Tuesday, March 25, 2008

sherry turkle critiques simulations

Insofar as we conceptualise computers as "mere tools" then they will continue to be used poorly in schools IMO. It's better to see them as interactive medium which either molds the user in its image (eg. an application or a GUI) or the user molds the machine, expresses themselves through the medium, including the ability to modify and develop aspects of the medium (alan kay's vision)

Sherry Turkle (MIT lecturer in computers and psychology) is a writer who understands about how social relations are embedded in computer programs and the user interface.

If her books were more widely read and understood we would be in a far better position to educate our youth in the use of the computer.

Victorian teacher Rob Costello (who blogs at learning in progress) pasted the following long quote from Turkle's 2004 introduction to her 1984 book The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. This deals mainly with the limitations of computer simulations:
In The Second Self I report on my studies of children learning Logo. Their styles of programming were varied and revealing. The computer, as I have said, served as a Rorschach, and programming was one of the most powerful manifestations of its projective power. Twenty years later, programming is no longer taught much in standard classrooms, relegated for the most part to special after-school computer clubs. These days, educators most often think of computer literacy as the ability to use the computer as an information appliance for such purposes as word processing, running simulations, accessing educational CD-ROMs, navigating the Internet, and using presentation software such as PowerPoint. But the question remains whether mastery of these skills should be the goal of computer education.

Do they constitute computer literacy?

One unhappy seventh-grade teacher concurred, “It’s not my job to instruct children in the use of an appliance and then to leave it at that.” These teachers were struggling toward an argument for a certain kind of “computational exceptionalism.” It takes as a given that people once knew how their cars, televisions, or telephones worked and don’t know this any more, but that in the case of mechanical technology, such losses are acceptable. It insists, however, that ignorance about the fundamentals of computation comes at too high a price. One teacher put it this way: “Children know that the telephone is a mechanism and that they control it. But it’s not enough to have that kind of understanding about the computer. You have to know how a simulation works. You have to know what an algorithm is.”

In the nearly ten years since I recorded these conversations, educational advocates for computational transparency have, in large measure, lost their battle. Educators who want to demystify the computer face a new generation of children that no longer finds enough mystery in the machine to care what an algorithm is. It is a generation that has made a transition from the transparency of algorithm to the opacity of simulation. This generation takes overland journeys along a simulated Oregon Trail and when it plays The Sims or The Sims Online, it designs houses, personal histories, and social engagements for the virtual citizenry. In The Second Self, when I wrote of the “computer as Rorschach,” it was programming that served as the projective screen for personal and cultural differences. These days, computation offers far more immediate projective media: one can create multiple avatars in online communities and play with relationships, quite literally using one’s “second (or third, or fourth, of fifth) self.”

I have suggested, in talking about Deborah, that on the level of the individual child, something interesting has been lost in the move away from authorship of the programs that underlie one’s own game. On a societal level, there is an analogous loss. The aesthetic of transparency (common to the Logo movement and the early generations of personal computer hobbyists) carried with it a political aesthetic that was tied both to authorship and to knowing how things worked on a level of considerable detail.

This is a kind of understanding that is not communicated by playing off-the-shelf simulations.

On one level, high school sophomores playing SimCity for two hours may learn more about urban planning than they would from a textbook, but on another level, they may not know how to think about what they are doing. They “play” simulations but don’t have a clear way to discriminate between the rules of the game and those that operate in a real city.

Most have never programmed a computer or constructed their own simulations. They do not have a language for talking about how one might rewrite the rules of their games. So, for example, SimCity often gives players the impression that raising taxes will lead to riots. But, of course, there is a way to write the game so that increased taxes lead to an increase in health services, productivity, and social harmony. In my view, citizenship in a culture of simulation requires that you know how to rewrite the rules. You need tools to measure, criticize, and judge every simulation. Today’s teenagers are comfortable as inhabitants of simulated worlds, but most often, they are there as consumers rather than as citizens. To achieve full citizenship, our children need to work with simulations that teach about the nature of simulation itself.

Tim, who did not know how to program, worked in a complex system built by others. Tim played his simulation software as though it were a video game, moment to moment, with no understanding of the rules. Deborah was nurtured by transparency; Tim’s skill set was centered on the artful navigation of opacity. His philosophy of play: “Don’t let it bother you if you don’t understand. I just say to myself that I probably won’t be able to understand the whole game any time soon. So I just play it.”

Tim’s method enabled him to accomplish a great deal in simulation space. His comfort in his virtual world might serve him (not well, but adequately) in the many possible careers that lay before him, careers in architecture, law, business, medicine, or history. In all of these fields, dealing with information increasingly entails the navigation of simulations of other people’s creation. However, as I meet professionals in all of these fields who move easily within their computational systems and yet feel constrained by them, trapped by their systems’ unseen limitations and unknown assumptions, I feel continued concern. Are the new generations of simulation consumers reminiscent of people who can pronounce the words in a book but don’t understand what they mean? We come to written text with centuries-long habits of readership. At the very least, we have learned to begin with the journalist’s traditional questions: Who, what, when, where, why, and how? Who wrote these words, what is their message, why were they written, and how are they situated in time and place, politically and socially? The dramatic changes in computer education over the past decades leave us with serious questions about how we can teach our children to interrogate simulations in much the same spirit.

