Sunday, April 27, 2008

OLPC shakeout: the battle for Sugar

One Laptop Per Child Foundation No Longer a Disruptive Force ...

Walter Bender clarifies his reasons for leaving OLPC:
What’s next for OLPC? I would rather OLPC answer for themselves. Nicholas has made it clear, at least to me, that OLPC needs to be strategically agnostic about learning—that it can’t be prescriptive about learning. So that’s his opinion and that’s where he’s taking OLPC, and that’s not what I want to do, so I left.

X: When you say “agnostic about learning,” what I take that to mean is that there’s a feeling that the XO Laptop should run Windows, and not just Linux and Sugar.

WB: I think it’s pretty obvious and was obvious from the very beginning that it’s a lot easier to cater to people’s comfort than to be disruptive. Nicholas had that wonderful quote in BusinessWeek about a month ago—that OLPC is going to stop acting like a terrorist and start emulating Microsoft. If you read between the lines, the idea is to stop trying to be disruptive and to start trying to make things comfortable for decision-makers. And that’s a marketing strategy, and one that I think has been adopted by many laptop manufacturers. Personally, I think that the customer is not always right, and that a role that a non-profit can play is to try to demonstrate better ways of doing things and let the market follow them. But that is a minority opinion, so I left to do my own thing.
Excellent interview. Read the whole thing. This bit is great:
X: Let’s back up. You’ve said many times, and so has Nicholas Negroponte, that OLPC is a learning project, not a laptop project. So can you talk about the basic pedagogical principles that are important to you, and how Sugar embodies those?

WB: When we started to do this, I tried to build the solution based on three very simple principles about what makes us human. Because I knew this had to be something that worked everywhere, with every child. The first of the three things is that everyone is a teacher and a learner. Second, humans by their nature are social beings. Third, humans by their nature are expressive. I decided those would be the pillars of how we design the user experience for the laptop. The other thing is that I was very much influenced by Seymour Papert and his constructionist theories, which can be summarized in my mind very efficiently by two aphorism. One is that you learn through doing, so if you want more learning you want more doing. The second is that love is a better master than duty. You want people to engage in things that are authentic to them, things that they love. The first is more addressed by the Sugar technology; the second is more addressed by the culture around freedom.
Issues (I'm not a developer, the following are some of the fracture lines I can work out from quickly reading some entries on the lists):
  • Sugar development is under resourced despite requests internally to improve this situation
  • To port Sugar to Windows is not a trivial undertaking
  • Many believe that Sugar / Windows dual boot system will not ship, that MS will not allow it
  • Allegations of lack of transparency or consultation from Negroponte in decision making (see Ivan Kristic's This too shall pass ...)
  • OLPC software development will fork between a proprietary pathway and an open source (GPL) pathway
Ivan Kristic:
Nicholas’ recent claim of Sugar growing amorphously because it “didn’t have a software architect who did it in a crisp way” is similarly muddy: convincing him of the need for an architect is a battle Walter and I fought for months without success. The organization decided to move anyway, and extended me a written offer to take over as Chief Software Architect. Nicholas rescinded the offer unilaterally several weeks later, for reasons he refused to explain to anyone. So yes, there was no architect, but that’s because Nicholas didn’t want one. If he believes that’s the cause of Sugar’s problems, he has no one but himself to blame
- This too shall pass
I wrote an earlier blog about the community user interface aspect of Sugar.

My current evaluation: The developers value Sugar highly as a new UI and that many of them believe that its ongoing development is not secure if left up to Negroponte's leadership. Sugar is the main current manifestation of the desirable disruptive pathway that Bender is talking about (what are the others?). Nicholas started a revolution that has bred new revolutionaries who will continue the revolution.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

amazing and incredible

In 1862 Darwin predicted the existence of a large moth with a 12 inch tongue, in Madagascar, after examining an unusual comet orchid. 142 years later the moth is captured on video.

"never thought I'd live to see that"

cognitivism or cognitive science (part one)

I realized that my understanding of cognitivism or cognitive science was shallow so I have been taking a closer look

I understood cognitivism to mean a computational model of mind, that the mind is something like a computer with inputs, outputs and structures (called various names such symbols, schemas, frames) which process that information

I also understood it to be associated with a theory of innateness or a genetically timetabled developmental process of unfolding of those brain structures. eg. Chomsky has argued that our ability to process spoken language has entered our gene pool (also Pinker)

I also understood that cognitivism had been challenged by connectionists, neuroscientists, behavioural AI researchers (Rodney Brooks), some philosophers (the Churchlands) and some educational theorists (George Siemens, Stephen Downes) who reject the basic premise, ie. they argue that the mind is NOT like a computer

I have previously supported some of these arguments, particularly those of Rodney Brooks, that the mind is not like a computer. Also I'm a fan of Andy Clark and the distributed model of mind (enactivism) that he outlines in Being There and his other works.

One trigger for delving into it more deeply was realizing that I wasn’t clear at all about the differences between cognitivism and constructivism. Constructivism also theorises that structures of some sort are built in the brain so why were cognitivism and constructivism invariably presented as different approaches, ie. the Big Three classification of behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism.

Currently we have some influential authors who criticise a constructivist approach to education but support a cognitivist approach. eg. Kirschner, Sweller and Clark paper which argues against minimal guidance during instruction, has been influential (their paper, my rebuttal). So, clearly some see the distinction as very important even if I am becoming confused about it.

Another trigger was that I belatedly realised that some authors that made a lot of sense to me were in the cognitivist or cognitive scientist camp. Not that they wear this label as a badge. They don't,which is one of the things I like about their work, they focus on ideas far more than to which "camp" they belong. The authors I'm referring to here are Daniel Dennett, Marvin Minsky and James Gee.

This blog is just an introduction outlining some of the issues about why I decided to look more carefully at what cognitivism was and where it was at.

Friday, April 25, 2008

I now see colour differently

Daniel Dennett:
"... the color of objects: they have indeed coevolved with the color-vision systems of the organisms that perceive them"
- Review of Varela
I hadn't thought about this before. Colour is so personal and vivid, it affects our moods and emotions so strongly. It is still real - just as the oxygen in the atmosphere that was put in there by photosynthesis and which preceded animal evolution is real. But it's harder to intellectually detach ourselves from our perceptual systems.

