Friday, December 02, 2011

Book Review - Mindstorms : Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas

This book is a classic written more than 30 years ago by Seymour Papert. To me, its age makes the book even more mind-blowing, as the ideas still seems very powerful and relevant The first word of its title gave name to a LEGO product line of programmable robots, but is also a representative description of my state of mind while reading the book.

So what are these powerful ideas ?
Seymour Papert was a professor in psychology and mathematics that worked closely with Jean Piaget  in Switzerland and later moved to the states where he worked and continued his research at MIT. In short his project was to revolutionize teaching (of mathematics and physics in particular) by giving children access to personal computers with a programming language, TURTLE Logo that he developed over several years for this purpose.

He foresaw that it was just a matter of time before everyone would have access to powerful personal computers produced at very low cost.
Although computers at the time already had started to make its way into schools, his books contains a great deal of critique of the traditional way of teaching mathematics, and the use of computers to re-enforce this way of teaching. The traditional way of teaching (and thinking about) mathematics and physics is seeing this as a world totally disconnected from our physical world, and hence hard for children to relate and connect to its existing body of knowledge. (do you know of any real-world objects that behave like newton laws of motions describe ?) The logo turtle can serve as an intermediate object that enable the children to emotionally an intellectually connect and tap into is existing knowledge of how objects (including themselves) move in physical space. The turtle is a visual object on screen or a physical object (a robot) that can be controlled by a relatively simple put powerful programming language called LOGO™. The constructs and syntax of Logo is carefully chosen to serve the purpose of teaching children, and is based on several years of research. It differs a lot from Basic, a programming language that Paperts considers a tragedy, mostly for its lack of pedagogical attributes.

The logo language can be used to move a turtle based on commands like FORWWARD 10, RIGHT 90, PEN DOWN, REPEAT etc. It supports constructing new procedures - thus the concept of decomposition:

TO SHAPE SQUARE                       TO SHAPE SQUARE
   FORWARD 100,                         REPEAT 4,
   RIGHT 90,                              FORWARD 100,
   FORWARD 100,   OR even simpler         RIGHT 90,
   RIGHT 90,                            END
   FORWARD 100,                       END
   RIGHT 90,
   FORWARD 100;

This makes it easy to build up a "bank" of shapes that can be reused to build complex drawings.

So makes this environment so unique and powerful ?
  • First of all its a universe in which children can explore and have immediate feedback
  • Learning the act of debugging is an activity that enhance and enforce the way we build knowledge by partially understanding and building models that are partially correct and then refining and correct errors. This is a very important pedagogical aspect in contrast to traditional thinking about mathematics as a world where things are either completely wrong or correct.
  • The turtle object with its attribute of a state (heading) and its ability to move and draw shapes of different colors connects to the children's emotions and their existing knowledge of objects. It also builds on a natural motivation of children to be able to draw shapes of different colors, a process they are used to do on paper. When a child wonder what the algorithm to draw a circle is, the logo teacher is not allowed to give the solution according to Papert, but rather encourage the child to stand up and walk a circle on the floor. Anyone knows how to walk a circle, so its just a matter of translating that knowledge into a procedural description; move one step ahead, turn a little bit, then another step ahead etc. (FORWARD 1, TURN 1)
  • The intuitiveness and immediate feedback and the turtle as an object that children can relate to, makes it accessible to children at a very low age; as soon as they have some basic reading and writing skills they will be able to enjoy learning LOGO
 Seymor Papert is concerned with epistemology - the source and validity of our knowledge, and also knowledge about knowledge itself. How do we learn ? How do we structure and expand knowledge ?. Seymor Papert view the skill of learning programming as much more than learning how to instruct computers. Indeed the greatest purpose is a more natural way of learning mathematics and physics, and even more fundamental - learning the act of thinking itself. So ideally, everyone should learn programming as it will enhance their thinking skills - uninteresting idea that certainly is easy to embrace by all of us that have dedicated our career to programming and computer science :-)
    So what is the state of LOGO and these ideas today ?

    I really strikes me how little  of this knowledge made it into our schools, and universities. There a certainly implementations of LOGO and a community alive today. It still seems to have a small group of followers in academic circles.
      The most visible impact of the book is probably given name and inspiration to the LEGO robot series of Mindtorms, there are still on the market under that brand.
        I found of course an iPhone app that I tried out on my 8 year old daughter. It took her amazingly short time to grasp the concept (see screenshots below). Enhances with free hand touch based drawing capabilities, and a mirror functuin, it did not take her long to create really cool drawings and shapes by modifying existing templates.
          Paintings made with MirrorPaint on iPhone
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