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A Personal Computer for Children of All Ages

This is Alan Kay’s paper on the DynaBook. A transcription of the paper is here.

He quotes Pavese: “To know the world one must construct it.” This is an elegant summary of the paper’s views on how children understand the world through models.

‘We feel that a child is a “verb” rather than a “noun”, an actor rather than an object; he is not a scaled-up pigeon or rat; he is trying to acquire a model of his surrounding environment in order to deal with it; his theories are “practical” notions of how to get from idea A to idea B rather than “consistent” branches of formal logic, etc.`

I love this story of children using the DynaBook to create a microworld. It is both exciting and dangerously seductive.

`Zap! With a beautiful flash and appropriate noise, Jimmy’s spaceship disintegrated; Beth had won Spacewar again. The nine-year-olds were lying on the grass of a park near their home, their DynaBooks hooked together to allow each of them a viewscreen into the space world where Beth’s ship was now floating triumphantly alone.

’“Y’ wanna play again?” asked Jimmy.

’“Naw,” said Beth, “It’s too easy.”

’“Well, in real space you’d be in orbit around the sun. Betcha couldn’t win then!”

`“Oh yeah?” Beth was piqued into action. “How could we do the sun?”

’“Well, uh, let’s see. When the ship’s in space without a sun, it just keeps going 'cause there’s nothing to stop it. Whenever we push the thrust button, your program adds speed in the direction the ship is pointing.”

’“Yeah. That’s why you have to turn the ship and thrust back to get it to ship.” She illustrated by maneuvering with a few practiced button pushes on her DynaBook. “But the sun makes things fall into it…it’s not the same.”

’“But look, Beth,” Jimmy aimed her ship, “when you hold the thrust button down, it starts going faster and faster, just like Mr. Jacobson said rocks and things do in gravity.”

’“Oh yeah. It’s just like the rock had a jet on it pointed towards the earth. Hey, what about also adding speed to the ship that way?”

’“Whaddya mean?” Jimmy was confused.

’“Here look.” Her fingers started to fly on the DynaBook’s keyboard, altering the program she had written several weeks before after she and the rest of her school group had “accidently” been exposed to Spacewar by Mr. Jacobson. “You just act as though the ship is pointed towards the sun and add speed!” As she spoke her ship started to fall, but not towards the son. “Oh no! It’s going all over the place!”

'Jimmy saw what was wrong. “You need to add speed in the direction of the sun no matter where your ship is.”

’“But how do we do that? Cripes!”

’“Let’s go and ask Mr. Jacobson!” They picked up their DynaBooks and raced across the grass to their teacher who was helping other members of their group to find out what they wanted to know.

'Mr. Jacobson’s eyes twinkled at their impatience to know things. They were still as eager as two-year-olds. He and other like him would do their best to sustain the curiosity and desire to crate that are the birthright of every human being.

'From what Beth and Jimmy blurted at him, he was able to see that the kids had rediscovered an important idea intuitively and needed only a hint in order to add the sun to their private cosmos. He was enthusiastic, but a bit noncommittal:

’“That’s great! I bet you the Library has just about what you need.” At that, Jimmy connected his DynaBook to the class’s LIBLINK and became heir to the thought and knowledge of ages past, all perusable through the screen of his DB. It was like taking an endless voyage through a space that knew no bounds. As always he had a little trouble remembering what his original purpose was. Each time he came to something interesting, he caused a copy to be send into his DynaBook, so he could look at it later. Finally, Beth poked him in the ribs, and he started looking more seriously for what they needed. He composed a simple filter for his DynaBook to aid their search…

'Beth discovered that her problem was ridiculously easy if the sun was placed at “zero”, and she simply subtracted a little bit from the “horizontal” and “vertical” speeds of her craft according to where the ship was located. All of the drawing and aninations she and the other kids had done previously were accociplished by using relative notions which coincided with the scope of their abilities at the time. She was now ready to hold several independent ideas in her mind. The intuitive feeling for linear and nonlinear notion that the children gained would be an asset for later understanding of some of the great generalizations of science.