Organisms act on their environment and contribute to their environment - they do not just adapt to their environment. At some level everyone knows this but I hadn't realised how deep it went. That in the process of our evolution we created colour itself, as distinct from the particular wavelength of certain radiations.

I have to think about this more. I had more of an OMG than an AHA response.

It might be similar to the idea that we coevolve with our language, that language is a mind tool that grows with us. As we learn language we grow a little, which enables us to learn more language in an ongoing spiral.

ice age alarmism

"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."

This is an interesting contrary viewpoint. Human caused increase in CO2 levels is only one factor amongst many contributing to the earth's climate:
Sorry to ruin the fun, but an ice age cometh
... there is a close correlation between variations in the sunspot cycle and Earth's climate. The previous time a cycle was delayed like this was in the Dalton Minimum, an especially cold period that lasted several decades from 1790
Ice age alarmism is needed to combat global warming alarmism? How should we be conducting this debate?

back in 1952 ...

more at gasoline humour

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

tragically, I was right

A little while after I first heard about the "one laptop per child project" I wrote this cynical comment (March 2006):
Reality check: The philanthropist Negroponte is paving the way for the bigger philanthropist Gates to make some more money
I then rethought and became an ardent supporter. But tragically it turns out that my initial gut reaction was correct.
For about a year, however, Microsoft has been working to get a slimmed-down version of Windows to run on XO laptops. As a result, Negroponte said Tuesday that he expects XOs to soon have a "dual-boot" option, meaning users would be able to run Windows or Sugar.

One current hang-up is whether the necessary hardware would add $7 to $12 to an XO's cost, taking the project even further away from its eventual goal of producing the machines for less than $100. Eventually, Negroponte added, Windows might be the sole operating system, and Sugar would be educational software running on top of it.
- source
So, the OLPC will become the vehicle for expanding Microsoft's market share in the Third World. And don't forget Intel's undermining role in all of this too. Step by step, the childlike drama of bringing the OLPC to the poor has turned into an ugly reality play of monopoly capitalism's ceaseless greed for profit.

No. I don't think that is what the supporters of OLPC were hoping for.

Am I one of those open source fundamentalists that Negroponte talks about here:
"There are several examples like that, that we have to address without worrying about the fundamentalism in some of the open-source community," he said. "One can be an open-source advocate without being an open-source fundamentalist."
No, I'm not. But at times like this I would kiss the ground that Richard Stallman walks on.

I'm not saying this is the end of the world or the end of my support for the OLPC. Actually, I'm not sure so the logo is still up there for the time being while I think about it. I like Tom Hoffman's positive approach - Mary Lou Jepson does the hardware and Walter Bender does the software.

I just wish I had been wrong in my initial estimate.

update (24th April):
clarification from Negroponte: "perfection is the enemy of good"
Sugar is a very good idea, less than perfectly executed. I attribute our weakness to unrealistic development goals and practices. Our mission has never changed. It has been to bring connected laptops for learning to children in the poorest and most remote locations of the world. Our mission has never been to advocate the perfect learning model or pure Open Source. I believe the best educational tool is constructionism and the best software development method is Open Source. In some cases those are best achieved like the Trojan Horse, versus direct confrontation or isolating ourselves with perfection. Remember the expression: perfection is the enemy of good.
I may be able to live with this, through my gritted purist teeth - good that it is now out in the open - one of those issues that puts the head and the heart in conflict

Tom Hoffman's blog has good commentary on sugar, spread out over a few months - do a search using keyword "sugar" (results)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

OLPC: what is going on?

From the public statements of Ivan Kristic and Walter Bender it is clear that the OLPC project, which promised so much, is going through acute problems.

Ivan Kristic quit OLPC in March due to an internal restructure. The details are not fully explained in his blog but there is enough there to be worrying:
"Not long ago, OLPC undertook a drastic internal restructuring coupled with what, despite official claims to the contrary, is a radical change in its goals and vision from those that were shared with me when I was invited to join the project."
Today I discovered that Walter Bender has also quit, issuing this polite explanation:
After more than two years without a break at One Laptop per Child, I have decided to take some time to reflect on how I can best contribute going forward to the goal of giving children around the world opportunities for a quality learning experience. The OLPC Association is making headway getting laptops into the hands of children and it is encouraging to see that other non-profit and for-profit organizations are following suit. My personal interest is in helping build a community of developers, educators, and learners dedicated to advancing the quality of free and open source software for learning and the sharing of pedagogical approaches in this community by adopting the spirit and methodology of the open-source movement.

While my goal is to create a complementary effort to broaden the reach of the software and pedagogy--a free and open framework in support of "learning learning", I hope to continue working with the great team at OLPC as well as the various groups that have formed around the world in support of one-laptop-per-child deployments.

Thank you for all of your support over the past two years and for all the feedback and encouragement you have given me.
- Where is Walter?
So why is it that Walter can't help "build a community of developers, educators, and learners dedicated to advancing the quality of free and open source software for learning and the sharing of pedagogical approaches in this community by adopting the spirit and methodology of the open-source movement" from within the OLPC organisation?

I don't see much point in speculating. But the OLPC does rely enormously on winning the hearts and minds of its supporters. Unless the top leadership are more open about what is happening inside then that support will surely erode? Supporters need to know what it is they are supporting.

chess: Kerr - Colin Cloudsdale (plausible idiocy)

Colin Cloudsdale and Edgar Mdinaradze tied for first in this year's South Australian chess championships, scoring 7.5 / 10. I finished with 5.5. More details here.

Here is my game with Colin Cloudsdale, in which the quality of play fluctuated dramatically. This is an exciting game with some good quality play, punctuated by some blunders and some plausible idiocy, mainly by me.

