Archive/Current Events/2009-01-05

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Sugar Digest

As 2008 comes to an end, it gives me an excuse to do some reflecting on what we are doing as a project and foundation. Most of the following you've read before, but it is helpful—at least to me—to revisit these ideas periodically.

The world faces many seemingly intractable problems: war, a faltering economy, an energy crisis, global climate change, to name just a few. My generation has failed to solve these problems. Our children will inherit them from us. But we can leave them something in addition: the means to become a generation of critical thinkers and problem-solvers. The investment that we can make on their behalf that will have the most return is learning. It has a bearing on all of the challenges we face and is essential if our children are to excel in an ever-changing world. Providing every child with the opportunity to learn learning will allow them both to achieve a clarity of purpose and to develop independent means towards their goals.

What should children and learn and how should they learn it? Information is about nouns; learning is about verbs. Of course learners should have access to power ideas (I won't debate here which ones we should teach). But they should also engage in exploration and collaboration, appropriating knowledge while engaging in authentic, open-ended problem solving. This can be accomplished within a framework of accountability, one that complements rigorous national standards where learners engage in a process of reflection, public expression, and critique—a "portfolio" approach. What am I learning? How did I learn it? Why is it important? Can I teach it to others?

We have some simple, universal points of leverage:

  • Everyone is a teacher and a learner.
  • Humans are social beings.
  • Humans are expressive.

You learn through doing, so if you want to learn more, you want to do more.

Love is a better master than duty—you want people to engage in things that are authentic to them, things that they love. Internal motivation almost always trumps external motivations.

These ideas are not immiscible with current norms within schools, but too often we fall back on what we "know". I challenge you to think of a great learning moment in your life: was it sitting in a classroom, all eyes forward, listening to a lecture or was in when you were trying to solve a problem that was important to you?

We know of no better tool for learning than a computer—it is a “thing to think with” when it is used as a means of knowledge creation. (Unfortunately, it is too often thought of and used as simply a mechanism for information retrieval and rote learning in our schools—the modern equivalent of the mimeograph machine, AKA the “purple” plague.)

Three experiences can characterize a computer-enhanced learning platform:

Sharing: The interface should always shows the presence of other learners. Collaboration is a first-order experience. Students and teachers dialog with each other, support each other, critique each other, and share ideas.

Reflecting: A "Journal" should record each learner's activity. The Journal serves as a place for reflection and assessment of progress—the basis of a portfolio.

Discovering: We can accommodate a wide variety of users, with different levels of skill in terms of reading, language, and different levels of experience with computing. It is easy to approach, yet it doesn't put an upper bound on personal expression. One should always be able to peel away layers and go deeper and deeper, with no restrictions. This allows the direct appropriation of ideas in whatever realm the learner is exploring: music, browsing, reading, writing, programming, or graphics. The student can always go further.

These are the core ideas behind Sugar. By embodying these ideas directly into the affordances provided by the user interface, we can skew the odds that teachers and learners will engage in more than the accumulation and transfer of information.

In Sugar, have in hand the tools to reinvent how computers are used for education. Collaboration, reflection, and discovery are readily integrated directly into the learning experience. Children and teachers have the opportunity to use computers on their own terms, reshape, reinvent, and reapply both software and content into powerful learning activities. Learning can be focused on sharing, criticism, and exploration. We have a lot of work ahead of us to refine these tools and to refine the practice around them, but we have a solid beginning.

We can raise a generation of critical thinkers, armed with the complementary tools of science and the arts. (Relatively speaking, it is a trivial investment—probably less than the cost of a single “bridge to nowhere”. All of the necessary tools are freely available under free software licenses. But we do need to invest in engaging teachers, parents, and children in learning learning.) So let's make it happen.

Sugar Labs

Gary Martin has generated another SOM from the past week of discussion on the IAEP mailing list (Please see SOM).