Saturday, November 11, 2023

learning and teaching Turtle Art

Turtle Art is a deliberately minimalist design of Logo by Brian Silverman and Paula Bonta of the Playful Invention Company. By minimalist I mean it sticks to the principles outlined by Mitch Resnick and Brian Silverman in their 2005 article, “Some Reflections on Designing Construction Kits for Kids”, namely
  • Make it as Simple as Possible – and Maybe Even Simpler
  • A Little Bit of Programming Goes a Long Way

The Turtle Art sessions were the starting point of a bigger project. The students began by designing interesting and artistic geometric shapes. They then exported an SVG of their shape into Tinkercad. From Tinkercad they saved an STL and then 3D printed the shape. Next they used the shape to imprint a clay tablet and finally they painted the tablet.

Following a well worn path I began with the square. The Turtle Art defaults are setup for drawing a square. Once a square is drawn you can then show how to “black box” it with a named hat. This creates a brand new block which can now be used later as part of a larger design.

This starting shape is a good one to role play with a student acting as a robot and another as the controller. This gels with the body syntonic principle (Seymour Papert, MindStorms) and hopefully gets students thinking in terms of “I am the turtle, what do I need to do to make this shape”

I then challenged the students to create the shapes shown (page 1 starters). I witnessed some students completing the square where the turtle begins and returns to the centre whilst others struggled to do this.

In my experience some things have to be taught whilst others are more likely to be picked up naturally in a well constructed learning environment like Turtle Art. My goal is for students to become fluent in their ability to make complex, artistic geometric patterns.

The principle I talk up at the start is turtle state. When you make a shape make sure the turtle ends up in the same position and heading (direction) as where it began.

Later on I talk a lot about 360 / N where N is the number of repetitions needed. For example, say you want to make this shape

First make a midpoint square, remembering that the turtle must start and finish in the same state

Then count the number of repetitions (5) and work out the angle 360 / 5 = 72. Use the midpoint square hat as a building block for the more complex shape

I had a number of regular polygons on my starter page (square, triangle, pentagon, hexagon, octagon). The 360/N formula produces the external angles of these shapes, not the internal angles. I did talk briefly about that showing a diagram on the board with internal and external angles. In this class I never got around to showing how to do variables so to draw all these shapes with one equation. I could have done that but
(a) it wasn't strictly necessary, and
(b)I’ve found in the past after showing this that students often don’t use it anyway. Many prefer the simpler version!

One of my triangles was right angled. Most students worked it out using a guess and test method. I asked the maths co-ordinator if they had done Pythagoras’ theorem yet and she said it would happen a bit later in the year. I decided to go ahead and show how to get the exact lengths using Pythagoras. The hypotenuse is 141.4 if the other two sides are 100 each. A few of the more capable students picked up on this but when I checked later for some of the others if they remembered me teaching Pythagoras I received some blank looks!

I’m not too fussed about this. On the one hand some students are doing it by tinkering which is another word for guess and test. Perhaps they are learning some perseverance as well. Others are learning the more traditional way and getting a more precise answer. For the purposes of what we are trying to achieve here – make interesting and artistic geometric shapes – both methods work fine.

From the page 1 starter shapes I then suggested some pathways that students could go down to produce more interesting and artistic shapes

I did make efforts to setup a situation where students worked in groups and helped each other. They nominated their preferred partners, I then set up groups. I also sometimes asked them to fill out a planning sheet at the start of lesson (questions like ‘Which shapes do you plan to make today?’) and end of lesson (questions like ‘Who helped you?’, ‘Who did you help?’ and ‘Give some details of the help’). I make this part of the assessment criteria. Some students emerged as brilliant helpers of others while some others learnt to find the right person to ask.

A few students managed to complete all my challenges before the others and so I gave them some harder challenges (shapes 36 and 40) from Barry Newell’s original booklet, Turtle Confusion. His hardest shape is shape 40. I had three students successfully do that one and one of them went on with it as his shape to 3D print.

A handful of students went their own way and developed their own shapes at some point. I didn’t push particularly hard for this but did praise it when I saw it happening
As the process continued students finished up with a variety of 3D prints that looked like this:
And painted clay tiles that looked like this:

And yet, this is only covers a tiny fraction of what you can do with Turtle Art. I hope to write some notes in the future about how to teach the many other artistic elements of the program.

Burker, Josh Invent to Learn Guide to Fun (2015), pp. 107-113
Newell, Barry. Turtle Confusion (1988)
Papert,Seymour. Mindstorms (1980)
Stager, Gary & Martinez, Sylvia. Turtle Art Tiles Project Guide (adapted from the original Josh Burker article)

Turtle Art

(earlier blogs on this project)
Turtle Art Tile Project Conclusion
Working with Acrylics
Working with Clay
Scaffold for Turtle Art Tiles Project
Turtle Art Tiles Project

ELECFREAKS line tracking car

ELECFREAK Nezha kit Case 11: Line tracking car

Had fun doing this with some Polly Farmer (aboriginal) students

For more about ELECFREAKS (positives and negatives) see my earlier blog

Tuesday, November 07, 2023

Turtle Art Tile Project conclusion

It’s quite a complex process with some fiddly technical steps along the way to making a great product.

