Tuesday, July 28, 2009

sugar evaluation blogs

I'm evaluating Sugar on a Stick (SoaS) with my year 10 control tech class in semester two.

I've created a separate blog for this:

Go there if you want more detail. Student blogs are linked through the sidebar. It would be nice for students to get comments, if you feel like encouraging them. Most of them haven't written blogs before so they receive a pleasant surprise if something drops in and leaves an encouraging or thoughtful comment.

My blog might also be a useful guide in some respects for other teachers wanting to test out sugar on a stick.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


MIT grad student David Merrill demos Siftables -- cookie-sized, computerized tiles you can stack and shuffle in your hands. These future-toys can do math, play music, and talk to their friends, too.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Jeff Elkner's python resources for school

Using Python in a High School Computer Science Program - Year 2 (2002 Python conference paper)
Part I: Reflections From the Classroom by Jeffrey Elkner

This paper is refreshingly frank and honest about the real difficulties (and also the real potential) involved in introducing python programming to a school environment

It's really very important that the kids have a smooth start in a consistent environment (and in practice this seems almost impossible to achieve)

You need good resources, such as a good textbook.

The students need to see that the skills they are developing are relevant to some close at hand real world situation

Even with a smooth start some of them are going to find it hard and so we need to be on the alert for new ways to retain them (such as the LiveWires materials)

It's hard to get girls involved

Great to see that Jeffrey Elkner understands and is systematically addressing these issues. As well as the above article see his Open Book Project, his GASP python course and his adaptation of the How to Think Like a Computer Scientist to python.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

iran: the protests continue

The internal power struggle between clerics is not going away and this leads to more opportunities for the democratic forces to continue to protest on the streets

July 17: Fresh protests after a Friday prayer sermon delivered by the cleric and opposition supporter Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani

Slogans: (video)
Death to the government
"Neda" is not dead, it's the government that's dead
"Sohrab" is not dead, it's the government that's dead
As hard-liners repeated their signature cries of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel," riled-up Mousavi supporters overpowered them with chants of "Death to Russia" and "Death to China," the Islamic Republic's powerful United Nations Security Council protectors.

But Mousavi's backers came not so much to show support for Rafsanjani, who is widely viewed as a cynical power broker serving his own interests, but to voice opposition to Ahmadinejad and continue to register discontent over the election results they view as rigged.

Rafsanjani's long-awaited sermon neither cooled protesters' anger or appeared to alter the dynamics within the ruling establishment and Iranian society. But it gave explicit clerical backing for some of the key demands of the burgeoning political movement built on Mousavi's presidential campaign and the protests that followed.

Rafsanjani, a key force behind Mousavi, urged tolerance, dialogue and obedience to the law, but criticized the election results and the treatment of dissidents.

"All of us -- the establishment, the security forces, police, parliament and even protesters -- should move within the framework of law," Rafsanjani said. "We should open the doors to debates. We should not keep so many people in prison. We should free them to take care of their families."

He criticized the powerful Guardian Council for its review of the election results, and said all Iranians needed to "restore public confidence, because it was badly damaged."

He said healing will take time and that utilizing the blunt instruments of state to quiet dissent would only make matters worse.

"It is impossible to restore public confidence overnight, but we have to let everyone speak out," he said. "We should have logical and brotherly discussions and our people will make their judgments."

He demanded freedom of the press. Media-monitoring groups say dozens of Iranian journalists have been jailed in last weeks of unrest.

"We should let our media write within the framework of the law and we should not impose restrictions on them," he said. "We should let our media even criticize us. Our security forces, our police and other organs have to guarantee such a climate for criticism."

He also urged respect and sympathy for the families of those killed in the violence. "We should try to console them," he said.
- Tehran's streets erupt after a key cleric speaks

Friday, July 17, 2009

a big wheel falls off Conroy's censorship wagon

Michael Flood, one of the main pro internet censorship theoreticians relied on by Senator Conroy, our worst ever Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, has changed his mind

Flood along with Clive Hamilton wrote a discussion paper in 2003, Youth and Pornography in Australia: Evidence on the extent of exposure and likely effects, which has been used as justification for Conroy's ISP based mandatory censorship plans
Now, Flood says, he has seen enough evidence to feel differently. "I am now far less convinced than I used to be of the value of ISP-based filtering as a strategy," he said at the forum. "I am much more convinced of its technological problems and I am much more convinced of its political dangers ... Clive Hamilton on the other hand — my then co-author — is still a firm advocate, I believe, but he and I have gone in separate directions."
The whole article,'Net Nanny' Advocate Does Back Flip, is worth a read. It is not as though Flood has changed his mind completely about the dangers of porn to youth. Some of his thoughts there are quite interesting. It seems more that he has realised that the technological and political problems associated with censorship by government are a greater danger to our social well being.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Clayton Christensen's disrupting school thesis

I haven't read Clayton Christensen's books but I have listened to some of his talks and read some reviews of his books. I see his theory as helpful for understanding the reasons how some businesses boom then bust but less helpful when he transfers it to education.

My understanding of his disrupting schools (Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns) thesis is taken from these reviews:

June Ahn
(1) Children learn in different ways (2) Disruptive innovations gain a foothold and revolutionize a market because they target a niche audience who normally could not consume a good (3) Online learning is a disruptive technology (4) Computers in schools are not disruptive technology (5) Computers “can” be a disruptive innovation, when used to create new learning situations
- Disruptive Innovation in Education
Steve Hargadon:
From my reading, the disruptive innovation is not online education, but the increasing expectation that our children/students will have a customized educational experience. This makes a lot of sense to me, since having watched the ed tech world for some years now, it's hard to imagine a "technology" (even one as compelling as online education) motivating educators or parents to dramatic change. There are just too many practical daily concerns to make it believable that the unfulfilled promise of computing would "disrupt" our current system. On the other hand, a shift from the industrial model of schooling to one that is more responsive to our individual children does seem like an unstoppable force, since increasing parents' expectations for the education of their own children carries huge motivation and power (the authors' claim that in many school districts already over a third of their spending is on special education students [p. 34].)
- A First Look at "Disrupting Class" by Clayton Christensen
I also note that Christensen has been criticised for overstating the case about the extent to which school is a factory model. Andy Zucker writes:
Readers may learn something about the process of innovation from Disrupting Class, but they will not learn how creative school systems for years have been applying technology in precisely the ways that Disrupting Class recommends, namely to individualize learning, to make it more effective for greater numbers of students, and to offer alternatives to students who are not being served well by existing schools
- Lost in Cyberspace: A Review of Disrupting Class
I then watched this video:

