Saturday, March 25, 2006

questioning research

I'm reading some research papers in preparation for a presentation I'm due to give at ACEC in Cairns later this year. This paper was recommended by Tony Forster.

Questioning the Questions of Instructional Technology Research

The author, Thomas Reeves, starts from the premise that when research is done using taxpayers money that the research students should be counselled / pressured into chosing topics that are more socially important than what motivates people to take SCUBA diving courses.

There are important social issues in the world - adult illiteracy, attacks on public education, "at-risk" students, homelessness, AIDS etc.

He goes onto argue that the goal of educational research must be to improve education not just to understand what is happening. Institutionalised Education is not a natural phenomenon, it is "man-made" so there is a need to make it better.

This is an old but still important argument, the distinction between knowing the world and changing the world. Marx critiqued Feurbach along those lines too:
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.
I agree with Thomas Reeves on this basic premise and he follows this thread through in a practical sort of way.

He's tough on the issue of pseudo-science. He says that a lot of research is not up to scratch based on criteria. Figure 6 is the key link. The critique he is making of most educational research is along these lines:
  • lack of linkage to a robust theory
  • inadequate literature review
  • hard to measure variables are not measured reliably
  • outcomes of research have little or no relevance for the subjects in the study
  • statistical analysis is fudged
  • rambling, often incoherent discussion of results
He frankly states that there is an "incestuous relationship" between many researchers and peer reviewers.

This critique is frightening for our Game Making cluster IMO because most of us are not trained in such a rigorous research approach and are too busy, don't have the time / resources to read all the relevant literature, study up on statistics etc. We are practitioners who have dabbled in educational theory without reaching the rigorous standards demanded by Thomas Reeves.

However, his solution to this problem in a way lets us off the hook and steers around the above critique by suggesting a different sort of approach to educational research. He wants academics to work more closely with schools to strive to make a difference there, "where the real needs are so great." That the goal of educational research must be to make a difference, "in schools with real problems".

This is something members of our Game Maker cluster can relate to because that is what we are on about, that is our core business, and what brought us together in the first place. However, I don't really believe that we are off the hook entirely. What is our core theory? What literature have we read? Have we thought about those hard to measure variables? Statistics? We need to do some of this.

Reeves concludes with a summary of a couple of instances of developmental research that he does like.

One is Idit Harel's (1991) Instructional Software Design Project, which I have read and was so impressed by that I tried to emulate it a few years ago (yet to publish my paper on that).

The other is a study by Richard Lehrer(1993) where eighth graders used HyperAuthor to design their own lessons about the American Civil War. ... based on Perkins theory that "knowledge is a process of design and not something to be transmitted from teacher to students..." One interesting result of this study is that important differences were found a year later (but not immediately). The control group forget whereas the constructionist group remembered history as "a process of interpreting the past from different perspectives ..."

I agree with Reeves idea that theory is important and have been gradually reviewing my already established ideas about constructionism and thinking more about George Siemens new idea of connectivism. How do those theories relate to what I am doing with Game Making and blogging?

Reeves paper also influenced me in thinking about going beyond an empirical, quantitative approach and to make the effort to integrate the above theories with what I observe my students doing when they solve game problems and blog about that.


Sunday, March 19, 2006

learning maths

Steve Yegge offers some advice about learning maths. He takes a programmers perspective but his article ranges beyond that perhaps. I might accept his advice and learn some more maths. Here are some extracts that I found particularly useful. The place to start would be his paragraph about using wikipedia. That is a really interesting idea and tremendous praise for wikipedia. I've taken the trouble to put in some links to wikipedia in my extract below.

The Math They Didn't Teach You

... most of the math you learn in grade school and high school is continuous: that is, math on the real numbers. For computer scientists, 95% or more of the interesting math is discrete: i.e., math on the integers...

For programmers, the most useful branch of discrete math is probability theory... How many ways are there to make a Full House in poker? Or a Royal Flush? Whenever you think of a question that starts with "how many ways..." or "what are the odds...", it's a probability question.