Kerr - Colin Cloudsdale
1. f4 c5
2. Nf3 Nc6
3. g3 g6
4. Bg2 Bg7
5. O-O d5
6. d3 f5
This looks strange, throwing the game into unexplored territory. It creates weaknesses on black's white squares, which white now tries to exploit

7. c3 Nf6
8. Qb3 Qc7
9. Re1 Bd7
10. Nbd2 O-O-O
11. e4?
This would be good except for a better reply, which black missed! Better would be 11. a4! with Qa3 to follow in some variations

11. ___ e6?
After the game Colin pointed out that 11___ c4! was better for black. The game might continue 12. cxd4 (12. Qd1 Qb6!+) 12___dxe4 13. Ng5 Rdf8 14. c5 Na5 15. Qa3 h6 and if 16. Nh3 (try 16. Nxe4?!) Kb8 17. b4 Nc6 18. Nc4 Nd5 black has a clear advantage

12. Ng5 c4!
13. dxc4 dxe4
if 13___Na4 14. Qa3 and if then 14___ Bf8 then 15. b4

14. Nf7
This material grab is OK. Another option was 14. c5 and then the white QN can go to c4 with active play

14. ___ Ng5!
15. Nf1!
A necessary defense. Not 15. c5? because of 15___ Nd4!

15.___ Na5
16. Qa3
White has foreseen that he can cover the crucial a7-g1 diagonal with his pawns and that the black knight is pinned to the important pawn on a7.

16.___ Kb8!
17. Be3
A good alternative might be 17. Ne3 preserving what could be a strong bishop

17.___ Bf8
18. b4 b6

19. Rad1?
White wanted to "play safe" by not greedily grabbing material but developing instead. However, after the simple 19. Nxh8! black has difficulty regaining the knight. White now plays a series of second rate moves that lets black back into the game.

19 ___ Nxc4
20. Qc1?
b3 is a better square for the queen, which keeps blacks queen tied to the protection of the knight on c4

20.___ Bg7
21. Nxh8? Rxh8!
The black bishop now looks to the a4 square - it would have been better for white to take the rook on d8 and then swap rooks if necessary

22. h3?
Another mistake. Qc2 would have kept the bishop out

22.___ NgxB
23. NxN NxN
24. RxN Ba4
25. Rd2 Rc8
Black is now winning! The bishops are very strong.

26. c4 Qxc4
27. Qxc4 Rxc4
28. Ra3
Black should now play 28___ Rxb4 still with lots of threats and a winning position. Instead he blunders

28 ___ Bd4+ ??
29. Rxd4 Rxd4
30. Rxa4 Rd3
31. Kf2 Kb7
32. b5 Rc3
Incredibly, white now manages to lose from this position by a series of new mistakes - each one of them is plausible idiocy, chess can be like that.

33. Bxe4?!
Certainly plausible. 33. Bf1 would win too, might be slower but would be surer.

33.__ PxB
34. Rxe4 Rc2+
35. Kf3?!
And here 35. Re2! would produce a safe win with no chance of losing. But short of time I wasn't absolutely certain of the win.

35.___ Rxa2
36. Rxe6 a5!
37. Re7+?
Again plausible because otherwise the black king gets out, but this is now dangerous, 38. PxPep was essential

37.___ Kb8
38. Rxh7 a4
39. Rg7 Rb2
40. Rxg6 Rxb5
41. Re6
This has become quite tricky now - certainly not what white had in mind when he sacrificed his bishop on move 33

41__ a3
42. Re1 Rb2

Who is winning now? I'm not sure - but white was short of time while black still had 18 minutes on the clock. I should explain that the time limit was 90 minutes each per game plus 30 seconds added for each move.

43. h4?
More plausible idiocy because the h pawn is further from the black king, but black's pawns are more advanced and his rook can easily stop the white h pawn. So, 43. f5! is the move, then 43.___ a2 44. Ra1 Kc7 45. Ke4 b5 46. f6 Kd2 47. Kf5 b4 48. Kg6 b3 49. f7 Rf2 50. Kg7 Rxf7+ 51. KxR b2 52. Rxa2 P=Q looks like a draw

43___ b5
I think now that white is lost

44. h5 b4 45. h6 a2 46. h7 Rh2 and wins

more web2.0 evangelism

web2.0 evangelism:
Teaching at a Crossroads by John Connell

I call it evangelism because it's not really based on a foundation of firm contemporary or historical analysis

I agree with this response by ebcnzer (Mark): Cards on the table

I left this comment on ebcnzer's blog:
hi mark,

I liked your swimming against the tide comment. I agree with you that John's post lacked a firm foundation about the nature of learning.

My thoughts are that we need to look at this (web2.0 or learning2.0) historically as well, both the short history of computers and the longer history of modernity.

computers: There has already been a "computers in education revolution", namely, logo and Papert's constructionism, which has been and (almost) gone. I have a mental picture here of a time line from the 70s with glitter here and there along the path but with web2.0 advocates only being aware of the glitter in the present, seeming having almost zero awareness of recent history.

modernity: Enlightenment ideas have been with us for at least 300 years (and much longer if we include the Greeks) and in a sense they form the basis to the current curriculum. This is a longer discussion but needs to be had as well. How do we evaluate what ought to be taught in schools? I would suggest that the non universals is a good place to start.

Monday, April 21, 2008

educational leadership

Greg Whitby offers some educational leadership in Discernment vs digital by asking some big questions which would provide the basis for a worthwhile discussion forum:
  1. What is today’s world like?
  2. How do young people learn in today’s world?
  3. How do you make schooling relevant?
  4. How do you supports good learning?
  5. What are today’s pedagogies?
  6. What tools are needed to support todays pedagogies?
By contrast, after searching, I can't see anything of real educational significance coming out of the 2020 summit.

Moreover this article (Criticism for Rudd school plan) suggests that the wheels are already falling off the Gillard / Rudd so called "digital education revolution" with a leaked letter from dissatisfied school Principals:
It appears that the Government has failed to address a number of issues such as: funding for the ongoing maintenance and eventual upgrading of the computers; the provision of adequate and safe power points, security and associated infrastructure in traditional classrooms that have not been designed to house this extra equipment; the need to modify building requirements; provision of software and site licences; professional development for teachers; and curriculum support needed for the minimal ICT skill standards that have yet to be articulated.
Not very surprising. The underlying issue is that we have a government that came to office promising an "education revolution" but has yet to articulate what that might mean.

"digital revolution":
fresh turns to stale
a conversation with Mark Pesce ...
rudd's non vision ...

greg whitby:
21st Century school
catholics storm school heaven

donating blood

I received 15 units of blood after a routine procedure (prostate biopsy) that went horribly wrong, a year ago. I've booked into Red Cross to begin giving some it back next Wednesday. Give some thought to donating blood.

