Thursday, August 14, 2008

question 22

walter bender's question 22:
(22) What “shoulders of giants” should we stand on? What is it that children should learn? Are there any universals? How do children decide whom and what to believe?
I've been providing what I think is a good answer to these questions for some time now (since December 2006: what should schools teach?) but often the response is muted and contradictory. It's not my original answer, it originates from alan kay and his analysis originates from anthropologists.

The answer is not that children should learn the universals but what Kay has called the "non universals". From anthropological research of over 3000 human cultures, Kay presented two lists, the first were universals, the things that all human cultures have in common. This list included things like:
  • language
  • communication
  • fantasies
  • stories
  • tools and art
  • superstition
  • religion and magic
  • play and games
  • differences over similarities
  • quick reactions to patterns
  • vendetta, and more
He then presented a list of non universals, the things that humans find harder to learn. This list was shorter and included:
  • reading and writing
  • deductive abstract mathematics
  • model based science
  • equal rights
  • democracy
  • perspective drawing
  • theory of harmony
  • similarities over differences
  • slow deep thinking
  • agriculture
  • legal systems
The non universals have not arisen spontaneously, they have been discovered by the smartest humans after hundreds or thousands of years of civilisation. Hence, it follows that children need guidance in learning them, they will not be discovered by open ended discovery learning. There is an objective need for some version of “school” - where advanced knowledge is somehow communicated from those who know it to those who don't.

The resolution of the tension (between how children learn and the complex, non spontaneous nature of the development of advanced scientific or Enlightenment ideas) is to develop an honest children's version of the advanced ideas. For some of these ideas (not all) the computer can aid this process. Which ones? The list would include the laws of motion, turtle geometry, calculus by vectors, exponential growth, feedback and system ecologies. I think this should be the starting point or at least one of the starting points for thinking about how computers should be used in schools.

Part of the discussion here is establishing that computers are not currently used to their full potential in schools. IMO once the above vision of how computers could be used in schools is understood then it becomes obvious that they are currently poorly used in schools.

I've been wondering why this particular idea, the non universals, is not spreading more. I think it's because it goes against the culture of pseudo progressiveness which advocates that process is more important than content, that discovery is more important than knowledge and/or that education should be entertaining or at least laid back, that we shouldn't put too much pressure on children. The problem is how to teach the non universals without sounding like a "back to basics" fundamentalist. But that is a real problem that needs to be faced and resolved.

Is this an example of the unsane, the mental state where our ideas don't fit reality, the map doesn't represent the territory. We like to think of ourselves as mostly "sane" and contrast that with a few "insane" personal moments or the more permanent state of a few unfortunates. But the "unsane" idea makes room for a different self perception. What if more often than not we are unsane?

powerful ideas discourse (follow the links there for a fuller discussion)
in general programmers are not creatures of the Enlightenment (or why I quit teaching year 9 computing skills and went back to teaching maths and science)
our human condition "from space" (sources the unsane idea)
alan kay's educational vision (summary of a presentation I gave about alan kay's ideas)


Tom Hoffman said...

Well, one reason the idea isn't spreading is that there doesn't seem to be an easily found complete description of the idea.

Peter William Lount said...

A huge impediment to what you speak of are the many "superstitions", i.e. unsane and insane notions, that a large percentage of the population embrace under the mantle of "faith based beliefs". Specifically those superstitions about the "way it is" with regards to their fantasy stories being "reality" rather than finding out about objective reality.

Teaching basic reasoning skills, critical thinking skills, basic investigative skills, basic "what is real" question asking ontological skills, and the ways of the scientific method are also crucial to prevent the spread of ignorance by delusional beliefs that seem so widespread.

A challenge of course is teaching these skills when the parents don't want their kids to know them for it can mean that their children possibly wouldn't embrace the particular strain of delusional beliefs as their parents. Breaking the "spell" of belief is a serious concern for many parents that impacts the learning of their children.

Getting past the resistance to having their children taught the methods of rational thought and science then one must be able to teach science in a way that actually works whether that be in fun ways, in serious ways or innovative ways.

In a world with advanced (and advancing) science and technology having the skills is more important than ever, not just to navigate the the technological advances but to navigate through the thickets of "beliefism" that permeates society to find ones way closer to objective reality.

Unknown said...

Though these non-universals are a good starting point, they are not necessarily what schools should teach.

It seems that you are confusing 3 different concepts:
1 what societies find hard to develop
2 what kids find hard to learn
3 what is not being taught elsewhere

That societies do not all spontaneously develop a skill does not necessarily mean that skill won't become stable in a society.

Skills common to all societies are not necessarily easily learnt. They might devote a lot of resources to teaching them.

A lot of learning occurs out of schools, the school resources should go to those skills poorly taught by other methods.

Bill Kerr said...

hi tom,

I've started a non universals page on the learning evolves wiki. Alan Kay's writings are scattered all over the place. I've tried to compile some of them as an annotated reference in one place, here

I agree that it is a problem. eg. Papert's ideas are more accessible because he compiles them more systematically in books and one of those books sold over a million copies Mindstorms).

I didn't really begin to grok the big picture of alan kay's ideas until I read John W. Maxwell's PhD thesis , which pulls together a lot of scattered information about Alan Kay into one place, very valuable from that point of view. Start with Chapter 4 to obtain an overview of Alan Kay's educational vision. Maxwell correctly stresses the importance of a historical perspective, going back to the 1960s, in order to understand how educational computing got to the place it is now

I have to think further about how the non universals idea integrates with various other ideas put forward by alan kay - as well as other notable educational theorists. Can it be a central unifier or is it more one of a number of threads? Discovering it was for me personally, an AHA moment, hence, my frustration when it doesn't appear to strike others in that way.

Bill Kerr said...

hi peter,

Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that we face thickets of beliefism, old religions and newer ones too.

If you haven't seen it already, you might be interested in this essay by alan kay starts with similar ideas to yours and then proceeds to discuss ways to help children achieve scientific modelling. I've added this essay to the reference list on the new non universals page of the learning evolves wiki.

Bill Kerr said...

hi tony,

I think there is a strong degree of overlap between your points 1, 2 and 3 and the non universals.

eg. when I ask my year 8's what is science all they can think of is "explosions" which is the pop culture of science from TV. They appear to have no idea what science is.

Can you tease out the distinctions you make in more detail, with examples?