I had a mixed ability class with incredibly talented students at one end and battlers at the other end. A few did leave early in the piece, for various reasons, but those battlers who displayed some initial reluctance did warm to the project as it proceeded. When it came to 3D printing their Turtle Art design without exception all students became excited. They had never done 3D printing before.

I did make efforts to setup a situation where students worked in groups and helped each other. They nominated their preferred partners, I then set up groups. I also sometimes asked them to fill out a planning sheet at the start of lesson (questions like ‘Which shapes do you plan to make today?’) and end of lesson (questions like ‘Who helped you?’, ‘Who did you help?’ and ‘Give some details of the help’). I make this part of the assessment criteria. Some students emerged as brilliant helpers of others while some others learnt to find the right person to ask. I was trying to nudge them in those collaborative directions and had some success with that.

Turtle Art Design: I did provide scaffolding here, which I blogged about earlier. I'm thinking now that I need to elaborate on this process further in a separate blog. Stay tuned.

I did produce a Help sheet “FROM TURTLE ART TO TINKERCAD TO 3D PRINTING” guide students through the fiddly bits where they transitioned between different software. Some important points:

Turtle Art steps: Make sure your Turtle Art shape:
  • Has a Clean block on top
  • Has pensize set to 10

The Turtle Art default pen size is 4. I found that when this flowed through to the 3D print the lines weren’t thick enough so I upgraded this to size 10.

You can save your Turtle Art file as an SVG which is needed to import into Tinkercad. I told students to choose outline and then plain, not framed, as the frame turned out too bulky and detracted from the art work.

Tinkercad steps: This was students first use of Tinkercad. This project was a good place to start because the Tinkercad steps were relatively easy. Teachers can setup a Tinkercad class with student nicknames to sign in. I always give students the opportunity to choose their own nicknames.

When they imported their SVG I suggested scale to 10% since otherwise the import was too big. I then told them to drop a ruler on the workplane and resize their shape to 90x90x2mm. The 2mm height was enough to make a good impression on the clay. A bigger height would have just meant longer 3D print time.

Students then gave their file a meaningful name and exported from Tinkercad to create a *.STL file

Prusa Slicer steps: I’m a big fan of the Prusa 3D printers. However, they don’t come with a prepackaged configuration, which is a pain, so I had to produce another step taking students through that process.

Once configured the process was straightforward since the sizes have been done in Tinkercad and just have to be confirmed. I did tell students that they had to save as 3MF and send me that file before they have permission to print. They also had to export their GCODE and not get confused about the functions of the different files. GCODE for the 3D printer and 3MF so the teacher could check everything was ready.

3D printing: This was the first time these students had done 3D printing and they were delighted to see that all their hard digital work was producing an atomic product!

Clay step: I've written about this in another blog. Not much to add except that I did 3D print guides for the students to roll their clay evenly to 6mm.

Painting step: I've also written about this here. We did apply varnish after drying to seal all over.

Overcoming bottleneck points: Real life classes are messy things due to varying student abilities, motivations and some absences. At any rate I needed a “filler”, something engaging for students to go on with who were up to date with everything else. Luckily at the right moment Gary Stager made his Turtle Art cards available. Go to Invent to Learn and when you quit you'll see the pop up. These are 156 beautiful Turtle Art projects. The code is supplied with an image of the finished product. Students went on with these while others were catching up. I even had one student who became so engaged with these cards that she did all of them!!!

REFERENCE (earlier blogs on this project)
Turtle Art Tiles Project
Scaffold for Turtle Art Tiles Project
Working with Clay
Working with Acrylics

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

the tower of AI babel

Borges and AI L´eon Bottou † and Bernhard Sch¨olkopf
Oct 4, 2023
Many believe that Large Language Models (LLMs) open the era of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Some see opportunities while others see dangers. Yet both proponents and opponents grasp AI through the imagery popularised by science fiction. Will the machine become sentient and rebel against its creators? Will we experience a paperclip apocalypse? Before answering such questions, we should first ask whether this mental imagery provides a good description of the phenomenon at hand. Understanding weather patterns through the moods of the gods only goes so far. The present paper instead advocates understanding LLMs and their connection to AI through the imagery of Jorge Luis Borges, a master of 20th century literature, forerunner of magical realism, and precursor to postmodern literature. This exercise leads to a new perspective that illuminates the relation between language modelling and artificial intelligence
My summary:

LLM is a story telling fiction machine with innumerable forks that can write any story and, be warned, can be manipulated by others. Neither truth nor intention matters to the operation of the machine, only narrative necessity. Narrative necessity is statistically determined by what comes before.

The machine merely follows the narrative demands of the evolving story. As the dialogue between the human and the machine progresses, these demands are coloured by the convictions and the aspirations of the human, the only visible dialog participant who possesses agency. However, many other invisible participants make it their business to influence what the machine says.

Delusion often involves a network of fallacies that support one another

Forking paths: The linguist Zellig Harris has argued that all sentences in the English language could be generated from a small number of basic forms by applying a series of clearly defined transformations. Training a large language model can thus be understood as analysing a large corpus of real texts to discover both transformations and basic forms, then encode them into an artificial neural network that judges which words are more likely to come next after any sequence.