where Christensen promotes his book and noticed a couple of straw men in there, one of them identified by Andy Zucker above. He does stress too much that school is like an assembly line. He takes a partial truth and turns it into an absolute. Christensen also subscribes uncritically to the multiple intelligences model. This, of course, suits his theory of the urgent need for more individualised instruction. However, the fly in the ointment here is that multiple intelligences is pretty much discredited as a theory of cognitive development. See Dan Willingham's Learning Styles Don't Exist

I have the impression that Christensen lacks detailed knowledge of where schools are at and is not up to date with learning theories. The purpose of the business world where Christensen initially developed his theories is to make money. A disruptive innovation which ends up making money is a success in these terms. School is far more complex than this.I'm wondering whether Christensen appreciates the complexity and multifaceted nature of schools. At this stage I'm thinking that I won't buy his book because I suspect I will be disappointed in this regard. I'd be interested in hearing from people who have read the book about this.

Nevertheless, the big idea of Christensen's theory - that digital online learning can meet unmet individual learning needs to the point that this will disrupt school significantly - is plausible and well worth thinking and talking about. Education reform has a long, long history and often people ask why reform proceeds at a snails pace. In other posts I have been critical of sections of the web2.0 movement for shallowness. The Christensen thesis, despite flaws, opens a new door here because it is concrete enough and tangible enough to transcend much of the complexity of school as an institution. In a sense, it's good because it is written by an outsider who doesn't know all the complexity of real school. This fits into the general Christensen thesis that incumbents are too bogged down in their own processes to undergo significant transformation.

I also wanted to say something about theories of disruption but will leave that to another post. That is another bonus from Christensen, he puts the whole notion of disruption as a concept onto the agenda.

web2.0 movement - challenged

After VITTA 2007 (critique) I stopped going to computer conferences because the keynotes had become dominated by web2.0. Web2.0 of course is good but when you divorce it from history, philosophy, epistemology and add in some evangelicalism then it's not healthy.

It's good to see this shallowness being vigorously challenged by ceolaf in the comment thread of Wil Richardson's Digital Inclusion post

As part of the discussion ceolaf linked to The Partnership for 19th Century Skills by Diane Ravitch, which once again drives a front end loader through the gaping holes of the 21st Century skills rhetoric

I left a comment at Wil's site but couldn't put it where I wanted due to the nesting levels feature. At any rate, what I wanted to say was that the best broad brush attempt I have seen yet of identifying the fundamentals that ought to be taught in school was made by alan kay in his outline of the non universals. I have made a beginning attempt to put this in one place: non universals

I did go to the CEGSA (Computer Education Group of South Australia) conference this year (cegsa09) and once again was disappointed with the keynotes, with the notable exception of David Loader, who does have a real sense of history (in part because he has made it), the wisdom of our elders, learning theory and human psychology. I don't want to offend the hard working organisers of this conference. The workshops were good. I do think, however, that there is an ongoing issue with keynote speakers at computer education conferences owing to the narrowing influence of the web2.0 movement.

From April last year: web2.0 introspection

aboriginal people can look after their own land, take a hike wilderness society and queensland labour

Pearson to the Wilderness Society:
"And our point is that, well mate, the deal was 50/50 here. Now you want a 99 per cent takeover of Aboriginal land. And the problem with what you want is that, basically, you're condemning us to a perpetual life of welfare. And though the welfare cheque comes in recycled paper green, it's still a welfare cheque. And it's no good for our people"
Watch this video: Pearson discusses wild rivers laws

Noel Pearson in full flight is a magnificent and joyous something to behold. He has the personal history, detailed nitty gritty knowledge, incredible analytical powers and the rhetoric of a great orator all rolled into one. Good interview by Leigh Sales, too, who is not afraid to interrupt and ask a tough question.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

scratch interview

All this Scrathin' (podcast 42 minutes)

Chris Betcher (NSW educator) interviewed Peter Ruwoldt, Grant High IT co-ordinator (Mt Gambier) and myself about Scratch, yesterday afternoon . Peter does most of the talking including a description of his Scratch Day involvement this year. The purpose was to spread the word about Scratch and ways to promote it further.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

improving cardboard

mark guzdial:
Seymour Papert once argued that educational curricula should be evaluated like art — don’t try to identify the best, but instead argue about how well this example expresses something, or how accessible another one is, or how another one leaves people thinking and talking for years later. Compare curricula for how they reach and engage people, not for a measurable, numeric bottom line. Wouldn’t it be great to have so many compelling CS1 curricula that we could have a CS1 “art gallery” and compare them along the lines Seymour described?
- education-is-to-social-work-as-civil-engineering-is-to-chemical-engineering

Sunday, July 12, 2009

audacity tutorial

I couldn't find any good beginner exercises for audacity so I developed one myself. I have road tested it with a couple of classes now and the students enjoyed it. A few teachers have said they like it too and so sharing I'm it here for a wider audience.


