[sugar] Education? Papers on Simulation Software and micro-world environments

Alan Kay alan.kay at squeakland.org
Sun Mar 11 14:11:00 EDT 2007

Don --

Thanks very much for these references. I was not aware of either of 
them and both are very useful for helping think about some of the 
educational environment needs for the OLPC XO.

When teaching science, we have the important conflict between 
empirical and model-based approach of modern science and the 
belief-based dogma of religion. This is particularly critical because 
there are too many important results in science for each and every 
one to be learned through personal experiment, and many require tools 
that are beyond most individuals and schools. So, most people 
including scientists contact science via reading and hearing about 
results rather than verifying the experiments themselves. Much worse, 
most children are taught science as a kind of hearsay catechism of 
"this is true and must be believed".

Scientists escape to a large extent from simple belief by having done 
enough real experimentation, modeling building using mathematics that 
suggests new experiments, etc., to realize that science is more like 
map-making for real navigators than bible-making: IOW, the maps need 
to be as accurate as possible with annotations for errors and kinds 
of measurements, done by competent map-makers rather than story 
tellers, and they are always subject to improvement and rediscovery: 
they never completely represent the territory they are trying to map, etc.

Many of us who having been learning how to help children become 
scientists (that is to be able to think and act as scientists some of 
the time) have gathered evidence which shows that helping children 
actually do real science at the earliest possible ages is the best 
known way to help them move from simple beliefs in dogma to the more 
skeptical, empirically derived models of science.

We also know from the last century of careful observation of children 
that they think in ways that are different from adults, and as Piaget 
pointed out, it is best to think of children as thinking beings in 
their own right rather than as "defective adults who have to be fixed 
by education". And, further, children themselves are not homogenous 
in their approaches to life and learning: they have different styles, 
reasons for why they want to do things, what kinds of play they 
prefer, and so forth. The adults in their culture are both explicitly 
and implicitly trying to get the children to be part of the culture, 
and the children are wired by nature to try to learn whatever this 
is. In our culture, this is quite confusing, since the adult culture 
is an admixture of many different approaches to the world and how it 
works and can be manipulated. Real science is in the back seat or not 
even in the cultural vehicle as far as most children and adults 
(including most teachers) and most of the surrounding media are concerned.

My main concern over the years is how to help children and adults do 
the initial "real science" that can form the modern scientific stance 
towards knowledge that allows them to deal with the majority of 
science knowledge presented as claims they will encounter over the years.

So, I'm very interested in how the children can be motivated and 
helped to observe nature in ways that give rise to the formation of 
guesses that can be modeled and compared against the observations and 
lead to further observations. This requires finding out: what 
motivates different kinds of children, what kinds of observations can 
be done and in what form, how children can do real modeling and 
mapping, etc. All this has to be done above thresholds for what 
"real" means for science and its modeling. These thresholds can be 
approached by analogies to what it means for children to do "real 
music", "real art", "real writing and reading", "real sports", etc.

Seymour Papert's background was in real mathematics and science, and 
he was able to combine these with important insights of Piaget to 
realize that children could learn certain kinds of powerful math 
quite readily, whereas other forms of mathematics would be quite 
difficult. A central realization was that (a) the differential 
geometry of vectors (Gauss was one of the parents of this 
perspective) fit very readily into how children thought about 
themselves in the world, and that (b) the computer could show this 
world graphically and also easily do the laborious integration of the 
differential equations to give children the deep hit of fundamental 
powerful ideas of vector calculus in forms they could recognize and 
use for their own ends. I still regard these insights by Seymour as 
among the top few of all time regarding what computers are really good for.

My contribution to this was small, and amounted to adding in the 
ideas (a) that multiple independent objects (an idea derived from the 
early world of simulation) which children could program in the manner 
of LOGO would amount to a world of real children's mathematics that 
could model many kinds of ideas, including those of science (and of 
course all previous computer structures and old and new media), and 
(b) that the entire environment including the math/programming 
languages the children used were properly part of the user interface 
and had to be carefully designed.

There is abundant evidence that helping children move from human 
built-in heuristics and the commonsense of their local culture to the 
"uncommonsense" and heuristic thinking of science, math, etc., is 
best done at the earliest possible ages. This presents many 
difficulties ranging from understanding how young children think to 
the very real problem that "the younger the children, the more adept 
need to be their mentors (and the opposite is more often the case)".

