain-imaging studies done in 2001 at the University of Konstanz in Germany provide support for the theory by showing that expert chess players activate long-term memory much more than novices do.

Fernand Gobet of Brunel University in London champions a rival theory, devised with Simon in the late 1990s. It extends the idea of chunks by invoking highly characteristic and very large patterns consisting of perhaps a dozen chess pieces. Such a template, as they call it, would have a number of slots into which the master could plug such variables as a pawn or a bishop. A template might exist, say, for the concept of "the isolated queen's-pawn position from the Nimzo-Indian Defense," and a master might change a slot by reclassifying it as the same position "minus the dark-squared bishops." To resort again to the poetic analogy, it would be a bit like memorizing a riff on "Mary had a little lamb" by substituting rhyming equivalents at certain slots, such as "Larry" for "Mary," "pool" for "school" and so on. Anyone who knows the original template should be able to fix the altered one in memory in a trice."
Finally, Papert on instructionism, pedagogy and constructionism:
"The word instructionism is intended to mean something rather different from pedagogy, or the art of teaching. It is to be read on a more ideological or programmatic level as expressing the belief that the route to better learning must be the improvement of instruction - if School is less than perfect, why then, you know what to do: Teach better. Constructionism is one of a family of educational philosophies that denies this "obvious truth." It does not call in question the value of instruction as such ... The constructionist attitude to teaching is not at all dismissive because it is minimalist - the goal is to teach in such a way as to produce the most learning for the least teaching ... an African proverb: If a man is hungry you can give him a fish, but it is better to give him a line and teach him to catch fish himself"
(The Children's Machine, 139)
Kirschner et al say "Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work" No qualification there, in that headline grabbing dogma. I say, it can work, but you need good teaching materials and an expert teacher.

the network is not god

I've said some positive things about George Siemen's new connectivism theory in the past (pipe more important than the contents) but this time around I'm disappointed.

My summary of an earlier interview of George by Teemu Arina was:
I agree with the general thesis that the pipe, being connected, is becoming more important than the content. I agree that the half life of knowledge is declining and that more and more learning is informal. These changes are corroding schools. Students are different from before and bored with lecture mode. Nevertheless, I'd see the theory of connectivism as sitting alongside the other learning theories, not taking their place.
It seems that others have asked George to think about how connectivism "connects" to constructivism and this has led to this analysis, Constructivism versus Connectivism. George leads off with this:
Constructivism, as a model of learning, holds the duality of much promise, and much frustration. On the one hand, it breaks from the structured models of learning that dominated the first half of the last century, giving voice to the "softer" elements of learning (educators often understand this intuitively - we see the lack of direct connection between what we lecture about and what our students actually learn). On the other hand, constructivism has not been well-defined. It can essentially mean anything to anyone. It's an idea without boundaries, a philosophy without root. This vague definition results in everything being labeled as constructivism (see these six paradigms). If anything, my experience with constructivism places it more in the domain of a teaching philosophy, and less in the domain of a theory (consider these attributes of constructivism). [Emphasis added]
This is too vague, creating a situation where George does not have to do much work in either integrating or refuting constructivism because, after all, it doesn't mean anything. Although it is true that some constructivists are philosophical idealists (that meanings constructed inside the head do not necessarily reflect real things in the external world) it is still quite possible to use a common sense, down to earth interpretation of constructivism. Two points from Piaget stand out:
  • Children build or construct their own intellectual structures
  • Children build on what they know. Piaget's term for children's continual balancing of existing cognitive structures with new experiences is equilibration.
George continues:
Several individuals have provided excellent guidance in suggesting that I don't try and position connectivism as a replacement for established learning theories (i.e. constructivism, behaviourism, cognitivism). I'm generally supportive of integral thinking, and agree with a matrix posted by Derek Wenmoth on online learning (including a continuum of learning theories).
George doesn't follow his own advice here. From his article I get a strong feeling that he hasn't read much about constructivism or tried to implement it in practice or even thought much about it. I'm critical of this arrogant attitude, developing a "brand new" learning theory in a vacuum, but without doing the hard work of analysing the good and bad points of existing theories. Theoretical progress does not work that way.

George again:
Constructivism, for me, fails on two levels: 1) it is not capable of functioning in rapid knowledge growth environments, as it doesn't account for learning that happens in networks and 2) constructivism is a "sometimes" learning habit (we are always connecting, but we only construct in certain situations).
As a critique this doesn't amount to much. It is just assertion. George has discovered that the network is good, the dominant paradigm of our new age. Network good. Construction not so good. But there is no actual argument here.

