Sunday, April 18, 2021

the wider walls

In commmemoration of the 50th anniversary of "Twenty Things to do with a Computer" by Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon


“the room was humming harder
as the ceiling flew away”
- Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harem (1967)

Seymour was very good at finding a great pithy expression to describe a learning event. For example, he described the turtle as “an object to think with”. Another such expression is “wide walls”, to express a diversity of doing, but I’m less certain about who coined that one.

I wasn’t aware that the concept of wide walls (as distinct from the expression) was there from the start. I thought there was a transition as the baton passed from Seymour to Mitch Resnick. Not only did the turtle become a cat but, in my mind, the philosophy also changed from “low floor, high ceiling” (Seymour) to “low floor, wide walls” (Mitch).

Being a long way away, in Australia, perhaps I missed some nuance. Maybe someone closer to MIT can fill me in. In reading “Twenty Things ...” I can see the wide walls were there from the beginning: floor turtle, screen turtle, turtle graphics, game making, movies, music, robots, light displays, poetry, physics, curiosity about self, even making fun of Computer Aided Instruction.

Nevertheless, we owe a lot to the Scratch team for continuing to lower the floor (block coding), opening the windows (remix and a web site where it is so easy to share) as well as wider walls (easy to code multimedia and extensions to music, the micro:bit, Makey Makey and others). The user interface, with its colour coding of blocks into categories has always been brilliant.

What attracted me to computers in the first place was Seymour’s book “Mindstorms” with its intention of making maths more accessible to those who struggle with textbook maths or maths in general. Start by drawing a square using your body. Build further from that simple starting point by changing the angles, changing the number of repeats and introduce variables. This approach was both more interesting and could bring maths to more students.

Tinkering: Seymour was also there early on in a collaborative article with Sherry Turkle, “Epistemological Pluralism”. Ostensibly, this was directed at the needs of girls but in reality, it was about those who tinker or the bricoleurs. It’s better to initially allow sloppy code (spaghetti) and for design to iterate through stages. If a teacher insists on getting it perfect from the start then that is a sure way to kill motivation in many students. If only the standards based curriculum designers, remote from the classroom, who separate the what from the how, understood that. This was pointed out by Mitch Resnick in a recent exchange with Mark Guzdial in the comments at Mark’s blog. There are those who understand how the wider walls can work and those who, through not understanding, put up barriers to them working.

In my research, I came across a thesis by Jennifer Cross where she designed a course called Arts & Bots. Taking this cue, I wrote a submission for a new course in my current school and called it Artbotics. Rather than robotics, we can have Artbotics, with the Hummingbird Bit. Let us create a provocative, tangible sculpture and then add robotic actuation and sensing. This reframing of robotics makes a difference. The artbotics word hit a nerve since there is an ongoing desire for school administrations to introduce more creative middle schooling curricula. I see Artbotics as another expression of wider walls, integrating different subjects in the curriculum into a whole which students find more meaningful.

As Seymour pointed out, the computer has a protean nature and can be used as a multimedia hard fun machine. It is also true that the division of Knowledge into different subject domains, although useful in some ways, has always created artificial distinctions too. Maths can be Arty. Art can be Mathy.

Look up Wassily Kandinsky for more like this

In Central Australia, where I live, there is a famous indigenous art movement called Papunya Tula. One of its core motifs is dotted circles. I had a go at simulating parts of that work using SNAP and the local gallery in Alice Springs agreed it was worthwhile. I invite you to see the simulations at my blog, with a link to the SNAP program where you can do your own.

By making art a real part of the plan we soften the traditionally hard cultures of the STEM subjects and broaden the appeal of the whole mix. It has to be real and it can be real because digital by its nature does embrace everything. A program such as Scratch is multimedia with built in icons, backgrounds, sounds, music, speech with all of them editable. The coding is there too, of course, and the purpose of the coding is to bring the multimedia to life.

