Sunday, July 20, 2008

mental modelling, all the way down

Some of the language of the following quote is mangled (bits missing) but the meaning is still clear:
Education is another area in which the computer scientist has confused form and content, but this time the confusion concerns his professional role. He perceives his principal function to provide programs and machines for use in old and new educational schemes. Well and good, but I believe he has a more complex responsibility–to work out and communicate models of the process of education itself.

In the discussion below, I sketch briefly the viewpoint (developed with Seymour Papert) from which this belief stems. The following statements are typical of our view:

– To help people learn is to help them heads, various kinds of computational models.
– This can best be done by a teacher who has, in his head, a reasonable model of what is in the pupil's head.
– For the same reason the student, when debugging his own models and procedures, should have a model of what he is doing, and must know good debugging techniques, such as how to formulate simple but critical test cases.
– It will help the student to know something about computational models and programming. The idea of debugging [note 2] itself, for example, is a very powerful concept-in contrast to the helplessness promoted by our cultural heritage about gifts, talents, and aptitudes. The latter encourages "I'm not good at this" instead of "How can I make myself better at it?"

These have the sound of common sense, yet they are not among the basic principles of any of the popular educational schemes such as "operant reinforcement," "discovery methods," audio-visual synergism, etc. This is not because educators have ignored the possibility of mental models, but because they simply had no effective way, before the beginning of work on simulation of thought processes, to describe, construct, and test such ideas
- Marvin Minsky, Turing Award Lecture, 1970
Teacher and student mental modelling are rather important, including debugging, and can be facilitated by computers properly used. But this requires a teacher who can both program the computer and understand the importance of mental modelling. If those prerequisites are missing then it's not all that surprising to discover that someone has done a research project showing that "it doesn't work".

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