Constructivism, as with other learning theories, assumes that learning happens in our head. In fairness, various flavours of constructivism acknowledge the importance of the social context in which the learning happens, and that learners learn from each other. The act of learning itself is still perceived to be in the head of the individual. Most learning needs today are becoming too complex to be addressed in "our heads". We need to rely on a network of people (and increasingly, technology) to store, access, and retrieve knowledge and motivate its use. The network itself becomes the learning. This is critical today; the rapid development of knowledge means that we need to find new ways of learning and staying current. We cannot increase our capacity for learning ad infinitum. We must begin to conceive learning as socially networked and enhanced by technology (it’s a symbiosis of people and technology that forms our learning networks). We need to acknowledge our learning context not only as an enabler of learning, but as a participant of the learning itself. [Emphasis added]
In what way am I being perverse to claim that learning still happens inside our head? Richard Dawkins once said that there is such a thing as becoming so open minded that your brains fall out. George seems to be falling into a similar trap, becoming so enamoured with the power of the network, to the point of denying the importance of the individual and the learning that occurs inside "our heads". These thoughts of mine were gathered from various sources, synthesised in my head and then put onto the network. I agree that the network is far more important than it used to be but that we need to do more work in figuring out the correct balance between the learning that occurs inside and outside individuals and at the boundary structures. Radical individualism, the role of a single individual disagreeing, going against the tide is still as important as ever. How do we explain this by network learning theory, aka connectivism? At this point I looked up some quotes from the digital maoism debate and decided not to use them. As far as I am aware I made that decison in my head.

George continues:
Constructivism is complex. Let your mind wander a bit: My learning is a function of previous life experience, the people around me, the actual environment in which I function, my previous learning experiences (both emotional and cognitive), the nature of group relationships (socially-based), etc. When new information enters the space, I (according to constructivism) construct knowledge of its meaning/relevance against the backdrop of the above mentioned factors. But I can't simply construct - because, to use the molecule metaphor of learning objects (or microcontent), many of the elements that comprise the base of my knowledge come previously constructed (by a discipline, the teacher, the article, etc.). For example, the elements that comprise a new idea come "chunked". I don't construct that entire concept or idea. Instead, I connect it with existing knowledge. If anything, the learning suggested by constructivism is actually in the deconstruction of these packaged elements into smaller pieces of knowledge. A simple example: if someone teaches me the skills of critical thinking, I will largely acquire the elements in "pre-constructed" formats. I will acknowledge that I need to question and validate knowledge sources for authenticity (a concept which can take a lifetime to integrate into practice and habits, and even then I'll still make mistakes). I don't construct anything to make use of this at a basic level. I simply adopt it and try and interrogate new information. My actual learning happens when I deconstruct the knowledge itself (getting deeper into the full meaning of the notion of "validating"). We don't always construct. We are often much more passive in our learning. We read an article and we link it to our existing understanding. We subscribe to a newsletter (or magazine)...we attend certain conferences...we dialogue with certain people/communities. In the end, much of our learning is a connection-forming process (the conduit, not content, is what is king) where we add new elements that augment our capacity to know more. We rely on Google, libraries, friends, social bookmarks/tags, etc. to serve as our personal learning network (we store the knowledge external to ourselves). When we need something, we go to our network (know-where is more important than know-how or know-what)...or we expand our network. In the end, the constant act of connecting in order to stay current is a much more reflective model of learning than constructivism.
The language not used in this long quote illustrates George's paucity of knowledge of some of the main theoreticians and practitioners of constructivism / constructionism. For instance these words are not used: equilibration, assimilation, accomodation (Piaget), constructionism (with a T, Papert), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Society of Mind (Minsky)

The idea that the process of deconstruction is some sort of refutation of constructivism is ridiculous. As stated above constructivism is the view that "children build or construct their own intellectual structures." This of course includes intellectual structures that are used for deconstruction. Minsky describes this as reformulating (Society of Mind, 12.2). AI theoreticians have important things to say about learning

I still think that George has come up with some important ideas and insights about learning and the importance of networks in the way we view the world today. However, it simple is not good enough to reject the heritage of constuctivism and for that matter, behaviourism (dennett's creatures, behavourism and the inner environment) in the superficial manner that has been attempted in his Constructivism versus Connectivism analysis

Finally, there are some thoughtful comments on George's blog that have not been responded to.

Monday, October 09, 2006

"dedication to purity and excellence in making donuts"

Poincare conjecture: Any shape without a hole can be stretched or shrunk into a sphere

Or would you rather work in a donut shop: dedicated to purity and excellence, for no money?