The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog
The adjective_1 adjective_2 noun verb over the adjective_3 noun

Teacher supplies sound files (in his voice) as show below:
Adjective 1: Quick, Slow, Speedy, Lumbering, Fast, Accelerating, Energetic, Rapid, Swift, Twitchy
Adjective 2: Brown, Red, Purple, Yellow, Orange, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet, Black
Noun: Fox, Dog, Snail, Rhinoceros, Giraffe, Elephant, Lion, Cat, Snake, Robot
Verb: Jumped, Lept, Fell, Collapsed, Dived, Bounced, Lurched, Vaulted, Parachuted, Lunged
Adjective 3: Lazy, Foolish, Flea-ridden, Sleepy, Short-sighted, Dead, Gigantic, Scrawny, Shaggy, Curly

Starting with generic sentence and cutting and pasting from the other files make three new sentences of the above structure

Example: The energetic orange rhinoceros parachuted over the dead cat

File > New to start a new file
File > Import > Audio to import a new audio track
Mute button for the tracks that you don’t want to hear
Select by clicking and dragging with mouse (for copying, cutting)
For playing one section select first and then play
Copy Ctrl + C; Paste Ctrl + V; Cut Ctrl + X; Undo Ctrl + Z; Duplicate Ctrl + D
Fit in Window: View > Fit in Window or Ctrl + F
Fit Vertically: View > Fit Vertically or Ctrl + Shift + F
Saving: The default is *.AUP which retains all tracks, use this initially
File > Export to save your work as a WAV file (or MP3 or OGG for small file size)

Outcome: Three different sentences: sentence1.wav, sentence2.wav, sentence3.wav


Start with one of the sentences you have made. Make duplicates (Ctrl + D), at least six.

Change Pitch – both up and down, so that the voice changes significantly
Change Speed – 30 to 45 and 30 to 78
Change Tempo – Increase and Decrease so that the voice changes significantly

Rename you duplicates as you go along, it helps to keep track with meaningful names

Save As … audacity project (*.aup) so as to retain all the pieces for later


Open a new file.

Select your best three effects and put them onto one track

From the music folder on the L drive (Winds, Synthesiser, Strings, FX etc.) add music before and after each sentence

Create new tracks and add background music which plays over the voices but has its loudness reduced so the voices can still be clearly heard.

When finished save as an MP3 or OGG (small file size) and give it to the teacher for marking

Effect > Fade In
Effect > Fade Out (use this for transition between music and voice)
Envelope Tool (for changing the volume)
Time Shift Tool (for moving selections of sound)


Record your best sentence in your own voice!

Then add Effects and Music to produce a final product similar to above but this time in your voice

python programming competition

The School of IT at the University of Sydney is running a python programming challenge for high school students over 5 weeks in term 3, 2009 - starting on Monday 10 August.

The NCSS (National Computer Science School) Challenge is designed to cater for both beginners and advanced students. Each week, a set of Python teaching resources for either in-class or self-directed learning will be distributed to participants via email and online. A set of challenge questions testing this material will also be distributed. Each week's challenge set will range from relatively easy to extremely challenging allowing beginners to progress at their own rate whilst extending gifted students. The challenges will increase in complexity as more and more programming concepts are covered over the 5 weeks.

Teachers can enter too. I have participated on the past two years and wrote a review two years ago. Note that the competition has changed since then; it didn't have the beginners and advanced sections back then.

Untruth by omission

This appeared in The Weekend Australian but the text is not available on the internet. I have taken it from the Mission and Justice blog, with minor edits.

Rosemary Neill; 11/7/09; Rosemary Neill is a senior writer on The Weekend Australian and author of White Out: How Politics is Killing Black Australia

Review - The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the End of the Liberal Consensus by Peter Sutton; Melbourne University Press (available here)

In 2000, anthropologist and linguist Peter Sutton travelled to the remote indigenous community of Aurukun for a double funeral. Sutton had already lost an extraordinary number of Aboriginal friends from this tiny Cape York community to suicide, murder and premature death. For him, that harrowing funeral was one too many. Shortly afterwards, this respected land rights expert delivered a lecture to the Australian Anthropological Society and gave one of the most damning assessments of contemporary indigenous policy on record. Sutton, who had been adopted (in the tribal sense) as a son by a prominent Aurukun man, urged Australians to reconsider “the contrast between progressivist public rhetoric about empowerment and self-determination and the raw evidence of a disastrous failure in major aspects of Australian Aboriginal affairs policy since the early 1970s”. The evidence of failure, he said, was “now frightening”.

That lecture, as impassioned as it was shocking, has evolved into this incisive, timely and tough-minded book. In The Politics of Suffering, Sutton writes about “the reality of massive failure in indigenous affairs policy” with courage and compassion, erudition and a sense of personal outrage and loss.

Sutton has been visiting Aurukun, a former Presbyterian mission of fewer than 1000 residents, since the early 70s. During a period of 28 years, he knew eight Aboriginal men and women from the settlement who committed suicide and 25 who were murdered or committed murder. He describes how Aurukun went from being a “once liveable and vibrant community” in the mid-70s when alcohol was not freely available, to “a disaster zone” by 2000. In his book, he examines the factors that contributed to this calamity.

Among them are cultural factors that pre-date white contact; factors, he argues, that are still considered so ideologically fraught they are intentionally omitted from public discussions of indigenous disadvantage.

Part scalding polemic, part dispassionate study, The Politics of Suffering is animated by three big and important ideas.

- First, it looks at how racially liberal attitudes have, paradoxically, paralleled escalating dysfunction in many remote indigenous communities.

- Second, as its subtitle suggests, the book explores the collapse of the 70s liberal consensus that a rights agenda — from a treaty to a formal reconciliation agreement — would empower the most troubled Aboriginal settlements. Sutton caustically observes: “This unscientific mumbo jumbo beggars belief.”

- Sutton’s third — and most contentious — theme blasts open a little-explored frontier in the contemporary indigenous affairs debate, taking the discussion to a new level of candour and maturity.

He analyses how many seemingly intractable problems indigenous people confront, from low life expectancy to high rates of domestic violence, arise from “a complex joining together” of post-conquest factors and “a substantial number of ancient, pre-existent social and cultural factors that have continued, transformed or intact, into the lives of people living today”.

Through his observations and careful marshalling of historical and anthropological evidence, Sutton demonstrates how traditional approaches to violence, hygiene, sorcery and child-rearing persist in many indigenous communities. He argues that together with recent, destructive impacts such as welfare dependence and substance abuse, these cultural practices often have a detrimental effect on indigenous health, housing and wellbeing.

