[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
"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
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:
> 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):
"MESHWORKS, HIERARCHIES AND INTERFACES"
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).
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