Unleash the wolf from woolly thinking

23rd June 1995 at 01:00
Teachers' work in IT is still hamstrung by the perception of the computer as a glorified clerk. Alan Kay takes a step back from the practicalities to consider how new technology will shape 21st-century thought.

New technology in ancient Greece meant writing with a phonetic alphabet that included signs for vowels. The invention was destined to revolutionise human thought, not just because ideas could be transmitted more easily over distance and time, but because the "kinds" of thinking brought by literacy are qualitatively different.

The fact that hundreds of thousands of words could be made from 23 characters led Thales and many other Ionian Greeks to wonder whether all things in the world were made up of fewer and simpler things. This was the real start of "above threshold" mathematics and science.

Not everyone was equally pleased. Socrates complained that writing forced one to follow an argument instead of participate in it. He detested the idea that authors could write their opinions down and then die before they could be talked out of them, and that the ideas could travel far and wide, without needing to be chaperoned by the flesh and blood author.

Socrates remained a teacher and philosopher of the oral tradition until the end of his life. His pupil Plato was the one who made the transition to the newer forms, and as an ironist, Socrates would have appreciated that we still know about him and his ideas even his negative views on writing because Plato wrote it all down.

Thousands of years later Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions made the interesting observation that the reason revolutions in physics seem to take 25 years is because that is how long it takes for the older physicists to die off!

Today we have a new kind of language technology the computer to contend with, and with it new possibilities for content and literacy, and qualitatively more powerful ways to think about the world. Most teachers, no matter how skilled in the old media, find themselves in the position of Socrates, in that at least part of what is now important to learn in the world is suddenly beyond their skills.

In America, this has already been the case for many years in mathematics and science, which started to become serious discourse in the 17th century and came hurtling to the fore about 200 years ago. Yet today one would be hard pressed to find elementary school teachers who are literate in these new domains of thought. The "mathematics" that are taught to young children are still the arithmetics of accounting, not the intuitive precursors to the "language of nature", as Galileo liked to call it. My experience leads me to believe that most teachers are not even aware of what is missing.

The computer, like all really powerful technologies, is a wolf in sheep's clothing. To most people it seems that the computer's role is to make paper information processing mostly writing and accounting more efficient.

The major use of computers in most schools in America is to get the children to learn word processing, spreadsheets, and database retrieval and the reason given is "that is what computers are being used for in society and the schools should prepare the children appropriately". This analogy is actually quite similar to arguing that children should be strapped into a motorised vehicle at the age of two because they will be automobile drivers when they grow up! Though some parents might even buy into such a distortion, most would realise that the children's muscles would atrophy. It is far better for them to exercise, and leave learning to drive a car until later.

Though there are vocational considerations in today's world, the primary aim of childhood is to develop the children's physical and intellectual muscles. With a new technology like the computer, the major trick is to find its real wolf content underneath the sheep's wool of its ability to imitate old ways of doing things. One of the most disastrous sights in an American school today is a classroom full of children happily using computers, with adults happy that the children are happy yet nothing of importance is going on, and something negative may be happening quite apart from wasted time: the illusion of literacy is preventing awareness of what is being lost.

I don't think better teacher training for "computer literacy" will work much better than it has in math and science or for that matter, reading, writing, music and art. What is lacking is a world view that can deal with the 20th and 21st centuries bursting with many kinds of knowledge.

It has been my experience that people who really know their fields are deeply humbled by their vision of what they don't know and may never know. Their natural interaction with students has as much or more to do with questions about the field itself what is it, how can you tell you are doing it, how can it be criticised, etc than about ostensible content. I will never forget taking a design course from the greatest living computer designer. He gave us a reading list which he "expected us to read and understand" but spent the entire course simply questioning "assumptions" in computer design.

The best ploy for most of today's teachers is to make the main content of any course whether they think they understand it or not be the kind of questioning that will illuminate the field of endeavour: its scope, limits, and artistic extensions. Paradoxically, most teachers will be in much better shape with areas they know they know little about. For example, the first thing to do with maths and science is to make a class project to find out what they "are". And the way to do this will only partly be through books real practitioners will also have to be found and questioned.

Everyone in America knows what Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson do, but almost no one knows what Michael Faraday did. And even BBC educational television can't show the latter in a way that counts. Right now, only books and personal contact can transmit the musings and perspectives of a great artist in an abstract field. An interesting exception might be the Voyager CD-Rom series in which books by Marvin Minsky and Donald Norman include "live" commentary by the authors.

Once teachers see themselves as coaches rather than experts, they have an entire world to draw on for ideas. And now the technology can help them. Most scientists are on the Internet, and many of them would like to spend a few hours a week helping teachers and children understand what the real intellectual sports are.

For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area, scientists from the Exploratorium regularly communicate with 5th grade children learning science; anthropologists, including native Indians, from the Oakland Museum are a vital part of elementary school learning about cultures. This will spread over the next few years, as "network brokerages" are created that will match up inquisitive children with interested adults.

As with many previous media, the deep content of the computer does not require the most elaborate equipment. Any printing press can print a political essay, scientific paper, mathematical theorem, or poem. Any computer can hold the real content of computing: dynamic simulations of ideas. The practical range of this new way to model ideas will be similar to how the co-development of classical math and science affected the post-Renaissance world.

One way to put all of this in perspective is to consider the three major frameworks that humans have invented for thinking. The first is "traditional", based on stories and proverbs. Confirmation not contradiction is what counts here. The second form of thinking is "rational", "logical" and "analytic". It was invented by the Greeks and employs chains of argument about parts of things in which contradiction is very important. Most of modern maths and science is built on this framework. The third framework, "ecological thinking", is quite recent and is concerned with complex systems in which the relationships between the parts are not completely understood. It was instigated by questions about social, economic, physical and biological "ecologies".

8he first framework is part of oral discourse, the second came with alphabetic writing and printing, the third's natural medium is the computer. Many of the most important issues of the 21st century are concerned with health, medicine, environment, population, and societies. These are very difficult to understand using analytic thought, but a surprisingly large number of them can be dealt with through modelling and simulation. It is not unreasonable to compare the power of the political and scientific essay in the 18th and 19th centuries to the reach and impact of this new form of discourse in the 21st. This is the real content of the computer, and it will be the greatest challenge in the history of education to find ways to help the majority learn it with enough fluency to participate in the "great conversation" of the next century.

The barrier to learning this deep content is not monetary even a cheap dollar games machine or pocket organiser has the required capacity. The barriers have to do with perspective, purpose, desire, and will. Just as most adults do not realise that the "maths" their children are taught in school are far from the language of science, the biggest barrier to real computing is the lack of insight into just what real computing is. When teachers realise that it is their duty to ask questions more than try to answer them, the first real steps will have been taken.

The barrier to learning this deep content is not monetary even a cheap dollar games machine or pocket organiser has the required capacity. The barriers have to do with perspective, purpose, desire and will. Just as most adults do not realise the "maths" their children are taught in school are far from the language of science, the biggest barrier to real computing is the lack of insight into just what real computing is.

When teachers realise that it is their duty to ask questions more than try to answer them, the first real steps will have been taken.

* Alan Kay is an Apple Fellow (academic) based in Calilfornia

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