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Designing for Children: The Constructivist Approach

In response to the announcement that SimCity will be ported to the One Laptop per Child platform, Alan Kay writes a long piece wondering whether Sim City is truly an example of constructivist learning. He talks about designing software environments for children and at the end concludes that Sim City might not be the best platform for that (he prefers something called etoys):

If “children first!” is the rallying cry, then it makes sense to try to invent computer environments that use the very best ideas (and these are very hard to come up with). This is why the various groups that got interested in this romantic quest via early contact with Seymour have always been colleagues and never rivals. The hard to come by ideas for projects, representations, user interfaces, experiments, etc., have been freely traded back and forth. The notions of “thresholds below which is not worth going” have been jointly refined, etc. One of the parasitic difficulties is that computer environments, once made (with lots of effort and dedication) tend to form tribal bonds that are rather religious in nature. The amount of effort required plus the attendant religion makes it extremely difficult to take new insights and ideas and make brand new better environments for the children. The strong tendency is to use and reuse and incrementally expand the old environments.

So, for young and youngish children (say from 4 to 12) we still have a whole world of design problems. For one thing, this is not an homogenous group. Cognitively and kinesthetically it is at least two groups (and three groupings is an even better fit). So, we really think of three specially designed and constructed environments here, where each should have graceful ramps into the next one.

The current thresholds exclude many designs, but more than one kind of design could serve. If several designs could be found that serve, then we have a chance to see if the thresholds can be raised. This is why we encourage others to try their own comprehensive environments for children. Most of the historical progress in this area has come from a number of groups using each other’s ideas to make better attempts (this is a lot like the way any science is supposed to work). One of the difficulties today is that many of the attempts over the last 15 or so years have been done with too low a sense of threshold and thus start to clog and confuse the real issues.

I think one of the trickiest issues in this kind of design is an analogy to the learning of science itself, and that is “how much should the learners/users have to do by themselves vs. how much should the curriculum/system do for them?” Most computer users have been mostly exposed to “productivity tools” in which as many things as possible have been done for them. The kinds of educational environments we are talking about here are at their best when the learner does the important parts by themselves, and any black or translucent boxes serve only on the side and not at the center of the learning. What is the center and what is the side will shift as the learning progresses, and this has to be accommodated.

OTOH, the extreme build it from scratch approach is not the best way for most minds, especially young ones. The best way seems to be to pick the areas that need to be from scratch and do the best job possible to make all difficulties be important ones whose overcoming is the whole point of the educational process (this is in direct analogy to how sports and music are taught — the desire is to facilitate a real change for the better, and this can be honestly difficult for the learner).

Specifically about Simcity he says:

SimCity is similar but more pernicious. It is a black box of “soft somewhat arbitrary knowledge” that the children can’t look at, question or change. For example, SC gets the players to discover that the way to counter rising crime is to put in more police stations. Most anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and economists would disagree violently. Alternate assumptions can’t be tried, etc.

Both of these packages have won many “educational awards” from the pop culture, but in many ways they are anti-real-education because they miss what modern knowledge and thinking and epistemology are all about. This is why being “above threshold” and really understanding what this means is the deep key to making modern curricula and computer environments that will really help children lift themselves.

Two nuggests from the slashdot discussion about whether Simcity is a truly educational tool. First, a comic dialogue exchange:

Is this to give the kids a virtual sense of what it’s like to live in a 1st world country? “look at all of the nice luxuries you will never experience!” how about the irony of building a nuclear powerplant on a computer you have to handcrank?

Reply: This comment is funny, but it relies on a common misperception that the poor kids for whom the OLPC was created have no idea what modern urban life is like. Most of them live in or in the shadow of large modern cities, Johannisberg, Kolkata, Rio de Janeiro, Jakarta, Manila, and Mexico City, just to name a few. They have plenty of opportunities to see modern life, they just don’t have much opportunity to participate.

Let me help you out with a simple analogy. You read slashdot, right? So, you have plenty of opportunities to see beautiful women, but all you get to do is watch, from a distance. That’s why you bought that stick of Axe Deoderant.

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