[Edu-sig] Learning (some more) programming

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Thu Dec 28 12:26:05 CET 2006

Ian Bicking wrote:
> Intrinsic desire is a little hard.  It certain happens, but often just 
> in a few cases; probably many of us had an intrinsic desire to do the 
> thing programming allows, but there's many useful things I learned that 
> I had no intrinsic desire to learn.  Like writing -- I really hated 
> writing as a child, and at that time there was nothing I wanted to do 
> with writing.  But I don't think it would have been good if I simply 
> hadn't worked on the fundamentals of writing until such time that I 
> wanted to actually use writing for something.  And I still don't just 
> write for myself; it's a tool I use for other purposes.

I'll agree with your larger point in practice in our society, on roles for 
both intrinsic motivation of liking some thing versus the extrinsic desire 
to learn something just to get some task done. There is another path 
humanity used to be on, but we are not back on it much yet, though I feel 
we will be more and more (and free and open source software leads the 
way), see:
   "The Abolition of Work"
   "The Original Affluent Society"

Still, I might suggest you hated writing as a kid because you were forced 
to do it by compulsory schooling before you were ready or willing?
Even if that was not the case for you, it certainly is the case for lots 
and lots of people.

It is funny how we now accept kids learn most easily to walk and talk and 
use the potty at different ages, but we still insist they learn to read or 
write or do math at specific ages. Here is a school where no one is forced 
to read or write or do math or learn to program at any specific age:
   "Sudbury Valley School"
and just about every single kid learns to do all of those well by the time 
they graduate (which is far, far higher than most other public or private 
schools). [Well, I don't actually know about programming rates among 
graduates, so that is just a wild assumption on my part; the other ones 
are easily documented. :-)]

 From the second link: "Sudbury Valley School has published two studies of 
their alumni over the past thirty-five years. They have learned, among 
other things, that about 80% of the students continue to study at other 
schools after graduating from Sudbury Valley. Most alumni have been 
accepted at the university of their first choice. Students also generally 
report happiness with their lives, and many have a stated commitment to 
public service".

And I would suggest Sudbury students are more likely to like those 
activities (reading, writing, arithmetic, programming) than kids going 
through compulsory schooling.

It is the basis of compassionate reading and writing education such as 
John Holt fostered,
that the most compassionate way to get kids to want to read is to get them 
to believe (accurately) that there are stories locked up in the words, and 
if they can learn to read, they will gain ownership of those stories for 
themselves. And the best way to get them to write is to help them see they 
have something to say. See Holt's book:
   _Learning All the Time: How small children begin to read, write, count, 
and investigate the world, without being taught_
Fromt he last link: "Holt's thoughts carry the power of common sense. One 
of his pet peeves: the silly, nonsensical rules of phonics drilled into 
schoolchildren today. One of those adages, found on the walls of many an 
elementary school classroom, goes, "When two vowels go out walking, the 
first one does the talking." Holt points out that two pairs of vowels in 
the sentence violate the rule. This is not only confusing to some 
children, but simply "dumb," he complains. He dismisses picture books and 
primers, with their small, simple vocabularies. In their place, Holt urges 
parents to expose children to the Yellow Pages, warranties, letters, 
ticket stubs, and newspapers--the print trappings that adults rely upon 
for everyday life."

If kids wants to get at the stories (or other knowledge) locked in books, 
that motivates them to spend the fifty hours or so of hard work to get to 
the point where they have the key and can then bootstrap themselves to a 
high level of reading skills through practice. Similarly, the key to 
learning to write well is to have something to say (even just a request 
for a toy to buy or an "I love you" note) and then to do it -- even if the 
first results are idiosyncratic and misspelled and ungrammatical.

Nothing is more likely to make children not want to read or write than 
following standard pedagogical advice and breaking reading into a series 
of incremental hoops (learn letters, learn words, learn simple sentences, 
and so on) which is just going to bore most kids out of their skulls. Can 
you imagine if we tried to teach kids to listen to spoken language and to 
talk that way? Thankfully, kids learn to listen and talk on their own by 
just absorbing language in their environment and trying to use it to 
accomplish  goals meaningful to themselves.