As well as art, storytelling needs to be in there too. I managed to rewrite all my introductory Scratch projects as short stories rather than lessons in technique, eg weird animals where the dog meows and the cat barks. This serves as a good model for later when I ask students to create their own stories.

One of the best expressions of the wider walls concept is a 2005 article by Mitch Resnick and Brian Silverman about how to evaluate construction kits. We need those design principles now with all the new construction kits (and this also applies to the new microcontrollers and new software) that have come on stream.

A key principle here is that a little bit (of programming) goes a long way. By using the KISS principle, new users will make a fast start and the possibility is there to transition rapidly to projects they really want to do, not just can do.

When it comes to learning principles the value of tinkering and iteration (iterate, iterate, iterate …) as well as curriculum integration also fit under the rubric of wider walls.

You can see the same KISS principle designed into Turtle Art (by Brian Silverman, Paula Bonta and Artemis Papert). Its variety of coding blocks is restricted yet you can make beautiful art readily. See some beautiful Turtle Art here

Here's a sample from my article How to create a great background in Turtle Art:

What I’ve really been looking for is a pithy expression to describe the ongoing evolution of the creative use of computers in education. In reading “Invent to Learn” (thanks to Gary and Sylvia) I was struck by the three game changers assertion, the game changers being coding, physical computing and fab labs. Could there be a pithy expression to describe these?

Possibly “wide walls”, although a good try, lacks a bit of oomph, requires too much explanation and can only be stretched so far. Can we set the world on fire with wider walls? Perhaps. As my students explore more I do feel the room humming harder ... but I am still not satisfied that it is an adequate descriptor.

Jay Silver takes this a step further when he situates his invention, Makey Makey, within a larger context. He designs tools which enable a sensual re-experiencing, a re-seeing, of the everyday world. With Makey Makey you can make an orchestra which is played by pieces of fruit, rather than a keyboard. Digital meets the banana. It began with Seymour’s insight that the turtle could be “an object to think with” and has now further developed, in Jay Silver’s words, into conceiving the whole “world as a construction kit”.

The world as construction kit has a very long history. Indigenous Australians used to live off the land and made all their tools, as well as their food and medicine, directly from nature. When they looked at the natural environment they saw a construction kit.

The part of this argument that I like is that our perception is a variable: we can design new tools, like Makey Makey, which changes the way we perceive the computer / keyboard. Insofar as modern consumerism can kill off self reliant productivity this new way of perceiving is a good thing.

Wouldn’t it be desirable for many more of us to become more maker orientated, particularly if the developments in modern technology lower the entry barriers? From STEM to STEAM then moves on to STEAM for the 99%.

STEAM for the 99% means bringing all of the subjects to a broader audience. This may be achieved through diverse cross curricular subjects which go under names like Artbotics, Digital Wearables, Culturally Situated Design Tools and Unruly Splats.

When the computer is used as a dynamic (programmable) multimedia fun machine it becomes the best tool available for wholesale curriculum integration. In other words it’s time to merge the computer into the world with all its junk. If that isn’t wider walls, then what is it?

Cross, Jennifer. Creative Robotic Systems for Talent-Based Learning (2017)
Culturally Situated Design Tools
Makey Makey
Papert, Seymour. Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas (1980)
Papert, Seymour and Solomon, Cynthia. Twenty Things to do with a Computer (1971)
Resnick, Mitchel and Silverman, Brian. Some Reflections on Designing Construction Kits for Kids (2005)
Silver, Jay LENS x BLOCK: World as Construction Kit (2014)
Stager, Gary and Martinez, Sylvia. Invent to Learn (2nd Edition, 2019)
The goal of a first CS course should be to promote confidence …
(see comments 2, 3, 11, 13, 14, 15 and 16 for discussion between Mitch Resnick and Mark Guzdial)
Turkle, Sherry and Papert, Seymour. Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete (1991)
Unruly Splats

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