The specific questions may be different, but the intent needs to be the same: to develop habits of readership appropriate to a culture of simulation. These habits of readership are central to computer literacy and social responsibility in the twenty-first century.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

the yin and yang of dichotomies

There are many useful dichotomies available to describe culture (ying - yang), organisation (hierarchy - heterarchy or ad-hocracy), cognition (abstract - concrete), emotion (impersonal - personal), ethics (judgement - narrative), anthropology (universals - non universals), futurology (cyborgs - human) and vocations (scientist - artist)

These dichotomies are even more useful if we look at ways to bridge them, examine their connection and interrelation and understand that in some circumstances one transforms into the other

In the education debate / culture wars some argue for "back to basics" or some sort of traditional curriculum knowledge and others argue for social constructivism, process skills and discovery learning. People create web sites that are against things and wage wars on government. PLATO = people lobbying against teaching outcomes.

My feeling is that we are stuck because we don't listen to the other side and don't take the best from both worlds and integrate them.

iterating the learning pyramid

earlier post: learning evolves pyramid

The first one is a repeat and the other two are new iterations

The pyramid is a thinking tool to provide a big picture framework about what I see as important for the future of education

Identify the important knowledge and deliver it in an engaging way so that it connects to all, including those who are disempowered through their social class

The idea behind the pyramid heuristic is that we shouldn't be too polar in our thinking. Too much polarity is what seems to go wrong in much policy formulation and argument.

eg. No child left behind (NCLB) in the USA by all accounts has failed through its emphasis on addressing disadvantage in such a way that reduces successful, creative teachers to tears - and drives them out of the profession

eg. the use of Game Maker software is good for engagement of many but can easily capitulate to a relatively impoverished knowledge agenda (make games) in practice

Some notes about the changes in the iterations:

Fundamentals can be misleading because it may be impossible to pin down fundamentals. Our beliefs about what is fundamental change as our knowledge increases. eg. proof in geometry was seen as fundamental for thousands of years after Euclid but is not seen as so important now (can be elaborated)

Creativity is a hard to define word. I think that engagement or emotion represents more what the real debates in education are about. Is school about teaching the basics seriously, or is it about engaging students? Some schools now define their main mission as "Students enjoy school". I have the feeling that some teachers are afraid to challenge kids intellectually through fear that they won't enjoy it (and it's hard work for the teacher).

Social class is more inclusive than only focusing on the disadvantaged. Power is more general again but might obscure the importance of social class in society in general.

Technology is missing from the pyramid. It's a subset of knowledge, which is a can of worms in itself. Computer technology is 50 years old. The Enlightenment provides the basis for modernity and is 300 years old. (obligatory remarks about the shallowness of the web2.0 movement omitted here)

The pyramid is open to many interpretations. It's meant to be a thinking and discussion tool. The important thing is to avoid polar opposites and the pyramid is useful here.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

staffing high needs schools

My focus question here, arising out of earlier discussions about Teach for America and the proposed Teach for Australia is:
What is the best way or a good way to go about staffing high-needs (or disadvantaged or urban rustbelt or remote indigenous) schools?

Recruiting and Retaining Quality Teachers for High-Needs Schools by Barnett Berry (bio) et al (pdf 23pp)

from Barnett Berry bio:
Dr. Barnett Berry's career, which began as an under-prepared, inner- city high school teacher in 1978, has focused on a wide range efforts to close America’s student achievement gap by closing the teaching quality gap.
As part of an earlier discussion on this blog about Teach for America (It sounds like a miracle), Sylvia Martinez recommended I read a shorter article by Barnett Berry. I didn't think much of that one but this longer pdf did impress me. One issue here is that it's difficult to discuss a complex issue effectively in the standard web2.0 article length. Web2.0 has produced a glut of writers many of whom don't read in depth.

first para:
The facts are daunting: Poor children and those of color are far less likely to be taught by qualified teachers—no matter how the term “qualified teacher” is defined. Studies consistently show that teachers who are better trained, more experienced, and licensed in the subjects they teach are more likely to be teaching in more affluent schools, serving more academically advantaged students.
YES, the education system is a well constructed shipwreck, designed to select the best swimmers - always has been and those who try to change this are brave

myth -> financial incentives are the silver bullet

YES, financial incentives are not a silver bullet but they are an important part of the mix, if we are serious about quality education for the disadvantaged (BB is saying this too)

Why teachers leave high needs schools:
one study:
  • poor support from school administration
  • lack of student motivation
  • little teacher influence over decision making
  • student discipline problems
another study:
  • inadequate system - poor professional development, too little time to plan lessons
  • bureaucratic impediments - paperwork, interruptions, teaching restrictions
  • lack of collegial support

Why teachers stay at high needs schools:
one study:
  • supportive school leadership (39%)
  • salary and benefits (22%)
beliefs that might cause them to doubt success (and might leave to leaving):
  • "overall working conditions would not allow them to be successful"
  • "feel they are not sufficiently prepared"
another study:
  • strong principal leadership
  • collegial staff with shared teaching philosophy
  • adequate resources
  • supportive / active parent community
Recommendations from highly accomplished teachers