I remember the old Tony Hancock joke in The Blood Donor- blood banks are just like other banks, you put some in, then take some out.

how to back up blogger

I couldn't get the official backup method in blogger help to work at all --> error message when I tried to save the new backup template

This advice from kookosity worked for me. ie. I could back up my entire blog but not the comments.

Hard to figure why google doesn't provide a decent backup service. Does that make them evil?

study marvin minsky's work

It was a huge moment for me to receive a comment from marvin minsky on my blog recently

Maybe others would like to join me in studying his work?

Some things take a while to figure out. Papert and Minsky worked closely together at the MIT Media lab but Papert wrote about education of children and Minsky wrote about Artifical Intelligence, how to make machines think. Where did it meet? This is explained by Papert in his Afterword to Mindstorms:
For several years now Marvin Minsky and I have been working on a general theory of intelligence (called "The Society Theory of Mind") which has emerged from a strategy of thinking simultaneously about how children do and how computers might think ... the point of departure that separates us from most other members (of the AI community) is (that) ... seeing ideas from computer science not only as instruments of explanation of how learning and thinking in fact do work, but also as instruments of change that might alter, and possibly improve, the way people learn and think ... Marvin Minsky was the most important person in my intellectual life during the growth of the ideas in this book. It was from him that I first learned that computation could be more than a theoretical science and a practical art: It can also be the material from which to fashion a powerful and personal vision of the world" (pp. 208-210)

Society of Mind
(1987) is a fascinating and brilliantly written book. Each page of the book presents a new idea, which piece by piece build to create a big picture of how parts of the mind might work. I read this book a long time ago but many of the ideas in it still seem fresh and relevant, eg. (why maths and science are hard)

Minsky's new book, The Emotion Machine, is available on line in draft form if you want to check it out before buying

Also check out these recent writings in support of the OLPC project

A lot of the research into the mind these days focuses on connectionism and neuroscience. With the noise and interest generated from those areas it is easy to get the impression that things have moved on and Minsky's ideas are out of date. However, it was recently pointed out to me that Minsky's ideas are very relevant to the notion of messy mind. It would be a huge mistake to not take a hard look at his latest contributions.

If you search this blog with the keyword 'minsky' you'll find several other relevant articles too.

tessellations found in the Wayback machine

I found bits of my old website (1998) in the Wayback machine. Here are some tessellations my students did from way back:

Waves by Mario Molina (1995)

Crabs by Michael Desira (1995)

Mug shots by Dean Spasic (1996)

Thank you, Brewster Kahle (here and here)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

teaching fractions through instructional design

I'm helping some home schooling parents teach their kids fractions - using the Idit Harel Instructional Software Design Project (ISDP) method. It's the best way I know to teach fractions, which is acknowledged to be one of the worst taught things in primary school ("a weeping sore" article by Ellerton and Clements)

For an overview read this article on my website --> Educational Software: Designed by Kids for Kids. This time around we're using Scratch rather than LogoWriter.

It is available as a book - Children Designers: Interdisciplinary Constructions for Learning and Knowing (some extracts available from this link)

Today I took the parents through the pretest and the general approach. The pretest contains questions like this:

The way I explained this is that we are learning the deep structure of fractions, in contrast to a worksheet algorithm approach made up of questions like what is 3/4 of 16. The problem with the worksheet alogorithms is that the children might be able to get the correct answer but still not have a clear understanding of what a fraction is.

By the deep structure of fractions I mean the ability to transform between picture, word and symbolic representations:

We discussed the questions after the adults had done the test. Naturally, this focused mainly on the questions that someone had got wrong. This is modelling the process the parents will go through with their children.

The next step is to pose these questions to your kids:
  • What do you or your siblings find difficult about fractions?
  • Make up your own multiple choice questions to test your sibling with, something that will improve their understanding.
There is a lot of meta learning involved in this process - asking and assisting the kids to finding the zone of proximal development for themselves and their siblings.

I then showed the parents how to represent such a question on the screen using Scratch

That's where we got up to. After I went home I looked up Idit Harel's thesis and realised I had missed out her "What is a fraction?" interview, which is another good way to start. This isn't completely represented in her thesis but I'll quote part of what she says here, so the parents can work this into their approach as well.

PURPOSE OF INTERVIEW IS TO INVESTIGATE THE CHILD'S CONCEPT OF WHAT FRACTION IS, their "favourite" representations of fractions, their way of "talking about" fractions and their ability to link or translate representations. Add to these questions if you want, whatever comes to mind.

General questions:
What is a fraction?
Can you describe anything in this room as a fraction?

Use this set of pegs (or play dough, paper, blocks etc.) to show an example of the fraction 2/3

Probing questions:
One child told me that this red block and this yellow block together equal one-half. What do you think?
If this yellow block is the unit, what are these two yellow blocks and three red blocks together (the red blocks being half the size of the yellow blocks)?
Then probe further depending on what they come up with

Related: Questioning Research

Friday, April 18, 2008

why maths and science are hard

When we understand something well our cognitive structures are robust and cross linked. I can't prove that but it is a reasonable hypothesis

Whereas in maths and science work the preferred structures are often fragile and linear. So that if something goes wrong the whole thing collapses and we notice the error

So the dominant culture of maths / science (fragile linear) is at odds with our normal ways of learning something well (robust, cross linked)
In real life, our minds must always tolerate beliefs that later turn out to be wrong. It's also bad the way we let teachers shape our children's mathematics into slender, shaky chains instead of robust, cross-connected webs. A chain can break at any link, a tower can topple at the slightest shove. And that's what happens in a mathematics class to a child's mind whose attention turns just for a moment to watch a pretty cloud
- Marvin Minsky, Society of Mind, 18.8 Mathematics Made Hard, p 193
This is why we need Papert's turtle or Resnick's cat

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

slipping into the darkness of non creative safety

Is it possible to stay on the high road of creative virtue without constant temptation from the dark side of the force?

If you don't have time to buy and read Johnathan Zittrain's book then read these articles instead:
Protecting the Internet without wrecking it by Johnathan Zittrain
review: The future of the internet (O'Reilly)

This short blog is just a brief introduction to a discussion we have to have.

