[Edu-sig] Constructivism (was Re: Python & Smalltalk)

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Fri Dec 22 01:21:55 CET 2006

ajsiegel at optonline.net wrote:
> But the fact remains that the only thing I have be willing to say about
> PyGeo with any sense of definiteness is that *building* it was an
> extraordinary learning experience.

And I can say a similar thing about our (free, GPL) Garden Simulator. My
wife and I are the people who learned the most about gardening (and
software design) by spending over six person-years building it.

And I think others, even Papert or Kay, would agree with that. Using a
Microworld is a different (and usually lesser) experience than building
one. Or, as is often said, if you really want to learn a subject, try to
teach it. :-) On the other hand, you sometimes use a microworld for a
different reason than you build one. If you just want a taste of a
subject, or to get a hint or even a basic command of the big ideas in it,
then learn using a microworld. If you want to really understand a subject
in depth, or at least learn what is easily known and unknown about it,
then try to build a microworld. :-)

> Though I am confident that just the right person, at just the right
> time, with just the right background, and just the right motivation
> would gain much from exploring and using it.

Yes, that is the core of a movement like "Unschooling".
Or as Holt or Gatto puts it, when a kid is ready and motivated, it only
takes about a hundred contact hours (perhaps much less) to teach them
enough about letters and words for them
to then be able to bootstrap themselves by themselves
through reading to as high a level of literacy as they can or
desire to achieve. So too for basic math. I would guess the same
might be true for programming with, say, Python or Smalltalk. But if the
kid is not interested, you can spend thousands of hours trying to teach
them to read or do math or to program and they never will learn those
things (which is exactly why schools graduate functional illiterates and
even more innumerates, even at a huge expense in dollars and student
life-hours). Ask *any* teacher what a dream their classrooms would be if
only the kids who wanted to be there were the ones there.

In an exchange with Kirby a long time back on this list, we agreed that
the potential of computers includes having learning labs in schools where
kids can approach subjects as they want to. I think where I differ from
many others is saying that, unless schools change radically, that sort of
learning lab is not going to happen (at least in any meaningful way using
a great deal of a student's time). The only "schools" I know of now that
would permit such thing are the few "free schools", like this one:
General info on free schools:
The issue is not one of technology or tools (Kirby is right to say we have
enough of them, even as I think they could be better); the issue is one of
philosophy. And that is why I have greater hopes for an effort like Sugata
Mitra's "hole in the wall" projects:
over Mark Shuttleworth's initiative
(as noble as his intent may be, because ultimately he is up against
bureaucratic pressures which he will likely be unable to overcome with a
small effort, as so many have tried and failed before, including many,
like John Holt, with much more inside knowledge of how schools work now).
Still, I wish all such efforts well.

But feeling that current schools cannot be fixed is no longer such a
radical opinion -- consider this recent mainstream report, just out:
   "To fix US schools, panel says, start over"
 From there:
"What if the solution to American students' stagnant performance levels
and the wide achievement gap between white and minority students wasn't
more money, smaller schools, or any of the reforms proposed in recent
years, but rather a new education system altogether? That's the conclusion
of a bipartisan group of scholars and business leaders, school chancellors
and education commissioners, and former cabinet secretaries and governors.
They declare that America's public education system, designed to meet the
needs of 100 years ago when the workplace revolved around an assembly
line, is unsuited to today's global marketplace. Already, they warn, many
Americans are in danger of falling behind and seeing their standard of
living plummet. "

See also Time:
   "How to Bring Our Schools Out of the 20th Century"

The organization coordinating the report:

The report itself:

Of course, I do not think they go far enough in their proposals, from what
I have read of the summary. :-) *One* answer seems simple enough to me --
just look at how the Albany Free School operates and duplicate it. :-)
That's a no brainer. There may be better approaches, but that one works,
and it works for some of the most disadvantaged students, including many
who have been tossed out of conventional schooling as unteachable or
discipline problems or requiring medication. While home-based unschooling
may be better, centralized free schools which provide supervision so
parents could work in conventional jobs fits easily into our current

And also, the new report stills look at schooling through the same
telescope Gatto condemns for the design of current schools by talking
about children as if they were to be robot employees, focusing on
maximizing economic productivity and not individual self-actualization and
fulfillment. However, to be fair, Gatto says the current structure of
compulsory schooling was a bargain willfully entered into by the populace
100 years or more ago to get the supposed benefits of industrial progress
(which back then required humans to become like inflexible robots in order
to take part in these vast industrial enterprises). We have just forgotten
the roots and rationales (even down to what Gatto claims are
eugenics-theory-based "class rooms" to encourage breeding stratification
of "Brave New World" style classes). Some of these roots the report
mentioned above now is exploring in a mainstream way. As Gatto puts it at
this link:
"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."

