I’m all fired up after two days of the most amazing work bringing together some very remarkable people to talk about a TSF strategy to ensure that we can give the next generation excellent analytical skills despite the global collapse in the supply of maths teaching capacity.
The headliners were:
Alan Kay of the Squeak project and Squeakland educational software platform,
Guido van Rossum of Python fame,
James Dalziel of the LAMS project, IMO the “next big thing” in the e-education space,
Zelda Holtzman, CEO of the Shuttleworth Foundation
There were about 15 of us, covering several programming environments (scheme, smalltalk/squeak, python, logo) and a variety of educational frameworks (UK, South Africa, participants from France, Switzerland, Netherlands, USA…). The idea was to bring together people who potentially have the ability to shape up a framework that can take off like wildfire. The risk was that, with so many strong opinions from different backgrounds, we would not be able to make progress.
Suffice it to say that after two days in the bunker, I think we did brilliantly! I saw real bridges being built between Alan and Guido, two great men who’s collaboration might give us the tools to teach logic from the earliest days of education (think of 5 year-olds writing code visually) through to high level instruction (we all know how effective Python is for university type problems, right?). Instead of fighting over turf or syntax, I sensed a genuine willingness to synthesize the best work from both camps into something that could have both Python’s pop-culture widespread appeal, and pedagogical foundations that build on years of Alan’s experience in the Squeak world. The mouse might yet become the snake’s strongest ally.
We also heard from people who help to shape educatonal policy in the UK, South Africa and elsewhere, and I was even more convinced that the problems we want to solve through this initiative are universal, even though the crisis is most evident in countries like South Africa. So I hope we can mobilise a global response, and if you have access to global agencies interested in education then please put them in touch with Helen King, who coordinates the international work of TSF.
What’s this all about? The big picture is that I believe we should be building an analytical skills curriculum that is post-mathematical. Mathematics is a beautiful but abstract art, that has traditionall been the vehicle for the development of analytical capacity in young minds, but has equally traditionally been seen as dry and difficult. We need to teach mathematics NOT because people should become mathematicians (I could not pass my first year maths exam tomorrow though I did reasonably well at the time) but rather people we want society in general to have the ability to apply known tools and patterns to solve the problems it encounters. That’s what learning maths gives us during our formative years.
So what could replace traditional mathematics instruction? Why, software engineering – but not the way it is taught today. We don’t want to produce a society of software engineers any more than we used to want to produce a society of mathematicians. We want to produce a society that knows how to:
- Learn a set of tools quickly and efficiently. In life, the set of tools we apply to the problems we face changes every few years. So it’s not the specific SET of tools you learn, its the ability to grok a new toolset, figure out when to use, and do so efficiently that counts.
- Break problems into simpler pieces, solve them using familiar tools. The whole process of analysis is about taking a big hairy problem that is new and unfamiliar, and teasing it into pieces that look solvable based on tools that you already know.
- Put those simpler answers back together to make an answer to the big problem. This is the synthesis part – taking the results of your analysis and making them meaningful in the real world.
Anyway, the traditional way to teach these life skills has been to drill kids in mathematics. That was always quite a tough sell. Nowadays, its a tough sell in the face of even tougher competition for learner mental bandwidth from cell phones, MTV, instant messaging and the myriad other bling-bling commercials desperate to get your attention when you are 12 and about to get your first credit card. So we need something that is sexy, exciting, challenging, and interesting. I’m pretty convinced that basic technology is becoming pervasive, so by the time our R&D here bears fruit it’s reasonable to expect that most kids even in developing countries have access to technology, whether that looks like a $100 laptop or a TuxLab (another awesome TSF project). And kids LOVE technology. They love the games, they love the puzzles, they love figuring out how to make those darn machines do what they want. This initiative, then, is about figuring out how to build a curriculum that will produce generations that can do the 1, 2, 3 above NOT because they learned mathematics, but because they explored the world of technology.
You can read more about this specific project on the TSF wiki.