The development cycle from creative disruptive technology to regulated, safe but non creative gee whiz appliances. Initially, the generative tools, the disruptive technologies like the PC and the internet crushed their non-generative competitors like the stand alone word processor and restricted proprietary on line services

But the generative tools generated a lot of stuff that many people don't like - spam, porn, online paedophiles, bullying etc.

So now many opt for non generative tools that are safe: the iPhone replaces the Apple. Both have been produced under the leadership of the same person (Steve Jobs) but the iPhone is totally locked down whilst the Apple was totally open for exploration

Will we opt for open systems with all their rich potential for both unbridled, creative exploration and dark maleovalence or safe, useful but closed appliances?

The al upton blog closure issue is a tiny but important pimple on the enormous pumpkin about the future of creative humanity.

video presentation about his book by Johnathan Zittrain (entertaining as well as comprehensive - 60 minutes)

Monday, April 14, 2008

maths education crisis in Australia - the long tail of underachievement

Quality of school education: Senate Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Education, September 2007, 141pp

Disappointing that this report has received so little coverage - a little from the mainstream media and almost none from the blogosphere

In this blog I'll just address the issue of the crisis in maths education in many Australian schools, what the report describes as "the long tail of underachievement". Even though the Senate committee are somewhat unclear about solutions (in part because they sit on the fence when it comes to the maths and curriculum wars) all the data is there which identifies serious problems in Australian maths education

Not many will read the whole report but if you just read sections 3.44 (page 58) to 3.62 (page 64) that will provide you with a good overview of the maths education crisis. I'll just provide a few dots points below to highlight the main points in summary:
  • the quality of aspiring teachers (in maths) is in decline, especially at primary school level
  • inadequate treatment of mathematics content during teacher training, giving new teachers neither confidence nor enthusiasm to teach mathematics
  • the consequence being that too many children are unprepared at the end of primary school to learn algebra, without which they cannot study mathematics at a higher level in Years 11 and 12
  • early tests of numeracy conducted by education faculties showed that a very large proportion of students (this refers to students studying to become teachers) cannot do grade 5 maths because they never learned a lot of maths at school
  • People who can do maths do not choose to become primary teachers - they will do something like commerce
The other parts of the report are to do with an argument between different submitters to the committee about:

(1) Curriculum - whether to pursue a "deep learning" approach advocated by the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers or whether to pursue an approach with more emphasis on basics and skill routines (Assoc. Professor Wayne Read, James Cook University)

(2) Technology - has the introduction of calculators, including graphics calculators, liberated maths from memorising and mechanical chores or have they contributed to the crisis of lack of basic understandings? This part was interesting:
In 2006 Victoria reintroduced a technology-free exam for part of the harder Year 12 subjects. It was claimed that teachers welcomed it with open arms because it meant that the students once again had to start thinking about what they were doing and be able to do things with pen and paper as well. (p. 61)
There is a war on; the committee tends towards a conservative solution without really committing to either side of the expert conflict. What they say is that the curriculum debate is a secondary issue, the main issue is to improve teacher quality.

I'd be interested in discussing this Senate report and the curriculum war issues in more detail.

curriculum reform will not improve education without quality teachers

thoughts on reading "we earth neurons"

Thoughts after reading We Earth Neurons (1999) by Daniel Dennett:
Some years ago a friend of mine in the Peace Corps told me about his efforts on behalf of a tribe of gentle Indians deep in the Brazilian forest. I asked him if he had been required to tell them about the conflict between the USA and the USSR. Not at all, he replied. There would be no point in it. They had not only never heard of either America or the Soviet Union, they had never even heard of Brazil! Who would have guessed that it is still possible to be a human being living in, and subject to the laws of, a nation without the slightest knowledge of that fact? If we find this astonishing, it is because we human beings, unlike all other species on the planet, are knowers. We are the ones–the only ones–who have figured out what we are, and where we are, in this great universe. And we are even beginning to figure out how we got here.
There are plenty of students in schools who have about as much idea as why they are there as those Indians know about the state of Brazil. Also there are lots of adults around who think the knowledge state of those Brazilians who don't know they are Brazilians is just as valid and valuable as our western knowledge.

Have we lost the will to educate because we haven't understood what makes us special as a species?

Humans are knowers.

If we see the purpose of education as more to do with entertainment, socialisation or vocation then our students won't see the main point.

If we capitulate to the post modern view that "all viewpoints are relative and equally valid" then our students won't get it, either.

If teachers think they have to compete with celebrities and sporting stars then will our students "get it"? No.

If we spend more time celebrating diversity and personal identity then understanding how the world actually works, then our students won't get it.

If schools are controlled by people who think child safety is more important then child learning then will our students get it? (al upton blog closure)

If society continues to treat educators like second rate citizens - if knowledge is not valued as that special, important human thing - then will our students get it?

There are plenty of students who think and some who say, "school is shit". Do we know what to say back to them?

Are we afraid of facing the future?
... if you want to find anxiety, despair, anomie today, look among the undereducated young people scavenging their dimly understood heritages (or popular culture) for a comfortable identity. Among intellectuals, look to the fashionable tribe of postmodernists, who would like to suppose that modern science is just another in a long line of myths, its institutions and expensive apparatus just the rituals and accouterments of yet another religion. That intelligent people can take this seriously is a testimony to the power that fearful thinking still has, in spite of our advances in self-consciousness. The postmodernists are right, of course, that science is just one of the things we might want to spend our extra calories on. The fact that science has been the major source of the efficiencies that created those extra calories does not entitle it to any particular share of the wealth it has created. But it still ought to be obvious that the methods and rules of science–not just its microscopes and telescopes and computers–are the new sense organs of our species, enabling us to answer questions, solve mysteries, and anticipate the future in ways no earlier human institutions can approach. The more we learn about what we are, the more options we will discern about what to try to become. We ... have long honored the “self-made man” but now that we are actually learning enough to be able to re-make ourselves into something new, many flinch. Many people would apparently rather bumble around with their eyes closed, trusting in tradition, than look around to see what’s about to happen. Yes, it is unnerving; yes, it can be scary. After all, there are many entirely new mistakes we are now empowered to make. But it’s the beginning of a great new adventure for our knowing species–and much more exciting, as well as safer, if we open our eyes. (We Earth Neurons)

maths should evolve, with computers

Maths is not a static subject but evolves, with computers

An Exploration in the Space of Mathematics Educations (1996) by Seymour Papert
This article is "all over the place" but contains some very interesting theoretical ideas some of which can be readily implemented in practice