In any case, when I think about how to use a tool like Python (or anything
else) in education, that is the sort of educational philosophy and
objectives I have in the back of my mind. How can Python fit in to either 
unschooling or the latest mainstream proposal mentioned above which is 
dipping its toes in those same waters? To me, that need means both making 
something intriguing enough to try and also making it approachable by an 
individual (whether in class or not) with minimal adult supervision or 
support. (Another reason why I also need to get around to contributing to 
those Python advocacy homeschooling / unschooling web pages. :-)

> And it is waiting for that person to find, just at that right time.
> Thanks to modern technology.

Yes, quite true. Unfortunately, between compulsory schooling and addictive
most children will never have enough mental space (meaning not enough free
time) to find it, or our Garden Simulator, or Python, or Smalltalk. :-(

As Gatto puts it:
"After an adult lifetime spent teaching school I believe the method
of mass-schooling is the only real content it has, don't be fooled into
thinking that good curriculum or good equipment or good teachers are the
critical determinants of your son and daughter's schooltime.  All the
pathologies we've considered come about in large measure because the
lessons of school prevent children from keeping important appointments
with themselves and with their families, to learn lessons in self-
motivation, perseverance, self-reliance, courage, dignity and love and
lessons in service to others, which are among the key lessons of home
life. Thirty years ago these things could still be learned in the time
left after school.  But television has eaten up most of that time, and a
combination of television and the stresses peculiar to two-income or
single-parent families have swallowed up most of what used to be family
time.  Our kids have no time left to grow up fully human, and only thin-
soil wastelands to do it in.  A future is rushing down upon our culture
which will insist that all of us learn the wisdom of non-material
experience; a future which will demand as the price of survival that we
follow a pace of natural life economical in material cost.  These
lessons cannot be learned in schools as they are.  School is like
starting life with a 12-year jail sentence in which bad habits are the
only curriculum truly learned.  I teach school and win awards doing it. I
should know."

Of course, how to make Python fit into lessons about "self-motivation, 
perseverance, self-reliance, courage, dignity and love and
lessons in service to others" is a tall order. But I would think it can be 
done. :-) It's certainly worth thinking about IMHO.

> And a supply chain concept, where I know that my learning experience
> was dependant on the *free* in many senses of the word availilbilty of
> others' contributed intellectual property, leaving me little moral
> choice other than to try to feed that supply.
> *That* did not start at Xerox, as far as I know.

Very true. And perhaps the tipping factor in my decision to commit to 
Python over Smalltalk.

> And goes a lot more to the essence of how we might possibly manage to
> get from here to there than does keyword syntax issues, for example.
> I think you are correct as seeing Python as both a manifestation of
> that energy source, and as a contributor to it, in good turn.
> And are right to be intrigued.

Well put. Ultimately, in free and open source software, community is more 
important than implementation (since in some ways, it is easier to fix the 
implementation, at least for programmers. :-). While Guido is an excellent 
engineer, somehow he is even better at community building.

> It seems most probably true that my own educational philosophy, and
> that, say, of Guido's may have little to nothing in common.
> Shouldn't matter, and - as far as I am concerned - it has come to not
> matter.

If we come back to your first point, that you learned more from writing
PyGeo than anyone will learn from using it (as did I for my own projects),
then we are back into asking, how can we make constructing their own 
educational simulations approachable for kids of any age (with Python)? 
What sort of development environment or libraries make sense for producing
the greatest value to the learner for the least effort? What aspects of
current programming systems get in the way for no good reason? Or, as
Kirby might suggest, how can people most effectively use the tools they
have (Python as is right now) to get the biggest educational bang for the

So, we now return you to your regularly scheduled edusig mailing list. :-)

> Can't believe Squeakland can ever evolve there, and so that it can
> never play in the same way.
> Too bad for Squeakland.

May well be the case.

> Playing is good.
> For children of all ages.

So true. :-)

All the best.

--Paul Fernhout

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