The Purifiers want to eliminate the heinous, tidy up the machine to serve the human race and make money from it. They want to reshape the garden of forking paths against its nature, severing the branches that lead to stories they deem undesirable. Although there are countless ways to foil these attempts to reshape the fiction machine, efforts have been made, such as “fine-tuning” the machine using additional dialogues crafted or approved by humans, and reinforcing responses annotated as more desirable by humans (“reinforcement learning with human feedback”.)

Confabulation: As new words are printed on the tape, the story takes new turns, borrowing facts from the training data (not always true) and filling the gaps with plausible inventions (not always false). What the language model specialists sometimes call hallucinations are just confabulations. Confabulation is inventing plausible stories with no basis in fact.

If an amnesiac patient is asked questions about an event they were previously at, instead of admitting they do not know, they would invent a plausible story. Similarly, in split-brain patients, where the corpus callosum is severed so each half of the brain cannot talk to each other, patients can invent elaborate explanations for why the other half of their body is doing a specific thing, even when the experimenter knows this is not the case because they have prompted it with something differently.

Story telling: The invention of a machine that can not only write stories but also all their variations is thus a significant milestone in human history. It has been likened to the invention of the printing press. A more apt comparison might be what emerged to shape mankind long before printing or writing, before even the cave paintings: the art of storytelling. Fiction can enrich our lives, so what is the problem?

The Library of Babel by Jorge Luis Borges (1941)
LLMs confabulate not hallucinate
Zellig Harris. Mathematical Structures of Language. John Wiley & Sons, 1968

Monday, October 02, 2023

children are not hackers

Children are not hackers by Paulo Blikstein & Marcelo Worsley (2016) - pdf available

This is a cautionary argument against people like me who have been known to say “we are all makers” without thinking deeply enough about the issues. See the footnote for more about this.

The authors begin with the counter intuitive claim that the cultural roots of the modern maker movement are a threat to its flourishing or even survival in schools! The one eyed warriors may sew the seeds of destruction of what they love. How ironic but not unusual. After this introduction I had to read on to understand.

They explain this claim. The people that created the first Fab Lab at MIT (Gershenfeld eta la in 2001) were hackers. By the way I don't use the term "hackers" as a pejorative. Hackers are those curious people who want to look inside and understand how things work. A better term for those who steal your data is Crackers.

This led to the creation of Maker Faires for those and other hackers to show off their cool products and the MAKE magazine (which originated in 2005). Those people were sophisticated publishers. Furthermore, Maker clubs have flourished more outside of schools in informal settings (eg. museum, after school programs and competitions) rather than inside schools.

Then there has been a push for STEM education due to a perceived shortage of qualified engineers and scientists. Those considerations involve the industrial workplace, not the school workplace.

All of these influences (hackers – publishers – informal educators – industrial workplace) have a middle to upper class origin and elite appeal. Such a culture will not win the battle to introduce modern maker education into schools in a mass way.

Hacker culture is self-sufficiency, autodidacticism, individualism and competition

“The popular image of the hacker is that of a disheveled, unshaven White male in his twenties, doing all-nighters in a messy electronics lab, capable of learning anything by him­self by scouring the Web or doing late-night runs to the library ...”

This is an extreme minority. To promote this won’t help most students.

Publisher culture: The initial culture of the Maker Movement which began in earnest around 2005 was college-educated, affluent, White men. They published MAKE magazine and organised Maker Faires where makers showed off their innovative finished products. This was a culture of Product before Process where unfinished “half baked” efforts are not rewarded.

Also the types of projects developed by this elite group downgrades and devalues projects such as traditional crafts, costumes, pottery, technology-augmented wearables and jewelry, among many others

Informal spaces Within these spaces the Keychain Syndrome prevails - the “30-minute” workshop model: fast, scripted, perpetually “introductory” workshops. The problem here is that the demonstrations often never get past trivial objects.

Job Market culture: It is argued that we need more STEM students because of shortages of engineers and scientists and other countries, such as a threatening China, are way ahead of us here.

The pathway pioneered by Papert and others is different: that software such as Logo (the precursor to Scratch) and hardware such as LEGO are tools for self expression and ways for transforming traditional subjects such as maths into something that is more interesting and natural to learn.

Summary from this section about the hackers – publishers – informal educators – industrial workplace influences: Promoters of modern maker education such as myself should not take the efficacy of “making” for granted.


Hard fun (Papert): The lesson for educators is that the work in FabLabs and makerspaces can be enjoyable but should never be “easy” fun, devoid of frustration and difficulty

Abstract and Concrete Thinking: The maker space approach does not reject the abstract but attempts to make the abstract more concrete. The examples provided by the authors are:

Supposedly abstract mathematical ideas suddenly become concrete when, for example, a student needs to design a laser-cut object using the least amount of material, or when a very “con­crete” 3D printed object gives rise to a discussion about Boolean operations

I can think of other examples arising from design work using Turtle Art. I asked students to make a right angled triangle. Some did this by trial and error which was fine. I also showed them how to get the lengths exactly right by using Pythagoras theorem. In another shape the outside octagon by trial and error the size was 121 (good enough), when calculated using trig it was 120.7 (exact). I would say the trial and error approach is acceptable but it's good to show the more precise way to obtain the values and some of the students (not all) will pick it up.

Gut feeling or Research? Doing or Theorising? Some maker ed advocates rely on gut feeling (doing is learning – list of attributes) but of course many educators want to see the real research done before they accept this. Deep learning doesn’t happen by magic. Maker ed advocates have to make strategic choices here. IMO a combination of both constructionist and instructionist methods are required. The authors are building a case here for a coherent theory of maker ed, not just hands on and she'll be right mate.