1) Transform teaching and learning conditions in high needs schools
  • Class size is an important issue in high needs schools
  • high stakes testing and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) does not encourage effective teaching
  • there is inadequate preparation time [cf. Japan, China, Singapore]
  • universal access to pre-school is important
2) Prepare and support teachers for specific challenges posed by working in high needs schools
  • many teachers don't want to work in schools where it is very difficult or impossible to be successful
  • utilise training which is job embedded, which focuses on student work and is led by peers in collaboration with peers
  • just in time mentoring can be problematic - there is a lack of time to discuss pedagogy in depth and mentors must be of high quality to be effective (more funding for quality mentors can help here)
3) Recruit and develop administrators who can draw on the expertise of specially-prepared teacher leaders
  • many administrators do not know how to support teachers, many use rigid, formulaic approaches
  • "it takes a village to raise a teacher"
  • convert some assistant Principal positions to teacher coach leadership positions
4) Create a menu of recruitment incentives, but focus on growing teaching expertise within high-needs schools.
Supportive Principals, freedom to use professional judgment and working with like minded and similarly skilled colleagues means more than extra pay

The last thing policymakers should do is develop a single incentive to attract accomplished teachers to high needs schools. Hence the word menu, above

Different teachers have different needs depending on their life circumstances, their geographic location and their age

5) Build awareness among policymakers, practitioners, and the public about the importance of National Board Certification for high-needs schools.

" ... salary incentives alone will not suffice to attract and retain good teachers for high-needs schools. Working conditions matter—and most notably, access to good principals and skilled colleagues, lower class sizes and smaller student loads, high quality professional development, and classroom resources needed to help students meet high academic standards are critically important"
This analysis does impact back onto the Teach for Australia proposal

I've added a new tag - disadvantage - to this and some older posts, to help keep track and connect the dots

Friday, March 21, 2008

venturing into impossible

Arthur C Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the originator of the idea of geostationary satellites has died

Clark's three laws of prediction:
1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Someone posted the second law as a comment to Al Upton's blog about his year 3 student's blogs being shut down by the South Australian Education Department. See Order for Closure

The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible

Education should be more like science fiction - the youth will spend more time in the future than the bureaucratic old farts, lets give them a chance to invent it.

learning evolves pyramid

The learning evolves pyramid is an attempt to develop a logo which summarises my core issues at the moment, something like this:

A creative education that critically evaluates what is fundamental and succeeds for the disadvantaged

This attempts to express that development of one side of policy should not be seen in isolation from other sides of policy. Rather than thinking in terms of polar absolutes the pyramid metaphor is about extracting and combining the best from different sorts of approaches.

eg. some people like to focus on creativity and pay less attention to what is fundamental knowledge or how to succeed with the disadvantaged. Hence they will gravitate to well off schools where students are already advantaged and those nitty gritty issues can be avoided

eg. some people focus on the disadvantaged but might pay less attention to creativity in education because they are focused on measurement (standardised testing) to ensure that the education is succeeding

eg. some people talk about "back to the basics" without seeming to realise that the fundamentals are not set in stone, that learning does evolve. eg. that maths can be learnt in new ways using computers with Scratch, logo etc. It is necessary to bring the fundamentals together with creativity to grasp that they do evolve

eg. with regard to learning theory some people see constructionist approaches (or other discovery or inquiry approaches) as polar opposites to behaviourist approaches, rather than the need to employ both, to walk the walk along a learning styles continuum

Fundamentals: basics, traditions, history, Enlightenment, language, maths, science, the non universals, the canon

Disadvantage: social class, early intervention, the gap between the haves and have nots, FOSS, OLPC, Teach for America, Teach for Australia

Creativity: visual programming, hard fun, Scratch, etoys, game maker, web apps (blogs, wikis etc.)

Learning evolves: constructionism, effortful study, concept mapping, various other learning theories some of which are summarised on the learning evolves wiki

This is a rough effort to express an overview of what I am on about at the moment.

Related: Noel Pearson's "radical centre" concept applied to education

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

chess: Fedja Zulfic - Kerr

I'm currently playing in the South Australian state championships. This game is against promising junior, Fedja Zulfic. Fedja is white, I am black.

I thought my position here was good, due to my well placed bishop, white's minor pieces are not well co-ordinated and his queen is awkwardly placed. However, white continued:
16. Ne1!
preparing to challenge black well placed bishop
16 ____ e5
17. Bd3 e4
18. Bc2 b5
19. a3
I still thought my position was good and I could now develop a powerful attack on the queenside. However, I failed to look at the position with fresh eyes, overlooking that white has quite a powerful threat now that his bishop is repositioned
19___ a5?
Mechanical play, 19 ___ Kg7! is essential here
20. f3!
Very strong, threatening to open the long diagonal for white's queen, which up until now has been locked out of the play
20. ___ Rfe8
21. fxe dxe
The white queen now has a killer diagonal
22. hxg hxg
23. Rh3!
I think this is sounder than 23. Rh6!? Kg2 24.RxB+ KxB
23 ____ Kg7
24. Rgh1 f5!?
White is exerting great pressure now, 24 ___ Re7 might offer more resistance here
25. gxf5 Bxf5

Fedja now produces a powerful sacrificial combination
26. Nxe4! Rxe4
27. Rh7+! BxR
28. RxB+ KxR
White has sacrificed both rooks but he will recover a rook and piece in return
29. QxN+

This is a very interesting position.

In the game black played 29___ Kh8 and quickly lost after 30. BxR Qh6 31. Qxc7 which wins another piece and the game 31 ___ g4 32. Bxc6 Qxe3+ 33. Kd1 and wins

However, if black plays instead 29 ___ Kh6! it is harder for white to win. The move that looks riskier is a better chance. This was a failure to look ahead - it wasn't too hard to see that 29___ Kh8 would lose fairly easily.