A thought experiment: maths does not consist of fixed elementary building blocks that must be taught first before more advanced maths can be understood. The elementary building blocks change as the available technology changes:
eg. binary arithmetic becomes more important with computers on the scene
eg. dynamic representations of say, the parabola, become possible to represent on the computer before static representations of the parabola (more realistic than when paper is the dominant medium)
eg. random is more fun and interesting in a dynamic medium than coin flipping or dice rolling in "real life"

Some principles for a different maths, in part, using computers:
  • Power principle - using it before getting it
  • Projects before problem solving - problems come up as part of doing projects and they are sometimes "solved" and sometimes "dissolved" (rather than teaching "problem solving" as a thing in itself)
  • Media before content and Dynamics before statics - eg. it is hard to teach dynamics on the static medium of paper but much easier to teach dynamics using the computer medium - the medium of paper fights the message of dynamics
  • Thingness principle - Object before operation, in the computer medium we can name and create icons for things that previously only existed as abstractions, eg. vertical and horizontal motion icons can be combined into composite motion. Reification is possible. (Papert prefers the down to earth word "thingness" to the academic word "reification")
Key ideas:
The idea that maths evolves, that it could be different from current school maths

The mathematical thing like object - eg. scratch blocks or tiles are mathematical objects, so deeply built into scratch that their mathematical nature is hardly noticeable. This paper was written before scratch was developed; scratch was developed under the influence of these ideas. Resnick was a student of Papert's.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

the instruments of torture

Bertolt Brecht noted that after the Church showed Galileo the instruments of torture then subsequently scientific development in Italy languished for decades, perhaps even for hundreds of years.

DECS (Ed Department) and the AEU (Union) are in the process of doing something similar to Al Upton (update 3):
"Mentors/coaches – any communication between students and adults overseas was strongly advised against. DECS and AEU representatives agree on this"
It took the Church 400 years to apologise to Galileo.

venturing into impossible
the mini legends become legends

constructivism and objectivity

Seymour Papert:
Knowledge we are told must be understood as situated, contextualised, genderised, multicultural, social, relational and domain-specific. This is a culture in revolt against the idea of the abstract! But while I feel thoroughly part of that culture, I also have trouble reconciling mathematics with its criteria: I can't shake off the conviction that mathematics is abstract - indeed the ultimate exemplar of abstraction
(Editorial. International Journal of Computers for Mathematical Learning, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1996)
He goes onto say that "instead of resolving the tension ... it might not only be acceptable but actually productive to live with it"

Does constructivism (Piaget) or constructionism (Papert) necessarily imply that there is no such thing as objective knowledge?

Papert sometimes might stray there but I've avoided reading him in that way. I've interpreted his writings to mean that we should respect the developmental process by which knowledge is acquired. Children interpret the world in childlike ways which have their own internal logic that needs to be understood. Adults, with a scientific world view interpret the world in ways which are closer to objective but always evolving.

However, some see truth itself is seen as a meaningless concept – due to their embrace of cultural relativism, the importance of "diversity", celebration of difference, a particularist world view linked to the politics of identity, repulsion or revulsion from modernity, all knowledge is seen as socially constructed, different views are equally valid, experience is more valuable than theory (Furedi combats these views)

I interpret Papert above as saying that we have a culture in revolt against the whole notion that truth exists - but nevertheless truth does exist. Admittedly, it is not certain that he is saying that since mathematical abstraction is not necessarily objective truth. But he appears to be saying we should not capitulate to cultural relativism, that it is necessary to look at situations objectively as well.

The word constructivism has been sadly perverted by some education departments to elevate process knowledge above content knowledge in such as way to undermine the Enlightenment values on which Western culture is built and which we still need to further progress.

The word constructivism is a casualty of friendly fire in the culture wars. Should we let it bleed to death on the battlefield or attempt to bring it back from the dead?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

how the left became conservative

Frank Furedi:
In the nineteenth century, the project of relativising knowledge was designed to shield tradition against the claims of universalism. Cultural relativism sought to protect religion and traditional morality and values against what was perceived as the threat posed by science, objective truth and universal values. According to opponents of the Enlightenment, different communities had a particular way of making sense of the world, and their values were the product of their own specific circumstances. It was claimed that each of these particular perspectives was of equal validity and provided far more insight into the ways of the world than the so-called abstract universalism of the Enlightenment.

Since the 1960s, cultural relativism has succeeded in becoming a powerful intellectual force. Disenchantment with the Enlightenment tradition has encouraged many thinkers and sections of the public to make sense of their lives through particularistic perspectives. The caricatured version of universalism upheld by the institutions of Western society proved to be no match to the powerful spirit of disenchantment that prevailed in the second half of the twentieth century. One consequence of this process was to put the authority of objective truth on the defensive - and thereby putting to question all truth claims.

Whereas in the past the most systematic critique of universalism was mounted by the right, today, by contrast, the cultural left is its most aggressive opponent. Since the late eighteenth century, concepts such as reason, progress and universalism have generally been associated with the left. But since the 1960s, the New Left has begun a systematic demolition of those values, by questioning the claims of reason, progress and universalism. The new philosophical posture was reflected in the political approach that acclaimed diversity and opposed universalistic values. Unlike the nineteenth-century critics of the Enlightenment, the New Left was not, in its origin, motivated by a conservative impulse to defend tradition. But because Western capitalism presented its values as universal, the New Left unthinkingly became opposed to it. The New Left not only rejected universalism in general, it adopted a particularistic world view linked to the politics of identity. Unconsciously, the New Left reaction to postwar Western capitalism internalised the methods and arguments of the conservative reaction to the Enlightenment.