Other important maths topics for programmers ... Statistics, Algebra and Linear Algebra (i.e., matrices), Mathematical Logic

Information Theory and Kolmogorov Complexity ... Information theory is (veeery roughly) about data compression, and Kolmogorov Complexity is (also roughly) about algorithmic complexity. I.e., how small you can you make it, how long will it take, how elegant can the program or data structure be, things like that.


The Right Way To Learn Math

The right way to learn math is breadth-first, not depth-first ...

The right way to learn math is to ignore the actual algorithms and proofs, for the most part, and to start by learning a little bit about all the techniques: their names, what they're useful for, approximately how they're computed, how long they've been around, (sometimes) who invented them, what their limitations are, and what they're related to. Think of it as a Liberal Arts degree in mathematics.

Why? Because the first step to applying mathematics is problem identification ...

I think the best way to start learning math is to spend 15 to 30 minutes a day surfing in Wikipedia. It's filled with articles about thousands of little branches of mathematics. You start with pretty much any article that seems interesting (e.g. String theory, say, or the Fourier transform, or Tensors, anything that strikes your fancy. Start reading. If there's something you don't understand, click the link and read about it. Do this recursively until you get bored or tired.

Doing this will give you amazing perspective on mathematics, after a few months. You'll start seeing patterns — for instance, it seems that just about every branch of mathematics that involves a single variable has a more complicated multivariate version, and the multivariate version is almost always represented by matrices of linear equations. At least for applied math. So Linear Algebra will gradually bump its way up your list, until you feel compelled to learn how it actually works, and you'll download a PDF or buy a book, and you'll figure out enough to make you happy for a while.

With the Wikipedia approach, you'll also quickly find your way to the Foundations of Mathematics, the Rome to which all math roads lead. Math is almost always about formalizing our "common sense" about some domain, so that we can deduce and/or prove new things about that domain. Metamathematics is the fascinating study of what the limits are on math itself: the intrinsic capabilities of our formal models, proofs, axiomatic systems, and representations of rules, information, and computation.

Saturday, March 18, 2006


In The World is Flat, Friedman claims that the flattening of the world - globalisation - is the single most important trend in the world today.

In answer to the charge that he is a technological determinist he pleads "Guilty as charged". If we create the internet, work flow software, cell phones then people will use them in all sorts of ways including many not intended by their creators. New technology changes the world forever and often in unpredicted ways.

So, as implied, he then goes onto say that he is not a historical determinist. We can use the internet to develop open souce software or to make plans to end poverty in Africa, or, alternatively to plant a weapon of mass destruction in New York City. The future is up for grabs.
I am certain, though, that the world has been shrinking and flattening for some time now, and that process has quickened dramatically in recent years. Half the world today is directly or indirectly participating in the flattening process or feeling its effects. I have engaged in literary license in titling this book The World is Flat to draw attention to this flattening and its quickening pace because I think it is the single most important trend in the world today.

But I am equally certain that it is not historically inevitable that the rest of the world will become flat or that the already flat parts of the world won't get unflattened by war, economic disruption, or politics. There are hundreds of millions of people on this planet who have been left behind by the flattening process or feel overwhelmed by it, and some of them have enough access to the flattening tools to use them against the system, not on its behalf... (375)
At the moment US Imperialism, somewhat crazy, and the jihadists, totally crazy have stepped onto the stage of history and are fighting it out. China is the sleeping giant, but not so sleepy.

I've read Friedman's book and am prepared to recommend it as essential reading to understand the world today. Friedman advocates a multifaceted plan to save America from its entitlement mentality that he thinks will destroy the country over the next 15 years unless something is done. I don't advocate his book for that reason but because along the way he presents a deeply insightful analysis of the most important trends happening in the world right now.

He gives us a big slab of the big picture.

100 dollar laptop

Philanthropy is the human face of capitalism, which does not transcend the exploitative nature of capitalism. Bill Gates is the world's biggest philanthropist. He rips us off and then gives to the poor. Does that make him a nice guy? No.

People like Nicholas Negroponte (former head of the MIT Media Lab) spend a lifetime building a career in innovative IT. Having achieved personal success and some fame they then want to do something for the wretched of the earth.

The One Laptop per Child project is technically brilliant, highly ethical and well intentioned. But won't it be undermined by the very forces that made Nicholas Negroponte a success in the first place?

