Saturday, December 09, 2006

what should schools teach?

In part 2 of the alan kay video he came up with a simple yet profound analysis of this question.

From anthropological research of over 3000 human cultures, he presented two lists, the first were universals, the things that all human cultures have in common. This list included things like:
  • language
  • communication
  • fantasies
  • stories
  • tools and art
  • superstition
  • religion and magic
  • play and games
  • differences over similarities (?)
  • quick reactions to patterns
  • vendetta, and more
He then presented a list of non universals, the things that humans find harder to learn. This list was shorter and included:
  • reading and writing
  • deductive abstract mathematics
  • model based science
  • equal rights
  • democracy
  • perspective drawing
  • theory of harmony (?)
  • similarities over differences (?)
  • slow deep thinking
  • agriculture
  • legal systems
Schools ought to be mainly about learning the hard to learn things.


Unknown said...

Children are learning all the time, they are pre-programmed to learn ( They are little learning machines.

Much of the learning they are doing is from Kay's easy list but some is from the hard list. The role of schools is to compliment or balance that learning which is happening outside schools. Schools can also facilitate learning that is occurring out of school. For example, they can provide the opportunity for discussion and reflection on out of school learning.

Its not a simple as Kay's list

Bill Kerr said...

Tony's link, which is too long to fit in my window, is to a book by Chris Crawford, The Art of Computer Game Design

I agree that Alan Kay's list could be used to oversimplify a complex discussion. Neverthelss, IMO they provide valuable guidance towards strategic goals of what "organised education" (aka School) ought to be on about. Schools that put abstract maths, real world equal rights and fostering slow deep thinking on top of their list have the potential to achieve something useful. Schools that equate a unit of Bushwalking with higher maths (watering down the curriculum) or who treat all 7 curriculum areas as equivalent will not be serving their students so well.

One source of oversimplification is *how* to achieve the higher order thinking. Schools are currently full of traditional maths and science teachers who won't modify their "sage on a stage chalk and talk methods, which often don't work very well in helping students understand.

Much of the content of Alan Kay's talk was about how to teach higher order maths to young students using interactive, dynamic computer programs. At one stage he reported how he was moved to tears by a primary teacher who led her students to discover a power squared relationship in a hands on, bottom up manner. Kay's passion for maths is impressive.

His demos were done using squeak but the content was similar to Papert's logo ideas. Using squeak meant that it could run in the browser. Nevertheless, the content did have an old fashioned feel to it.

I don't know how successful these approaches will be when the laptops are distributed to kids in Africa given the shortage of mentors that will be around who actually understand what Kay and Papert are on about. Nevertheless, I like the boldness of the vision.

My previous post about Alan Kay provides more of the context of his talk, including some critical comments. He is on about empowering the children of the Third World.

minh said...

"Schools ought to be mainly about learning the hard things to learn."

Yes , (& isn't slow deep thinking just the most wonderful phrase?)

We will, however, use the universals to acquire, engage with & creatively employ the hardies. The universals need honing & polishing. (In the case of religion possibly excising - oops no, just channelling a Dawkin's meme there :)

So how do we see the role of organised education in the refinement of the universals?

It's tool cascade. You need good basic tools to make complex sophisticated technologies.

The blade is a universal. It can be a found object. The knapper refines the blade. Blade making acquires an infrastructure. The young are educated in the utilisation of that infrastructure.

Language is a universal.

refinement ..
infrastructure ..
education ..

Slow Deep Thinking - which I'm going to do some of about this - this response was just off the top of the head to the fingertypers


Bill Kerr said...

hi minh,

"slow deep thinking" was also a stand out phrase for me from alan kay's non universals list

In a world of busy work, bells, whistles, deadlines and shrinking time limits it's a hard thing to achieve. Something that teachers do in their holidays.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Serious Games design might be one of the solutions for teaching the hard ones...

Bill Kerr said...

I'd be curious as to where alan kay got his list of "non universals" from and would like more details about them. I put a question mark after a couple I didn't understand but which sounded interesting.

When I google "non universals" anthropology not much comes up but the search universals anthropology was more successful

Here are a couple of books that might be useful for future research:
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker. I already have a couple of other books by Pinker, 'The Language Instinct' and 'How the Mind Works'

Human Universals by Donald Brown

This article, Living without numbers or time , suggests that Chomsky's idea that humans inherit a universal grammar (mentalese) is wrong. It reports conflict between Chomsky and Pinker on that question.