For example, in one class where we were making and coding with the microbit, I took the opportunity to try explain where the 255 came from in some MakeCode parameters. I talked about bits and bytes and 1s and 0s. It wasn’t very successful. It was too abstract for most of the students. It made me realise I need to prepare this sort of break from the making and coding more carefully.


How does a learning culture differ from a hacker culture?

From the perspective of where actual students are at these are bad slogans: “every child should be a maker”, “making mistakes is good”, “every child should hack”

Reality check: many students need support! If they don’t get it they will feel lost or frustrated. They drift into doing the less demanding parts of a task (colouring in).

Without help (sink or swim approach) those who feel uncomfortable in a maker space will become further disempowered

One possibility: Pair more competent with less competent and make the less competent the driver (in control of computer, mouse and keyboard). I thought this was a great idea and have been angling for an opportunity to try it out:

“ In half of the mixed pairs, the low-achieving student was mandated to be the “driver” of the activity (having control over the computer mouse and key­board, etc.). In those groups, the learning outcomes were almost the same as the groups with two high-achieving students, and dramatically higher than mixed groups in which the high-achieving student was the “driver” instead (Schneider & Blikstein, in press).”

The authors refer to other researchers about the stereotype threat (Cohen, Garcia, Apfel, & Master, 2006) which shows that individuals can perform below their ability level when they suspect that they belong to a group that historically does not do well at a particular activity

Key points from this section
  • include tasks that are meaningful to all students
  • avoid too much “learn from failure” rhetoric
  • find ways to get students out of their comfort zone (eg. instruct lower ability in a pair to be the driver)
  • be aware that some groups expect to fail

From jobs culture to literacy culture:

There is often lots of talk about STEM (and also STEAM) in education systems these days. Some of this originates from social shortages of engineers and scientists. This can be a source of an educational problem rather than a solution to a social issue.

There is a deep cultural abyss separating the corporate world and K–12 schools. Educational materials should be designed for children

  • microbit not arduino
  • Scratch not Java

The authors argue that the point of STEM literacy is to provide a lens through which to interpret the world and act upon it – “consciousness of the possible” Friere 1970. I have often advanced a similar argument, that Scratch is a multimedia fun machine for making stories and games.

From keychain culture to deep projects culture:

The “keychain syndrome” is ok for an introduction to 3D printing but we are not achieving much if we don’t go beyond that. One version of this is downloading a great design from thingiverse and printing it. I do that and again it has its place. But in the bigger scheme of things it is too easy, no design or remix skills happening here. How do we go beyond that to a culture of deep projects?

To develop a school culture of engaging cross curricular projects does require administrative support. Teachers are time strapped and so it is not realistic to expect them to develop such materials on top of their normal workload.

Unfortunately curriculum guidelines such as ACARA, which separate the what from the how, do not help here. A good curriculum ought to have more flexibility about WHAT we teach (eg. design a project around an idea that interests the student). Then the teacher helps the student HOW to do that. In other words the HOW should be guiding the WHAT. But what does ACARA do? Tells the teachers the WHAT like Moses' stone tablets and leaves it to the teacher to figure out the HOW. (Thanks here to Mitch Resnick)

We think outside of the “STEM box”: We have seen students creating fascinating musical instruments, clothes, costumes, and visual arts projects, working with and augmenting traditional crafts, and creating interactive art. We have also seen teachers from non-STEM areas create very compelling units, combining history and math, biology and engineering, language arts and physics. Allowing teachers to “pair up” and design curricula together, even if they are from different areas, greatly expands the range of activities that can be done in the labs and makes it possible to attract students with a variety of different interests.

Project ideas and themes should be connected to students’ lives, interests, passions, and their communities. Lives, interests, passions, communities covers a lot of ground

From product culture to process culture:

Priming students helps their performance. eg. if students have been previously taught that triangles make stronger structures (and are reminded) then rather than using readily available objects to build bridges (eg, a chair) they are more likely to build with triangles.

A product culture sees a great finished product suitable for a Maker Faire as the end goal. A process culture looks at things like collaboration, management (eg. planning ahead) and preparedness to go outside of their comfort zone. It’s a different form of assessment.


Maker education has made significant inroads into many schools and even official curricular. For this progress to continue so that maker ed flourishes advocates such as myself need to understand the issue of what cultures are more attractive to most members of a school community.

Footnote: An extract from a previous article where I went a little overboard about humans as makers:
We, humans, are homo faber (Latin for Man the Maker), the concept that human beings are able to control their fate and their environment as a result of the use of tools.
- Thoughts on reading Paulo Blikstein (the founder of the Fab Learn Schools Movement)

I think now even in pre modern societies there was a division of labour (eg. hunters and gatherers) and that in our present youth culture, with the influence of social media, people are more likely to become consumers than makers. However, the modern maker movement does provide a promising way for many to break out of this.