There has been quite a lot of detail provided about the technical and entrepreneurial aspects of this project but very little about how it will work in the nitty gritty sense of what will actually happen on the ground when the computers are introduced. The main issue has yet to be addressed fully.

Alan Kay did mention the problems of the grey market and some of the social issues in this talk:
One big problem is the grey market. They’ll be diverted from children unless you do something to protect the laptop. A few ideas: an RFID card keyed to the specific owner helps. The device is networked, so the owner of the device has to log in every few days to get a token to keep it working. The color (green) helps. The child’s picture could be embedded in the plastic case....

From an educational standpoint, this project could be a colossal flop if the content isn’t right. What’s the right interface for children in an environment where the adults can’t help much. Can you connect children to pen-pal like mentors over the Internet? The logistics are monumentally hard.

James Robertson in a commentary on Alan Kay's talk pointed out:
I like that he's recognized the problem of the grey market - but I think his proposed solutions will drive up cost without actually accomplishing much. If you are trying to introduce an item of value into an area that, in general, cannot afford the extant commercial products, then a lot of your target audience will try to sell the item. It's really that simple.

Having said all that, I like this summation:
The important question surrounding the $100 laptop is “will it be more than a mere technological artifact?” The answer depends on whether the content, and especially the mentoring, can be brought along with it to have real impact.
If they pick their target markets correctly, and are able to provide the right content, it could work. On the other hand, if that market exists, I expect that one or more commercial vendors will end up serving it.

Bill Gates is criticising inaccurately (it's not a shared use computer) from the sidelines gearing up to move into the market that will be produced by the MIT philanthropists
"The last thing you want to do for a shared use computer is have it be something without a disk ... and with a tiny little screen," Gates said at the Microsoft Government Leaders Forum in suburban Washington.

"Hardware is a small part of the cost" of providing computing capabilities, he said, adding that the big costs come from network connectivity, applications and support.

Before his critique, Gates showed off a new "ultra-mobile computer" which runs Microsoft Windows on a seven-inch (17.78-centimeter) touch screen.

Those machines are expected to sell for between $599 and $999, Microsoft said at the product launch last week.

Reality check: The philanthropist Negroponte is paving the way for the bigger philanthropist Gates to make some more money.

Nicholas Negroponte, chairman of One Laptop per Child, answers questions on the initiative
What is the $100 Laptop, really?
The proposed $100 machine will be a Linux-based, with a dual-mode display—both a full-color, transmissive DVD mode, and a second display option that is black and white reflective and sunlight-readable at 3× the resolution. The laptop will have a 500MHz processor and 128MB of DRAM, with 500MB of Flash memory; it will not have a hard disk, but it will have four USB ports. The laptops will have wireless broadband that, among other things, allows them to work as a mesh network; each laptop will be able to talk to its nearest neighbors, creating an ad hoc, local area network. The laptops will use innovative power (including wind-up) and will be able to do most everything except store huge amounts of data.

How will these be marketed?
The laptops will be sold to governments and issued to children by schools on a basis of one laptop per child. Initial discussions have been held with China, India, Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Nigeria, and Thailand. An additional, modest allocation of machines will be used to seed developer communities in a number of other countries. A commercial version of the machine will be explored in parallel.

When do you anticipate these laptops reaching the market? What do you see as the biggest hurdles?
Our preliminary schedule is to have units ready for shipment by the end of 2006 or early 2007. Manufacturing will begin when 5 to 10 million machines have been ordered and paid for in advance.

The biggest hurdle will be manufacturing 100 million of anything. This is not just a supply-chain problem, but also a design problem. The scale is daunting, but I find myself amazed at what some companies are proposing to us. It feels as though at least half the problems are being solved by mere resolve.

Friday, March 17, 2006

does it matter if we redefine literacy?

I have read books full of dense text and containing no graphics whatsoever which argue cogently for the recognition of new literacies. Gee on Video Games and Literacy does this. Rheingold on Virtual Reality did this.

Video games, Virtual Reality. No pics. Must have been a serious and important analysis.

