Linked by Thom Holwerda on Tue 2nd Apr 2013 21:06 UTC
In the News "Kay says that some gadgets with superficial Dynabook-like qualities, such as the iPad, have not only failed to realize the Dynabook dream, but have in some senses betrayed it. That's one of the points he makes in this interview, conducted by computer historian David Greelish, proprietor of the Classic Computing Blog and organizer of this month's Vintage Computer Festival Southeast in Atlanta (the Festival will feature a pop-up Apple museum featuring Xerox's groundbreaking Alto workstation, which Kay worked on, as well as devices which deeply reflected his influence, including the Lisa, the original Macintosh and the Newton). Kay and Greelish also discuss Kay's experiences at some of the big outfits where he's worked, including Xerox's fabled PARC labs, Apple, Disney and HP. Today, Kay continues his research about children and technology at his own organization, the Viewpoints Research Institute." A great interview with this legendary man.
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We have exceeded the Dynabook

No. We may have exceeded the Dynabook hardware, but we have not yet replicated - never mind bettered - its software or philosophy. (Which are, respectively, more important and by far the most important of all.)

While the software and philosophy behind the iPad may be at least as sophisticated as that of Dynabook's, they are completely unrelated in origin and growth. Dynabook's goal was to foster original and independent learners, thinkers and creators; an admirable - and ambitious - goal. iPad's purpose is merely to fulfill the needs and wants of consumers - not that there's nothing wrong with that goal in itself, as long as everyone clearly understands that this is all it is.

Unfortunately, whether through ignorance, naivety or plain old brazen salesmanship, the lines between the two models are too often blurred beyond recognition until everyone ends up believing that the iPad is the route to creating learners, thinkers and creators as well. So schools end up with cupboards of the things, which then either sit unused or end up used for games, since neither the software nor education plan necessary to achieve this actually exist.

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then the rooms of hell are furnished with the myriad preconceptions, prejudices and rampant misconceptions that even the most educated, open-minded audience will form in their own minds even as visionaries like Kay provide the most elegant, enlightened and clear explanation of How to Make the World a Better Place For All.

Seymour Papert is another great example of this principle in action. Papert's goal was to teach kids how to think (specifically, structured and creative thinking) and how to learn, and how to learn how to learn (i.e. not just how to explore and teach themselves, but also how to discover improved ways to do so). For Papert, LOGO was merely a vehicle for all this; the fact that kids came away also knowing how to 'program' was merely a nice side-effect.

Unfortunately, while Papert had great success with the kids themselves, he obviously had far less success at communicating those goals to classroom teachers, curriculum planners, funding bodies, etc. I suspect what happened was this: Papert might outline his theories and objectives in constructionist thinking to his adult audience, but the moment LOGO was presented the whole audience instantly went "A-HA! I recognize that as 'teaching programming'." And as soon as that audience managed to fit Papert's unfamiliar 'new information' into their existing knowledge framework, the die was cast, because it is far, far easier for a human mind to form a brand new idea or association than to usurp or discard an existing one - not even one as grossly incorrect as this. (Indeed, even when additional information and corrections are subsequently provided, they are more likely to double down on the stupid than throw it all away and start right over.)

Kids, of course, never suffered this problem because they had no prior preconceptions or prejudices to color or distort the new information Papert was imparting to them. But then, kids don't set school budgets or teaching plans either.

And so, use of LOGO was forever universally pigeonholed it as 'teaching programming', and Papert could talk to the end of time about pedagogy and epistemiology and so on, and it wouldn't budge people's preconceptions and prejudices about it one inch:

- Non-technical educators would recognize it only as an "alien threat" and avoid it like the plague. And without access to a LOGO platform and an educator with the requisite Piagetian pedagogical philosophy to harness it effectively, the actual intended audience - the kids - gain nothing at all.

- Technical types would recognize only the form ("coding") while utterly missing the substance ("it's not about learning to code, you fools, it's about learning to think!"), stripping the whole pedagogical purpose from it, and finally tipping the tool itself in the trash as well in favor of a "real programming language".

- Cash-strapped schools would say: "Programming education is nice, but it's far too advanced for our kids, and in any case we must focus all our meagre resources on the 'Three Rs'." And "learning how to think and learn" is neither one of those 'Rs', nor compatible with the spoon-fed puree of 'standard curriculum'.

And so, Papert's great vision slowly crashed and burned, and generations of school kids continue to grow up with no real capacity for structured thinking, creative problem solving, independent learning, and so on.

And if that's not bad enough, the inherently faddish, ahistorical nature of the internet and its denizens means we're now being bombarded with fresh plagues of pedagogical atrocities: myriad well-intentioned but fundamentally brain-damaged online "learn to code" courses, created by people who don't know how to teach for people who don't know how to think. And because both sides comprehensively lack the background and skills required to analyze and critique such efforts effectively, the whole lot runs joyously out of control. And so all the myriad preconceptions, prejudices and misconceptions that once quietly festered turn globally viral to attain such plague proportions that would put the 1918 Flu to shame.

Honestly, if I wasn't laughing at the tragic comedy of it all, I would surely be crying. But honestly, if you are interested in folks like Alan Kay beyond the "neat old geezer, invented something once" level that usually prevails, it really is worth exploring further. A lot of this stuff is highly interconnected, and runs all over the place from early computing history, cognitive psychology and individual researchers and discoverers like Piaget, Papert and Kay, through to the myriad political, academic and corporate machinations that dictate so many of the sub-optimal (or even downright awful) directions that technology, education and society find themselves heading, past, present and future.

IMO, Papert's Mindstorms ( is a great place to start; however, to gain any insight or benefit be sure to rigorously check all your geek preconceptions and prejudices at the door, and approach with a completely open and uncolored mind. Because, hey, if six year-olds could achieve Papert's objectives (and come out not only with excellent thinking and problem-solving skills, but also an aptitude in software abstraction that'd put many a Java Diploma Mill recipient to utter shame) then grown-ups should have no excuse. ;)

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Alfman Member since:


Now, this post has a lot of substance I'd consider worth having an interesting discussion over, however I think it's been posted a bit too late in this article to begin a new discussion. Suffice it to say I think you made many insightful points.

Reply Parent Score: 2