Computers, children, and learning: one complete iteration. Walter Koetke.
The perspective used in many of the drawings of M.C. Escher is convoluted and iterative. As your eyes travel up the stairs, around the corner, again up the stairs, again around the corner, and yet again up the stairs, again around the corner, and yet again up the stairs you find yourself once again at your starting point at the bottom of the stairs. After repeating this process a few times, the curious are compelled to discover how Escher drew the impossible and to ask what was he telling us. Escher's perspective is iterative, a surface contradiction of terms that I believe reflects an insightful understanding of history and the nature of man.
Much of history is both cyclical and iterative. No man has ever gone to war without "god" on his side, and no war has ever ended without sincere pledges of eternal peace on both sides. The rises and eventual falls of our world's great civilizations share a host of common characteristics. Even the pendulum of politics in the United States is predictable as it swings from conservative to liberal to conservative and so forth.
Most of learning is both cyclical and iterative. There are almost no significant topics that can be put on a checklist and completed in a given grade or semester. Hopefully, one studies mathematics and writing for at least 12 years. Each year is built upon the skills learned in previous years. Each year, previously learned skills are reinforced and new ones learned. Those fortunate enough to have been guided by skilled teachers are prepared to continue this iterative learning process throughout their lives as the same process applies not just to other academic subjects but to interactions with other people, job skills, and even personal care. The Importance of History
The importance of history is not new. George Santayana summarized accurately when he said that those who ignore the lessons of history are compelled to relive them. The tenth anniversary of Creative Computing corresponds rather closely with the twentieth anniversary of children being able to use computers in their schools. For those fortunate enough to have worked with children and computers for those 20 years, history has already provided many lessons. There are many who feel they were born too soon to fully experience the impact of computers.
Although we have only begun to fantasize the full impact of technology, the past 20 years have clearly been the exploratory probe of the use of computers in school and home, and I feel very fortunate to have been a part of this stimulating period. Watching the excitement of a handful of teachers and the enthusiasm of a few hundred students grow to today's widespread use of the microcomputer as an individual, intellectual tool of so many minds is very satisfying. Let's look at computers, children, and education in the light of this 20-year history.
I would like to highlight some of those areas in which one iteration of historical perspective might be helpful. For example, there continue to be those who claim children should not use computers in school until their effectiveness is proven. A classroom where learning occurs is a series of constant interactions between teacher and students and among students themselves. If one avoided any interaction whose effectiveness was not proven, nearly all learning would be paralyzed. Learning occurs when teachers guide, prod, and stimulate, not when they steer, force, and regurgitate.
Certainly there is much research to be done regarding the application of computers to the learning process, but there is nothing to be gained and minds to be lost by using that as an excuse for doing nothing today.
Another argument that often brings paralysis is that of which programming language students should be learning. Ten years ago the academic debate was over Basic, Cobol or APL. Today we listen to debate regarding Basic, Pascal, or Logo, and I suggest that five years from now we will be subjected to debates regarding Basic, C, or Logo II.
Academic debates are fine; society has always had them and hopefully always will. But don't let their inconclusive nature prevent action. Teaching children any one of today's debated languages is far more important than which language is chosen.
With the advantage of a 20-year perspective, I continue to believe that we should be teaching children to program. Arguments against doing this are primarily analogies: I can drive a car without knowing how to repair the engine; I can use a microwave oven without the slightest idea of how the food is really heated; and so forth. These arguments sound pretty good until you realize that the analogies just don't apply. Automobiles, microwave ovens, and all the other devices commonly noted are not interactive, intellectual tools.
The computer is just a machine, but it is a machine that can extend our intellect. There is no doubt that most people will use software written by others in most instances when they use the computer, but that does not eliminate the importance of learning to program. The computer is often called a wonderful "What if?" machine as we can use it to explore so many different questions. Most of these questions are explored by those who can write programs. Back to the Bottom of the Staircase
Watching schools begin to explore the virtues of networking microcomputers within one or two rooms is like returning to the bottom of an Escher staircase. The first time sharing systems placed in schools 20 years ago were plagued with difficulties that took years to resolve.
Today, a full scale, time shared minicomputer has many applications in the learning process. A networked microcomputer system has very few as it now faces nearly the same difficulties that surrounded the first few years of time sharing in the schools. In the majority of cases, the schools are spending time and money on microcomputer networks to obtain most of the disadvantages and almost none of the advantages of time-sharing systems.
I also suggest that microcomputers are highly successful because they are individual tools. As soon as the microcomputer becomes an appendage of a larger system, an important part of that individualness is lost.
Given that most educators have long accepted the importance of iterative learning, many seem unable to apply that knowledge to the application of computers in the schools. The debate as to whether Computer Science and/or Computer Literacy should be a distinct one- or two-semester course or should be woven throughout the existing curriculum and taught when appropriate seems to ignore such acceptance. We are dealing with one of the most important concepts and tools developed by man, yet some continue to hope they can check it off as they do a driver education or a typing class. The Not One Challenge
When speaking of history in Creative Computing's anniversary issue, I am compelled to pass along the results of what has become my favorite problem of those I contributed to those early issues. In the first issue I wrote of a game called Not One taught to me by a five-year-old. This is an easy two-player game requiring only a pair of dice and a few simple rules.