Why? Is it because words are the most powerful way for them to convey their message of the importance of other media? What a tremendous irony that would be! Or is it more to do with the economics of marketing a new book, that their publisher would not take the risk of the extra expense? Money. Or is it because they are older generation interpreting the world of the younger generation to other members of the older generation? No pics required for that?!

I have a deep feeling that ability to read and write text is so important that anything that diminishes its importance ("waters is down") is so dangerous that we shouldn't do it. I also have another deep feeling that everything changes and that the changes are speeding up - so what does it really matter if we modify the meaning of the word, "literacy"?

I can't make up my mind.

So my question is: Does it matter if we redefine literacy?

At the national game maker forum Ken Price wrote this:
your article on Prensky's talks is useful. I was intrigued when I saw the use of the term "literacy" and multiple categories, as I have been watching the term morphing from its original meaning ("literate" meaning "one who knows the letters" i.e. one who can read write and make meaning of text) to a new meaning which in broad term means fluent, competent, able to interpret. Literacy seems to have become the bray of any group that believes it is important (I have recently seen financial literacy, productivity literacy, business literacy and drug literacy, and am eagerly awaiting golf literacy to make my life complete...)

I was thus happy to see your literacy referred to actual literacy within various areas of activity!

The literacies which I referred to in my article were as follows:
Literacy of traditional school: 3 R's plus sit still, listen to the teacher, take notes (broadcast)

Literacy of game play: Play games, solve problems, level up (have fun while you learn what?)

Literacy of computer programming: use logic, functions, conditionals, debugging etc. to solve particular types of problems (higher order thinking?)

Literacy of the two way web: search, blogs, wikis, podcasts, IM etc. (learn to use the universal pipe)

In response to Ken at the national gamemaker forum I wrote this:
as all media becomes digitial then there's bound to be a morphing b/w text and other digital forms IMO - eg. the intro to Baz Luhrmann's romeo and juliet was when I first noticed, a text had been turned into a multi media experience to make it more accessible -- digitising text changes it nature(?)

I suppose that's mixed in with the use of the word 'literacy' to try to claim the high moral ground

thanks for reminding me of the original meaning, yes I had forgotten

I'm still thinking about it and interested in other opinions.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

what is technology?

I've been rereading about Alan Turing, one of the inventors of the idea of the computer, and Douglas Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach. It's slow going because sadly, I've neglected my maths over the years.

This relates to the old discussion / biases about technology. Some people see technology as reactionary, eg. The Greens, Braverman, Theodore Roszak, Michael Apple. Others see it as neutral, just a tool that can be used for good or bad. I see technology as having a life and evolution of its own, its own internal dynamic. We are co-evolving with technology.

To ask, "Is technology progressive?" is equivalent to asking, "Are humans progressive?" My answer is "yes" but it's the wrong question to start with.

I think we can say that humans are technology. I've long been aware of an essay by Engels (1876), The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, which argues that the hand preceded and in turn assisted the evolution of the human brain.

Alan Turing's concept of the universal computer is saying the same thing from another direction. Humans are technology.
" ... there is really only one kind of computer, or, more precisely, that all kinds of computers are alike in what they can and cannot do .... whether its' built of transistors, sticks and strings, or neurons ... making a computer think like a brain is just a matter of programming it correctly."
- W. Daniel Hillis, The Pattern on the Stone, p. ix
My point is that you have to ask the more fundamental, structural question, "What is technology?" first in order to answer the sociologists question, "Is technology progressive?" The latter question is the wrong question because it immediately encourages people to separate humans from technology whereas in reality we are just two different variants of an evolutionary process.

Part of this thought was triggered by a recent essay by Jeremy Price, Technology as Trickster, where he rejects both the ideas of technology as neutral and the McLuhan idea of "techno-zen environment/ecology" (technology as just a medium). Jeremy draw his metaphor by imaginatively cross fertilising from a book by Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World, linking Hyde's observations about human behaviour to machine behaviour. Jeremy's conclusion:
The idea of technology as neutral, as a hammer or screwdriver to do with as we please, sits uncomfortably with me. The strict Canadian-McLuhan ideal of a techno-zen environment/ecology ("technology exists") similarly does not work for me, for while I like the idea in theory, I cannot get away from my American bias towards the idea of "progress." In my mind, the idea of Technology as Trickster allows for progress but not in a way that is our own design; try as we might to deny it, technology still has agency. Technology may not have a "human consciousness" (I think we're still working on a definition of that one), but it is something to be engaged with -- not to be controlled. Technology may not be aware of the upheaval it engenders, but we can be, and part of our engagement with technology is an acceptance of change and a vision for making the best of complexity in order to improve ourselves and others.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