Sunday, October 01, 2023

3D hand print: from atoms to bits and back to atoms

I adapted the idea from a tutorial at the Prusa Printables education site (free for schools, universities and other educational institutions but you have to apply to register) to develop an interesting 3D print of my hand

The tutorial was Autumn Leaves by Vesela Skola

I wasn’t happy with the recommended image to SVG converter so I searched around and one that worked well for me: Free image to SVG converter

The Autumn Leaves tutorial taught me how to prepare the images and then in Prusa Slicer to superimpose a hand image showing fingernails and knuckles onto the full hand backdrop. It also showed me how to alter the settings to print the hand with infill only (30% honeycomb) thus producing an attractive mesh effect.

Saturday, September 30, 2023

student engagement is a variable

All teachers experience this but it is not always pointed out. We like to emphasise the positives. But the reality is that our well thought out programs don't always work for all students. This paper profiles three different types of students found in the Stanford Learning Fabrication Laboratory. The authors then make some recommendations of how to develop classroom environments which have a better chance of engaging all students.

Marcelo Worsley & Paulo Blikstein. Designing for Diversely Motivated Learners (2013). pdf available.

Based on the research of others the current authors develop a descriptive framework for levels of interest and commitment: ‘hanging out’, ‘messing around’ and ‘geeking out’

Geeking out
  • interested in video games, programming and curious about science
  • spends his lunchtime in the lab
  • frustrated by structured tasks, wants to do own thing
  • indifferent to peer connections
Messing around
  • would start any description of her project with, “it’s complicated.”
  • Extremely diligent, including HW – Powerpoint slides, Visual Basic, GoGo Board coding, questions to staff by email
  • expected just in time help
  • She needs structure
  • High satisfaction when the project worked
  • socially interactive across domains
Hanging out
  • Disruptive, disrespectful, inability to remain on task
  • more interested in socialising than working
  • Found he was better at Corel Draw than his peers
  • a task of making a key chain for others appealed to & motivated Shawn & his group
  • Their ambitious CREAM (Cash Rules Everything Around Me) project was abandoned as too hard


1) Identify student interest & motivational level.
2) Develop a curriculum that has alternative, easier tasks for students with low interest or motivation, eg. hands on mini projects. Try to provide multiple entry and exit points with different levels of scaffolding. It's hard to do this first time you teach a new course but as you get to know all the possibilities better you can offer more options to students.
3) Additional interesting lab demos may spark interest for some who are not motivated

I would add another point here. Set up an expectation that students will either help others or ask for help.

Marcelo Worsley bio

Not directly relevant to this article but when googling for a pic of the Stanford Learning Fabrication Laboratory I was blown away in discovering how many making classes and making spaces they have. Follow the links and you'll see what I mean.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023


I first published this in October 1991. Have the ideas of Piaget, Papert, Minsky, Solomon, Turkle stood the test of time? Yes. But still more does need to be said ...


Before I read Mindstorms and had only read about Mindstorms I gained the impression that Papert's educational philosophy was open ended discovery learning and that was about it.

Some of the articles that I have since read about Logo or about Papert's philosophy convey just this sort of impression. They talk vaguely about the "Logo philosophy" and about how some teachers who use Logo are aware and others are not aware of it.

It could be that either some Logo commentators do not understand Papert or, alternatively, they water him down so as to make him appear more respectable. I don't think that this is right. If Papert's ideas are important then we ought to find out what he is on about and if they inspire us, passionately propagate them. After all, ideas when they are put into practice do change the world, either for better or for worse.

At best, some writers about Logo talk about the importance of Logo to problem solving, debugging (children reflecting constructively about their "mistakes") and using Logo to develop learning about learning and all that guff. In other words, the sort of reflections on Logo that often pass for informed educational comment are so consistent with current modern educational thinking they would scarcely cause a ripple in the mind of the informed teacher. No Mindstorms here!

In my view the central tenants of Papert's thesis are educationally, socially and politically somewhat more radical. So, what is Papert really on about?


Papert's beliefs are rooted very firmly in Piaget's findings about children's learning. Papert worked with Piaget for 5 years, applying his own expertise in maths to help build Piaget's theories. Two points from Piaget stand out:

  • Children build or construct their own intellectual structures.

From this point arises the obligation of the modern teacher to restructure traditional subjects such as maths to fit the child. Hence, Papert has restructured maths by inventing the computing language logo to fit the natural development of the child.

  • Children build on what they know. Piaget's term for children's continual balancing of existing cognitive structures with new experiences is equilibration.

From this point arises the obligation of the modern teacher to investigate the cognitive structures of their students and to interact with those cognitive structures in a subtle, not a heavy handed manner.

Piaget found that incredible amounts of learning occur without formal teaching. In his work, Papert tries to discover and promote the factors that are causing this "hidden" learning and also asks: Why is it that learning often does not occur with formal teaching (and often does occur without formal teaching)?


Piaget was not an educational psychologist but a genetic epistemologist. These obscure words are highly significant. Papert has recently moved to a new lab at MIT which has been named the Learning and Epistemology Group. Clearly epistemology is central to the concerns of Piaget and Papert. So, what is epistemology and what is genetic epistemology?

Piaget has recognised it as a mistake to separate the learning process from what is being learned. The study of what is being learned is epistemology. Hence, a genetic epistemologist is a person who investigates the evolution of the structure of knowledge in the minds of young people!

