Sugar Digest 2013-10-05

Sugar Digest

1. I mostly look forward rather than back, so it is not often that I think about my time at the MIT Media Lab. But I had three occasions to think about it in the past week. I joined Yumi Mori and Toshi Takasaki in Tokyo last week to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Pangaea, a project they started while I was director of the lab. I met some old friends, including K. Nishi, a pioneer in electronic publishing and Bernie Kirsher, who started the rural school program in Cambodia that was the catalyst for our founding One Laptop per Child program. Next, I gave a lecture at Kyoto University at the launch event of a new research program meant to bring Japanese industry and the university’s design school together. I dusted off an old presentation, “The Seven Secrets of the Media Lab” and then went on to describe how the same principles of design apply to Sugar: the foundation for learning is the same, whether you are 8 or 80. Finally, I was reminiscing with John Maeda, president of RSID and former colleague at MIT, about Jerome Wiesner. Jerry was the true visionary behind all of the programs in the arts at MIT, a proponent of “STEAM” rather than STEM [1,2] since the 1960s. Jerry’s one-sentence mission statement for the Media Lab, still has relevance:

“Technology in support of learning and expression by people and machines”

2. In anticipation of next week’s events in Paraguay (See items 3 and 4 below), I wrote a short manifesto about learning. Claudia Urrea will be fleshing it out with me, but I include a rough draft here:

“A good reason that kids should learn to paint, compose, play music, act *and* program computers is that each form of expression require deep commitment, careful thought, reflection, sensitivity to external and often unanticipated stimuli *and* build upon a young person’s remarkable capacity for intensity. They also allow a kid to spend intense periods of time inside of their own head.” — Gary Stager

Motivation is a key factor in education: how do we motivate children to learn and how do the mechanisms of motivation impact how and what children learn. Typical of most schools is the use of “carrots and sticks” (rewards and punishment, in the form of grades, stickers, and stars, and, in some places, literally the stick in the form of corporal punishment). This approach results in children learning to be adept at avoiding the stick, keeping their heads down, reciting the correct answers. Creativity and intellectual risk-taking are drilled out of them, as is the love of learning. An alternative approach, grounded in the literature, is to use autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose as motivators: children become practitioners of creative problem-solving, on the path to entrepreneurial pursuits.

In the early 1960s, while studying with Jean Piaget, Seymour Papert had the insight that computation was a “thing to think with”. He and his colleagues created Logo — the first programming language for children — in order to bring computational thinking to schools. (Early versions of Logo controlled a robot that raised and lowered a pen as it moved forward, left, and right on the floor. This robot resembled a turtle; consequently the turtle became synonymous with Logo.) For the next 40 years, Papert and his colleagues at MIT explored the use of Logo (and other tools) while developing a pedagogy that combined computation, personal expression, and authentic problem-solving in pilot programs around the world. Many of these pilots involved 1-to-1 computing, in order to ensure that the computer could be used as readily as a pencil by each child, in exploring and expressing. (As early as the 1980s, we were doing 1-to-1 computing in Senegal, Pakistan, and Colombia.)

In 2005, a team of researchers from MIT founded the One Laptop per Child program in an effort to provide every child with the opportunity to engage in the pedagogy of computational thinking. We pioneered the development of low-cost hardware for computation, sensors, and a durable form-factor suitable for both classroom and beyond-the-classroom exploration. We coupled the hardware with software that provides the scaffolding needed to encourage children and teachers to “imagine and realize” and “critique and reflect” upon their creations. Central to this effort is programming: Turtle Art, Scratch, Etoys, and other programming environments are made freely available to every child. Our goal is not to raise a generation of computer scientists, but rather, a generation of children who are comfortable with the discipline of computational thinking and able to apply this discipline to problem-solving in a wide range of domains: children who can invent their own future.

An important characteristic of the tools we provide is that they are not black boxes: children are free to delve deeply into the tools, see how they work, and even modify them. We do this by utilizing free and open-source software (FOSS), AKA Software Libre. We provide the license to use and modify the tools. We also provide the necessary scaffolding to enable them to make use of this license. Children are given the opportunity to make their own tools. With this opportunity comes a sense of ownership and responsibility. Thus we immerse children in a culture that values autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose.

We have been working in Paraguay in collaboration with Paraguay Educa and colleagues at ANU since 2007. Here we have found a community of educators well versed in the pedagogy of contructionism. They have had positive and pronounced impact on how computation is used in the classroom and in extra-curricular activities that has had far reach. We have also found talented practitioners. (An example of the quality of their efforts is Dextrose, a branch of our Sugar learning platform, which was conceived and developed in Paraguay and is used by more than 500000 children in Uruguay, Australia, Nepal, etc.) And we have also seen creativity in the teachers we work with in Caacupé. In the course of our collaboration, they have demonstrated not just the ability to apply our tools, but also to invent new ones, e.g., the Caacupé Abacus.

Looking ahead, in order to bring computational thinking to all the children of Paraguay, we need to: (1) provide Guarani language support (Sugar and Turtle Art are easily translated — learning in one’s first language has demonstrable impact); (2) adapt to local culture (both in terms of content and pedagogy); and (3) rethink the mechanisms we use to motivate children to become active and expressive in their learning. Together we also need to create a space of growth for the remarkable learning community in Paraguay so that they can make a difference in Paraguay, and consequently have a reason to stay in Paraguay. Together, we will raise a generation of problem-solvers; confident that they can be entrepreneurial; inventing the future Paraguay.

In the community

3. International Turtle Art Day will be on October 12. Pacita Peña and Cecilia Alcala will be hosting an event in Caacupé and there will be other events around the world sharing ideas and resources. Brian Silverman and Artemis Papert will be featured guests. There are guides to holding a Turtle Art Day event available in English and Spanish. (Tip of the hat to Claudia Urrea, who has led this effort.)

4. Another Turtle Art Day event will be held on October 15 in Montevideo, organized by José Miguel García. Details soon. We also have a Turtle Art Day planned for Malacca on November 16.

5. From 10-13 October, there will be an EduJam!, in Asunción. On the 13th, we will hold a hack-a-thon, and hopefully make some headway on some of the open issues with Sugar on Android. We will also take advantage of the occasion of so many Sugar oversight board members (Gonzalo, Claudia, and me) in one place to hold a SLOB meeting (on Sunday morning).

Tech Talk

6. We are wrapping up Sugar 100 and need all hands helping with both closing a few outstanding tickets and helping with testing. Gonzalo has prepared a new image (Fedora 18) for OLPC AU that can be used for testing in XO-4 hardware.

Sugar Labs

7. Please visit (and contribute to) our planet.


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