prensky ripples

Interesting discussion about the significance of Prensky by Seb, Pete and Mike from the PowerHouse Museum . I think they have all made valid points, here is rough attempt at summary:

seb: a lot of what is developed (games, whatever) has modern capitalism / consumerism / market as an underlying driving force and ought to be critiqued from that perspective

pete: engagement is essential starting point, worthwhile learning is fun, push is in decline - we need shared learning, mutual respect, "consumer" co-creation

mike: "universal truths" are suspect, why should reading (Emma) be priviledged over film (Clueless) - digitial immigrants may emotionally privilege reading over everything else but there is no logical justification for this

my comments:
As well as reading books we ask students to write
As well as watching film we ask students to make film
As well as playing games we ought to ask students to learn programming and make games
(prensky seemed to be not clear about this)

Digital immigrants (like me) will continue to be fuzzy about the real significance of games -and not be able to do critical analysis - because not being a very skilled game player means that it's not up close - just like any other immigrant

With regard to the changing meaning of literacy I'd recommend a book by James Gee: What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy

Here are some of my blog entries that relate to this discussion:

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

the value of game playing?

Ken Price (Tasmanian Education Department) has just published the following on an Australian game making forum. I think it's great so I asked him for permission to reprint and he agreed. I'd see it as part of the ongoing debate sparked by Marc Prensky's visit.
this might look a bit like a "games are pointless" crusade. Nothing is further from the truth: I have high regard for any skilled intellectual or physical human activity and my bookshelf attests to my interest in play and fun in education, including my partner's thesis on the Philosophy of Play and mine on Humour in Learning. However, I am noticing a trend amongst the educational evangelists that is based on rather shallow logic of "kids like online games, which justifies their use in education" rather than a more meaningful look at what it is about game playing that we can use effectively and in a planned fashion.

A few years ago, one of Those Parents (you know the sort) started a conversation at a parent evening. His claim was that schools ought to teach kids golf. In fact, they should teach golf for at least an hour a week, he claimed, or we were doing our kids a dis-service. Why? Well, unless we taught them golf, they would never be as good at golf as if we had taught them. So teach them we must.

Nice circular argument. You can replace "golf" with just about anything you like in that paragraph: juggling, rabbit-skinning, stamp collecting, Czech, calligraphy or fire-breathing.

Where it falls apart is that the "golf" or whatever is somehow assumed to either have undisputed personal or social value (as may be the case with reading) or transferability (as may be the case with say the development of confidence in speaking to a group). As it happens, my friends tell me that the physical skills of golf do not transfer well to other sports: high-end players in other sports often do well at golf, but not vice versa. And the social/business function of golf is not the stuff that we'd focus on in schools if we taught golf.

So the question arises: does computer-based game playing have some inherent vaue of its own, and/or are there skills or knowledge involved that transfer to the real world (the non-game world)? In particular, are there skills that are demonstrably useful in wider education? The article at the head of this page suggests a number of well-documented problems associated with gaming: what are the corresponding benefits?

The argument that games represent an important part of modern culture holds some water. However, as kids deal with this quite well without assistance it is difficult to see how digital immigrants like (many) teachers are needed in the process.

The engagement/motivation argument is also a bit questionable on its own: some kids are engaged with fashion, car theft, TV shows or horse riding , but these are not in themselves a basis for pedagogical decisions. We might make use of their interest to guide them, but not take it to extremes.

It may be argued that the game world is no less real than say the world of stock market trading, where people buy and sell tonnes of zinc or pork bellies or orange juice concentrate or apartments without physically handling them. However (perhaps questionably) the latter are seen as contributing to economic and social growth, and of benefit to society. This characteristic does not (in general) hold for computer-based games (though there are significant examples where it does).

