Powerful ideas and powerful tools for education

Tuesday 15 June 2010 at 22:42

Computational thinking and computational doing are powerful tools for teaching powerful ideas.

In Makers vs. Sponges Elizabeth Corcoran comments via O'Reilly Radar:

I keep wondering why we lump all "technology" into the same basket. By doing so, we ignore the most important distinction of all: whether we are sponges for absorbing other people's ideas, or whether we're making our own.

Some of the comments on that article turned into a small discussion about tools vs. content. I composed this first in reply to that discussion, but wanted to expand on the idea here.

The article Gary S. Stager wrote: A new paradigm for evaluating the learning potential of an ed tech activity emphasizes a need for education to introduce "powerful ideas". I'd like to expand on that thought with a few concrete examples.

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, long division was the subject of doctoral dissertations. Today long division is taught in elementary school.

What changed between those eras was the introduction of hindu-arabic numerals. Long division in roman numerals is profoundly difficult. The new technology of digits, and especially the humble number zero, completely changed long division into the relatively simple algorithm that we all learned in grade school.

The technological revolution that I want to see in education would make physics and calculus and linear algebra accessible to elementary aged kids, among other advanced subjects. But current student assessments are measuring for things like long division -- more advanced subjects would be missed completely. And schools of education are not preparing future teachers to teach more advanced material.

When I talk about teaching physics in elementary school many people look at me like I'm insane, or that I have no concept of "age appropriate". But the future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed.

In 1967 Seymore Papert was introducing elementary aged kids to LOGO. The turtle graphics in logo are differential geometry -- very advanced mathematics made completely accessible to young children. Some of Alan Kay's recent work includes fifth-graders recreating Galileo's experiments and then building computer models of gravity to compare with their experimental data. That's physics -- newtonian mechanics to be specific -- made accessible to grade schoolers.

Forty-three (seriously? 43?!) years later we don't see even LOGO among educational standards. I don't think there are enough adults who understand what a huge leap it is to teach differential geometry to kids through turtle graphics. In the late 1970s Apple II computers poured into many schools and LOGO became widely available in education. But those thirty plus years ago a bunch of adults saw some pretty pictures, shrugged, and ignored it as child's play instead of recognizing it for the little revolution it really could be. What else could we be teaching with these tools? If we could start elementary kids with an elementary understanding of newtonian mechanics, what could we be teaching them by the time they got to high school?

I really like Gary's comments about powerful ideas and can't agree forcefully enough that computational thinking and computational doing are powerful tools for teaching powerful ideas. It is about the tools, but not only about the tools. Like the humble number zero, computing can completely transform the nature of the material we would like to teach our children.

Other posts about powerful technology and powerful ideas:
Alan Kay and computational thinking
Logo, Fractals, and Recursion; Programming, and Removing Repetition