Wednesday, May 27, 2009

amusing ourselves to death cartoon

This serious cartoon is a well rendered depiction of some aspects of the final chapter of Neil Postman's book Amusing Ourselves to Death - Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

Although nothing beats reading the whole book, the final sentence of Postman's book is a fine summary:
For in the end, he was trying to tell us that what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking
Some more extensive earlier discussion notes about the question of whether technology is making us dumber or smarter: our intelligence

Monday, May 25, 2009


These things have happened in the course of my classroom teaching for the first time recently
  • Two students brought their own laptops to school which ran a linux OS (Year 11)
  • I asked a technical question in class ("What does GIF stand for?"). Within seconds a student has retrieved the answer from wikipedia (Year 9)
  • I ask students to update their internet money so we can use the internet next lesson. Next lesson a student brings her iphone and mac laptop to class. She has setup her phone as a modem which blue tooth's to her laptop. She explains that she is not going to waste her money on the heavily filtered school internet (Year 11)
  • A student asks me if we can do a particular science experiment as part of the electricity / magnetism topic. I haven't heard of this experiment before and ask him where he has heard of it. He replied, "Youtube" (Year 9). Actually I think I have just found the video that he was talking about:

Saturday, May 23, 2009

how do you sleep, Peter Garrett, when your bed is burning?

In the words of Peter Garrett, entertainer:
The time has come
To say fairs fair
To pay the rent
To pay our share

The time has come
A facts a fact
It belongs to them
Lets give it back

But now we have Peter Garrett, Federal Labour Minister for Environment, Heritage and the Arts, who won't take a stand for aboriginal rights. And we have Anna Bligh, Labour Premier of Queensland who did a deal with the urban Greenies of the Wilderness Society about the misnamed "wild rivers" to lock out aboriginal people from their own land.

These days, it is far easier to put the straightforward words of Noel Pearson to song than the gobbledygook of former fabulous entertainer turned Labour politician, Peter Garrett.

Noel Pearson:
"As for Peter Garrett's acquiescence to this, Peter Garrett hasn't been up here in two years"

"He has not had one conversation with the organisations or representatives up here. I've not as much as shaken hands with him, and yet 15 years prior to that you couldn't stop the bugger wanting to meet you.

"He would be up here saying he was a great friend of Aboriginal people and so on at the drop of a hat, and in two years of being a minister he has never darkened our doorway.

"And the commitment that I make to him is that he will join the long list of failed environment ministers who have grand schemes about trying to stuff Aboriginal people over who will never succeed."
- World Heritage Listing Plan Fires Anger on Cape York
Some background articles about the "wild rivers" Labour Party sellout:

Indigenous-Green Alliance Cracks
Mr Pearson says any number of environmentalists are "running around in koala suits" trying to save Cape York (about the changing relationship between aboriginal and environmental groups over time, not only in Cape York)

Pearson to sue on wild rivers threat to jobs
ABORIGINAL leader Noel Pearson will launch legal action against the Queensland Government over its declaration of three waterways in Cape York as "wild rivers", claiming the protected status would ruin the future of a generation

Why they're wild about wild rivers
27 issues listed re wild rivers dispute in Queensland: #16. Indigenous people regard the use of the term “wild” as insulting; it infers that the land is uninhabited and “terra nullius”. The Government has treated indigenous people as if the land is “terra nullius”

Bligh's callous land grab
It is a white-settler tradition in Queensland to expropriate Aboriginal land and marginalise Aboriginal people ... If Bligh persists, then all the good work by Pearson and many others to enable Aboriginal people to participate in the economy and improve their education and health will fail. There are lives at stake in this equation. If Cape York traditional owners blockade the cape, as Michael Ross, Olkolo leader and chairman of the Cape York Land Council, has suggested, the trust and partnership painstakingly built up over the past 20 years will vanish. If Bligh thinks this is acceptable, she too has been severely misled by the so-called greens and the party apparatchiks who would sacrifice all this for their deal.

Noel Pearson quits institute to fight wild rivers battle
ABORIGINAL leader Noel Pearson has resigned as director of the Cape York Institute - a think tank that has led the national debate on welfare reform and provided educational programs for young people - to focus on a land rights battle with the Queensland Government

update (24th May): En passant has done a more comprehensive dissection of Oily lyrics

Thursday, May 21, 2009

maths weeps

Imagine a situation where maths classes are streamed or set for ability and maths is compulsory until year 11

Students who are not good at maths and have little interest and sometimes active dislike for maths are concentrated together into classes where these negative attitudes reinforce each other

Imagine what it is like for a teacher trying to teach maths to these students who are mainly interested in pursuing social conversation

If the teacher insists they do maths then he might get comments like, "Why are you so serious?" or "Chill out". If the teacher persists then the students at that table might do a little maths while the teacher stands over them but other students in the class will break into social conversation. This sort of transaction is repeated over and over.

Imagine if parents or politicians were aware of this situation happening throughout the country in hundreds or thousands of classrooms. I wonder what they would think or say or do.