Yet he discovers that the complex question of culture is still being quarantined from discussions of indigenous disadvantage through what he calls “untruth by omission”. For instance, debates about poor indigenous educational outcomes commonly cite problems such as students’ hearing loss and undernourishment, but neglect to mention truancy, “stupendous as it has so often been”. He concludes: “One of the obstacles to effective debate in the present context is that so many people are still in denial over the need for cultural change.”

Accounts of indigenous domestic violence – usually disregard how violence and fighting were common features of traditional life. Sutton ; notes how colonial observers and anthropologists witnessed high levels of male-on-female , violence “at the earliest moments of external contact”, while analysis of archeological human remains that predated colonisation reveal an unusually high degree of skull injuries among Aboriginal women.

He believes physical aggression is tolerated in many remote communities today, and that modern scourges such as alcoholism exacerbate the problem. He reveals how some indigenous child-rearing practices encourage children, especially boys, to be aggressive. In a practice known as “cruelling”, parents intentionally hurt their kids, including babies, and teach them . to retaliate physically: a behavioural echo, perhaps, of the days when clans were often at war and children needed to protect themselves.

While historical mistreatment and lack of resources contribute to the scandalously poor state of indigenous health, they cannot alone account for the lack of progress, says Sutton. In remote areas, indigenous people often adopt hygiene regimes suited to a semi-nomadic existence but not to settled households. Many remote-area indigenous people also believe most illnesses and deaths are due “to the ill will and sorcery of other people”, a belief that further complicates efforts to boost health.

Rather than confront these issues, Sutton claims that the media, medicos, bureaucrats and activists have ensured that the indigenous housing and health debates succumb to “the disease of politicisation”.

He quotes one article, published in the medical journal The Lancet in 2004, that partly blamed the appalling life expectancy gap between black and white Australians on the abolition of the widely discredited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. “That a journal with the historic reputation of The Lancet would stoop to publishing propaganda like this was incredible,” he writes.

The issue of overcrowded housing, Sutton says, is likewise misrepresented in the media as building shortages or evidence of indigenous poverty. But households that have 15 or 20 visitors staying at one time reflect a cultural phenomenon in which houses become a focal point for “demand sharing” by extended family members.

As the indigenous academic Marcia Langton says in her elegant, deeply felt foreword, Sutton’s honesty is “a powerful corrective to the romantic, misinformed fabulations about Aborigines as a special kind of modern ‘noble savage’.” Certainly, his clear-eyed analysis will offer little comfort to those on the Left who have romanticised tribal culture, and those on the Right who insist the answer lies in rapid economic modernisation.

Indeed, he concludes that the evidence “is heavily stacked against” a rose-tinted view that traditional Aboriginal people can quickly and easily change to adopt Western lifestyles.

He believes “deep — rather than superficial — cultural redevelopment is necessary” and that “the cycle of childhood socialisation needs to be regeared” if there is to be radical improvement. However, The Politics of Suffering offers few concrete suggestions as to how this might be achieved.

Sutton is no deep-dyed conservative with an axe to grind against self-determination. Indeed, he tells how he slept with a loaded rifle after being threatened by disgruntled whites for helping to establish a Cape York outstation in the early 70s. He has assisted 50 land rights cases, including the history-making Wik native title claim, as an expert on Aboriginal land ownership. Nevertheless, echoing Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson, he explores how, for too long, “a progressive politics (preoccupied with rights) dulled our instincts about the sanctity of indigenous people’s right also to be free from violence, abuse, neglect, ignorance and corruption.”

Such issues are now firmly on the public agenda. But Sutton is indignant that “the causation wars” continue: “Even people of apparent sophistication can publicly subscribe to causal accounts that are an insult to the average intelligence. The kids don’t go to school because the teachers are racists … the focus on Indigenous community dysfunction is unfair because child abuse and wife-bashing occur in all communities.”

The Politics of Suffering’s later chapters focus on cultural relativism and relationships between 20th-century anthropologists and their indigenous collaborators. Sutton also reveals why he is a reconciliation sceptic. Lacking the rhetorical ferocity of the earlier chapters, the writing here is sometimes circular and opaque. Nevertheless, for its political incorruptibility and startling insights, for its potent mix of personal observation and scholarly research, The Politics of Suffering is one of the most important contributions made to the indigenous affairs debate in recent years.

It’s possible ideologues will misuse Sutton’s arguments about traditional culture to blame indigenous people for their predicament. But without a fine-grained picture of what is occurring in communities that most Australians will never visit, effective policies cannot be devised.

Moreover, as Sutton contends, the lack of improvement in critical areas no longer allows for complacency about “correct” approaches to the most urgent moral problem confronting this country: how to achieve meaningful justice for our most disadvantaged citizens.
- source

Saturday, July 11, 2009

How to Survive in your Native Land

James Herndon: How to Survive in your Native Land (originally published in 1971)

I saw Doug Noon quote some James Herndon. This reminded me that Brian Harvey (great papers here) had recommended this book as one of the great descriptions of our education dilemmas. Visit the amazon link and read the reviews and this is confirmed.
[This book] is a literary treasure, simultaneously a Beat novel, a great feat of storytelling, and a storehouse of educational wisdom. Herndon shows us, with great wit and good spirits, how good education can emerge in the most unexpected circumstances and how caring teachers can transform lives.
–Herbert Kohl
The beauty of Herndon's work is that he is both a wonderful writer (he is featured as one of the better writers of nonfiction in William Zinsser's classic _On Writing Well_) and an astute observer of his own and his children's actions. How to Survive presents him at his finest, discussing not how to teach (he almost never does this) but what teaching and learning are like. He does this with humor, honesty, and an edge. No teacher, reading this book, can come away without a more thoughtful consideration of his or her own teaching. It is stunning and does not deserve to have been forgotten in the way that it has.
- Brian G Fay

crazy inventor babbage meets weird maths genius lovelace

this must be twittered
wait, this is a fan
suddenly, there is a gaping hole in my life of which I was hitherto unaware

taking guzdial seriously

My plans to transition kids from scratch to python have not been particularly successful so I'm thinking of giving the Mark Guzdial approach a trial - using python to tweak multimedia

Kids find the transition from the scratch visual drag and drop to python only text based daunting, or, more likely they just get bored without the multimedia. It's a huge daily problem for practicing teachers to walk the line between engagement and rigour. The Guzdial approach would keep some visuals, sounds, movies etc. involved (as outputs) for student text based programming inputs. It might work.