'After getting her spaceship to perform, she found Jimmy, hooked to his DynaBook, and then soundly trounced him until she became bored. While he went off to find a less formidable foe, she retrieved a poem she had been writing on her DynaBook and edited a few lines to improve it…’

What made Jimmy think of adding the sun? Also, its very handy that the sun was a viable project for them to implement. What if Jimmy had thought of making the game 3D? What makes for a microworld that is a fertile place for children to have ideas for things to try? What makes for a microworld that is simple enough for children to implement?

What is Mr Jacobsen’s role? He doesn’t seem to be a question answerer. He seems more of a “teach a man to fish” man. He also doesn’t pepper Beth and Jimmy with questions so he can understand what they are confused about. This reminded me of John Holt’s idea in Why Children Fail that a teacher’s attempts to grasp a student’s level of understanding get in the way of the student reflecting on their own understanding.

How did Beth discover the idea of placing the sun at “zero”?

'A tool is something that aids manipulation of a medium and man is cliched as the “tool building animal”. The computer is also regarded as a tool by many. Clearly, though, the book is much more than a tool, and man is much more than a tool builder…he is an inventor of universes. From the moment he learns to see and to use language, each new universe serves as a medium. (and constraint) of expression in which imagined structures can be embedded, usually with the aid. of tools.’

Must read more about Piaget, Bruner, Hunt, Kagan and Montessori.

’[Moore, the inventor of the talking typewriter] feels that it is not so much that children lack a long attention span, but that they have difficulty remaining in the sane with respect to an idea or activity. The role of “patient listener” to an idea can quickly lead to boredom and lack of attention, unless other roles can also be assumed such as “active agent”, “judge” or “game player”, etc. An environment which allows many perspectives to be taken is very much in tune with the differentiating, abstracting and integrative activities of the child.’

'Where some people measure progress in answers-righttest or tests-passedyear, we are more interested in “Sistine-Chapel-Ceilings/Lifetime.’

’"Sistine-Chapel-Ceilings are not gotten without healthy application of both dreaming and great skill at painting those dreams. As bystander L. d.Vinci remarked, "Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art”. Papert has pointed out that people will willingly and joyfully spend thousands of hours in order to perfect a sport (such as skiing) that they are involved in. Obviously school and learning have not been made interesting to children, nor has a way made to get immediate enjoyment from practicing intellectual skills generally appeared.

'With Dewey, Piaget and Papert, we believe that children “learn by doing” and that much of the alienation in modern education coms from the great philosophical distance between the kinds of things children can “do” and much of 20-cerntury adult behavior.’

'If we want children to learn any particular area, then it is clearly up to us to provide them with something real and enjoyable to “do” on their way to perfection of both the art and the skill. Painting can frustrating, yet practice is fun because a finished picture is a subgoal which can be accomplished without needing total mastery of the subject.

'Playing musical instruments and gaining musical thinking is unfortunately much further removed. Most modern keyboard and orchestral instruments do not provide subgoals which are satisfying to the child or adult for many months, nor do they really give any insight into what music is or how to “do” it on one’s own. IT is usually much more analogous to “drill and skill” in painting a billboard “by the numbers”, and not even getting to use your own numbers or paint!

'The study of arithmetic and mathematics is, in general, an even worse situation. What can a child “do” with multiplication. The usual answer is work problems in the math book! A typical establishment reaction to this is that “Some things just have to be learned by drill”. (Fortunately kids don’t have to learn their native tongue under these circumstances.) Papert’s kids need to use multiplication to make the size of their computer-drawn animations change. They have something to “do” with it.’

'Two of Piaget’s fundamental notions are attractive from a computer scientist’s point of view.

The first is that knowledge, particularly in the young child, is retained as a series of operation models, each of which is somewhat ad hoc and need not be logically consistent with the others. (They are essentially algorithms and strategies rather than logical axioms, predicates and theorems.)

'The second notion is that development proceeds in a sequence of stages (which seems to be independent of cultural environment), each one building on the past, yet showing dramatic differences in the ability to apprehend, generalize and predict casual relations. Although the age at which a stage is attained may vary from child to child, the apparent dependency of a stage on previous stages seem to be invariant. Another point which will be important later on is that language does not seem the mistress of thought but rather the handmaiden, in that there is considerable evidence by Piaget and others that such thinking is nonverbal and iconic.’