PS. the late Garth Boomer did some in depth studies of language skills comparing year six and year tens about 20 years ago and found that in many cases the year sixes demonstrated better skills than the year tens - subsequently he gave his famous "slash my wrists" speech to Principals which was then leaked to the press and became front page news


Inkscape is a very good Open Source vector graphics editor

I've been using it with my year 10s recently. I wanted to give them a solid rationale for learning inkscape so here is what I said:
  • Inkscape is a free, open source SVG graphics editor
  • Scalable - ability to scale without pixelation
  • Small file size compared with bitmaps
  • Cool animations are possible (although not with inkscape, )
  • potential for use on mobile phones
A huge bonus for teachers is that the resources are excellent as well. I learnt inkscape myself through the tutorials that go with it: Help > Tutorials.

For my more advanced students I've downloaded some videos from the screencasters site going back to the start of the archive there

Here are some screenshots of student work after just a few days of using the program:
Last year I did some SVG using XML. I'll probably do some more of this again later this year so as to be able to demonstrate the animations with SMIL, Synchronised Multimedia Integration Language

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

computers as transformational media

I remember this quote or part of it from years ago but then lost it. Eugene Wallingford quotes it in a recent blog entry, Computer as Medium, and his comments about it are worth reading too.

I've been looking for a clear expression of this idea for my netbooks in schools presentation. Because of the way computers are often used in schools (as instrumental tools to support a paper and ink derived curriculum) their potential revolutionary or transformational significance is often lost sight of. The virtue of this quote is that it clearly and concisely compares the difference between the computer medium and other media.
"Devices" which variously store, retrieve, or manipulate information in the form of messages embedded in a medium have been in existence for thousands of years. People use them to communicate ideas and feelings both to others and back to themselves. Although thinking goes on in one's head, external media serve to materialize thoughts and, through feedback, to augment the actual paths the thinking follows. Methods discovered in one medium provide metaphors which contribute new ways to think about notions in other media.

For most of recorded history, the interactions of humans with their media have been primarily nonconversational and passive in the sense that marks on paper, paint on walls, even "motion" pictures and television, do not change in response to the viewer's wishes. A mathematical formulation -- which may symbolize the essence of an entire universe -- once put down on paper, remains static and requires the reader to expand its possibilities.

Every message is, in one sense or another, a simulation of some idea. It may be representational or abstract. The essence of a medium is very much dependent on the way messages are embedded, changed, and viewed. Although digital computers were originally designed to do arithmetic computation, the ability to simulate the details of any descriptive model means that the computer, viewed as a medium itself, can be all other media if the embedding and viewing methods are sufficiently well provided. Moreover, this new "metamedium" is active -- it can respond to queries and experiments -- so that the messages may involve the learner in a two-way conversation. This property has never been available before except through the medium of an individual teacher. We think the implications are vast and compelling.
Update (6th June 2009): There is a copy of the Kay / Goldberg paper, Personal Dynamic Media here

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Tim Geithner interview

In his own words under Geithner the best we can hope for is a long, slow recovery with high unemployment well into the future

One key question is whether the Banks are really solvent. This will eventually emerge but I don't have any faith in the stress tests, they have the appearance of being carefully orchestrated. It would be worth while to research further the contradiction between the IMF and Fed figures that Judy Woodruff referred to and which Geithner argued against.

Tim Geithner interviewed by Judy Woodruff
streaming video (or download the audio)

He starts off apologetic about half a million new unemployed last month, that long term unemployment is growing, 5.7 million americans have lost jobs since the recession began including 2.7 million in the past four months

Even as growth recovers unemployment will keep rising for a while

Evades question about GM sending jobs overseas

Q. ... the recovery may take several years?
A recession that occurs because people have borrowed too much requires a slow, long recovery ... takes a long time for people to reduce debt and save more

Acknowledges that many people who planned to retire won't be able to because their benefits have been devalued

The Banks stress tests were a very exacting and tough set of standards (repeated several times during the interview)

Stress tests bring an unprecedented level of transparency to bank balance sheets, which helps create confidence in the future

Q. IMF worst case scenarios are worse than the US governments worst case scenarios?

Geithner responds to that, says eventually that the Fed numbers are close to IMF estimates

We did the stress tests so that people would have more confidence in the system!! (I interpret this an unintentional candor, that the result of the stress tests were carefully orchestrated including negotiations with banks for two weeks before they were released)

Q. Why not nationalise the Banks or let some of them fail?
The banks are solvent, there is not a tenable case for nationalisation. Nationalisation would end up more expensive and riskier (his tone of voice becomes more assertive and less apologetic here, conveys the feeling that nationalisation is a ridiculous option)

He rejects criticism that he is too close to Wall Street, he would never do anything that would benefit some piece of the financial system and harm the people, seems hurt that anyone might suggest that

ps. I am involved in a long discussion about the economic situation on this comment thread at the Strange Times site.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

what lies behind spatial ability and computer ability?

Great comment from alan kay about spatial learning in response to mark guzdial's geek gene post:
Several things to think and read about here. First, Hadamard's "Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field" (amazon books link) is one of several non-optional prerequisites for any discussion of these ideas. (These and other careful studies from the past can cut out a lot of mere opinions if people would just read them -- "mere opinions" are the fatal disease of the web ...).

