[Edu-sig] Politics and Python in Education

Paul D. Fernhout pdfernhout at kurtz-fernhout.com
Wed Jul 18 15:43:41 CEST 2007

Anna Ravenscroft wrote:
>> Still, I could essentially see Guido's point, because some conventional
>> school staff who otherwise like Python may face issues posting to a list
>> talking about the future of education (which may appear to threaten
>> their job), so perhaps ultimately a solution would be to have one list
>> for "python in mainstream education" and another list for "python for
>> alternative or future education".
> Or how about one list on "educational politics" and one on python in
> education. Oh wait - there ARE already lists on educational
> politics... how about those who want to discuss that, go to those
> lists and discuss it there?! And use this list to specifically discuss
> python in education?

I think your analogy (and by extension Guido's strawman proposal) is
flawed, because a key aspect of *design* is to see how values and
priorities (which is the core of "politics") lead to new and interesting
structures for software and content and hardware. In a Python CP4E
context I see this as including any or all of:
* changes to Python itself (e.g. "edit and continue" support in the core
and in IDLE), or
* new libraries for Python (e.g. PataPata), or
* new application based on Python (e.g. constructivist educational
simulations, including perhaps, though he might have disagreed, the late
Arthur Siegel's PyGeo :-), or
* new curricula or other smaller educational materials (e.g. the
Shuttleworth Foundation's steps in that direction), or
* even new hardware which is Python-powered (e.g. OLPC, or even Lego
Mindstorms NXT robotics, which I just got two of and was yesterday
looking up references to using Python to program).

To talk about creating such software or hardware or content without a
sense of priorities and values would be analogous to going to an
architect, asking them to design you a custom house and, and then
saying, "well, you're an architect, just design us something, we are
busy people and have no time to talk about values or priorities".
Although I guess even there a clever architect would learn one thing
about such people's values and priorities. :-)

For a personal example, to show these issues are not just talk, consider
the literally person-months I spent building the PataPata experiment
to bring some Squeak-like constructivist ideas more directly into a
Python-powered IDE, and which I discussed on this list. Maybe not a huge
success, but a big investment of my limited time in the free Python
realm and I learned a few things from it (including the importance of
naming objects if you wished to share them, a departure from the "Self"
prototype programming ideal using unnamed pointers to parent objects).
Ultimately, PataPata was of very marginal interest here. Other people
can talk about how Squeak has ideas that might work in Python, but when
things got going, the talk was just talk. Ideally, from my point of
view, people here would have discussed how these priorities and values
of learned-centered technologies such as PataPata was a step towards
could be translated into even more Python-related software, stuff beyond
PataPata and even better. People could go beyond what I reference, and
go beyond my own self critique, and as experienced educators suggest
even better ideas for new technology related to Python (e.g. "the
students are always saying if only we had X Y or Z for Python they'd be
using it so much more for the things they want to do" -- like the
reasons a homeschooled kid chose "DarkBasic" instead of Python, as
mentioned on the Math Forum Kirby posts to).

But that doesn't happen here much, in large part I'd speculate since
most educators here are teachers, and the authoritarian context most
teachers work in is unfortunately very limiting both as to free time and
as to possible horizons, at least in the USA. Again, for example,
consider my relative who could be fired if she installed Python on her
classroom computer, and who would not have enough free time to go
through the bureaucratic hoops to get Python installed district wide,
let alone then have time to learn how to use it).

That all to me is tremendously disappointing, especially as:
  CP4E != CP4MainstreamSchools
in my thinking (even if mainstream schools are part of "Everyone").

It's no big surprise the US military (of all US institutions including
the Department of Education) initially funded CP4E, because, in the USA,
historically the military has had the most difficulties dealing with
lack of education among recruits, see for example:
"""Back in 1952 the Army quietly began hiring hundreds of psychologists
to find out how 600,000 high school graduates had successfully faked
illiteracy. Regna Wood sums up the episode this way: "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.""""

Doesn't that sound a bit like future echoes of "Why Johnny Can't Code"?
It is another example of how, ironically, the US military is perhaps the
only well supported large institution in the USA who, as with
illiteracy, needs to wrestle with the consequences of US educational
problems on a large scale. Gatto suggests, unlike the military, most of
the other US institutions actually grow in power the more dysfunctional
citizens are, so educational failure isn't a problem for them;
illiterate graduates are paradoxically a great thing for, say, a
department of education's budget -- justifying, in an unexamined way,
more money to do more of the same.

People on this list (including Guido) sound disappointed in me for
talking educational politics, but as I reflect on it, I am disappointed
with people on this list for not helping more directly translate the
values and priorities I reference into even more Python-related options
for the future of most education. That future will IMHO emphasize
learner-centered and learner-customized on-demand activities which
empower the user to do amazing things either alone or as part of amazing
ad hoc groups like a typical open source or free software projects,
including Python. And that disappointment is even keener because I have
little doubt the educators on the edusig list are generally some of the
most progressive ones around (otherwise, people her would be on a Java
list or teaching about using Visual Basic to script Office).

I can acknowledge that to the extent edusig is about being a teachers'
lounge where teachers compare notes about teaching Python to meet
state-defined objectives to pass standardized tests, such discussions
seem off-topic. But as I said before, if that is the concern, Java is
really the answer (in the USA, based on AP credit as someone else
mentioned; granted other countries will differ). Once we wander off that
path of standardization, then lots of issues relating to values and
priorities show up -- especially if, like me, you are interested in
making new things related to Python and education.

--Paul Fernhout

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