30.Bxe4 Rh8 (forced) 31. Nf3! g4!

White now has various possibilities 31. Ne5, 31. Nh4, 31. BxN, the best seems to be:

31. Ne5! NxN 32. dxe5 Qb6 and now 33. Kc2! and the threat of e6 seems to win the game for white. It took me quite a while to find this winning line for white.

Well played, Fedja. What I learnt from this game is the need to re-evaluate each new position afresh, not to become caught up too much in earlier thinking. Hence chess is a good antidote against dogmatic thinking.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

the mini legends become legends

South Australian teaching colleague, Al Upton's Year 3 students ("the mini legends") blogs have been disabled by order of DECS (Department of Education and Children’s Services - South Australia).

Al Upton has taught his students to find their voice and express it clearly and with emotion.

See Order for Closure - there are hundreds of comments, from the mini legends themselves and expressions of solidarity from bloggers around the globe.

Here is a protest comments from one of Al's year 3's:
mini17 - March 17, 2008
hi Al
I was almost in tears when i heard my blog was shut-down.i was so sad and dissenpointed. i realy enjoyed bloging. i absoulutly loved my cluster-map. i somtimes might say all that work for nothing. The vokis are cool. i start thinking that we wouldent be able to talk to our mentors. it uset to be fun cheers mini17
Another mini wrote:
When I found out that our blogs were closing down, I felt confused, sad and angry. I felt really sad because I felt that all Al had taught us had gone to waste. We had a vote on a name for our new forum. The new name for our forum is Article 13. It means Rights for the Child.I felt better with my blog in many ways.
>Writing and reciving comments.
>Cammunicating with other people.
and lots of other reasons. By mini22
What is this thing they speak of:
Article 13, The Rights of the Child

Convention on the Rights of the Child
Adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution 44/25 of 20 November 1989

Article 13

1. The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice.

2. The exercise of this right may be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:

(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; or

(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.

Who speaks for Article 13? Is it Al or DECS?

update (19th March):

Wonderful, also to see some supportive comments from parents of the kids involved on Al's blog. Just goes to show what a good job Al has done in educating not only his year 3's but the wider school community.

My other thought is that the much despised DECS on line filtering system does block the read write web (blogs, wikis etc.) by default. This has been discussed at length previously on the South Australian IT teacher list. Individual teachers in schools can apply for some domains to be unblocked (eg. blogger or word press) so the barrier is not insurmountable. Nevertheless, I have posted links to my blog on the IT teachers list and then received complaints from other teachers on the list that they can't access it. It is a real barrier and indicative of the cautious, "risk free" mentality of the Department. Innovation is discouraged, not encouraged. This is not some single case aberration but more like a logical extension of the myopic original mindset.

Monday, March 17, 2008

rote learning and discovery learning are not opposites

Because rote learning and discovery learning are not opposites it follows that discovery learning is not the answer to the problem of a curriculum dominated with rote learning. eg. using a maths textbook to teach substitution into formula and solving.

A better way to look at it is:
  • rote and meaningful learning at opposite ends of one continuum
  • reception and discovery at opposite ends of another continuum

- from Learning how to Learn (1984) by Joseph Novak and Bob Gowin

The authors promote concept mapping and the knowledge Vee as solutions to transforming rote into meaningful learning. I have used both of these techniques with varying degrees of success. One limiting issue is that this is about propositional knowledge (knowing that). Knowing how, learning by doing is important too

IMO this does provide a theoretical insight into some of the limitations of the discovery or inquiry approach

what is maths? reality confronts inspiration

I thought this anonymous comment on my Simplicio-Salviato blog said quite a lot:
... The students I teach are quite difficult at most times, and are generally quite behind in maths. They can often remember ways of doing things by rote, but have troubles generalising and get completely stuck if they find themselves in an unexpected situation. Probably for this reason, they really like worksheets and textbooks. They can get the answers (one way or another) - in fact there _is_ an answer. They have no idea of what this answer means, or, for that matter what the question means or why the hell they're doing it. But that doesn't really matter if they can get the answer. On the other hand, whenever I have tried more open, exploratory or play based activities, the students tend to revolt (in a manner of speaking). Not always, but often. There's no clear end in sight, and they have difficulties working independently, so things start going awry. A lot of this, no doubt, comes from their lives outside of school, and earlier schooling.

It's a conundrum - I can work through the state's curriculum via a textbook and tick all the boxes, and the administrators will be happy and so will the students (though they won't actually have learnt anything useful), or I can tear my hair out trying something different where the students get confused, I don't cover the expected material, and the outcome might not be much better. I'm tending towards the latter option, in the hope that over time the students will become more responsive...
All this is true and says a lot succinctly, written by a real teacher in a real school - and that counts for something.

(In saying that I'm not forgetting that Paul Lockhart is also a real teacher in a real school and an inspirational maths teacher and polemicist)

The dialogue between reality and inspiration needs to continue, both sides of this discussion need to be listened to.

Anonymous points out there is tremendous and real institutional inertia on both teachers and students to perpetuate an uninspiring "plug and chug" pseudo maths methodology. This inertia is fueled by uninspiring textbooks (devoid of maths history and open ended challenges) and that many students actual prefer to do maths that way than face the discomfort and struggle of real thought and effort. It is also true that some open ended discovery learning or inquiry approaches achieve even worse results than simple old fashioned plug and chug.