Now, consider how people truly learn to understand and speak a language 
(by immersion, success for almost everyone) and now think about how we 
typically teach programming (building blocks, with a high failure rate and 
few real successes if we are honest with ourselves). Perhaps the most 
compassionate way to get kids to learn to program in Python is first to 
show them how there is something they want locked up inside of Python code?

Learning to read and write was actually *illegal* for a lot of people 
living in the USA for many generations (especially for slaves in the 
pre-Civil War South) and they still learned. From:
"1740 -- The Negro Act is passed in South Carolina. The act makes it 
illegal for slaves to gather in groups, earn money, learn to read, and 
raise food. The act permits owners to kill rebellious slaves."
"A lot of slaves worked very hard to learn to read, write, and do math. 
This was illegal in most states, but some learned anyway. In Maryland, it 
was not illegal for slaves to learn to read and write, but whites were 
discouraged from teaching them. Sometimes slaves learned from each other 
or from free blacks. Sometimes, white people taught them. ... Frederick 
Douglass, the famous abolitionist who was born a slave in Maryland, 
believed that the ability to read and write was the first step towards 
freedom. He wrote: "Education means emancipation; it means light and 
liberty." He learned to read while he was a slave in Baltimore. At first, 
his mistress taught him, but then her husband forbade the lessons. Then he 
learned from friends on the street. He also attended Sabbath school when 
he could. As an adult, he published a famous anti-slavery newspaper called 
the North Star."
So, when people truly *want* to learn, they can.

So, to promote Python programming literacy, I suggest we make Python 
programming illegal. :-)

> Most motivation is based on something external, and I think that's fine. 
>   For instance, children often want to learn something to keep up with 
> their friends, or because someone they respect (like an older sibling or 
> parent) has a skill and they want to imitate that.  To become 
> exceptionally skilled at something a child will probably have to 
> eventually find intrinsic satisfaction in the skill, but there's lots of 
> skills that are valuable without reaching any exceptional level.

Well, you're clearly right; people do learn a lot of things from other 
people for a variety of reasons and motivations. And you are right that it 
is not true that "if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing well" given 
how many things we need to know and how there is a law of diminishing 
returns for many tasks. As with the car example I mentioned, a lot of 
people don't like driving (I'm one of them) but do it anyway because the 
benefit of it is so high (I actually didn't learn to drive until I was a 
senior in college). Even being an average driver (compared, to, say a race 
car driver) is better for most people than not driving at all, in US 
society (sadly, as I like car-free or car-optional places. :-)
   "New German community models car-free living"

This line of thought makes me realize I should add a category #6 (or maybe 
#1B. :-) That alternative is, how a great teacher can use *extrinsic* 
motivation unrelated to a task (like giving out gold stars or "good job!" 
praise) to get kids to try it enough so they develop an *intrinsic* 
motivation to continue in the task (from appreciating it on its own 
merits). Or in other words, a "try it, you'll like it" strategy.

Obviously there is more to it than that, as a great teacher conveys 
enthusiasm for the topic. That is often hard in schools, as rarely do many 
teachers have professional experience enjoying their subject in other than 
a teaching capacity. Still, an unpaid amateur or hobby interest in 
writing, programming, mathematics, chemistry, or whatever certainly is 
good enough to have such excitement, and maybe even better than 
professional experience in some ways, see:
   "Studies Find Reward Often No Motivator: Creativity and intrinsic 
interest diminish if task is done for gain"
If there is any justification for compelling or coercing children to show 
up and sit through a class on a topic they have no current interest in, 
then making them available for the teacher to practice strategy #6 (try 
it, you'll like it) is probably it. But, it remains wasteful when it so 
often fails; almost any educator will admit how much better their classes 
would be if only the people who wanted to be there showed up -- so "just 
in time" learning is as much about making teachers' lives better as making 
students' lives better.