I had on my office wall an old cartoon by Gary Larson called Hopeful Parents. It shows the usual vacant Larson parents proudly watching their kid play a computer game, while a thought bubble above their heards showss a newspaper open to job adverts like "Nintendo expert wanted $50,000 salary...Wanted SuperMario Player, $100,000 plus your own car ... Can you save the Princess? We are hiring skilled staff NOW" etc. The satire still works.

None of this in any way detracts from the value of students DESIGNING and BUILDING games. The planning, team work, research and intellectual work involved is significant and (I would argue) very similar to that needed in a range of future employment and social settings. I would prefer however to have a better research base for the value of online games, so that kids are building entities with a value that is easier to justify and demonstrate.

Monday, March 06, 2006

literacy wars

I went to two different Prensky presentations, one was to students who had made games and the other was to adults (95% over 25 yo). I've written a summary here.

Prensky used the same slides in both presentations but his emphasis was very different in each.

For the students he focused mainly on games. He would ask for a favourite game and then talk about it. He knows his games. Or he would suggest the name of a game and pick up on the response he got. He would start with games and link it back to some aspect of learning.

For the adults he focused mainly on engagement. He said the problem is not ADD but EOE. Translation: Engage me or Enrage Me. Schools are failing at the level of engagement.

For the adult talk, he spent just as much time talking about the two way web: blogs, wikipedia, podcasting, IM / chat, etc. Games were in there as well, but he went to pains to say that the guiding principle was engagement, not games. I wondered if the audience would have been so large (the place was packed at $220 a head) if Prensky's talk had been marketed along the line of "engagement and learning" rather than "games and learning". I think not. There is a lot of curiosity around at the moment about games and what they mean. This was one focus of my talk last September at the Game Programming in Schools Conference.

Of course in doing this Prensky is adapting his talk to the audience. Young people often know games well, adults often do not. For Prensky the key learning factor is engagement and he practices what he preaches.

At one point he said, "Young people play the game while the adults read the manual".

He seemed to be saying that the former was better and the latter old fashioned.

Although there is some truth in this (the ability of young people to learn a lot of new things with a hands on approach) it is also possibly a dangerous oversimplification. As a teacher of the young I know for sure that I'm often a step or two ahead of them because I am prepared to read the manual or the online Help, etc. It's a complicated and not a simple distinction. I've also learnt that for programmers presentation, documentation and commenting of code is extremely important.
"Programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute"
- H. Abelson and G. Sussman (in "The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs)
Then when Kerry Smith asked Prensky a question about the role of game making in schools for some reason he didn't step up and assert this as part of his position. That game making is something we should be doing in schools today. This surprised me because I know he is involved in making games himself. For example, he has a project going called Algebrots which is promoted along the lines of "beat the game .... and pass the course". It could be that Prensky just missed that opportunity, there was a panel session in progress. But then I thought, maybe game making isn't in his current mindset for this audience.

Prensky even advanced the idea that adults / teachers could use the new technologies without learning them thoroughly!! This didn't sound correct to me. There is always a proportion of less advanced students in your class who do need clear, concise step by step instructions. Or at least that seems to be true for classes that I teach.

Different presentations for youth (games) and adults (engagement). 'Play the game' versus 'Read the manual'. Game playing or game making?

Whilst mulling over this it occurred to me that what is really going on in all of this complicated dialogue is an example of literacy wars and that the literacy wars are hotting up.

Literacy of traditional school: 3 R's plus sit still, listen to the teacher, take notes (broadcast)

Literacy of game play: Play games, solve problems, level up (have fun while you learn what?)

Literacy of computer programming: use logic, functions, conditionals, debugging etc. to solve particular types of problems (higher order thinking?)

Literacy of the two way web: search, blogs, wikis, podcasts, IM etc. (learn to use the universal pipe)

I'm putting this forward as a different way to think about some of the issues that Prensky is raising. One way to approach it is from the point of view that the concept of literacy keeps changing, it's a moving target, and that when we disagree and argue it might be because we value one literacy over another. And not because that literacy is necessarily "better" but because we grew up with it and are more comfortable with it. All of the above literacies have some value depending on the context. I think our job as teachers is to combine them in creative ways that do engage and not enrage our students.

