Alan Kay: “Computers are instruments whose music is ideas”

Original author: Alan Kay
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The biggest obstacle to improving education for children (with or without computers) is the completely impoverished imagination of most adults.
- Alan Kay

I dug up an article by Alan Kay in 2009. The content is bomb and napalm, especially against the background of most of today's IBD in the field of education.

Question: You often say that the computer revolution has not yet occurred. What do you have in mind?

Answer: If you look today, squinting at most personal computers, you will see that we basically just automate paper — we use digital versions of documents and mail. But, as is the case with the invention of the printing press, the computer is interested in the fact that it allows you to use new ways of presenting things, new ways of arguing about different things and new ways of understanding information at the time of its perception.

Most schools define computer literacy as the ability to use Microsoft Office and perhaps do a bit of web design. They miss the point. It is like saying: “If you know which end of the book to hold on to, and you know how to go to chapter three, then you are literate.”

Literature is first and foremost the existence of sufficiently important ideas for discussion and writing in one form or another. Therefore, you should ask yourself the question: “Which literature is best suited for recording on a computer?” One of the answers is to create a dynamic simulation of some idea that you think is important, a simulation with which you can play, and on the basis of which can learn.

Question: What new ideas and arguments can computer modeling do?

Answer: Well, for children, a really interesting argument that can be absolutely useful for everyone in this world is an opportunity to learn that a disease that is infectious, fatal and incurable will have an exponential growth curve. And it is almost impossible to cite as an argument, especially for children, but also for most adults, a simple mathematical formula with an exponent. Because the ability to think nonlinearly is beyond our “helpless” imagination.

But part of the process of becoming a scientist or a mathematician is the need to learn to think a little non-linearly. Thus, a child using Squeak or Logo software can create a bunch of small sprites on the screen and write a small program that will force them to bounce off of each other, so that they will essentially have a simple infectious system. If you spread a few hundred sprites and give them a wide area, you get a curve that reflects the AIDS epidemic, in front of the curve almost nothing will happen, because the probability of infection is very low. But as soon as you get enough infected sprites, which takes some time, the level of infection will increase and soon all sprites will be dead.

Therefore, first by writing your own simulation, you know what the assumptions are. And, skimming through them, you can generate phenomena and get a kind of seventh sense about this phenomenon, and then you can record what is happening on the graph. Thus, a computer can be a kind of thought enhancer.

Question: US schools have spent 40 billion dollars on computers and Internet access. Do you think they used these technologies profitably?

Answer:It's like a chicken and egg question. What happened is probably a successful egg, but without a chicken in sight. I can go to almost any school where there are computers, and see children who use them with pleasure, as well as see teachers who are happy that children use them. The parents are satisfied, the leaders are satisfied, and the school board is satisfied. But if you know anything about computers or about math and science, you should understand that this makes almost no difference.

One of the things that corrupts most computer use in schools is a heightened sense of professionalism. Parents are concerned about whether their children can get a job, and therefore they really want schools to teach children. But I am convinced that the training part is similar to a driver's license: it can take a little less time to learn how to use a computer as much time as it takes to learn how to drive a car. So this is not something for which you want to go to school for twelve years.

This is one of the reasons why, in my research, I target young children. The sooner you go, the farther you are from the main thing that worries parents - namely, worries about whether their children will get a job. However, the distance learning system is observed in primary schools and even in kindergarten.

Question: What do you consider the biggest obstacle in your work?

Answer:I think the hardest part is helping the assistants. The programming language Logo was a great idea and failed. It failed, not because computers could not work with Logo, and not because Logo software was bad. He failed because the second and third generation of teachers were not interested in him as a new thing, and almost none of them understood anything in mathematics or science. It’s very hard to teach Logo well if you don’t know math. But this time we realized that the Internet is becoming mature enough to implement some of the ideas of online mentoring that we had long ago. Our idea is to expand the one-room school to the whole world.

Question:What do you think of the current “manual” computational trend in schools where each child has his or her own laptop or handheld computer?

Answer: Well, that's why I came up with the idea of ​​the Dynabook [Kay's prototype of 1968 for a wireless networked multimedia notebook]. That is the whole point of this concept. As Seymour Papert once remarked, just imagine the absurdity of a school that has only two pencils in each class. Or imagine a school where all the pencils are locked in a special room.

But I think the big problem is that there are very few ideas in schools about what to do with computers when children sit down at them. This is basically a simple formality for averting the eye, and schools will simply not be ready to face actual educational problems, regardless of whether they have the technology.

Think about it: how many books are there in schools - and how well do children read? How many pencils are there in schools, and how well do children do math? It’s like no difference between music and instruments. You can put a piano in every class, but it will not give you a developed musical culture, because musical culture is embodied in people.

On the other hand, if you have a musician who is a teacher, then you do not need musical instruments, because children can sing and dance. But if you do not have a teacher who is a carrier of music, then all attempts to create music in the classroom will not be successful - because existing teachers who are not musicians will decide to teach the standard C system and see what the Gaussian curve is.

The important thing is that the music is not in the piano. And knowledge and instruction are not in the computer. A computer is just a tool whose music is ideas.

Teachers need to realize what education should be in the 21st century, and start thinking about how to solve this problem long before they start using the computer
in their activities.

Question: So what should be the education of the 21st century?

Answer: The most important thing in the 20th and 21st centuries is that there are many new invented ideas, many of which are connected with modern civilization - and our nervous system is not designed to automatically understand these ideas. Equal rights, for example. Or numerical methods. You will not find these ideas in ancient or traditional societies.

If you take all the anthropological orders of a broad profile and put them on the shelves, you will understand that these are things that children need to learn from the environment - and they do. But the essence of the school is to teach all those things that are inventions, and which are difficult to learn, because we do not have a clear inclination for these skills. For example, reading and writing.

Virtually all the learning difficulties children face are caused by the inability of adults to create rational conditions for them. The biggest obstacle to improving education for children, with or without computers, is the completely impoverished imagination of most adults.

Question: Why did educational computing fail to meet the expectations, despite the potential that you and Papert saw in the 1960s?

Answer: Do not even worry about computers. When did it become necessary in our society to actually know mathematics and science? Probably 200 years ago. Now think about how today in primary school math and science are poorly studied. So don't even worry about computers; instead, you need to worry about how long it will take for something considered important to be in the elementary school curriculum. This is the answer. Of course, it will take forever - because adults are intermediaries, and they don’t like math and science.

Thus, computers are in fact irrelevant at this level of discussion - they are just musical instruments. The real question is: what is the prospect of turning any elementary school teacher in America into a musician?This is something to talk about. Later we can worry about the tools.

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What percentage of people from the field of education that you met have “sufficient imagination”? (well, so that you can bring evidence of the breadth of outlook and imagination)

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