[IAEP] Apple Eases Restrictions On iPhone Developers

Alan Kay alan.nemo at yahoo.com
Sun Jun 13 09:30:45 EDT 2010

Hi Stephen

1. Let me try to answer the second question first -- since it is really central, and it is also the first of "the important questions". Here are a few more:

-- Should various levels of a child's society be able to choose some of what a child should learn? If so, what and why?

-- What kinds of learning are we going to try to help the child accomplish? (Cased-based recognition of situations, and actions to take? Deep understanding and fluency that resembles practitioners in a subject area? Etc.)

-- What is the spectrum (or the dimensions) of children's abilities to learn a wide variety of subjects (e.g. from sports to physics)?

-- What is the similar spectrum (or dimensions) of internal and external motivations for putting effort into learning various subjects?

-- How can we ascertain what kinds of help are needed by the different kinds of children?

-- What are the tradeoffs and pathways of teaching children how to learn vs. teaching subject matter?

-- What are the best kinds of situations/environmens/processes to help children learn difficult to learn ideas?

-- And so forth. There are lots more. A really important one that is germane to this discussion is:

-- Is "this curriculum" worth trying to improve, study or measure?

My own thinking about these questions has been shaped by five main forces (a) my own experiences with learning vs being in school (b) contact with the ideas of Montessori, Froebel, Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner, Papert, Postman, Friere, etc. (c) the deep ideas of the human life sciences, especially including Cognitive Psychology (of the Bruner variety), Neuroethology and Anthropology, (d) "lots" of reading in lots of areas, and (e) 40+ years of trying to design, implement and test situations that might help deep learning of powerful ideas.

For example, Anthropology started by looking at human differences, and then found that the differences were situated in universally found "parameters" or "traits". There were 3000+ different languages, but every culture studied had a language. Different stories, but every culture had stories. Etc. About 300 of these have been identified by now. A large number of them (including the ones above) are strongly believed to be genetic (and some of these have been studied extensively in young children by neuroethologists like Bower)

Along the way, it became very clear that there were some ideas/processes that were not found in every culture, some quite rare, and some of these are quite powerful -- such as reading and writing, deductive abstract mathematics, empirical model based science, the idea of equal rights, attempts at democracy, etc. -- These are deemed to be inventions/discoveries. Seymour Papert came up with the nice term "powerful ideas". They are much less strongly built into our genes. Partly because of this, they seem more difficult to learn, and much of the invention of formal schooling came about to teach these harder to learn ideas.

One way of thinking about the larger question of learning ideas for which we don't have strong built in mental mechanisms, is to ask the question: to what extent can we shape our abilities to deal with symbolic models and to learn skills to make "symbolic brainlets" which can carry the ideas fluently? 

For example, mitochondrial DNA indicates that our species had been on the planet for 190,000+ years before the calculus was invented/discovered. So it wasn't easy, obvious, or built in. Once learned deeply and with skill, rather ordinary people can think thoughts that could not be thought by the greatest geniuses of history. It's a powerful idea. My saying for this is "Point of view is worth 80 "IQ" points". (Sometimes "perspective" is a better term than "point of view".)

"Ethics" has to do with theories of "right decisions and actions", and it is not known how to get a theory of ethical behavior via scientific study of the universe. It's more like mathematics, in that one has to make some "postulates" and then try to use logic to derive an ethical system. One of my postulates is that our human abilities to think are deeply flawed -- at best what Korzybski termed "unsanity" -- and that we should put an enormous amount of effort into finding ways to get around this. This is what science is really about -- it is a set of successful heuristics for getting around *some* of what is poor about our approaches to learning about our world and ourselves.

So in an ethical system I would try to derive for my society, I would want to have a maximum effort to help children get fluent with many of the invented "powerful ideas" particularly those which help us see some important aspects of the world and our behavior more clearly. (Not everyone agrees with this of course -- there would be enormous interferences with long held beliefs, fond stories, etc.).

In any case, as Neil Postman has pointed out about both technology and education, it's really important to get clear just what issues you are trying to address, what problems you are trying to solve by making advances in either. An excellent recent book (much better than his essay) is "A Mathematician's Lament" by Paul Lockart. I agree very strongly with much of what he has to say, not just with regard to mathematics, but most school subjects, and the "educators" who propagate this mind and personality destroying poison. (I'm not referring to all educators, but to many.)

2. Now as to your first question. Let me ask if it is really incumbent on me to supply a reading list about one of the most important and influential set of technological inventions of all time? Why wouldn't people be curious enough (and use one of these technological inventions -- the Internet --this is why we invented it!) to find out what happened, by whom, how and why?

When I was traveling around to give invited talks at many universities in 2004, I started to ask the audience if they had ever heard of Doug Engelbart. "Didn't he invent the mouse, or was it you?" I then got to ask them whether they had taken the trouble to simply type "E n g e l b a r t" into Google and look at the first few hits. On the first page is a bio, his website where his ~75 highly influential papers can be found, and links to the cataclysmic "mother of all demos" in 1968.

At every university, none of them had enough curiosity and motivation to do this. And none of them knew some of the deep philosophical background behind the technological inventions.

Or, to get closer to home. Has anyone taken the trouble to find out what Nicholas Negroponte has fostered over the last 40+ years? (Hint, two of the best books ever written about computing's destiny were written by Nicholas, and they were early.) Or what Walter Bender has done, especially when working with Nicholas? Or what Seymour Papert thought? Or Jerome Bruner (especially as the designer of MACOS -- by far the best from scratch deep curriculum for 5th and 6th graders ever designed and deployed)?

Very best wishes,


From: Steve Thomas <stevesargon at gmail.com>
To: Alan Kay <alan.nemo at yahoo.com>
Cc: Caryl Bigenho <cbigenho at hotmail.com>; Bert Freudenberg <bert at freudenbergs.de>; IAEP SugarLabs <iaep at lists.sugarlabs.org>
Sent: Sat, June 12, 2010 10:03:13 PM
Subject: Re: [IAEP] Apple Eases Restrictions On iPhone Developers

On Sun, Jun 13, 2010 at 12:18 AM, Alan Kay <alan.nemo at yahoo.com> wrote:

2. Have you put in the effort to learn about the psychological, anthropological, neurological and educational sources that were drawn on to invent both personal computing and the "powerful ideas" curricula which have been done and carefully tested over the years? (Hint, most of this information has been published and is readily available ...)

Do you have a suggested reading list?
The deeper scientific questions in soft areas like educational theory and curriculum design have to be concerned first asking important questions, and second with whether all the relevant cases have been identified and considered and factored into the actual designs and experimental methodology. (And I'm a big fan of being really careful and getting real criticism from real peers too)

What are the important questions?


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