Ragged Clown

It's just a shadow you're seeing that he's chasing…


For whom?

I just read Alan Kay’s Early History of Smalltalk. It was timely for me because Brian Marick’s mention of the New Math put me in auto-rant mode on how schools optimize for students who are unlikely to excel in the subjects they are being taught.

One of the themes of Alan Kay’s sparkling career has been to try to make computers accessible to children as a learning tool and his history is full of little anecdotes about how he would teach Smalltalk to twelve year-olds and they would spontaneously invent stuff.

What was so wonderful about this idea were the myriad of children’s projects that could spring off the humble boxes. And some of the earliest were tools! This was when we got really excited. For example, Marion Goldeen’s (12 yrs old) painting system was a full-fledged tool. A few years later, so was Susan Hamet’s (12 yrs old) OOP illustration system (with a design that was like the MacDraw to come). Two more were Bruce Horn’s (15 yrs old) music score capture system and Steve Ptz’s (15 yrs old) circuit design system. Looking back, this could be called another example in computer science of the “early success syndrome.”

I get the impression though that Kay thought of this as a failure as he was looking to revolutionize education as a whole rather than train the next generation of super-geniuses (like himself).

The successes were real, but they weren’t as general as we thought. They wouldn’t extend into the future as strongly as we hoped. The children were chosen from the Palo Alto schools (hardly an average background) and we tended to be much more excited about the successes than the difficulties. In part, that we were seeing was the “hack phenomenon,” that, for any given pursuit, a particular 5% of the population will jump into it naturally, while the 80% or so who can learn it in time do not find it at all natural.

I wonder how he feels now when he looks back?

Alan Kay, along with his team at Xerox Parc, invented a huge chunk of the technology that has made modern computing successful.  But computers have still not had much impact on the way kids are taught. When they are not used as glorified textbooks, they are used to teach PowerPoint skills and word-processing.

I wonder if he would have had more success if he had optimized for the kids who are excited about computers? The sweet spot for his glorious Squeak seems to me to be kids who find joy in creating and exploring. I wonder what would have happened if he had stuck with that 5% who jumped in naturally instead of trying to satisfy a broader audience? (If someone runs into him, can you ask him for me?)

The rest of Kay’s paper is well worth a read. It’s inspirational despite its underlying theme of if only they had listened to us. He was telling his bosses at Xerox in 1971 that

In the 1990’s there will be millions of personal computers. They will be the size of notebooks of today, have high-resolution flat-screen reflective display.s, weigh less than ten pounds, have ten to twenty times the computing and storage capacity of an Alto. Let’s call them Dynabooks.

The purchase price will be about that of a color television set of the era, although most of the machines will be given away by manufacturers who will be marketing the content rather than the container of personal computing.

He talks a lot about education and about constructionist ideas and about how schools didn’t teach real world skills.

The general topic was education and it was the first time I heard Marvin Minsky speak. He put forth a terrific diatribe against traditional education methods, and from him I heard the ideas of Piaget and Papert for the first time. Marvin’s talk was about how we think about complex situations and why schools are really bad places to learn these skills. He didn’t have to make any claims about computer+kids to make his point. It was clear that education and learning had to be rethought in the light of 20th century cognitive psychology and how good thinkers really think.

He ends on a sad note

When it was hard to do anything whether good or bad, enough time was taken so that the result was usually good. Now we can make things almost trivially, especially in software, but most of the designs are trivial as well. This is inverse vandalism: the making of things because you can. Couple this to even less sophisticated buyers and you have generated an exploitation marketplace similar to that set up for teenagers. A counter to this is to generate enormous disatisfaction with one’s designs using the entire history of human art as a standard and goal. Then the trick is to decouple the disatisfaction from self worth–otherwise it is either too depressing or one stops too soon with trivial results.

Not sure whether he is advocating that we compare our efforts with the entire history of human art and become inevitably dissatisfied or to go ahead and compare and be happy anyway.

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4 responses to For whom?

Tom Kirkley April 25, 2008

I went to Jr. High and High School with Bruce Horn. I think he was one year older than me. I remember Bruce showing me his modcomp simulator (~1973?) that inspired me to write my first language simulator (on an HP2000 in BASIC?!).

I started going up to PARC and programming in SmallTalk around 1975(?). I wrote a Space War game with little flying ships that could turn, accelerate and fire torpedoes. All the ships and torpedoes were SmallTalk objects. The objects could bounce off the sides of the screen or wrap around to the other side. The torpedoes would blow up when they were close to some other object. I think there was gravity. This was one of my favorite projects.

I will be forever thankful to Dan Ingalls who brought me up to PARC, let me use an ALTO computer, and tutored me in SmallTalk. These were events that helped shape who I am today.

–Tom Kirkley

Alan Kay April 25, 2008

It’s worth thinking about why public schooling was set up. The main aim was to help grow citizens who could be in the same “high conversation” needed for a representative democracy. This is why teaching everyone to read in the 19th century was a central goal, even though more than 97% of the population was involved in farming. Similarly, the reason to teach the entire population math and science today is not primarily vocational, but to try to have enough citizens who can think in modern terms about modern issues. If we are trying to make great machinists, pianists, or basketball players (etc.) then we want to concentrate on developing talent and skills in the very best students. If we want to develop great citizens in a democracy then we have to get the less talented and skilled over the necessary thresholds. These very different goals are not at all incompatible, but our education system is very poor at dealing with either, and especially with both.

As far as computing is concerned, it would help a lot if people in our field even had enough perspective to be deeply dissatisfied, and enough energy and talent to make things much better.

Jeffrey Fredrick April 25, 2008

Don’t know if AK will read the comments, and I haven’t Read The Fine Article linked to yet, but I think it is a mistake to focus on the skills that are being taught (reading, math, science, music, etc). My biggest concern w/standard education is how the skills are taught — there’s too much emphasis on teaching vs. assisting kids in learning. Too much of a checklist approach rather than trying to tap into passion. Not that all kids shouldn’t be exposed to all subjects, but I agree with Kevin that the presentation of the subject should be optimized for the kids who love it. (And taught by people who love it!)

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