During the 1960s, the left's love affair with relativism was hesitant and semi-conscious, but by the late 1970s, radical intellectuals and, more often, ex-radicals were speaking the language of Nietzsche. In a process aptly described by Alan Bloom as the 'Nietzscheanisation of the Left', the left, repelled by modernism, took a cultural turn towards particularism, heterogeneity and difference. It is worth recalling that the original methodological orientation towards difference began as the defence of aristocratic and ruling class privilege. Differences in moral and mental capacities were advanced to account for and legitimise the social hierarchy. By the mid-nineteenth century, this perspective attached itself to racial differences and helped to legitimise the notion that there was a global hierarchy of people. The cultural left did not set out, as the Social Darwinist did, to provide intellectual sustenance to racial superiority. But the conservative potential of the particularistic doctrine has crystallised into the cultural left's suspicion of cosmopolitan and global trends. As the rebellion against the rhetoric of universalism turned into a celebration of difference, the process of intellectual de-radicalisation became inescapable. The outcome has been the ascendancy of what is called postmodernism and its systematic repudiation of objective knowledge.
- Where have all the intellectuals gone? (pp. 60-62)
web2.0 extension: My individual rights are important, I will insert my voice into conversations whenever I can - rather than study history or actually understand anything deeper than my immediate knowledge. If anyone asks me to think too hard I will just move onto the next conversation.

I like the way in which Furedi does identify and take a stand for truth and the Enlightenment, that progress can be identified and how he explains that the spoilers baton passed from the Right to the (pseudo) Left and this latest attack on truth is done in the name of the freedom of the individual and the evils of capitalism.

from never mind, to structured mind, to messy mind

At learning evolves wiki, I am abandoning traditional classifications of learning theories in favour of this approach: from never mind, to structured mind, to messy mind

There is a problem with the conventional categories (such as cognitivism, instructionism / behaviourism, constructivism, connectionist / connectivism, neuroscience) because some (many?) learning theorists bridge more than one category

Example one: cognitivist / constructivist overlap
On this page Bruner is categorised as a cognitivist but moving toward cognitive constructivism - reacting against the mind as "information processor", which obscures the mind as a creator of meanings (Acts of Meaning)

Example two: behaviourist / connectionist overlap:
"Much contemporary work in cognitive science on the set of models known as connectionist or parallel distributed processing (PDP) models seems to share behaviorism's anti-nativism about learning. PDP takes an approach to learning which is response oriented rather than rule-governed and this is because, like behaviorism, it has roots in associationism" (standford uni behaviourist page)

Example three: behaviourist / cognitivist overlap:
Daniel Dennett argues that the law of effect (stimuli which are rewarded tend to be repeated) is fundamental and can be extended to the inner environment, eg. Popperian creatures can preselect from possible behaviours / actions weeding out the truly stupid options before risking them in the harsh world. Dennett calls them Popperian because Popper said this design enhancement "permits our hypotheses to die in our stead". This is Dennett's enhancement of behaviourism. Popperian creatures have an inner environment that can preview and select amongst possible actions. For this to work the inner environment must contain lots of information about the outer environment and its regularities. Not only humans can do this. Mammals, birds, reptiles and fish can all presort behavioural options before acting.

Example four: Response to the challenges to cognitive science
"Thagard (2005) argues that all these challenges can best be met by expanding and supplementing the computational-representational approach, not by abandoning it." (critique of cog science - stanford philosophy page)


from never mind, to structured mind, to messy mind
  • never mind = behaviourism
  • structured mind = hard edged representation and computation model (think of the mind as a concept map)
  • messy mind = the modern synthesis which includes some messy partly contradictory ideas such as distributed mind (the mind is distributed from the brain to the environment eg. enactivism), multi modal (kinesthenic, visual are important as well as abstractions, eg. Bruner "doing with images makes symbols"), parallel processing / connectionism / pattern recognition (Churchland's eliminative materialism), neuroscience (the details do matter), behavioural AI (Brooks, behaviourism is not dead), serial processing virtual machine built on top of parallel processing (dennett), evolutionary mind (Pinker, Dennett), anthropological mind (alan kay's non universals)
I need to go through the other learning theories on this page to see if this approach works for all

Later steps in this evolution do not preclude earlier steps, that is part of the mess. Behaviourism is still very valid (responses that are reward tend to be repeated) but limited in its Skinnerian form. Cognitive science remains valid (the mind has structure but its hard to define clearly and a literal serial computing model is a gross oversimplification). The new ideas are best seen as a conservative revolution or a reform of cognitivism, not an overthrow.

There is no clear cut modern synthesis of mind. It is messy. Appreciating the messiness is important in a practical sense because if you just focus on one learning approach then that will not work for everyone (eg. the idea of controlling the transactions of meanings through the use of concept maps is good but may not work for learners who are twitchy, kinesthenic)

See learning evolves for more detail as it develops

Saturday, April 05, 2008

building complexity

Introduction to LogoWorks by Marvin Minsky (1994)

I had a few LOLs and AHA moments whilst reading this article.The scratch program in conjunction with Barry Newell's Turtle Confusion booklet does provide us with the opportunity to teach the concept of state and how to build complex structures from simpler structures.

State is an important fundamental concept that has come into being as a "fundamental" following the invention of the computer, which Alan Turing ran in his head before it came into being as a physical thing. Which goes to show that the fundamentals change.

One possible reason why kids building things declined in popularity:
The golden age of construction-sets came to its end in the 1960's. Most newer sets have changed to using gross, shabby, plastic parts, too bulky to make fine machinery. Meccano went out of business. That made me very sad. You can still buy Erector, but insist on the metal versions. Today the most popular construction set seems to be LEGO -- a set of little plastic bricks that snap together. ... It is probably easier for children, at first, but it spans a less interesting universe, and doesn't quite give that sense of being able to build "anything." Another new construction toy is FischerTechnik, which has good strong parts and fasteners. It is so well made that engineers can use it. But because it has so many different kinds of parts, it doesn't quite give you that LOGO-like sense of being able to build your own imaginary world.

About the time that building-toys went out of style, so did many other things that clever kids could do. Cars got too hard to take apart -- and radios, impossible. No one learned to build much any more, except to snap-together useless plastic toys. And no one seemed to notice this, since sports and drugs and television-crime came just in time. Perhaps computers can help bring us back.
How not to explain to a Martian how things work:
A Martian szneech once mindlinked me; it wanted to know what literature was. I told it how we make sentences by putting words together, and words by putting letters together, and how we put bigger spaces between words so that you can tell where they start and stop. "Aha," it said, "but what about the letters?" I explained that all you need are little dots since, if you have enough of them, you can make anything.