The Georgia Tech site is a mess but I eventually worked out that you can get enough materials to get started for no cost

There is a free draft copy of his book downloadable as a pdf from this page:

It includes chapters about:
  • Ch 2. Sounds
  • Ch 3 Pictures
  • Ch 5. Files
  • Ch 6 Text
  • Ch 7 Movies
This draft is fairly similar to the one you can buy: Introduction to Computing and Programming in Python: A Multimedia Approach
From the same link you can grab the version of python they use (jython) and also media samples to work with

The draft book explains:
"You’ll actually be programming using a tool called JES for “Jython Environment for Students.” JES is a simple editor (tool for entering program text) and interaction space so that you can try things out in JES and create new recipes within it. The media names (functions, variables, encodings) that we’ll be talking about in this book were developed to work from within JES (i.e., they’re not part of a normal Jython distribution, though the basic language we’ll be using is normal Python)."
- page 22
The direct link for media samples (pic, sound etc. files) which fit the exercises in the book) is http://coweb.cc.gatech.edu/cs1315/814

I have successfully setup the Jython environment and completed some introductory exercises (recipes) from the book.

Let us know if you are interested in experimenting with this approach and we can compare notes. Forward on to others if you think they might be interested too. I see it as worthwhile to pursue a variety of pathways aimed to switch students and teachers onto python programming.

the medium and which message?

New digitial media is all pervasive. It penetrates into our culture like the tide penetrates into low lying land and cannot be resisted. Worst case scenario: wait for the older generation to die out (Kuhn)

On the other hand, Enlightenment ideas (non universals) have to be won by hard argument. Historically, they required revolutions before they could be won, revolutions which continue to this day (eg. Iran). Many people in modern societies have little real understanding of maths or science which makes our modernity possible.

A lot of discussion about educational reform thinks that the new media is the message and has stopped thinking about which message is important

Related (from a previous blog):

A computer does computation. And most people don't really understand computation and what it is capable of. I was struck by this passage from Rodney Brooks book, Flesh and Machines, where he compares the impact of the computation idea (not disruptive intellectually, continuous with existing ideas) with the impact of quantum mechanics or relativity (which marked a sharp intellectual discontinuity with previous ideas) :
... computation was not disruptive intellectually, although the consequences of the mathematics that Turing and von Neumann developed did have disruptive technological consequences. A late-nineteenth-century mathematician would be able to understand the idea of Turing computability and a von Neumann architecture with a few days instruction. They would then have the fundamentals of modern computation. Nothing would surprise them or cause them to cry out in intellectual pain as quantum mechanics or relativity would if a physicist from the same era were exposed to them. Computation was a gentle, nondisruptive idea, but one that was immensely powerful... [pp. 188-9]

Thursday, July 09, 2009

dewey on teacher development

What makes a good teacher? They have to be subject experts, good communicators and explainers, child psychologists, down to earth philosopher and know how to walk a tight rope whilst balancing a bowling ball on their teeth.

Rob Costello found this quote from John Dewey (1849-1952) which brilliantly articulates some of the deeper issues of teacher development:
"As every teacher knows, children have an inner and an outer attention. The inner attention is the giving of the mind without reserve or qualification to the subject in hand. It is the first-hand and personal play of mental powers. As such, it is a fundamental condition of mental growth. To be able to keep track of this mental play, to recognize the signs of its presence or absence, to know how it is initiated and maintained, how to test it by results attained, and to test apparent results by it, is the supreme mark and criterion of a teacher. It means insight into soul-action, ability to discriminate the genuine from the sham, and capacity to further one and discourage the other.

External attention, on the other hand, is that given to the book or teacher as an independent object. It is manifested in certain conventional postures and physical attitudes rather than in the movement of thought. Children acquire great dexterity in exhibiting in conventional and expected ways this form of attention to school work, while reserving the inner play of their own thoughts, images, and emotions for subjects that are more important to them, but quite irrelevant.

Now, the teacher who is plunged prematurely into the pressing and practical problem of keeping order in the schoolroom has almost of necessity to make supreme the matter of external attention. The teacher has not yet had the training which affords psychological insight which enables him to judge promptly (and therefore almost automatically) the kind and mode of subject-matter which the pupil needs at a given moment to keep his attention moving forward effectively and healthfully. He does know, however, that he must maintain order ; that he must keep the attention of the pupils fixed upon his own questions, suggestions, instructions, and remarks, and upon their "lessons. " The inherent tendency of the situation therefore is for him to acquire his technique in relation to the outward rather than the inner mode of attention.

Along with this fixation of attention upon the secondary at the expense of the primary problem, there goes the formation of habits of work which have an empirical, rather than a scientific, sanction. The student adjusts his actual methods of teaching, not to the principles which he is acquiring, but to what he sees succeed and fail in an empirical way from moment to moment : to what he sees other teachers doing who are more experienced and successful in keeping order than he is; and to the injunctions and directions given him by others. In this way the controlling habits of the teacher finally get fixed with comparatively little reference to principles in the psychology, logic, and history of education. In theory, these latter are dominant; in practice, the moving forces are the devices and methods which are picked up through blind experimentation ; through examples which are not rationalized ; through precepts which are more or less arbitrary and mechanical ; through advice based upon the experience of others."! Here we have the explanation, in considerable part at least, of the dualism, the unconscious duplicity, which is one of the chief evils of the teaching profession. There is an enthusiastic devotion to certain principles of lofty theory in the abstract — principles of self-activity, self-control, intellectual and moral — and there is a school practice taking little heed of the official pedagogic creed. Theory and practice do not grow together out of and into the teacher's personal experience.