Second, it's worth trying to be a little more subtle in thinking about this issue. For example, is it "spatial ability" that is the actual correlate or is it what *lies behind* "spatial ability" *and* "computer ability". Quite a few of the best minds of the past (including Hadamard, Jerry Bruner, etc.) would say that "a feeling for cause and effect" and "an increased ability to use abstractions for ideas" actually come out of what can be learned first via manual manipulation and visual and other figurative modes of thought. Many of the tests for "spatial ability" are actually as much about "fitting together" as they are relative locations of things.

The notion of "variation" seems non-democratic and even politically incorrect to some, but nature doesn't care about our opinions on anything (this is why it is psychologically difficult to be a scientist). Significant variation exists, even for the most common human traits (like learning language). It would be astoundingly unusual if every child had the same propensities for learning computing. And at a deeper level, it would be astounding if every child had the same propensities for grokking cause and effect relationships and chains of reasoning.

I think a better ploy for general education is to embrace variation by having different strategies for different propensities. For subject x, it's a lucky child who has a lot of pre-wiring for it. But there's no shame for those who don't, to do enough extra skill learning to artificially build scaffolding that wasn't there. I think pedagogy is largely about how to help those who aren't blessed with supreme talents. (And for "great unusual inventions" -- like modern science, math, equal rights, etc. -- almost no humans have a lot of built-in skills (this is why it took thousands of years for them to be invented in the first place!)).

Every musician knows what I'm talking about (because music requires lots of different abilities and it is an extremely rare bird who is pre-wired for all of them -- instead when musicians talk with each other, they will exchange stories of what they had to work at and what came more naturally -- and the areas mentioned as being easy and hard are different for each musician -- but in the end they can all play with each other and create beauty together -- this is not just a metaphor, but a real analogy).

This is generally true for any highly developed field, whether in sports, the arts, or the mathematical sciences. And trying to do a good job with what this really means for pedagogy and curriculum, is certainly one of the most important yet most neglected processes in education.

(1) The Hadamard book (google books link) was first published in 1945. Minsky mentions it in The Emotion Machine p. 240 stating that other authors have proposed similar models of thinking (Poincare, Koestler, Miller and Newell and Simon)

(2) Bruner: "doing with images makes symbols" provides a hint as to how to develop an honest children's version of powerful ideas. For instance, etoys (visual programming) is software developed around this concept. Children manipulate icons in a rich virtual environment, one idea is that this might lead to better symbolic or abstract understanding of how the simulations work.

How do we know what a "powerful idea" is apart from subjective assertion? For some ideas about this see non universals

Monday, May 04, 2009

Digital infancy

Mark Guzdial's blog: Does "There's an App for That" Hurt or Help Computing Education?

Apple's shallow consumerist thinking: "There's an app for that"

A deeper position: "There is or ought to be an argument going on about that" (but still mainly confined to oral or textual form)

Regret that the future has stalled: "There is a more powerful medium available now to express and argue with but we haven't learnt how to use it properly yet"

Read the whole comment thread of the above blog
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
— George Bernard Shaw, Maxims for Revolutionists
(quoted by Ian Piumarta in a paper advocating widespread unreasonable behaviour)

Sunday, May 03, 2009

from painting to programming, with Leonardo

Mark Guzdial quotes Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) about painting and then makes an imaginative leap to transfer this to an argument in support of programming, (with typos corrected):
"He who despises painting loves neither philosophy or nature. If you despise painting, which is the sole imitator of all the visible works of nature, you will be certainly despising a subtle invention which brings philosophy and subtle speculation to bear upon the nature of all forms- sea and land, plants and animals, grasses and flowers…"(the da Vinci quote)
If programming, especially object-oriented programming, is about creating a simulation of the world in silico, then what da Vinci says about is also true about programming. Programming really is about creating an imitation of nature. It really is a philosophical reflection on the nature of forms and behavior. To program is to paint a working model of the world, in silicon.(Guzdial's reflection)
- A DaVinci argument for programming
This is good philosophical sweep but could be even better. Programming is not just about imitating nature but also extending nature to new worlds.

I looked up the Leonardo quote and think a fuller version is better still:

If you condemn painting, which is the only imitator of all visible works of nature, you will certainly despise a subtle invention which brings philosophy and subtle speculation to the consideration of the nature of all forms—seas and plains, trees, animals, plants and flowers—which are surrounded by shade and light. And this is true knowledge and the legitimate issue of nature; for painting is born of nature—or, to speak more correctly, we will say it is the grandchild of nature; for all visible things are produced by nature, and these her children have given birth to painting. Hence we may justly call it the grandchild of nature and related to God.

Taken from The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci edited by Jean Paul Richter, 1880
So, as well as a simulation of nature, programming is a grandchild of nature itself. In our modern Darwinian view, Turing's brain and all the other brains that have dreamed up programming languages are a grandchild of nature along with the physical materials that make up a computer. And in this generation we have moved from visible things to invisible things as well (the bits or electrons which underlay modern day virtual tools). This medium is more powerful than painting.

Just a slight edit of Mark Guzdial's imaginative leap. He has done the hard work here.