These traditional approaches exist and are perpetuated for real reasons - even though they are rotten, boring and deserve to die.

There is risk involved in new innovative approaches. They can work but they have to be well thought out, based on sound theories and implemented in a flexible, not dogmatic manner.

Hegel: all that is real is rational; all that is rational is real
Engels: reality proves to be necessity; all that exists deserves to perish

Wayan Vota's melodrama

Read the comments on this melodramatic post by perpetual OLPC critic, Wayan Vota: this is the end my friend: Negroponte says XP on XO in 60 days

I thought the comments by delphi and Jordan were good, also ThePete and TankerKevo (search for their names if short of time)

The FOSS movement seems to consist of at least two sorts of people. Those who would impose FOSS on everyone (lock in) and those who actually believe in democracy and freedom including the right of Microsoft to compete and not be locked out of the OLPC.

The former group are dangerous. They want to replace a bad thing (monopoly capitalism) with a worse thing (Communist Party Soviet Union style compulsion).

Wayan Vota has always said that the OLPC is a hardware project and not an educational project. He hates Negroponte. Now he is saying that because Microsoft might put Windows on the OLPC it is the end of the road of the OLPC as an educational project - even though he has always denied that it was an educational project in the first place.

At any rate his melodrama is technocentric - that the OS decides everything. It doesn't.

As a few commentators on the thread point out:
  • there are real problems with Sugar
  • all the constructionist software runs fine under Windows

OLPC implementation in Australia: some blocking points

I haven't been blogging much about the OLPC lately.

My perception is that the education system in Australia is so conformist that there doesn't appear to be a single school, Principal or Department in the whole country that is prepared to give the OLPC a chance. If I found such a niche I would apply to teach there. Failing that I'm not quite ready to leave my country of birth, (yet).

OLPC ought to be given a chance in remote aboriginal communities. This could work.

Part of the problem here is that plans to fix things are centred around standardised testing, based on the need to measure improvement. See teaching to the test. This is at odds with the constructionist learning theory promoted by the OLPC group.

Another issue working against the OLPC is fear of the internet (porn, pedophiles and online bullying). Sadly, many educators, particularly administrators, do not support the notion of a real personal computer in the hands of children, any children. They see the risks outweighing the benefits. This fear is visceral.

There is also a profound lack of understanding of what could be achieved educationally with personal computers distributed to young children. This parallels the lack of understanding of what can be achieved with a programming language microworld such as logo - and the decline of the use of logo in schools in the past 15 years.

Summing up: standards, fear of a true PC and epistemological miasma. These issues taken together add up currently to a "no go" sign in implementing OLPC based education in certain areas of Australia, such as remote indigenous communities, where it could be invaluable.

scratch challenges (introductory)

This might be useful for those starting out with Scratch. A series of challenges that I have prepared for my students. Let us know if you have some good introductory scratch challenges on themes I have missed.


1) Make 2 different balls move around on the stage
a) the first ball moves in straight lines but bounces randomly whenever it hits the edge
b) the second moves randomly, changing direction all the time

2) One sprite chases another sprite around the stage. The first sprite moves in straight line but bounces off the edge randomly. The chasing sprite chases the first sprite but is moving slower.

3) A plant shoot slowly grows towards the sunlight

4) Make a simple musical composition

5) Point, click and move
a) Make a pointing object point towards the mouse position, as you move the mouse
Hint: Motion > point towards
b) Make an object both point and move towards the mouse position when you click on the stage
Hint: Sensing > mouse down?

6) Make a sprite gradually grow in size and then shrink
Hint: make a size variable

7) Count down on a timer. A rocket takes off when you reach zero
Hint: Make a variable for the counter

8) Variable coloured squares
a) Write a script that can draw a square of any size
Hint: Make a variable for the side length
b) Use the variable square script to draw a series of square with variable sides, with a single click
c) Now add variable pen colour and pen shade to the variable square script and use it to draw a variety of different coloured squares, with a single click
d) Now do the same with another shape, you choose which shape

9) Gravity
a) Simulate gravity, the object must accelerate downwards
Hint: create a variable which increases after releasing the object
b) … with bounce and sound when you hit the floor (the sound varies with the speed of hit)
c) …and with dropping when you “let go” with the mouse

10) Add, multiply or subtract two variable numbers
Hint: Just to do addition only you will need at 4 variables: firstNum, secondNum, answer (computer calculated)and myAnswer (human calculated)

11) With a wide variety of costumes (supply) and a few patterns you can produce beautiful effects eg. sparkles

12) Make a moon orbit around a planet, or, a planet orbit around the sun

Saturday, March 15, 2008

it's beyond bad in Aurukun

Australian people know that things are bad in many aboriginal communities but do they know how bad?

This Sydney Morning Herald article We need to get the children out of here describes the terrible extent of the problems in Aurukun, in far north Queensland:
Elders are calling for the children to be removed from the community at age nine, for their safety and education ...

... Recidivism rates for teenage boys run at 90 per cent, some having served up to eight terms for offences from stealing cars to assault by the time they are 15. Close to a tenth of the community's adults and teenagers are either on parole, a suspended sentence or community service orders, but the latter are rarely enforced. Another tenth is revolving through jail or juvenile detention.