Ultimately there are two bases upon which the habits of a teacher as "a teacher may be built up. They may be formed under the inspiration and constant criticism of intelligence, applying the best that is available. This is possible only where the would-be teacher has become fairly saturated with his subject-matter, and with his psychological and ethical philosophy of education. Only when such things have become incorporated in mental habit, have become part of the working tendencies of observation, insight, and reflection, will these principles work automatically, unconsciously, and hence promptly and effectively. And this means that practical work should be pursued primarily with reference to its reaction upon the professional pupil in making him a thoughtful and alert student of education, rather than to help him get immediate proficiency.

For immediate skill may be got at the cost of power to go on growing. The teacher who leaves the professional school with power in managing a class of children may appear to superior advantage the first day, the first week, the first month, or even the first year, as compared with some other teacher who has a much more vital command of the psychology, logic, and ethics of development. But later "progress" may with such consist only in perfecting and refining skill already possessed. Such persons seem to know how to teach, but they are not students of teaching. Even though they go on studying books of pedagogy, reading teachers' journals, attending teachers' institutes, etc., yet the root of the matter is not in them, unless they continue to be students of subject-matter, and students of mind-activity. Unless a teacher is such a student, he may continue to improve in the mechanics of school management, but he can not grow as a teacher, an inspirer and director of soul-life. How often do candid instructors in training schools for teachers acknowledge disappointment in the later career of even their more promising candidates! They seem to strike twelve at the start. There is an unexpected and seemingly unaccountable failure to maintain steady growth. Is this in some part due to the undue premature stress laid in early practice work upon securing immediate capability in teaching?

I might go on to mention other evils which seem to me to be more or less the effect of this same cause. Among them are the lack of intellectual independence among teachers, their tendency to intellectual subserviency. The "model lesson" of the teachers' institute and of the educational journal is a monument, on the one hand, of the eagerness of those in authority to secure immediate practical results at any cost; and, upon the other, of the willingness of our teaching corps to accept without inquiry or criticism any method or device which seems to promise good results. Teachers, actual and intending, flock to those persons who give them clear-cut and definite instructions as to just how to teach this or that.

The tendency of educational development to proceed by reaction from one thing to another, to adopt for one year, or for a term of seven years, this or that new study or method of teaching, and then as abruptly to swing over to some new educational gospel, is a result which would be impossible if teachers were adequately moved by their own independent intelligence. The willingness of teachers, especially of those occupying administrative positions, to become submerged in the routine detail of their callings, to expend the bulk of their energy upon forms and rules and regulations, and reports and percentages, is another evidence of the absence of intellectual vitality. If teachers were possessed by the spirit of an abiding student of education, this spirit would find some way of breaking through the mesh and coil of circumstance and would find expression for itself."

Profound Understand of Fundamentals

Profound Understand of Fundamental Whatever is the key to education reform. Elaborating a bit more on my plea for more educators to read the inspirational Liping Ma

... mathematics teaching in Chinese classrooms, even by a teacher with PUFM (Profound Understanding of Fundamental Mathematics) seems very "traditional"; that is, contrary to that advocated by reform. Mathematics teaching in China is clearly textbook based. In Chinese classrooms, students sit in rows facing the teacher, who is obviously the leader and maker of the agenda and direction in classroom learning. On the other hand, one can see in Chinese classrooms, particularly in those of teachers with PUFM, features advocated by reform - teaching for conceptual understanding, student's enthusiasm and opportunities to express their ideas, and their participation and contribution to their own learning processes. How can these seemingly contradictory features - some protested against and some advocated by reform - occur at the same time?

The perspective of Cobb and his colleagues helps to explain this puzzle ...

In their case study of two classrooms, one with a "tradition of school mathematics" where knowledge was "transmitted" from the teacher to "passive students" and one with a "tradition of inquiry mathematics" in which "mathematical learning was viewed as an interactive, constructive, problem centred process," the scholars found that in both the teachers and the students contributed to the development of their classroom mathematics tradition, while in both classrooms the teachers expressed their "institutionalised authority" during the process. Cobb and his associates suggested that "meaningful learning" may be mere rhetoric in mathematics education because "the activity of following procedural instructions can be meaningful for students" in certain classroom mathematics traditions. The transmission metaphor that describes traditional mathematics teaching as the attempt to transmit knowledge from the teacher to passive students may be appropriate only "in the political context of reform"

In this sense, although the mathematics teaching in Chinese teachers' classrooms does not meet some "rhetorical characterisations" of the reform, it is actually in the classroom mathematics tradition advocated by the current reform. In fact, even though the classroom of a Chinese teacher with PUFM may look very "traditional" in its form, it transcends the form in many aspects. It is textbook based but not confined to textbooks. The teacher is the leader, but students' ideas and initiatives are highly encouraged and valued.

On the other hand, from a teacher who cannot provide a mathematical explanation of algorithms for subtraction with regrouping, multidigit multiplication or division by fractions; from a teacher who cannot provide a correct representation for the meaning of an arithmetical operation such as division by fractions; or from a teacher who is not motivated to explore new mathematical claims, what kind of "teaching for understanding" can we expect?
Liping Ma, pp. 151-2

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

science: the ancient / modern distinction

This is a longer extract from the Its An Education Project (IAEP) list (start here for original) that I mentioned a few days ago.

Alan Kay draws a distinction b/w Aristotle's way of doing science (thinking up a good answer) and the later way started by Galileo (inquiry plus tinkering or real experiments). He says that it is unfortunate that the ancients and the moderns used the same word (science) since the activity radically changed across the time span. Modern science is more than thinking and gathering knowledge, it also involves active debugging of our thinking based on rigorous experiments. This is something that is usually poorly done in schools, eg. most experiments done in science are prepackaged, with too much hand holding to be real scientific inquiry.

Here are some parts of the exchange b/w Alan (AK) and K.K. Subramanian (KKS). KKS argues that there has been continuity with the ancients whereas alan asserts that there has been a radical rupture with the past. I have bolded some parts which I think are particularly good

(However, it is difficult to find any physics text for high school or college that actually teaches physics and physical thinking. Even lab courses usually use the lab to verify the "truths of physics" (there are actually no such things) rather than to try to get evidence for formulating and guiding the creation of theories which can lead to further experiments.)