Personally, what I'm currently trying to do in one of my Information Technology classes is to combine the literacy of game programming with the literacy of blogging (students writing in a new, more connected medium) . I think requiring students to write more about their game programming will be good for both their programming and writing skills. I'm not sure whether what I'm doing connects closely with Prensky's message or not.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

On Lisp by Paul Graham

This is the best argument in favour of bottom up design I have ever seen. Download his book here.

Some quotes:
Lisp is a programmable programming language

As well as writing their programs down towards the language, experienced Lisp programmers build the language up towards their programs

Bottom up design is becoming more important as software grows in complexity

The title is intended to stress the importance of bottom up programming in Lisp. Instead of just writing your program in Lisp, you can write your own language on Lisp, and write your program on that.

... the association between Lisp and AI is just an accident of history ... Recent advances in hardware and software have made Lisp commercially viable: it is now used by Gnu EMacs ...

Lisp itself is a Lisp program and Lisp programs can be expressed as lists which are Lisp data structures

The plan-and-implement method is not a good way of writing programs

In Lisp, you can do much of your planning as you write the program ... nothing clarifies your ideas like trying to write them down

... the final design is always a product of evolution

Language and program evolve together ...

Like the border between two warring states, the booundary between language and program is drawn and redrawn, until it eventually comes to rest along the mountains and rivers, the natural frontiers of your problem ... your program will look as though the language had been designed for it ...

Instead of a lintel, you'll get an arch ...

Advantages of bottom up design:
  1. ... programs which are smaller and more agile
  2. ... promotes code re-use
  3. ... easier to read
  4. ... it causes you always to be on the lookout for patterns
No other language has anything like Lisp macros

... programs are data ...

... you can build a whole language on top of Lisp, and write your programs in that ...

Like an arch, Lisp is a collection of interlocking features ... dynamic storage allocation and garbage collection, runtime typing, functions as objects, a built in parser which generates lists, a compiler which accepts programs expressed as lists, an interactive environment ... It is the combination

Fortran was invented as a step up from assembly language. Lisp was invented as a language for expressing algorithms

Efficiency! (Fortran) versus Abstraction! (Lisp)

... the outcome of this battle is being determined by hardware. Every year things look better for Lisp ...

Saturday, March 04, 2006

papert's Mindstorms

I've republished a review I wrote in 1990 of Seymour Papert's ideas based on a thorough reading of his most important book, Mindstorms and some other texts.

In 1990 Papert's theory of constructionism (Papert's word, a combination of Piaget's term constructivism with the word construction) and the logo programming language which he promoted were what radical teachers turned to in their efforts to transform School.

Since then, we've had the rise of the world wide web (a new source of radicalism) and theories that go under the name of constructivism (social constructivism) have entered the mainstream and have been integrated into official curriculum statements.

I don't think what Papert (and Minsky) were attempting is very well understood today. They developed theories about a "society of mind" (title of a book by Minsky) and Papert promoted software and hardware objects such as the logo turtle and LEGO TClogo robotics in an effort to transform the traditional knowledge of maths and science in a way to better fit the learner and accelerate their learning.

I don't see much correlation at all between those ideas and the politically correct nonsense that passes as social constructivist top down curriculum reform over the past few years. In my opinion the whole idea of promoting constructivism in a top down fashion through curriculum statements imposed by a hierarchy are farcical and doomed to failure. Papert was always against centrally imposed curriculum arising out of his basic analysis of how a "society of mind" evolved in each individual.

Today, new theories have stepped up (George Siemen's Connectivism) that are also in opposition to a centralised curriculum, this time arising from the tremendous growth in networks over the past 15 years. So, the struggle continues.

In the article I also explored Papert's ideas on the interplay between technology and culture and the instrumental and heuristic role of the computer in change. Parts of my essay could be improved (eg. the importance of LISP, of which logo is a dialect) and I hope to publish some follow up articles about this.

In the article I describe Papert's ideas as "revolutionary" but I don't really see him that way anymore. There is nothing really revolutionary about the idea of "humanistic computing studies".