One in three children are not enrolled at the school, which notionally teaches to year 10 level. Of those who are, they attend two days a week on average. Nine in 10 children do not turn up on a Friday, regarded by most parents as a holiday set aside for gambling the week's "sweat money" (work-for-the-dole payments) and "child money" (family tax benefits)...

There have been two alcohol-driven street riots this year, involving 50 people or more armed with iron bars, knives and hammers, on top of three last year. The past week has seen an influx of sly grog by sea, a stabbing, nightly assaults and the near-sacking of the chief executive officer for his efforts to apply general administrative standards to council business.

Tomorrow's local government election is largely being fought over the community's "right to drink" in the face of recent restrictions on the serving of alcohol at the local tavern by the Liquor Licensing Board.
Clearly, we have to do a lot more than say sorry. Read the article in full and search this blog for "pearson" for further information about possible solutions.

Step one: face reality

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Evolution is a blind watchmaker

Evolution is a blind watchmaker

This blew me away

He refutes the blind watchmaker Intelligent Design argument as a straw man, because watch parts aren't alive

Then he builds a watch simulation program made of "live parts" and runs it to show that live watches would evolve

Sunday, March 09, 2008

what is maths? Paul Lockhart's Simplicio-Salviato dialogue

Lockhart's Lament (pdf 25pp) introduced by Keith Devlin

"Maths is the music of reason"

This beautifully written lament takes some powerful swipes at school maths, textbooks, our suppression of the drama of maths history, our collective cultural ignorance of maths (we think we know but we don't) and supplies some great examples of real maths teaching (the triangle in a box problem, the sum and difference of two numbers problem)

Simplicio and Salviato were two characters used by Galileo in his polemic against the Church. Paul Lockhart uses the same characters to construct a modern day polemic about the organised, uninspiring religion of standardised School textbook maths.

Simplicio is a "back to basics", instructionist, consumer-oriented, career-oriented defender of the traditional maths curriculum. Salviato is a passionate advocate of exploration and discovery - maths as an art form.
SIMPLICIO: All right, I understand that there is an art to mathematics and that we are not doing a good job of exposing people to it. But isn’t this a rather esoteric, highbrow sort of thing to expect from our school system? We’re not trying to create philosophers here, we just want people to have a reasonable command of basic arithmetic so they can function in society.

SALVIATI: But that’s not true! School mathematics concerns itself with many things that have nothing to do with the ability to get along in society — algebra and trigonometry, for instance. These studies are utterly irrelevant to daily life. I’m simply suggesting that if we are going to include such things as part of most students’ basic education, that we do it in an organic and natural way. Also, as I said before, just because a subject happens to have some mundane practical use does not mean that we have to make that use the focus of our teaching and learning. It may be true that you have to be able to read in order to fill out forms at the DMV, but that’s not why we teach children to read. We teach them to read for the higher purpose of allowing them access to beautiful and meaningful ideas. Not only would it be cruel to teach reading in such a way— to force third graders to fill out purchase orders and tax forms— it wouldn’t work! We learn things because they interest us now, not because they might be useful later. But this is exactly what we are asking children to do with math.

SIMPLICIO: But don’t we need third graders to be able to do arithmetic?

SALVIATI: Why? You want to train them to calculate 427 plus 389? It’s just not a question that very many eight-year-olds are asking. For that matter, most adults don’t fully understand decimal place-value arithmetic, and you expect third graders to have a clear conception? Or do you not care if they understand it? It is simply too early for that kind of technical training. Of course it can be done, but I think it ultimately does more harm than good. Much better to wait until their own natural curiosity about numbers kicks in.

SIMPLICIO: Then what should we do with young children in math class?

SALVIATI: Play games! Teach them Chess and Go, Hex and Backgammon, Sprouts and Nim, whatever. Make up a game. Do puzzles. Expose them to situations where deductive reasoning is necessary. Don’t worry about notation and technique, help them to become active and creative mathematical thinkers.

SIMPLICIO: It seems like we’d be taking an awful risk. What if we de-emphasize arithmetic so much that our students end up not being able to add and subtract?

SALVIATI: I think the far greater risk is that of creating schools devoid of creative expression of any kind, where the function of the students is to memorize dates, formulas, and vocabulary lists, and then regurgitate them on standardized tests—“Preparing tomorrow’s workforce today!”

SIMPLICIO: But surely there is some body of mathematical facts of which an educated person should be cognizant.

SALVIATI: Yes, the most important of which is that mathematics is an art form done by human beings for pleasure! Alright, yes, it would be nice if people knew a few basic things about numbers and shapes, for instance. But this will never come from rote memorization, drills, lectures, and exercises. You learn things by doing them and you remember what matters to you. We have millions of adults wandering around with “negative b plus or minus the square root of b squared minus 4ac all over 2a” in their heads, and absolutely no idea whatsoever what it means. And the reason is that they were never given the chance to discover or invent such things for themselves. They never had an engaging problem to think about, to be frustrated by, and to create in them the desire for technique or method. They were never told the history of mankind’s relationship with numbers— no ancient Babylonian problem tablets, no Rhind Papyrus, no Liber Abaci, no Ars Magna. More importantly, no chance for them to even get curious about a question; it was answered before they could ask it.

SIMPLICIO: But we don’t have time for every student to invent mathematics for themselves! It took centuries for people to discover the Pythagorean Theorem. How can you expect the average child to do it?