As an example, the lab for gravity is used to verify the Galilean formulas (which postulate constant acceleration). This is because with simple tools in air it is difficult to measure accurately enough to get data which more closely resembles what is going on. (Dropping a heavy object 14-16 feet in a vacuum measured very very carefully will reveal a difference of about 1 part in a million between constant acceleration and inverse square acceleration, and it takes incredible tools to show that inverse square acceleration is not the whole story either.)

The sad results according to those who have studied this in colleges for more than 30 years (for example Physicist Lillian McDermott) is that 70% of all students (including science majors) fail to understand even Galilean gravity, and a much higher percentage don't understand that Galilean gravity is an approximate theory, that Newton's theory is a much better but approximate theory, that Einstein's General Theory is a much better theory but also approximate). There are many reasons for all this, which can be gisted as (a) "the epistemology of science" is not at all what most people suppose, and it is rather distant from the normal ways our minds are set up to work, and (b) that most "educational" processes most places in the world including the US are still teaching "knowledge as religion to be believed in", which *is* what our minds are set up for, and this is how things have been since the Pleistocene.

KK Subramanian:
Could you please elaborate it? [referring to point (a) above)] Isn't the desire to seek the deeper principles behind things and events around us a unique aspect of human mind?

One of Anthropology's "human universals" (found everywhere in human societies) is indeed the "desire to seek the deeper principles ....." etc.

"Science" is used in at least two distinct ways these days. The roots of the word connote "the gathering of knowledge" and this sense some years ago in my European lunch companions led me into a very fruitless argument about e.g. whether Aristotle was a scientist. There I should have said "modern science" to denote the kind of science that Galileo and a few others started, which Francis Bacon discussed so well as a debugging process for what is wrong with our brains/minds, and which Newton first showed how different and incredibly more powerful it could be from all previous forms of thinking.

Human beings had been on the planet for at least 40,000 and as many as 100,000 years before the enormous qualitative leap was made in the 17th century. So we could say that the issue is really about (a) the kinds and forms of explanations that can satisfy "the desire to seek deeper principles", and (b) that qualitative leaps are changes in kind not just degree, changes in outlook, not just in quantity of knowledge gathered. The duration of time before the discovery/invention of modern science is an indication of how well our minds can be fooled by appearances and beliefs and customs, etc.

The difficulties of teaching real science have to do with the huge differences between the kinds of explanations which are sought and accepted, and with outlook changes that go considerably beyond our normal built in ways of perceiving, explaining, coping with the world, etc.

There have been qualitative leaps (paradigm shifts) before too, esp. in south/east asia where philosophy developed without interruptions for thousands of years[1,2]. Patanjali's treatise [Yoga Sutras] on psychic processes is highly regarded even today. You can see applications of its theory in documentaries like "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence Blair [3]. I see people like Galileo, Newton, Einstein, Feynman, etc. as part of a long line of paradigm shifters.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_science
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Indian_science_and_technology
[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eGnsMIvp1v0

The word "scientia" -- meaning knowledge -- is Latin and is old. And the use of the word "science" to denote the gathering of knowledge is also old. The big problem is that the 17th century inventors of modern science didn't pick a brand new word, but tried to overload the old one with new meanings. This has not worked well.

The point is not that paradigms got and get shifted, but the qualitative power of the "modern science paradigm". So, while one can make a list of people and movements that have shifted the way people think, to me (at least), what is more interesting is how well certain ways of thinking work in finding strong models of phenomena compared to others. So, if we get pneumonia, there are lots of paradigms to choose from, but I'm betting that most will choose the one that knows how to find out about bacteria and how to make antibiotics.

... and this is where I get stuck ;-), particularly in the context of school education (first 12 years). Unlike the 3Rs, thinking processes have no external manifestation that parents/teachers can monitor, assess or assist. The economic value of deep thinking is not realized until many years later. The latency between 'input' and 'output' can be as large as 12 years and 'evaluation' of output may stretch into decades!

Here's one way to look at this...

IQ - What if you had an "IQ" of 500, but were born in 10,000 BC. You would not be able to make a lot of progress. For example, Leonardo was very smart but couldn't come up with the engines his vehicle designs needed in order to work -- he was born in the wrong century for what he wanted to do.

Knowledge - On the other hand, Henry Ford was not nearly as smart as Leonardo, but was born at a very good time and in a good place, so he was able to combine engineering and production inventions to make millions of inexpensive automobiles.

Outlook - what made Henry Ford powerful (and most other things today) was an enormous change in Outlook (you called it a paradigm shift) which we can symbolize by invoking Newton.

"Knowledge is Silver, but Outlook is Gold" (IQ is Lead ... because most worthwhile problems we want to work on and solve are beyond mere IQ)

In other words, most human cultures accumulate and use a lot of knowledge (this is what a culture is all about) that is used to survive, to accommodate to the environment and even sometimes thrive. But the knowledge of a traditional society is very different from that of a feudal society which in turn is very different from a technological scientifically based society.

The bug most people have about schools (including many who set up schools) is the idea that they are there to teach knowledge. (Not a bad secondary goal, but it's a very bad idea for it to be the main goal.) Montessori was an early voice who pointed out that the main purpose of schooling (especially early schooling) was to help students learn and deeply internalize the most powerful outlooks that have been discovered/invented by humans. She observed that otherwise children wind up living in the 20th century but with a 10th century (or much earlier) outlook.

Both farms and schools (and books) can be limited or can be great learning environments for certain kinds of things. Historically, changes of outlook rarely happen on a farm, but sometimes happen in a school or from reading. Being around adults who have interesting outlooks works the best for most kids.

I was brought up on a farm (a somewhat unusual one), but the farms in the region were not at all conducive for learning powerful outlooks, nor were the schools particularly. However, my grandfather was "a writing farmer" and had a huge library of books of all kinds in his farmhouse. This allowed me to bypass both the farm and the school. But someone helped me to learn to read at an early age, and someone had the library of books in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Someone decided that it was OK for me to read for hours every day instead of working on the farm (I had to do that too). So I very much depended on adult help but of a very different kind than my school friends got in their homes. The outlook in my farmhouse was that there was a lot more to life than learning to raise one crop a year.