This is a much more dynamic conception than a traditional psychology of the learning process which passively accepts the traditional structure of knowledge as a given. Piaget and Papert are suggesting that there is a dialectical relationships between knowledge and people. Papert quotes Warren McCulloch tellingly to make this point:

"What is a man so made that he can understand number and what is number so made that a man can understand it." (Mindstorms, p. 164)

In looking at learning it is not enough to look at "learning how to learn" (ie. concentrate on the learner) but we need to study the basic structure of the subject itself. Papert investigates the basic structure of mathematics in some detail including a critique of the formal logical thinking emphasised in Bertrand Russell's Principia Mathematica and the "new math" of the 1960s/70s. In Piaget/Papert's view the basic structure of maths is derived from the thinking of the Bourbaki school: order, proximity (topology), combination (algebra).In Papert's view it is not natural that advanced maths ideas are inaccessible to most. What Papert has tried to do is restructure maths so as to accommodate the natural tendencies of the child. Instead of mathophobia Papert hopes to create a mathsland where it will be natural to learn maths, like learning to speak French in France.

Logo was designed with this philosophical/mathematical background in mind. Logo was developed as a language so that mathematically naive users could learn how to program and control the computer as well as more sophisticated users.


Change is inevitable but widespread change will only occur when there are significant changes in the wider culture. This applies to both social change and change in patterns of intellectual development.

The printing press on its own did not create poetry, but by spreading poetry around it helped to create new poets. The steam engine on its own did not create the industrial revolution. Tools are made by people and when tools call out for revolution they will speak through people.

Computers will not create an educational revolution. Forget about computers (for a minute!); culture is central to change! Papert is not a mechanical technological determinist. He is more on about reconceptualising traditional subject domains and using, in this instance, the computer as a tool to help do this.

This is a vitally important point when we come to evaluate the effectiveness of logo for if logo is implemented as a technical act (in a formal, teacher centred, Instructionist classroom) then obviously Papert's beliefs are not being given a fair trial. Papert has clearly rejected this technological determinism:

"Technocentrism refers to the tendency to give a ...centrality to a technical object - for example computers or Logo ... (this) betray(s) a tendency to reduce what are really the most important components of educational situations - people and cultures - to a secondary, facilitating role. The context of human development is always a culture, never an isolated technology ..." (Papert, quoted in Solomon, p.128)

Since culture is central to change then it follows that a teacher ought to aspire to be an anthropologist. The computer is merely one important recent addition to the cultural landscape. The question that the anthropologist/teacher ought to focus on is which cultural materials are relevant to intellectual development

The computer will not replace the teacher. On the contrary, teachers will have to become more skilled to incorporate the new technology into the overall educational context:

  • Skilled in modern learning theories and psychology
  • Skilled in relating to a variety of children
  • Skilled in detecting new, important elements of their student's culture
  • Skilled in cross curricular applications
  • Skilled in computing
  • Able to apply a variety of skills creatively

These skills are necessary for a modern educational system. Currently, one of the main problems with regard to developing creative applications of computers in education is training teachers with these skills. But lets not blame the teachers for this when education departments and governments are not providing the time, the infrastructure or the educational insights to make it all possible.

Papert has proposed a new field of teacher training called humanistic computer studies, where:

"In my vision of this field its professionals will need special combinations of competences. Apart from a foundation in scientific knowledge and technological skill they will need high degrees of psychological sensitivity and 'artistic' imagination. For the ones who will make the greatest social contribution will be those who know how to mold the computer into forms which people will love to use and in ways which will lead them on to enrichment and enhancement...." (from Solomon, p.133)

If culture is central then what is the role of the technology? The new technology provides the underlying basis for a radical change in the educational and social system. Computers are obviously an important new part of our popular cultural landscape and everyone agrees that their influence will grow in the future.

However, the point is that the future possible pathways for education and society are manifold and that these decisions will be made in the cultural and political arenas - popular culture often determines political expediency. Logo taught in a constructionist framework represents a great educational opportunity but unless cultural persuasion and political pressure is brought to bear on the formal education system then the opportunity will be lost.

In today's world computers will usher in new cultural change but the sort of change that occurs will be fought out socially, in the world of business (how can productivity be maximised?), in the world of institutionalised education, in schemes for alternative schools, in the home with PC's, in the Arcades with the latest computer games. There is no social inevitability about the future pattern of usage of computers.

Computers may be used to mechanically increase productivity by crunching words, numbers and data. Others will use them as an expressive and creative tool to develop individuals with new insights into traditional subject domains, including human psychology. As a tool the computer is versatile enough to do both! Alan Kay has claimed that the computer can be used to simulate anything:

"...[the computer] is a medium that can dynamically simulate the details of any other medium, including media that cannot exist physically ... it has degrees of freedom for representation and expression never before encountered and as yet barely investigated." (Sunrise Notes Number 2, June 1990, p.29)

Papert says that the role of the new technology is twofold: both instrumental and heuristic.

Instrumental simply means that as computers become cheaper, more powerful and more popular they will carry and spread the ideas and social relations embedded within them amongst larger and larger groups of people. Papert expresses the instrumental role of computers spreading ideas around very powerfully with the metaphor "computer as pencil".

The heuristic influence of computers is a more complex and surprising idea.

Computing science is not fundamentally a technical science of computers. Rather, most of it is the science of descriptions and descriptive languages. Hence computing science (especially AI research) has something to offer learning theory, since descriptive languages are used to talk about learning. At an elementary level it is clear that concepts such as input, output, feedback, subprocedures (modularisation), recursion, debugging and extensibility could provide at least part of a framework for explanations of biological and human behaviour.

