The week before last I gave a talk about education and programming
, a topic that's near and dear to my heart. Unexpectedly, I got a lot of positive feedback about the talk, and lots of wonderful conversations about the topics afterwards. This has really reinvigorated my desire to work more in this space, to get back into the research I wanted to do, the “computer that can teach” project at Alan’s lab
. I may not be able to work directly with them yet, but I want to get back to work on that idea.
Here are some thoughts I’ve had in the last couple of days about it.
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There's this fun anecdote about computers that goes: the interesting thing is that a “computer” used to a person, it was a job. You would say, “Mary is a computer” because her job was computing things (doing math, crunching numbers, say). And we laugh because now that’s not a job performed by humans and instead we have these machines that compute (and do way, way more) for us.
I could imagine a scenario in the future where a “teacher” meets a similar response. We'd chuckle because a “teacher” is just a machine that teaches people, where before it used to be a job performed by humans. The difference here is that I don't really find that prospect humourous; in fact it sounds quite frightening to me. Maybe it's just my own personal nostalgia, because I learned from human teachers (where I've never been around a human computer), but I suspect the idea would be repulsive to many people when framed in this way.
With this in mind, I think I'd much rather see whatever this "computer that can teach" thing become not something that removes human teachers but instead something that makes everyone a human teacher. Professional teaching is absolutely an extremely difficult, full time job, one that cannot easily be replaced. But even if it could be, I think it'd be more productive to create new media where everyone is a teacher, in some way (of course, “media” here is a stand-in for “technology, the media on that technology, and the resultant societal changes”).
I don’t exactly know what that'd look like, and I don't mean to say it’s just replacing the work of one person with multiple people. It's more like, “something” (technology / media) that enables / fosters learning throughout society. It’s a something that children learn from, and also something that parents / other adults use to help children learn from.
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I've been thinking for a while, wondering, “what does a computer that can teach look like?” but I think I'm asking sort of the wrong question. Asked that way, it anchors me into thinking "the something" is a computer, especially the way we think of computers today. Whether it's a laptop or a tablet, I'm kinda stuck thinking about a rectangle, but I don’t want to be.
So instead, I'm trying to think, "how do people learn things?" and then from that, “how do you make that into a technology such that children can learn from it + we get a society where everyone learns / teaches one another?” Alas, I don't have a lot of answers to that yet, but I'm finding having these questions is opening my mind up a little bit more to what the future could look like. Almost certainly there'd be some kind of computer (i.e., processor(s), input and output devices, etc) that runs some kind of software (i.e., a Turing machine of some sort), but exactly what it looks like and how it works, is a big fat open question.
“How do people learn?” is a very large question indeed, and I'm not going to get into that right now (though I'm always up for discussing it!), but here's something I'm imagining (this is not a definite complete answer, it's a potential
piece of an answer). One way people learn is from doing
, with their bodies, physical things. A lot of this is sensory (and duh, at some level, all learning we do involves our senses
, otherwise it can't really get into our brain), but a lot of it is also spatial and visual: how we move, how we see, and how we interact with what we see. Kids play with blocks and other models, for example. Or we walk around in museums, or pick books off shelves, etc. So perhaps, the “something that helps people learn” is less a device, and more like a room
or a space (this idea heavily inspired by Bret Victor’s research
, of course). You go into a big “dynamic room” thing and that's “where you learn” (in quotes because the idea that you only learn in one physical space is ridiculous; it's not true in today's classrooms and it should
never be true in the future, either).