SALVIATI: I don’t. Let’s be clear about this. I’m complaining about the complete absence of art and invention, history and philosophy, context and perspective from the mathematics curriculum. That doesn’t mean that notation, technique, and the development of a knowledge base have no place. Of course they do. We should have both. If I object to a pendulum being too far to one side, it doesn’t mean I want it to be all the way on the other side. But the fact is, people learn better when the product comes out of the process. A real appreciation for poetry does not come from memorizing a bunch of poems, it comes from writing your own.

SIMPLICIO: Yes, but before you can write your own poems you need to learn the alphabet. The process has to begin somewhere. You have to walk before you can run.

SALVIATI: No, you have to have something you want to run toward. Children can write poems and stories as they learn to read and write. A piece of writing by a six-year-old is a wonderful thing, and the spelling and punctuation errors don’t make it less so. Even very young children can invent songs, and they haven’t a clue what key it is in or what type of meter they are using.

SIMPLICIO: But isn’t math different? Isn’t math a language of its own, with all sorts of symbols that have to be learned before you can use it?

SALVIATI: Not at all. Mathematics is not a language, it’s an adventure. Do musicians “speak another language” simply because they choose to abbreviate their ideas with little black dots? If so, it’s no obstacle to the toddler and her song. Yes, a certain amount of mathematical shorthand has evolved over the centuries, but it is in no way essential. Most mathematics is done with a friend over a cup of coffee, with a diagram scribbled on a napkin. Mathematics is and always has been about ideas, and a valuable idea transcends the symbols with which you choose to represent it. As Gauss once remarked, “What we need are notions, not notations.”

SIMPLICIO: But isn’t one of the purposes of mathematics education to help students think in a more precise and logical way, and to develop their “quantitative reasoning skills?” Don’t all of these definitions and formulas sharpen the minds of our students?

SALVIATI: No they don’t. If anything, the current system has the opposite effect of dulling the mind. Mental acuity of any kind comes from solving problems yourself, not from being told how to solve them.

SIMPLICIO: Fair enough. But what about those students who are interested in pursuing a career in science or engineering? Don’t they need the training that the traditional curriculum provides? Isn’t that why we teach mathematics in school?

SALVIATI: How many students taking literature classes will one day be writers? That is not why we teach literature, nor why students take it. We teach to enlighten everyone, not to train only the future professionals. In any case, the most valuable skill for a scientist or engineer is being able to think creatively and independently. The last thing anyone needs is to be trained.

I love this essay but also have a few brief critical comments:

(1) In the above dialogue in response to Simplicio's point that children cannot rediscover the Pythagorean theorem unaided, Lockhart, speaking through Salviato responds:
Let’s be clear about this. I’m complaining about the complete absence of art and invention, history and philosophy, context and perspective from the mathematics curriculum. That doesn’t mean that notation, technique, and the development of a knowledge base have no place. Of course they do. We should have both. If I object to a pendulum being too far to one side, it doesn’t mean I want it to be all the way on the other side. But the fact is, people learn better when the product comes out of the process.
I agree with what Lockhart is saying here but I don't think he sticks to this position consistently throughout his essay. In his passionate enthusiasm for maths as an art form he does let the pendulum swing too far one way. I would say he more or less denies the importance of behaviourist learning (see Dennett) and doesn't grasp that what works for the creative student does not work for all students.

Open ended discovery learning is another possible road to purgatory. To draw an example from the language wars. Whole language techniques may work well for many students but other techniques (phonics) are essential for the other 25%. According to Kevin Wheldall, "25 per cent of low-progress readers will fail to learn to read if they do not have systematic instruction using phonics" (source)

(2) Lockhart is wrong to imply that other subjects are not butchered by School

(3) Papert's constructionist use of logo programming does open up a possible pathway to solve some of the problems identified by Lockhart but this is not even mentioned

Friday, March 07, 2008

low floor, high ceiling OR low floor, wide walls?

Mitch Resnick and Brian Silverman:
The Logo programming language is often described as having a low floor and high ceiling: it is easy for novices to get started (low floor) and possible for experts to work on increasingly sophisticated projects (high ceiling). In our own work (especially in recent years), we have put less emphasis on high ceilings and more emphasis on what might be called “wide walls.” That is, we have tried to design technologies that support and suggest a wide range of different explorations.
- reflections on designing construction kits for kids
I want low floor, wide walls and high ceiling

Scratch - fantastic design to start with - does not have a high ceiling and smart users hit the ceiling fairly quickly. It's frustrating.

Here's a repeat of Detha Elza's scratch critique:
It also has some pretty severe limitations: no user-defined blocks, no return values, no file interaction (so no high scores), no network interaction, no dynamic object creation, the program cannot draw on sprites (only on the background), no string variables or any real string handling. It is a great environment for learning to think creatively within its constraints, but my kids also bump up against its limits pretty quickly.
- the importance of visual programming
I could start my own list of "scratch annoyances" but the real problem is the theoretical underpinning of Papert's "epistemological pluralism" and Resnick / Silverman's lowering of the ceiling, then it has to be tackled at that level, perhaps.

wendy kopp's book

one day, all children ... the unlikely triumph of teach for america and what I learned along the way (2001) by Wendy Kopp

I posted a brief comment about teach for america earlier (it sounds like a miracle), which attracted some helpful, critical responses from sylvia martinez (comments) and tom hoffman (blog)

My original interest arose partly by the endorsement of teach for america by the proposed teach for australia scheme as a solution to the australian indigenous educational crisis - even though it is important to note again there are significant differences b/w TFAmerica and TFAustralia, eg. TFAustralia pairs experienced mentors ("Fellows") with new recruits ("Associates")

In this post I want to say what Wendy Kopp says and does not say in her book

I still think it's amazing - it sounds like a miracle

Kopp's book is not analytical about education. eg. there is nothing of any substance at all in there about learning theory. Also the short teacher inservice program conducted by TFAmerica is at best highly problematic, from the Kopp account.

