[Edu-sig] Shuttleworth Summit

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Sat Apr 22 14:13:14 CEST 2006


You are prudent to avoid politics in your public comments as the leader 
and BDFL for the free Python community (a double edge of celebrity, and 
you handle it well). And we would expect no less of you. :-)

But the reality is politics is about resource allocation, including that 
done by a community of free and open source developers, so it plays into 
any design discussion (even if only done implicitly). Humans live and 
breath politics, even when they make a decision just to go code in a 
corner (which is not always a bad decision, of course. :-).

Or, to paraphrase Carl von Clausewitz:
"Software is is merely a continuation of politics [by other means]". :-)
[Though see the article for the rest of that story.]

And perhaps Kirby and I are not so far apart in some ways. :-) Certainly 
almost anyone on this list is looking for something better than what we 
have now for math and science education, with the hopes Python can be a 
part of it. I am very impressed with what Kirby is able to do with using 
existing Python tools for education. I can just wonder how much more he 
could do in a more post _Voyage from Yesteryear_ context, where compulsory 
schools have withered away as we know them now. :-)
See also Hogan's _Mission to Minerva_ for more on an alternative vision of 
schooling (presented in passing):

If you are looking for a middle way for Python, then by all means, make 
something attractive for both unschooling and schooling. Or, as an 
approach, write something for constructivist open-ended unschooling (like 
we did with our Garden Simulator) and then get someone like Kirby write a 
curriculum guide for it for when teachers choose to use it in school. :-) 
Seriously though, I'd rather Kirby wrote such a guide than someone less 
inspired, and as long as school exists, you need someone like Kirby to 
interface with them and their ways of doing things. And if you follow some 
of Alan Kay's ideas, that is probably where you will end up.

Consider what Alan Kay says here:
"B&C : So is the Dynabook just another potential learning tool?
AK : It's just like a musical instrument. You don't need it. The most 
important thing about any musical instrument is that you don't need the 
damn thing in the first place. Because people all have got an instrument 
inside them. If you have a great musician and a bunch of children, you've 
got music, because that person can teach them how to sing. On the other 
hand, you can have the best instruments in the world, but if the music 
teacher is no good, nothing's going to happen. You can look for the music 
inside the piano, but that's not where it is. Same thing with the 
Dynabook. You don't need technology to learn science and math. You just 
absolutely don't need it. What you need to have are the right conditions. 
In music, if you've got the right conditions and you've got music 
happening, then the instruments amplify what you've got like mad. The best 
thing a teacher can do is to set up the best conditions for each kid to 
learn. Once you have that, then the computer can help immeasurably. 
Conversely, just putting computers in the schools without creating a rich 
learning environment is useless -- worse than useless, because it's a red 
herring. There's a sense something good is happening, when nothing real is 
happening at all. Marshall McLuhan made the point that one of the crucial 
things about printed books was that you didn't have to read them in a 
social setting, such as a classroom. People can pursue knowledge 
independently and from the most unorthodox, subversive, or just plain 
weird points of view. But that is rarely how things are taught in school. 
Most educators want kids to learn things in the form of belief rather than 
being able to construct a kind of skeptical scaffolding, which is what 
science is all about. The ability to explore and test multiple points of 
view is one of the great strengths of our culture, but you'd never know it 
by looking at a classroom. Science today is taught in America as a secular 
religion. But science is not the same as knowing the things learned by 
science. Science itself is a stance in relationship to knowledge. In order 
to do science, you have to give up the notion of truth. Because we don't 
know the world directly; we know the world through our mind's 
representational systems, which are like maps. Science is a map that is 
always incomplete, and so it can always be criticized and improved. And 
that's why it's so effective at, say, treating diabetes, or whatever. 
Because the map is incomplete, it can always be improved, and so it is the 
best way to deal with what is. One of the problems with the way computers 
are used in education is that they are most often just an extension of 
this idea that learning means just learning accepted facts. But what 
really interests me is using computers to transmit ideas, points of view, 
ways of thinking. You don't need a computer for this, but just as with a 
musical instrument, once you get onto this way of using them, then the 
computer is a great amplifier for learning."

So, one point is to consider software development environments (and 
education) as an amplifier of individual diversity, like a musical 
instrument, rather than use it to level people into standard ways of doing 

Still, if you look at the failure of other educational reform initiatives, 
like Lego/Logo (a big success for learning, but a failure in widespread 
school adoption) what you will see is that people create the great open 
ended learning environments where kids could learn math and science or 
other things, and then the creators (.e.g. Papert) lament that schools 
tell kids what to do with the open ended tools in a very micromanaging 
kind of way, oriented around curriculum checkpoints, defeating the whole 
purpose of the thing. One can accept that is likely to happen to any 
innovation inserted into a school context (even John Holt gave up 
reforming them after decades spent trying)
but the point I am making is that it is important to design your stuff to 
operate outside school restrictions and a school setting anyway, to have 
any hope of success with CP4E. Thus, for example, I think, for example, 
focusing on a browser applet plugin is not a good idea. Yes, have that 
mixed in as a delivery point perhaps if it is easy, but not at the core.