If "children first!" is the rallying cry, then it makes sense to try 
to invent computer environments that use the very best ideas (and 
these are very hard to come up with). This is why the various groups 
that got interested in this romantic quest via early contact with 
Seymour have always been colleagues and never rivals. The hard to 
come by ideas for projects, representations, user interfaces, 
experiments, etc., have been freely traded back and forth. The 
notions of "thresholds below which is not worth going" have been 
jointly refined, etc. One of the parasitic difficulties is that 
computer environments, once made (with lots of effort and dedication) 
tend to form tribal bonds that are rather religious in nature. The 
amount of effort required plus the attendant religion makes it 
extremely difficult to take new insights and ideas and make brand new 
better environments for the children. The strong tendency is to use 
and reuse and incrementally expand the old environments.

So, for young and youngish children (say from 4 to 12) we still have 
a whole world of design problems. For one thing, this is not an 
homogenous group. Cognitively and kinesthetically it is at least two 
groups (and three groupings is an even better fit). So, we really 
think of three specially designed and constructed environments here, 
where each should have graceful ramps into the next one.

The current thresholds exclude many designs, but more than one kind 
of design could serve. If several designs could be found that serve, 
then we have a chance to see if the thresholds can be raised. This is 
why we encourage others to try their own comprehensive environments 
for children. Most of the historical progress in this area has come 
from a number of groups using each other's ideas to make better 
attempts (this is a lot like the way any science is supposed to 
work). One of the difficulties today is that many of the attempts 
over the last 15 or so years have been done with too low a sense of 
threshold and thus start to clog and confuse the real issues.

I think one of the trickiest issues in this kind of design is an 
analogy to the learning of science itself, and that is "how much 
should the learners/users have to do by themselves vs. how much 
should the curriculum/system do for them?" Most computer users have 
been mostly exposed to "productivity tools" in which as many things 
as possible have been done for them. The kinds of educational 
environments we are talking about here are at their best when the 
learner does the important parts by themselves, and any black or 
translucent boxes serve only on the side and not at the center of the 
learning. What is the center and what is the side will shift as the 
learning progresses, and this has to be accommodated.

OTOH, the extreme build it from scratch approach is not the best way 
for most minds, especially young ones. The best way seems to be to 
pick the areas that need to be from scratch and do the best job 
possible to make all difficulties be important ones whose overcoming 
is the whole point of the educational process (this is in direct 
analogy to how sports and music are taught -- the desire is to 
facilitate a real change for the better, and this can be honestly 
difficult for the learner).

The detailed parts of the design have to do with (a) what kinds of 
math and science the children can do and learn, and then (b) by good 
solutions to the user interface and expressive elements in the 
computer environment. These co-evolve because certain things the 
children can do and learn only have a real payoff for them if they 
have a computer. For example, many areas of physical dynamics (e.g 
Galilean Gravity) can be explored and represented in a kind of 
differential model they can understand without using a computer at 
all. But for all but about 5%-8% of the kids just finding a good 
model is not enough of a payoff. However, if the model can be set 
into motion (in mathematical terms: the integration of the 
differential model) then many "pieces of art" of great interest to 
about 90% of the children can be easily made. These include various 
kinds of falling games (like Lunar Lander, shoot the monkey, etc.).

As the children get more sophisticated, the black and gray boxes that 
scaffold what they are doing can be popped open and understand and 
modified. For example, "forward" (which moves an object in the 
direction of its "heading") is a black box initially, and very useful 
in that form. But there is a point when the children will be greatly 
aided by understanding that forward is just a vector addition and is 
a method made from a more fundamental idea. The underlying language 
for the system itself has to reveal itself as the same species as 
what the children have been learning. The analogy to how English is 
carefully used for different ages and the expanding range of ideas 
and expression is quite apt.

One of the simplest rules of thumb for any kind of design that 
requires learning is George Miller's "7 plus or minus 2", which 
refers to an estimate of how many things can be given attention at 
one time by our limited human minds. Perspective, simplification, 
abstraction and duration can all be traded off in designs that try to 
help learners make progress without overwhelming them. In programming 
language design in a UI, especially for beginners, this is especially 
crucial because it is easy to go far beyond 9 new elements. Many 
users will interpret this as "I am stupid and can't do this" rather 
than the more correct "The UI and language designers are stupid and 
they can't do this".