Kopp herself has never taught in a disadvantaged school. Her strength's are fund raising, management and promotional skills (including self promotion), which she learnt painfully

What I find amazing is the simplicity of the vision and the fact that it has succeeded significantly against the odds

Simplicity of the vision: Recruit high quality graduates to teach in disadvantaged schools

There is evidence of success in Kopp's book - although quite a lot of the evidence is anecdotal ("I visited this school and inspirational corp member was working their guts out doing this, this and this and achieving this")

More importantly, independent analysis has confirmed the success of Teach for America. This is documented in the Teach for Australia paper:
The most rigorous study to date, conducted in 2004 by Mathematica Policy Research, found that TFA teachers had a positive impact on math achievement of students as compared to students of all other teachers (who may or may not have a traditional certification background). TFA-taught students achieved the effect of roughly an additional month of math instruction over the course of a year. In reading, TFA teachers delivered similar gains as other teachers. However, TFA teachers had more substantial gains when compared to other novice teachers. In other words, Teach For America teachers were “an appealing pool of candidates…there is little risk that hiring TFA teaches will reduce achievement.” The study also notes the need for “programs or policies that can attract good teachers to schools in the most disadvantaged communities” and states “our findings show that TFA is one such program.”
The various statements in Kopp's book (some more evangelical, some more statistical quoting various surveys) are congruent with this analysis

For me the important thing is this. No one has successfully tackled educational disadvantage system wide systematically before, at least in Australia. There have been some individual successes in schools with inspirational Principals but no systemic success. Now we have a model that shows some real potential for success, warts and all.

The subtitle says it, "the unlikely success of teach for america ..."

At the end of the book there is some speculation about some of the reasons for success. This bit was interesting:
Perhaps the economic downturn, and the rise in civic committment following the tragic events of September 11 ... (Afterword, p. 187, 2003 edition)
The Australian education system, like the American has a very large gap b/w rich and poor. We need to take notice of this scheme.

Kopp's book is interesting but the real story of Teach for America will have to be told by the teachers themselves

Monday, March 03, 2008

Eratosthenes Project - Australia

A great science project from RMIT (via Roland Gesthuizen):
RMIT University is coordinating a national schools project inviting teachers and students from Years 10, 11 and 12 to re-enact Eratosthenes' famous experiment in measuring the angle of the Sun at local noon to determine the radius of the Earth. The students and teachers will make their measurements during National Science Week from 16 to 24 August 2008 ...

Each registering school will be paired with another school which has as close as possible to the same longitude and as large as possible latitude difference. The two schools will share measurements of the angle to the local-noon Sun to determine the radius of the Earth
Eratosthenes Project - Australia
I was thinking of some preliminary activities, accessible to younger kids, to introduce greek maths / science to start with including some nocturnal activities

eg. holding a ruler at arms length to measure the diameter of the moon, then using similar triangles to estimate the ratio b/w the moons diameter and distance of the moon from the earth (or using a coin if you have a partner to help)

which also happens to be the same as the ratio b/w the suns diameter and the distance of the sun from the earth (since the sun is exactly covered by the moon during an eclipse)

This could be simulated on the computer. Alan Kay posted a project like this on the squeak list last year but I couldn't find it when I went back to look.

more info here:

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Agendas of Addiction

Noel Pearson has an article in The Weekend Australian titled Agendas of Addiction

He is responding to a critic, Matt Gaughwin, who thought Pearson was being insensitive and cruel to ex AFL football star, Gary Ablett (senior), who suffers from drug addiction

Pearson criticised Ablett because Ablett advocates a social theory of self medication as the main cause of addiction. Ablett argued that:
... it's time we realised that drugs are not the problem but a symptom of far deeper issues, both in people's lives and our society
Pearson replies:
The symptom theory is a hideous idea that is deeply embedded in our society's consciousness about substance abuse ... It is hideous because it furnishes those who are engaged in substance abuse with a perfect justification for their indulgence ... it discourages a social response to addiction as the problem in it's own right, and deflects attention to a vast array of so-called underlying factors, most of which are beyond the reach of social policy. So we are left sitting on our hands while the addiction epidemics continue to grow
Pearson is criticising Ablett because symptom theory masks the true nature of the problem in aboriginal communities. Despite dispossession many aboriginal communities did remain relatively drug free until the following conditions came about:
  • Availability of the addictive substance
  • Money to acquire the substance
  • Time to use the substance
  • Example of use of the substance in the immediate environment
  • A permissive ideology in relation to the use of the substance
Pearson is arguing that we need to tackle drug addiction as a problem in aboriginal communities in its own right - independent of other complicating historical, social and genetic factors. That analysis provides a tangible basis for moving forward from where we are now.

Worth reading the whole article (page 26, The Weekend Australian, March 1-2, 2008 )

related: noel pearson