I'd say the failure of mass compulsory schooling, like global climate 
change, is really a settled issue (and it was even brought up at the 
summit). So that part is not controversial (very much). It's just that 
some social processes are so very hard to stop once they get going. And as 
Gatto points out, if only the problem were just a conspiracy to be easily 
dealt with by a few changes.
"If you obsess about conspiracy, what you’ll fail to see is that we are 
held fast by a form of highly abstract thinking fully concretized in human 
institutions which has grown beyond the power of the managers of these 
institutions to control. If there is a way out of the trap we’re in, it 
won’t be by removing some bad guys and replacing them with good guys. Who 
are the villains, really, but ourselves? People can change, but systems 
cannot without losing their structural integrity".

I could say a lot of things about "militarism",
   "War is a racket" -- Major General Smedley Darlington Butler
but the US "military" itself (esp. DARPA) is nonetheless full of a lot of 
very smart people, many who think very deeply about the meaning of 
"security", and if you consider the origins of CP4E as a DARPA grant
it was to address a very real need in US society -- that of mathematically 
and scientifically and computationally literate people -- people who could 
make the US a viable society in the 21st century. (One reason the USA had 
to import you. :-)

But how in the world can the be such a demand exist, considering, say,
"In 2001, more than 780 billion US $ were spent on education, 
approximately 7.7 % of the US GDP."? Does that make any sense?

Clearly the issue is not money spent. It is how it is spent.  Another 
example from the US military (From Gatto):
"After the psychologists told the officers that the graduates weren’t 
faking, Defense Department administrators knew that something terrible had 
happened in grade school reading instruction. And they knew it had started 
in the thirties. Why they remained silent, no one knows. The switch back 
to reading instruction that worked for everyone should have been made 
then. But it wasn’t."

The military may not have the entire solution, but they are grounded 
enough in reality to see the scope of the problem -- after all, they have 
to deal with it every day in managing recruits. And they understand the 
value of informal science education. In US society after all it is more 
the non-compulsory museums (like the Exploratorium)
and free libraries (and now the internet) that are succeeding teaching 
math and science, not the schools. The need for scientifically and 
technically and computationally literate people is not the US's only need, 
but it remains an important one, and that need I would suggest is a 
symptom of deeper problems with the schooling enterprise, as schooling was 
designed precisely not to make skeptics of the masses, but instead to make 
factory worker conformists. How can a conformist do real science or math? 
True, "We cannot command Nature except by obeying her" -- Francis Bacon, 
but after that basic obedience comes a very open ended world of choices.

So, in some ways, while everything is political, I think the issue of the 
failure of compulsory mass schooling is not as controversial as one might 
think. Still, what is controversial, and political, is more how to fix 
them (more of the same and "higher standards", or "and now for something 
completely different". :-) Consider Jerry Mintz's comments here:
"Nevertheless, there is an education revolution going on, and it is long 
overdue. It is moving in the diametrically opposite direction of the 
"testing" push. The latter comes from the bureaucrats from within that 
dying system, who do know there is something wrong. But since they can't 
think "out of the box," the only remedy they can come up with is longer 
hours, more homework, and "teaching to the test," in other words, more of 
the same. The education revolution is coming from people who have created 
alternative schools and programs, thousands of them, and from others who 
have checked "none of the above" and have decided to home educate. There 
are now nearly two million people home educating. The first charter school 
was started in 1991. Now there are 2500 of them! And there are over 7500 
additional alternatives in our database and many thousands more we have 
yet to discover. All of these fall in the general category of 
"learner-centered" approaches. We list many of them in our book, The 
Almanac of Education Choices. These people are steadfastly OPPOSED to the 
governmental thrust for more "standardization" and testing. So a battle is 
looming. The testers will ultimately lose. It has happened before, most 
recently in the 80's with the "Back to Basics" movement. The question is 
only how long it will take, and how much destructiveness will happen in 
the interim. "

The problem as I see it through, is you can't have a "national curriculum" 
without "national standards". Which means ultimately Mark's initiative is 
almost certain to be frustrated in the process. By all means it is worth 
doing almost anything to help a few kids, but the question is, will it 
achieve the kind of larger change he must be looking for, consider 
alternative paths that might be more productive (like focusing on software 
tools for unschoolers/homeschoolers)?

Clearly, Mark Shuttleworth is not in the "higher standards" camp. And that 
is a good thing. So, we are just really talking about the meaning of 
"completely" in Monty Python's "and now for something completely 
different". :-)

All the best.

--Paul Fernhout

Guido van Rossum wrote:
> Let me just add that *this* is an example of why I am going to quickly
> extract myself from this discussion. There are radically opposing
> views of education, and it very quickly gets political. I can't read
> up on all the stuff and I can't trust one side to be "right" just
> because they make the last post. I'm interested in Python software.
> I'm not interested in taking sides in a political discussion.
> --Guido

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