It's hard to point to any programming language for beginners that has 
a really great form. One thing that has consistently worked is "close 
to natural language but clearly not natural language". That is, it 
really helps if the gist-view of a program is a kind of metaphor for 
what it does, even if one has to think harder about the detailed 
meaning. For children, Hypercard was OK in many respects for the 
gist-view, but was too like English for both deep understanding and 
for programming (many children had a hard time getting past the idea 
that Hypercard couldn't understand and do any reasonable English 
sentence). This was debated endlessly in Logo circles, and Logo wound 
up going from a much more English-like syntax to one much more like 
Lisp (this was a big mistake in my view). Finding the balance between 
these is critical, because it governs how much brain is left to the 
learner to think about content rather than form. And for most 
learners, it is the initial experiences that make the difference for 
whether they want to dive in or try to avoid future encounters.

In one respect, young children are easier to design for in that there 
are fewer standards for math and science in the early grades (this is 
being eroded, especially wrt math). If we take functional 
relationships as an example, it has been shown that children readily 
understand them but have considerable difficulty with variables, and 
much more difficulty with parameters. The standard math syntax for 
functions with parameters requires some extra trained chunks to 
associated dummy names with actual parameters. Some computer 
languages allow conventions for prefixing the actual parameters with 
the dummy names. This is good. For younger children, it's likely that 
making these into complete assignment statements is an even better 
idea. An object oriented language can use instance variables for a 
long time before introducing the idea of passing parameters in a 
method, etc. Having really good trace and single-step visualizations 
is critical.

The importance of gisting argues against forms that have more than 
one meaning. For example, many languages (going all the way back to 
the 50s) have decided that "=" should have a double (or triple) 
meaning, and that it is up to the programmers to simply deal with it. 
This is almost certainly a bad idea for children K-8 (and beyond). In 
the case of "=", even in a functional language, the difference is 
huge (between a functional relationship and a definition). A suitable 
"logical language" that used unification would be less ambiguous but 
introduces quite a bit of abstraction (likely too early).

But, as the child gets closer to high school and the outside world, 
the QWERTY phenomenon starts to get more important. Many of the 
global standards are willy nilly and poor, but need to be 
pragmatically learned at some point. For example, it is relatively 
easy to get 10-11 year old children to do the real science and math 
to make a good simulation model of the 2nd order differential 
relationship. This is best done (so far) by using two accumulator 
addition (used to be called a DDA and goes back before Babbage). The 
trade-offs between this simple and deep way to think incrementally 
about what is going on and the standard algebraic way of thinking 
about "what's going on for all time all at once" are interesting and 

Our view is that one should get the 5th graders to do this in the 
most powerful way for them (incremental addition). And then later 
(maybe in 8th grade) revisit this and see how the incremental 
approach can be turned into an algebraic perspective. Both ways of 
looking at this are important and powerful in their own ways. It is 
likely that educators are quite justified in making up useful 
non-standard representations for powerful ideas for any topic that 
would be helped by this for children below the age of 12. There are 
many other important reasons for introducing more powerful forms for 
dealing with ideas in early childhood, etc.

So it seems to me that there is a lot of room for new and different 
ideas for children's environments for learning powerful ideas. They 
have to be above threshold and in the spirit of real science and 
mathematics. Two cautionary examples are Interactive Physics and SimCity.

The first assumes that Newton was absolutely right and is a direct 
embodiment of Newtonian Dynamics and Cosmology. The users are 
restricted to paramerizing the internal dynamic models and cannot see 
them, question them, or change them. (For example, it is really 
important to be able to try an inverse cube law for gravity, etc.). 
This is most assuredly not in the spirit of science! It amounts to a 
dynamic bible. In order for this to be useful in real education, 
there has to be a lead up that derives the relationships in an 
empirical and mathematical form, and only then will the premises of 
IP be useful.

SimCity is similar but more pernicious. It is a black box of "soft 
somewhat arbitrary knowledge" that the children can't look at, 
question or change. For example, SC gets the players to discover that 
the way to counter rising crime is to put in more police stations. 
Most anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and economists 
would disagree violently. Alternate assumptions can't be tried, etc.

Both of these packages have won many "educational awards" from the 
pop culture, but in many ways they are anti-real-education because 
they miss what modern knowledge and thinking and epistemology are all 
about. This is why being "above threshold" and really understanding 
what this means is the deep key to making modern curricula and 
computer environments that will really help children lift themselves.

Best wishes,


At 07:38 PM 3/10/2007, Don Hopkins wrote:
>The following two papers that I highly recommend cover a lot of 
>interesting visual programming and simulation systems, which are 
>well worth knowing about.
>Kurt Schmucker (inventor of the C++ Barf Bag ;-) at Apple wrote "A 
>Taxonomy of Simulation Software":
>Tim Smith at Anglia Polytechnic University in Essex wrote "A review 
>of simulated and micro-world environments":
>    -Don
>Sugar mailing list
>Sugar at laptop.org

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