[Edu-sig] Do we "teach computers" when we write code?

kirby urner kirby.urner at gmail.com
Tue Apr 7 02:46:53 CEST 2009

Yeah, I think you're wise to point out it's all about context.
Wittgenstein was saying much the same thing as Peirce et al, i.e.
meaning is not a word attribute, comes through in the namespace taken
as a whole, e.g. to understand the meaning of "a pawn" in chess, you
need to know chess (the game).

Maybe having students think up their own analogies, and extending
them, would be better.  There's much to recommend the musical
instrument analogy, which I play up in pointing to Gibson Guitar's
sponsorship of OSCON that time, i.e. musician : guitar :: geek :
laptop i.e. Portland as "FOSS capital" is the "Nashville of open
source"...  goes with my "Cult of Athena" (a way to hook in to greek
classics -- Nashville has a temple to Athena, you may be aware).

It kinda grated when I first read the passage, seeing how computer's
"can't interpret" -- meaning they're "stupid" -- but then pretty soon
we're going to be talking about the Python "interpreter" probably.  So
do they interpret or don't they?  That question suggest the following:
 that we bring awareness of namespaces (contexts) and the potential
for "name collisions" right to the surface, talk about that overtly
(just as you and I are doing here).

One might ask when is it too young to start talking about context.
The Philosophy for Children movement was all for getting this in
early, giving students more conceptual tools right at the outset.

In my workshop, I tell the story of "dot notation" as a way of
"disambiguating" (fancy word, used in Wikipedia a lot).  That's maybe
more for 8th graders and above?  Actually I think we could go younger
on that one.  Kids get it about context, as they're in the midst of
intensive language learning as it is.

Anyway, thanks for wedging a stick in the door and keeping my mind
open.  Sometimes we teach the computer "stupid pet tricks" is how I
might put it, with a cut to some David Letterman YouTube (I'm always
imagining I'm in some liberal Quaker school, where cutting to Youtubes
is never a problem -- whereas in many schools, not even the teachers
have access to this treasure trove, all strictly verboten (like in
'Name of the Rose')).**


for context, I recall how I was clamoring for a large database of
video shorts (Sesame Street a model), to supplement teaching and
learning.  I harped on this from the 1980s through the 1990s.  When my
video database finally showed up, I almost didn't recognize it as my
dream come true.

What I've found as "a futurist" is my prayers get answered a lot of
the time, but it's up to me to translate the reality into what
actually became so.

On Mon, Apr 6, 2009 at 5:22 PM, Edward Cherlin <echerlin at gmail.com> wrote:
> On Mon, Apr 6, 2009 at 3:05 PM, kirby urner <kirby.urner at gmail.com> wrote:
>> I'm wondering what others on this list think of this non-standard use
>> of "teaching" when talking about programming a computer.
>> The authors say we're "teaching" the computer....
> I have a very simple take on this. It is an imperfect analogy, but it
> works in some situations. Children learn concepts much better by
> programming them than by repeated practice. (Practice should be for
> skills, like music or sports.) So, although it is not the same as
> teaching a person, we can help people to understand what we are
> talking about by judicious use of the analogy.
> If you want to know where I got this, I can cite Skill in Means in
> Buddhist teaching, or:
> In the original Pragmatic philosophy, as set forth by Peirce and
> William James, meaning is not an attribute of a word, but of the
> context, in particular of the intentions of the persons concerned. Do
> we travel around the world every day with the Earth's rotation?  It
> depends how you define "travel". Relative to the Earth's surface, in a
> rotating coordinate system, we don't move. If we insist that motion
> can only be defined in Galilean or Special Relativistic invariant
> coordinate systems, where rotation is disallowed, then we move.
> General Relativity has its own issues.
> If I see a squirrel on a tree, and I go around the tree, with the
> squirrel staying out of sight opposite me, do I go around the
> squirrel, which has kept the same side toward me the whole time?
> (Example from William James)
> Am I teaching when I write a textbook? I'm certainly trying to, but
> you can say that the teaching or learning doesn't begin until a
> student reads it (if then).
> Am I teaching when I present examples to a Bayesian spam filter or an
> AI? Depends. Dunnit?
> "The question whether a computer can think is of no more interest than
> whether a submarine can swim."--Edsger Dijkstra.
>> """
>> Every teacher knows that one of the best ways to
>> understand something is to teach it to someone else. But
>> teaching a computer is not exactly the same as teaching
>> other people. People have a way of interpreting what is
>> being said to them. They read the gestures and the facial
>> expressions of their teachers as well as the words that
>> are spoken. The intonation of the voice is important and
>> matters judged to be obvious are not always articulated.
>> All this may generally assist the learning process but
>> what matters here is that computers are essentially stupid
>> so they cannot interpret any of the commands they are
>> given and the teacher has to articulate everything that
>> is to be learned. A computer has no knowledge of what
>> its programmer is attempting to do. It only knows what
>> it has been told and so the children who are teaching it
>> are compelled to use precise, unambiguous and formal
>> language. The children respect this requirement because
>> they understand that it is not an arbitrary imposition (as
>> many of those made by teachers often are). In todayÕs
>> world we cannot yet address machines informally by
>> the spoken word and, mathematically at least, there
>> may be fewer benefits when we can.
>> There are other characteristics of computers that make
>> them valuable objects to teach. One of these is their
>> interactivity. Without any computers we might use
>> paper and pencil which are useful devices for recording
>> results but less valuable for experimental purposes
>> because they do not encourage an exploratory approach
>> or suggest activity. The computer, in contrast, begs to
>> be used. It always feels quite appropriate to key in ideas
>> and try them out. In fact children are usually so willing
>> to explore different possibilities that teachers are more
>> likely to have the reverse problem of having to persuade
>> them to stand back and reflect occasionally.
>> """
>> Teaching the computer
>> >From Micromath 18/1 2002 by Ronnie Goldstein
>> http://www.atm.org.uk/mt/micromath.html
>> I'd think this might backfire, as students begin thinking they're
>> being treated much as the computers are being treated, as dull and
>> stupid, such that teachers have to speak very... slowly... and
>> formally.
>> I'm poking around this site thanks to Ian at the scene, who sees ATM
>> dooming itself in some bid to join with a dying NAMA (he was at the
>> NAMA conference right before Pycon).  http://www.nama.org.uk/
>> Not saying I follow entirely as I'm not in the UK (Steve Holden was
>> supposed to translate for me), but I surmise ATM and NCTM are somewhat
>> parallel organizations.
>> ATM was actually founded by Caleb Gattengno, so it's ironic, what Ian is saying.
>> http://www.atm.org.uk/people/caleb-gattegno.html
>> The article above is obviously dated (2002), plus in mine has a lot of
>> incorrect characters, thanks to PDF encoding problems.
>> I think computers are running our scripts more like player pianos.  We
>> don't teach our pianos, we tune them (guitars:  we play them).
>> We *play* our computers (like guitars) more than we "teach" them, no?
>> Kirby
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> And Children are my nation.
> The Cosmos is my dwelling place, The Truth my destination.
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