One size doesn't fit all, so a personal story can't be generalized very usefully to cover the plight of other children and of their parents.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Liping Ma

Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics (1999) by Liping Ma

This book has made a deep impression on me

It demonstrates in many different ways that Chinese Elementary teachers have a more profound understanding of maths fundamentals that their American counterparts

When I talk to people about this they are surprised (as I was) and normally express the view that Chinese teachers teach by rote and that Chinese students do better in maths competitions because they have a better work ethic (but not better understanding)

Well, if you believe this then all I can say is read this book and I'm confident you will change your mind

She also has the solution to the maths wars, the so called dichotomy between transmission and inquiry based teaching methods. That is usually surface appearance. The degree of meaningful understanding that occurs in the classroom depends mainly on the depth of the teachers conceptual understanding

Please read this book, she is brilliant.

Related: Long Multiplication

netbooks and schools version 2

I presented about netbooks to the teachers at my school last Tuesday. The feedback was positive. Quite a lot of interested discussion and questions immediately after and some teachers telling me that I had given them something to think about in the days that followed.

The truth is that I cut a lot out of my original presentation (after an earlier smaller trial with a few selected staff). Why? Because I felt the pressure of trying to explain too much - philosophy, epistemology , history, technology. So, this time I followed the KISS principle and conveyed a few simple messages:
  1. computers are not well used in schools in labs
  2. new technologies have evolved - XO and netbooks
  3. everyone has an opinion, so we need to talk about it more. I used a Rorschach to symbolise this point

Next Wednesday I'm presenting to CEGSA (Computer Education Group of South Australia), which again is a different (more tech savvy) audience. For this audience I've modified my presentation yet again, breaking it into two parts:
  1. unstoppable force? (kept the same as my presentation to my school staff above)
  2. why does it have to be so complicated? (new)
My subheadings / slides for part two are:
  • What’s in a name?
  • Limitations of netbooks
  • School of the future
  • Our internal model of the computer medium (tool, damnation, salvation)
  • Entertain us
  • Commercialisation
  • Disruptive innovation
  • Personal dynamic medium
  • Immovable object

At some stage there needs to be a part 3 which covers the software and curriculum issues

Saturday, July 04, 2009

IQ is lead, knowledge is silver, outlook is gold

"The bug most people have about schools (including many who set up schools) is the idea that they are there to teach knowledge"
From a great discussion b/w alan kay, subbu and others on the IAEP list:

Alan Kay:
IQ - What if you had an "IQ" of 500, but were born in 10,000 BC. You would not be able to make a lot of progress. For example, Leonardo was very smart but couldn't come up with the engines his vehicle designs needed in order to work -- he was born in the wrong century for what he wanted to do.

Knowledge - On the other hand, Henry Ford was not nearly as smart as Leonardo, but was born at a very good time and in a good place, so he was able to combine engineering and production inventions to make millions of inexpensive automobiles.

Outlook - what made Henry Ford powerful (and most other things today) was an enormous change in Outlook (you called it a paradigm shift) which we can symbolize by invoking Newton.

"Knowledge is Silver, but Outlook is Gold" (IQ is Lead ... because most worthwhile problems we want to work on and solve are beyond mere IQ)

In other words, most human cultures accumulate and use a lot of knowledge (this is what a culture is all about) that is used to survive, to accommodate to the environment and even sometimes thrive. But the knowledge of a traditional society is very different from that of a feudal society which in turn is very different from a technological scientifically based society.

The bug most people have about schools (including many who set up schools) is the idea that they are there to teach knowledge. (Not a bad secondary goal, but it's a very bad idea for it to be the main goal.) Montessori was an early voice who pointed out that the main purpose of schooling (especially early schooling) was to help students learn and deeply internalize the most powerful outlooks that have been discovered/invented by humans. She observed that otherwise children wind up living in the 20th century but with a 10th century (or much earlier) outlook ...
Since outlook requires both a broad and deep knowledge of at least philosophy, history and science then getting education right is an arduous, difficult process.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Sugar on a Stick (SoaS)

What would software developed specifically to educate young children look like? Try Sugar / Strawberry.

Sugar on a Stick means you can run this new child centric system and its many activities on any modern computer

How? Sugar_on_a_Stick/Strawberry (free download and will run on most operating systems)

What? Sugar is the software of a worldwide effort to provide every child with equal opportunity for a quality education. Available in 25 languages, Sugar's Activities are used every school day by almost one-million children in more than forty countries.

Originally developed for the One Laptop per Child XO-1, Sugar now runs on most computers. Sugar is free and open-source software.

The Home view contains icons representing a child and his or her favorite activities

The Groups view represents the people closest to the child ... children interact with friends and can join their shared activities

The Neighborhood view displays all the computers within a child’s connected community, and their shared activities

The Journal is an automated diary of everything a child does with his or her laptop

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

the xo is not a netbook

Interesting that Negroponte doesn't like the netbook name applied to the xo (at 7:55)

The word Netbook is a portmanteu of the words internet and notebook. But the xo is intended to also be a machine containing a wide variety of educational software which can also be used in situations where children don't have internet access.

Negroponte: "Kids in Ethiopia don't have the internet in a nearby cloud ..."

I think the way we name things is important so I checked some of the names that have been used for these machines:
  • netbook
  • smartbook
  • MID
  • thin-and-light
  • low cost small notebook PC
  • low cost ultra-portable notebook computers (Microsoft mouthful)
  • ultra-portable
  • mini notebooks
Most of these names focus too much on physical characteristics. xo symbolising a childrens machine is superior:

update (5th July): Here is a an attempt to classify the suggested names of these computers by their functionality and purpose or their failure to do that

Childrens Machine

Connection Machine

low cost small notebook PC
low cost ultra-portable notebook computers (Microsoft mouthful)
mini notebooks