Education Team/Theory and practce
- Epistemology is the construction of personal standards for telling fact from fancy, truth from fiction, and certainty from doubt. Ontology is the construction of theories of what exists. Ethical constructions remind us of what we think we should do even if we don't want to, and why. Everybody has them, and normally no two of us agree on them. The epistemology of Prussian-style education is, the King and his ministers are always right, and even if they weren't you would have no business questioning them. Or, at the classroom level, “It's true because I said so, now shut up and sit down!” The same attitude is common, even usual, in ontology and ethics as well. Nations are real because I said so, You're going to war to because I said so.—Edward Cherlin (revised Mokurai 06:32, 8 June 2008 (UTC))
Cherlin paints a grim picture here, but elsewhere he has the positive version: What would education for truly free peoples look like?
Fortunately, this is nowhere near the whole story, but we have a long way to go before children's right to pursue truth is seriously recognized. While the theoretical layer of didactic methods has advanced, unfortunately, in much of the world's formal education systems, there has been little progress.
The computer serves as a powerful tool for getting new pedagogical approaches into the system. But, while getting computers into the hands of more children is undoubtedly of benefit, the question remains, “how does one maximize the learning that occurs?” The question often is framed in terms of teacher-centric methods (Instructionism) versus child-centric or learning-centric methods. This dichotomy is a false one [Really?]; while we should not be prescriptive, we should be striving for a “learning-centric” approach, where teachers mentor students as they engage with powerful ideas, “teaching less and learning more.” While we want to give children access to knowledge—through media such as electronic books, the world-wide web, and multimedia—we also should try to skew the odds toward children and teachers appropriating this knowledge by putting it to use and engaging in critical dialog. That is not just going to happen by itself; we have to try to make it happen by giving them tools that put them in the roles of consumer, critic, and creator within the context of a learning community.
Learning is not a service—it's a process of active appropriation.
One of the forces being unleashed by the one-to-one computing initiatives—where children have access to computing “anytime” and “anywhere”—is the change in the way software developers and computer-makers think about the education industry. A combination of strong and capable leadership—by technologists and epistemologists—and cross-community collaboration is necessary to ensure that the ideals of freedom, sharing, open critique, and transparency will be part of the interface to learning that touches children in the world’s classrooms. While community collaboration may seem unrealistic from the vantage point of a model of economy as a machine, which individuals are single-purpose cogs wheels and gear, collaboration—and the resulting synthesis of ideas—is the most efficient means of invention and subsequent development. The “intelligence is in the leaves” and those who unleash that intelligence will prosper.
These ideas are embodied in the culture of free software, which is a powerful culture for learning. It is possible to instill in the education industry some of the culture, technology, and morals of the open source movement. Such a transfer of culture could greatly enhance the education industry and its ability to engage teachers and students: empowering them with both the freedom to act and the freedom to be critical. Criticism of ideas is a powerful force in learning and in fostering economic development; unleashing that is an important part of the mission. Conventional wisdom suggests that teachers don't want to learn (and change); to the contrary, teachers perhaps more than any other constituency know that the status quo is failing.
Previous attempts at major education reform have foundered on the impossibility of rewriting all textbooks and retraining all teachers simultaneously, on the blank incomprehension of parents, and on political opposition to these new-fangled ideas. Sugar gets around these obstacles by not confronting them. In particular, Sugar can provide the collaborative experience we associate with the Internet, without changes to textbooks or curricula, and without major retraining of teachers. New textbooks will come in due course, and teacher training will eventually catch up. With computers and Internet, children can show parents what they are learning. This genie will not go back into the bottle. Political opponents of educational advances are already in retreat to private schools and home schooling to a degree. We cannot predict how the political fight will turn out, because of its complexities and because it is a battle of ideas and organization, whose working we do not understand at all well. In such a case, it is prudent to organize support before the need is urgent. A degree of support will arise almost automatically from those whose children start to get a real education for the first time. Organizing that support appropriately is a daunting challenge, but some will turn up with the desire and ability to do various parts of it.
OLPC is about Seymour Papert's Constructionist education theory, although the announcements don't say that consistently. Sugar Labs is more clearly committed to Constructionism. But what is Constructionism? Is it true? Is it effective? Have we arrived at the one complete and final truth about education, so that no more need be said? Well, the answer to that last question is, Don't be silly. Like any good theory, Constructionism is reasonably accurate on some points, and needs further research on the great expanse of the unknown that surrounds that little lighted patch. So we cannot give a glib definition, or a brief summary, and claim that you know what you need to know. If you are serious about Constructionism, then like anything else worthwhile, you have to study at length and in detail to get any good at it, and there will always be somebody who is better at some part of it.
Seymour Papert slyly points out that simply giving a definition would not be a Constructionist way to teach you. Instead he suggests ways in which you can experience what works and what doesn't in current Constructionist programs. We can be a little more explicit, but the need for experience remains central.
In Piaget's Constructivist theory of child development and learning, based on decades of research with children, understanding is something a child constructs internally out of experience and previous understanding (which in some cases will be misunderstanding), when the child's brain is sufficiently developed to support the ideas involved. One of his favorite examples is a mathematician who as a child had been astonished to discover that no matter how he arranged some pebbles he was playing with, when he counted them there were always ten. I don't know any adults who can remember not knowing that, so it is hard to discuss from personal experience. Children who don't know that yet would have no idea what you were talking about if you asked them, so that doesn't help either. But there are many things that come to children typically at a particular age, so that you can find younger children who don't know, and older children who do, and if you are particularly persistent and lucky you may be able to observe the developmental changeover from one day to the next, or even from one moment to another.
Much more common are Aha! moments, in which a child (or adult) who has been working on a problem without insight suddenly gets it. In Constructionist education on computers, this is deliberately fostered. Alan Kay gives examples of ten-year-olds, with appropriate guidance on where and how to look, and appropriate computer software to assist them, discover essential concepts of calculus, such as the laws of constant acceleration with their geometric realization and their application to physics. The symbol manipulation and formal proofs have to be delayed to a more appropriate developmental stage, of course.
Much more common still are opportunities to work together with the collaboration and mesh networking capabilities of the XO and Sugar to construct something, and to explore all that is known and unknown and share the results. This is what Ivan Krstić told us captured the teachers in Latin America, who were no longer bound to the inadequate textbooks and teaching materials provided by the government. And after the teachers got it, the parents soon got it.