Speculating here with no supporting data but my own experiences, in a 
compulsory school classroom, perhaps by chance, some 2%(?) percent of any 
children who show up in class they are assigned to based on age and career 
track may find the subject matter of *intrinsic* interest of a high level. 
Another tiny fraction of kids may have a positive attitude towards any 
sort of "just in case" learning so that they dive into it and quickly 
enjoy it (another 3%? who are core "A" students overall but not "grinds"). 
Maybe these numbers may be higher depending on how the curriculum is 
structured (that is, if kids know supporting concepts that make the new 
material easier to grasp then it is probably easier to take interest in 
rather than just get lost the first day and stay lost). But most kids 
probably won't fall into either case of liking *the* subject or liking 
almost *any* subject (about 5% total?), which is where all the apparatus 
of compulsory pedagogy comes in, and then we can start talking about 
cost-effectiveness of compulsory extrinsically motivated "just in case" 
learning instead of intrinsically or extrinsically motivated "just in 
time" learning. Personally, I'm all for people learning Python -- but only 
when they want to; otherwise it just becomes another tool for oppression IMHO.

I think Alan Kay goes wrong when he says here:
"[On someone learning to program on their own]
And, most likely, that you were in that 5%! Adele and I realized early on
that the real key was to find out what to do for the next 85%, and this is
where actual pedagogy and educational environments (and mentoring) really
I think Alan Kay here misses the whole "unschooling" point of intrinsic 
motivation and "just in time" learning -- which is rather shocking to me. 
:-) I agree with the value of mentoring (both to communicate enthusiasm 
and values as well as to communicate "just in time" facts and constructive 
criticisms), educational environments in terms of better software tools to 
lower the bar or make it even more interesting, pedagogy in the sense of 
well written tutorials, and such, so I don't disagree with the value of 
all these things. It's just I think he maybe misses part of the bigger 
picture here of why they are so often needed (which often relates to 
compulsory "just in case" learning instead of freely-chosen "just in time" 

I should have said before that option #2 ("unschooling") mentioned in my 
previous post was almost entirely about *intrinsic* motivation. So this #6 
option above ("try it, you'll like it") sort of bridges the gap between 
extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and probably has a role to play in 
either compulsory schooling or freedom-based unschooling (and likely many 
"unschooling" parents use "try it, you'll like it" all the time).

> Anyway, I've been thinking about a structure for encouraging external 
> motivation, while trying to avoid coercion.  It's definitely informed by 
> some of the discussions here, as well as other internet phenomena.  I 
> wrote up a proposal of sorts here:
>    http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Peer_teaching_website
> I think it could be useful to provide structure to the otherwise 
> unstructured activities planned on the laptop.  But there's nothing OLPC 
> specific about it, or really anything specific to any particular domain; 
> it's not really about teaching programming or anything specific.
> At this point I don't really know what I (or OLPC) do with the idea though.

Well, we may just end up disagreeing on the value of structure. Still, 
again and again I keep coming back to Manuel de Landa's insights on 
meshworks (unstructured or loosely structured with incoherent but 
widespread power) and hierarchies (tightly structured with narrowly 
focused but coherent power):
He says: "But even if we managed to promote not only heterogeneity, but 
diversity articulated into a meshwork, that still would not be a perfect 
solution. After all, meshworks grow by drift and they may drift to places 
where we do not want to go. The goal-directedness of hierarchies is the 
kind of property that we may desire to keep at least for certain 
institutions. Hence, demonizing centralization and glorifying 
decentralization as the solution to all our problems would be wrong. An 
open and experimental attitude towards the question of different hybrids 
and mixtures is what the complexity of reality itself seems to call for."

So, to move your peer teaching proposal forward, perhaps you could think 
about the appropriate interface between meshworks (lots of kids wanting to 
learn whatever interests them at the moment, maybe helping each other in 
an ad-hoc way) and hierarchies (adults [or other peers] who think they 
know what kids need to learn and are willing to put some time and effort 
into helping kids learn  those things).

--Paul Fernhout

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