Players take turns, and each player gets ten turns in one game. The points you score on each turn are added, and the one who scores the most points wins. On each turn your first roll of the dice is very important. You may roll the dice as often as you like on each turn, stop rolling whenever you choose, and your score for the turn is the accumulated sum of the dice rolled on that turn.
The catch is that if during the course of rolling the dice you obtain the same total as you did on the first roll of that turn, your turn is over, and your score for that turn is zero. Readers were challenged to determine the best strategy for playing the game and to write a program that would permit a user to play against the computer.
The result of the Not One challenge is one of my most treasured files. A very large number of readers submitted their strategies and programs. Some never won the game, and some played very well. The response file I retained, however, was very selective. The file contains only responses in which the writer included a convincing "proof" that his strategy was the best possible and which was submitted by someone whose academic credentials included the Dr. prefix.
The file is nearly 1-1/2" thick and contains some terribly convincing arguments. Delightfully, there are not identical strategies in the entire file. In fact, they are all quite different. I have yet to see a definitive solution to this innocent sounding problem. If you think you have the best strategy, I'd love to see it.
Try writing the program to play the game. The different mathematical ideas you will encounter as you explore this simple game on the computer are very rich. This problem has been addressed by inquisitive minds of all ages during the past ten years, and I suggest that the learning that resulted would not have happened if the computer were unavailable. Perhaps I should add that no one will ever see my file of responses. The purpose of the Not One challenge was and is to stimulate learning, not to embarrass the learner for an incorrect answer from which a great deal was learned. Whither Public Education
As an un-swerving supporter of public education, I am very concerned about its diminishing chances for survival. Recent history has demonstrated that free enterprise in the private sector can and will effectively replace a public service when that service is no longer perceived as effective or appropriate. The rapid growth of private mail and communication systems in this country is evidence enough. Without drastic reform that brings the curriculum of our schools into the age of technology, I regretfully suggest that our venerable institution will not survive in anything like its present form.
In mathematics, for example, there are almost no skills taught from grade one through the first year of calculus that can not be performed on a microcomputer using $200 worth of software. If your reaction is that there are many important skills that should be taught because they should be understood by every educated citizen, you are absolutely right. But those are not the skills being taught in today's mathematics curriculum. Similar though less dramatic examples can be made in virtually every curriculum area in public education.
My concern for public education is not ill founded. Virtually every publisher of educational software developed for schools is also marketing that software to the home with a good deal of success. The truth of the statement that technology will change who teaches, what is taught, and where teaching takes place is becoming more evident each day.
There is still time for our schools to take the lead in the use of technology as it applies to learning. In my own version of Utopia, a parent who wants to know what software will help his child learn a specific concept or skill will call the school for advice, not the local computer store as is now the case.
Although predicting the future is an inaccurate business, my experience suggests that schools have only two or three years left in which they will be able to again grasp the reins of educational leadership, and that can only be done by making rapid changes in an institution traditionally slow to respond. Education in Technology
The need to provide a sound education in technology to all citizens is very evident. Intelligent understanding and application of technology can be as important to a country's economy as the production of technology. The United States lost its prominence as the leading producer of fine steel because Japan understood and applied better technology developed elsewhere as it built newer steel mills. Japan now sees that its prominence will be replaced by the even newer, technologically superior steel mills being built in South Korea and India. Japan's sudden prominence and equally sudden anticipated replacement are typical of changes that will be produced by those who understand and can apply technology.
I also suggest that a sound education in technology is important so that as members of a free society we can vote intelligently on matters related to technology. We are already faced with important technological decisions, and there are some unusual choices being made at present. The only justification for many of the choices seems to be lack of information.
For example, near the end of 1985 and during early 1986 the path of Halley's comet will come as close as it ever gets to earth, a position that occurs only once every 76 years. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to meet the comet with a space probe and possibly gain great insights into its nature and the nature of where it has been.
The United States will not launch such a probe on the grounds that it costs too much. However, France, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the European Space Alliance have all managed to find money to fund such exploration as an investment in their futures. On the other hand, the United States appears likely to invest one billion dollars in the development of a new destroyer for the Navy. In an age in which technology has reduced the Navy to two kinds of ships, submarines and targets, we are going to build the first billion dollar target. These do not appear to be decisions based on an understanding of technology and its application.
The Soviet Union and perhaps other nations are reported to be exploring the feasibility of building a large satellite that includes a set of controllable mirrors that would reflect sunlight to earth. The reflected light would be used to light major cities at night and thus effect huge reductions in energy consumption. The reflected light would also be used to provide extended daylight in crop producing areas and hence increase productivity and feed many more people. A terrific idea.
Would you vote for it? Have you considered the impact of the additional light on the average temperature on the earth? How many degrees must the average temperature increase before the polar caps melt and drastically change the world's geography? Probably a lot fewer than you would guess. Living in a society so steeped in technology requires that every citizen understand the basics of technology so that he can make informed decisions regarding its application.
although technology is evolving at a staggering rate, history has provided lessons that we should heed. Although the use of computers in the learning process is just beginning, there are 20 years of lessons that can save time, money, and frustration. We must continue to take two steps forward, but always look at least one step backward to see what might be learned. And whatever you do, don't wait. Whether you are motivating yourself or leading a class of eager young learners, I would like you to keep an image in your mind.
I first saw the image in a very early issue of Creative Computing. The young boy sitting in front of a microcomputer. The caption beneath the image simply says "What if?"
Named Works: Creative Computing (Periodical) - History