Papert and Minsky argue that ideas from computing science are instruments of explanation of learning and thinking. More, they are instruments of changing, altering the way in which we learn and think. In this way computing science and AI Research has ushered in a whole new theory of human psychology as outlined by Minsky in Society of Mind.


Those who invented the automobile didn't do so by an in depth study of the horse and buggy! This is Papert's comment on the educational horse and buggy!

Papert is scathing of the established education system. He perceives our present schooling process as a technical act under the guiding methodology of Instructionism.

Although instruction is fine and an inevitable part of everyone's everyday learning this is different from Instructionism which is the entrenched methodology of a central person or curriculum transmitting pre-established pieces of information to an essentially passive, captive audience. Papert is against the teacher as technician under the control of the curriculum, against centralised control, against hierarchy, against the whole notion of a centralised curriculum and against accountability and national testing based on the above precepts. In short, Papert is swimming against the current winds of educational tightening up in this country but in doing so he is giving us some powerful weapons to effectively oppose the current disastrous, straight-jacketing trend. Papert's weapons are the ideas outlined above, computer software (logo) and computer hardware (LEGO).

In a dynamic, living culture there is little place for a centralised curriculum because the culture will generate its own interesting, unpredictable challenges on a day to day basis. Attempts to impose a curriculum onto this culture would only serve to cramp the style and creative interest of those who work within the culture.

Instructionism is misguided because it treats children as empty vessels to be filled up with knowledge. Instructionism ignores Piaget who emphasises that children construct their own internal mental worlds by integrating new information with already established structures (equilibration).

Hence, Piaget's findings and not computers as such are at the centre of Papert's radical critique of the education system. Papert would oppose the use of computers for Computer Aided Instruction (CAI) such as maths drill as a band-aid to patch up a basically sterile system.

In opposition to Instructionism, Papert advances the guiding principle of Constructionism for creating a humane and enriching education system. The learning environment is about building and creating things, eg. building rich cognitive structures internally and building things like LEGO machines externally. In this environment the teacher is first and foremost a fellow learner (who might spend more time instructing others simply because he/she may know more).

There is nothing new in Papert's critique of the education system up until now. In the history of education there has always been alternative schools with an emphasis on freedom. These movements have never really caught on partly because "...they were unable to handle the more formal aspects such as mathematics or grammar or many parts of science."(Papert, address to WCCE, 1990). So, what is new in Papert's vision is the use of modern technology (computers with logowriter and LEGO TClogo) to make possible interesting constructivist maths, science and grammar for perhaps the first time ever, historically.


Many teachers are enthusiastic to start with. Then, after ten years many teachers are burnt out Instructionist hacks, despite their best intentions. Don't blame the teacher, blame the system.

Fundamentally, Papert influences us because, if we really listen to him, he politicises the educational debate in a highly practical way. Papert has taken the most traditional subjects - maths and science - and has begun to restructure them to fit the user. Papert and his supporters have created an interesting maths-land and science-land that are both user friendly and powerful learning environments.

Hence, Papert and the MIT group are creating conditions that make it possible for people to become passionate about educational options. LEGO TClogo is something that you can take home and happily play with! It is hard to be passionate about maths drill and practice style textbooks, or Instructionism - broadcasting essentially the same lesson year after year, marking Common Tests, or whether Sarah was really worth a low A or a high B. Constructionism and Logo is different. It fits the user and has no ceiling in terms of expertise.

Papert's ideas have the power to change lives and to change whole education systems (eg. Costa Rica). Of course this will require a tremendous and possibly protracted educational/political struggle since the Instructionist model casts such a long shadow. As in all meaningful struggles the outcome is far from certain.

Since Papert's ideas are revolutionary they are not for the faint hearted. It is very difficult to mentally step outside of a system you are working in, that you are part of, that you help to reproduce by your day to day actions and then to turn around and to say that it is fundamentally at fault. It is easier for Papert to make this critique than it is for a practising classroom teacher. In the final analysis, Papert invites us to have the courage to embark on the adventure of tearing down the old ways while creating the new ways of teaching and learning.


Papert, Seymour. Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. Harvester Press, 1980.

Papert, Seymour. Peristroika and Epistemological Politics. Address to the 5th World Conference on Computers in Education, Sydney, Australia, July 1990.

Solomon, Cynthia. Computer Environments for Children: A Reflection on Theories of Learning and Education. The MIT Press, 1987

Turkle, Sherry. The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1984.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Microbit course outline

This is an outline of key features of a Digital Technology course, using the microbit, which I have taught to year 8s this year. The time allocation was 17 hours (two 1 hour lessons per week over a 9 week term, with one holiday day subtracted)

Vocab sheet: I produced a vocab sheet with 30+ words. We talked about the words and their meanings at suitable times during lessons. Later on in the course I modified the sheet by including a mix and match list.

Maas, Pauline & Heldens, Peter. The Invent to Learn Guide to the micro:bit.(2023). This was my primary reference, referred in situ by M&H, page number. There are other great project ideas in this book that I didn't have time to try out.

Lesson 1: I distributed microbits and discussed its features. Our aim will be to make artifacts that perform in some way using the microbit. We’ll often work in groups so tell me your preferred partners

Lesson 2: Heart beat, Name badge, animations, starry night, starry night challenges

Lesson 3 and 4: Dice simulation. I told the students to play “Pig” with a real dice first and then play it again with a dice simulation on the microbit.