Another reason for publishing this is that I've just been critical of Marc Prensky for not having a deeper learning theory and so I thought I ought to show what such a theory might look like.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Marc Prensky's Adelaide presentation(s)

I was invited to take a group of students to a Marc Prensky workshop on Thursday and also went to his larger presentation to adults at The Grande on Friday.

Student workshop:
Prensky established a really nice rapport with students from a variety of backgrounds and age levels. I especially liked the way he spent some time focusing on the primary students who made up a minority of the group. The students were there because they had some established interest in computer games. Prensky knows his games! He would throw out a title, get a reaction, often enthusiastic and then link that to some aspect of learning. I thought he was really good with the students. There was a sustained interactive conversation. He was encouraging and gave young people confidence that their own ideas and experiences were important.

Adult presentation:
I had previously downloaded a Prensky presentation (video + slides) from his website and have read and commented favourably on some of his articles. So what Prensky was saying wasn't really new for me.

There were 4 themes illustrated with over 250 slides delivered at twitch speed:
  1. Change is accelerating, get used to it. There are digital natives and digital immigrants - I think this distinction is quite useful in the way he developed it, although it probably needs to be theorised more for a more critical analysis.
  2. Engagement (motivation and passion) is the key element, more important than content. Computer games are just one aspect of engagement, he was at pains to stress that. Schools are failing when it comes to engagement. Life long learning is becoming more important and engagement is the key to this.
  3. Mutual respect - thoughtless criticism of innovation is too easy
  4. Sharing success - be open, put it on the web
Prensky is good at what he does. In his own terms his presentation was engaging. No one walked out, he held the attention of the large audience. He fielded some probing questions at the end and established the same sort of easy rapport with the adults that he had done with the students on the previous day. He's a nice guy.

What are we going to do with the ageing teaching workforce (average age 48) who are not digital natives? Prensky put forward a thesis that teachers can still use the new technology (blogs, podcasts, games etc.) without mastering it themselves. He didn't convince me on that point.

Critical thoughts:

Prensky doesn't seem to have developed a strong theoretical base as part of his critique of the current educational practices. He's pragmatic, experiential, a very good communicator but not a theoretician. Others who have developed critiques of the education system have theorised it, for better or for worse. I'm thinking of Papert who developed a theory of constructionism (building on top of Piaget) and more recently George Siemens who has developed a theory of connectivism.

Kerrie Smith asked a good question from the audience about the role of game making as compared to the role of game playing in education. Prensky had focused mainly on game playing. I didn't think he answered that very well. This surprised me because his websites tell me he is a game developer as well. I thought he would have seen an important role for game development by students in schools as well as game playing. Disappointed about this.

Catherine Beavis was brave enough to raise the questions of social class and how are the have nots going to get access to Prensky's educational vision. He didn't really answer this either but that wasn't a big surprise because after all he is an American entrepreneur and most people put social class in the too hard basket. I wouldn't' have expected Prensky to have a good answer to that but was glad that Catherine raised it.

free and open source CD

For the past few years I have produced a free and open source (FOSS) CD for my students to borrow from the Resource Centre.

Each year the FOSS software available gets better and better. This year I have 28 different programs on the CD, an increase of 10 or more from last year.

I asked my year 11 students recently whether I should produce such a CD again this year. Would they find it helpful? There was an enthusiastic response in favour.

Here are the titles and web sites which make up my CD for 2006. I realise that this is just a list of software without any evaluation of the software. Nevertheless, it might be a useful starting point for others thinking of producing such a CD for their students. Or just checking out some free and open source titles.

title / name

Version and source



file archiver

Acrobat reader

Read pdf files


Word processor


Sound recording and editing


strategy game


3D graphics


Simulation of Universe


Anti virus


Concept mapping

Crimson Editor

HTML syntax highlighting


file archiver


Web browser


Game making

gimp 2

Image manipulation

Google Desktop

Fast desktop search


SVG editor


Image editor


Podcasts: capture and listen


Programming language


free text editor


HTML editor

open office

Writer, Calc, Impress, Draw, Math, Base




3D graphics

Really slick screensavers

Screensavers, OpenGL



SVG plugin

plugin to view SVG

Typing tutor

Typing tutor