The next time, it called to ask what tigers were. I explained that tigers were mostly composed of hydrogen and oxygen. "Aha," it said, "I wondered why they burned so bright." The last time it called, it had to know about computers. I told it all about bits and binary decisions. "Aha," it said, "I understand."
The importance of understanding state:
When Turing was quite young, he realized that what a computer does only depends on the States of its parts -- and on the laws that change their states. Except for that, it doesn't matter how the parts are made. Then Turing asked what programs are -- and realized that you could think of programs as just sets of states -- or rather, ways to pre-arrange how a computer will, later, change its States
Computer programs are societies and algorithmic processes work independently of what materials they are composed of:
This must be the secret of those magical experiences I had, first with those construction sets and, later, with languages like LOGO. There's something "universal" about the ways that big things don't depend so much on what's inside their little parts. What matters is more how the parts affect each other – and less about what they are, themselves. That's why it doesn't matter much if money's made of paper or of gold, or houses out of boards or bricks. Similarly, it probably won't matter much if aliens from outer space had golden bones instead of ones of stones, like ours. People are missing something important, who don't appreciate how simple things can grow into entire worlds. They find it hard to understand Science, because they find it hard to see how all the different things we know could be made of just a few kinds of atoms. They find it hard to understand Evolution because they find it hard to see how different things like birds and bees and bears could come from boring, lifeless chemicals -- by testing trillions of procedures. The trick, of course, is doing it by many steps, each using procedures which have been debugged already, in the same way, but on smaller scales

web2.0 introspection

We are now seeing some agonised introspection about the decline of the level of conversation in web2.0 land

Conversation and Circumstance Graham Wegner
The Map is not the territory: the changing face of the edublogosphere by Doug Belshaw

I see this as phase 4 of an inevitable process:
1) web2.0 arrives, declares itself to be revolutionary (evangelism)
2) it is commercialised, from the beginning in this case
3) as it scales it dilutes (see alan kay quote below)
4) gnashing of twitters and wailing from keyboards

The basic problem here was the lack of analysis and historical awareness from the start. A similar thing has already happened with the PC revolution in society and the logo revolution in schools. They were and remain substantial and yet to be fulfilled revolutions.

A study of modernity reveals that as things develop they undermine themselves in the process of their own development. Anything that does not critically examine itself with awareness will become a caricature of its own grandiose pretensions. I recommend this book: All that is solid melts into air by Marshall Berman

Alan Kay made a relevant observation about the commercialisation of the PC way before the time that the web was invented:
Computing spread out much, much faster than educating unsophisticated people can happen. In the last 25 years or so, we actually got something like a pop culture, similar to what happened when television came on the scene and some of its inventors thought it would be a way of getting Shakespeare to the masses. But they forgot that you have to be more sophisticated and have more perspective to understand Shakespeare. What television was able to do was to capture people as they were. So I think the lack of a real computer science today, and the lack of real software engineering today, is partly due to this pop culture.
Marx observed:
"history repeats itself; first time as tragedy, second time as farce"

some thoughts about prof Stephen Heppell's VITTA keynote
the problem of living in the present
expertise and historical perspective
conversation and expertise in a flat but wrinkled world

Thursday, April 03, 2008

playing with the kindergarten metaphor

imagine -> create -> play -> share -> reflect and then iterate again

Imagine if our education systems were based on the above cycle

Mitch Resnick labels this as the kindergarten metaphor of education in this paper:
All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking)I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten (pdf, 6pp)
This type of process is repeated over and over in kindergarten. The materials vary (finger paint, crayons, bells) and the creations vary (pictures, stories, songs), but the core process is the same. I think of it as a spiraling process in which children imagine what they want to do, create a project based on their ideas, play with their creations, share their ideas and creations with others, reflect on their experiences – all of which leads them to imagine new ideas and new projects
A few points from his paper:

Tool now exist (Crickets, Scratch) which enable the kindergarten process to be readily extended for older children

Crickets are small programmable devices, small enough to fit in the palm of a child’s hand. Children can plug motors, lights, sensors, and other electronic blocks into a Cricket, then program their creations to spin, light up, and play music.

Crickets have been used successfully to redress the gender imbalance in IT

Piaget quote: "Play is the work of children"

What do school education, entertainment and edutainment all have in common? They are done to you.

Playing video games does not support kids learning to the same extent as making games or other projects (James Gee take note)

Learning to share is harder than learning to ride a bicycle or write a computer program - but more important. Learning to share programmable projects is even better, see the Scratch website, over 100,000 projects shared there. Construction and community go hand in hand.

Minsky quote: Logo has a great grammar but not much literature

It's important to explicitly promote reflection.

late binding scratch cat

Because it is written in Squeak Smalltalk, Scratch does support late binding as illustrated by this script:

I could tweak the size slider while the program was still running to produce a whole variety of new coloured squares on top of the original squares:

For more on late binding see:

why learn etoys squeak?

morphic / etoys is superior GUI and programming development system

late binding references

etoys (late binding)

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Stolen Generations member supports boarding schools

Tracker Tilmouth, aboriginal leader, a member of the Stolen Generations, an adviser to the Northern Territory mining company Compass Resources supports boarding schools for remote indigenous students as one solution to the crisis.

As do indigenous leaders Galarrwuy Yunupingu and Noel Pearson

Mr Tilmouth said the problems in indigenous education ran deeper than the chronic lack of resources. He condemned cultural approaches to education that sought to fetishise Aboriginal culture.

"We've got to move away from these socialist policies that 'Through your poverty you remain pure' ... this idea that this Aboriginal group is some strange lot of people from the Kalahari or somewhere like that," Mr Tilmouth said.

"We've got to get away from the idea that the best place you can see Aboriginal people is on a postage stamp, to be amazed and wondered at, licked and then stuck on an envelope, which is what the case is at the moment.

"If a child does not have access to education and is unable to go to school in a comfortable, reasonable manner and be trained accordingly, then you are sentencing that child to a life of unemployment, of dysfunction, of alcoholism, of drug abuse and substance abuse."
- Aborigines 'locked out of real economy'