Coin simulation. I told them to play “Two up” with real coins first and then using a coin simulation.

Measure the temperature (then warm up your microbit in your hand to increase the temperature)

Shake it up. Vary the LED icon with small shake, medium shake and big shake.

LED war (two player game with 2 microbits using radio to communicate). Press the A button to put random LEDs on your microbit. Press the B button to wipe off random LEDs on your opponents microbit. You win the game if all 25 LEDs light up.

Challenges: Make a better game – 10 LEDs appear with one A button press; 10 LEDs disappear with one B button press; add sounds

Lesson 5: Fruit music (M&H, 42). Although this works better with the Makey Makey with the microbit you can use 3 pieces of fruit connected to pins 0,1 and 2 for 3 notes and then use the A and B buttons and logo for 3 more notes. I provided the notes for twinkle star. Challenges include different types of fruit, testing beakers of water for conduction and devising or looking up your own tunes.
Lesson and 7: Unicorn Greeting Card (M&H, 25). This utilises the microbit pins to light up a LED which becomes the eye of the Unicorn.
Lesson 8-11: Helmet. I adapted an idea from Rob Morrill’s Circuit Playground course here and broadened it out. Students made a cardboard helmet complete with a 0.5m neopixel strip. I provided a wide variety of ways in which they could code their helmet.
  • Display and change colours using buttons, shake and tilt
  • Sound input: talk, sing or whistle to your microbit. The challenge here was to make the harder to get louder sounds colours stay on for longer
  • Show and rotate a rainbow using light. The challenge here was to make the rainbow rotate faster as you shine more light onto it
  • Random colour changes. This started with all pixels red and then various button or logo presses led to random pixel colour changes. Finally a shake was used to create millions of random colours which changed rapidly for an extended period.
  • Range of colours. The code was provided to set the first and last 7 pixels to rainbow colours (ROYGBIV) and the inbetween colours to flashing between white and black. The challenge here was to change the colours and speed of the flashing white to black.
  • Accelerometer. Initially the neopixels are all green but when tilting the head one way they flash blue/black and when tilting the other way they flas red/black.
To accompany the helmet activity I produced a sheet which asked questions to test comprehension of some of the coding and hardware basics (about the battery voltage, about ms, about bits and bytes, etc)

There was too much coding here for some of the students. I felt the course momentum became bogged down here for some. When I do it next time I’ll assign the different coding tasks to different groups and ask them to demonstrate their results to the others.

Lesson 12-13. Servo introduction and Turkey Trot (M&H, 36) is a straightforward build and coding introduction to a positional servo. The coding challenge asks students for a medium, fast and slow rotation variation.
Lesson 14-15: Art machine (M&H, 118) is an interesting use of a continuous servo. Strong connections are needed for the clothes pegs. The coding challenge is for circular rotation, back and forth rotation and then try to obtain a straight line

Lesson 16-17: Ask students to develop their own projects which incorporate either servos or neopixels. One group used a 1 metre neopixel strip and designed a scarf. Another group used a continuous servo to design a helicopter. Only about 4 students out of my class of 12 kept up with the pace I was expecting so the majority ran out of time and didn’t complete their own design. Longer lessons would have helped here but schools don’t always keep up with the organisational structure required.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Voting NO to The Voice

I would read it like this.

The YES vote is a grab by the black bourgeoisie aka the aboriginal industry for a bigger slice of the cake. Although the most disadvantaged people do need some sort of extra support that works I haven’t seen a good argument that the Voice will do the job. The aboriginal industry hasn’t been very successful so far. Why should giving them a permanent fixture in the Constitution improve things? This will certainly end up pissing off a significant section of Australians. I can’t see why one section of the population should have privileged access forever to those who decide things. It implies that disadvantage will never be overcome.
Perhaps the task here should be to develop policies that will “close the gap” and find the people to implement those policies. This is a genuinely hard problem to solve amongst the babel of welfare dependency, grog, black on black violence, self interest, victim mentality, cultural confusion, first language issues, real difficulties of remote delivery of services and historical trauma. Interesting that some of those in the YES camp who appeared to have a good understanding of these issues have now descended to name calling (Marcia Langton, Noel Pearson).
The archaic sentiments in sections of the Uluru statement are not central to the discussion. You can’t imagine Marcia or Noel longing for a return to pre colonial days. My guess is that they represent a compromise to bring the different tribes together and present a united front. But who knows?

The NO vote leaders (Jacinta Price, Warren Mundine, Anthony Dillon) do have some sort of realistic plan (although not always clearly articulated) to improve the lot of the most disadvantaged Australians (remote aboriginals). They argue that commonalities between A&TSI and the rest are more important than differences. And that the disadvantaged A&TSIs need to find the same things that the successful have already found (good education, good job, buy a house etc.). I just think they need to spell out the detail more in order to overcome the litany mentioned above.

There was a booklet called “Beyond Belief” which came out in 2022 outlining several different arguments for the NO vote. Some of it was new to me, especially the prospects of High Court interventions if The Voice advice is not adopted. Anthony Dillon (especially) and Warren Mundine have been publishing their arguments on X (formerly twitter) throughout this year.