Vygotsky, programming, computer gaming and fulfilling our potential

I had a fascinating discussion with Alasdair Blackwell from Decoded today about the kind of pedagogy that might ground his innovative approach to teaching coding. This conversation allowed me to indulge myself in talking about the work of Lev Vygotsky, a man who lived in Russia at the start fo the 20th century and from whom we can still learn a lot. So, what could his work have to say that could be relevant to ICT, Computer Science and the emerging technologies of today on games consoles, smart phones, ipads etc.? Quite a lot actually…

One of the key things Vygotsky’s work promoted is the idea that we should be more interested in a learner’s potential for future growth and achievement than we should be in their current ability to achieve, as measured, for example through many forms of assessment. We should be more interested in this potential because it is a greater predictor of a learner’s ability to develop further in the future and because we can help learners to do better by focusing upon this potential.

But how can we focus on this potential? We can do this by offering learners assistance so that we can see how much they can achieve with this assistance. The more learners  achieve with assistance, the greater their potential for the future. The idea is that as the assistance is removed, the learner moves on to the next challenge. So what has this got to do with emerging technologies?

Well, consider the types of popular application that offer an adaptive learning experience, for example Manga High if these adaptive ‘engines’ were powered by data bout how well their users had dealt with challenges beyond their current ability and how well they had taken best advantage of any hints, tips and assistance available to them, then they would be better predictors of a learner’s potential and they may also be even better at extending learners to build on their current understanding and progress to a greater extent. The idea that being given assistance to achieve is important for learning and development must of course be tempered with the knowledge that this assistance must be sensitively faded so that the learner can do it alone and then move onto the next challenge when the help and assistance must be ramped up. This idea of offering and withdrawing assistance in a manner that is suited to a learner’s needs is what top teachers achieve and it is what emerging technology can also enable. This is applicable not just to games and adaptive system like, but also to technologies that support collaborative learning, such as (add links). These technologies are great for young learners who find them deeply motivating, but left to their own devices learning for most young people is unlikely to move beyond the relatively pedestrian social activities that are fun, but that don’t stretch them to fulfill their potential. Of course, with the help of a teacher or a friend who knows a bit more they can achieve a great deal more, using the technologies that they already own and use. (see the evidence for this in these papers). What does this mean in practical terms for people who are using or designing technologies and applications? It means that learners need to be constantly challenged to achieve things beyond their own individual ability and then given some assistance to help them achieve success. This assistance might come in the form of hints and tips and feedback built into the activity or application, or it might come from other learners, teachers, parents friends, whatever the sources of the help, the important thing is that it is gradually and sensitively removed, so that the learner develops to their full potential. games that challenge you to take on the next level of difficulty and allow you to take advantage of hints and tips to be successful. If these games measured the efficiency with which their players used those hints and tips to achieve success they could tailor the levels of difficulty the user is challenged to take on in order to maximise the extension of their learning potential. and then extent to which users in the potential of a learner to achieve something that challenges them than we should be in their ability to achieve something on their own.

Thinking like a computer or computing like a thinker?

In my last post I finished with a comment about pop-11, a langauge designed to help novices learn how to program and to grapple with Artificial Intelligence. I also included an image of the Eliza programme an early example of natural language processing designed in the sixties by Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT. The computer user typed in questions and the ELIZA programme appeared to make human like responses. It worked on a script and when the user started to ask questions that were outside the script, ELIZA struggled. Probably the most famous example of the ELIZA programme was that of a psychotherapist, but my version of the ELIZA programme was one of the first pieces of code I ever produced in pop-11. I found pop-11 a good way into programming, it enabled me to get something up and running quickly, it helped me to start thinking in a particular way and it introduced me to the practical design and application of algorithms. My ELIZA program took on the personna of a politician, and it was surprisingly realistic and succeeding in writing a program that worked and produced a dialogue gave me a huge amount of pleasure. You know the sort of thing:

John: You don’t seem to be having a very good week

Teresa: Why do you think I am not having a very good week?

John: Well it looks as if your attempts to deport Abu Qatada have been stalled

Teresa: My attempts to deport Abu Qatada have not been stalled

John: But you acted too early and you have left him a days window to appeal

Teresa: I have not acted too early and I have not left him a days window to appeal

John: Do you not think that the three month deadline ended after you arrested him?

Teresa: I do not think that the three month deadline ended after I arrested him?

John: Are you sure that you have counted the days correctly?

Teresa: I am sure that I have counted the days correctly?

John: Is it not possible that you and your team have made a mistake?

Teresa: No, it is not possible that me and my team have made a mistake?

John: So have the European Court confirmed that you and your team have the correct deadline

Teresa: I have confirmed that me and my team have the correct deadline

John: But have the European Court confirmed this

Teresa: I don’t know why you are asking me if the European Court have confirmed this

John: Because the European Court will now decide if there is time for Abu Qatada  to appeal

Teresa: I don’t know why you are asking me if the European Court have confirmed this. I have confirmed that me and my team have the correct deadline

John: But we need to know if the deadline you used was correct

Teresa: I don’t know why you are asking me if the European Court have confirmed this. I have confirmed that me and my team have the correct deadline

John: We seem to be going around in circles here

Teresa: I have not gone around in a circle I travel in a Jaguar: a circle is a simple shape of Euclidean geometry consisting of those points in a plane that are equidistant from a given point, the centre

John: !

To code or not to code, if that is the question, what is the answer?

I was struck by the item on the R4 Today program this morning at 8.45 ‘ish when Rory Cellan-Jones told us about his day course at Decoded, through which he, as a complete novice, built an app. You can see his app and his story on the Today website, and as Rory points out “coding is cool – the government is listening to those calling for it to be taught in schools, and executives are signing up for courses.” This has prompted me to reflect on my own programming experiences and to make this the subject of a few posts over the next few days and running up to our next “What the Research Says” event on computing in schools.

I am a member of the BBC micro generation who first came across computing through using this delightfully frustrating device. However, I was not a member of the young audience at whom this machine was aimed, but the wife of a teacher who became intrigued by what her husband was up to in his office. Having secretly mastered the manoeuvre of disk swapping that got you started with the BBC micro my appetite was whet and I enrolled for a course at the local technical college. When I went to sign-up I said I wanted to learn about computers and I was asked what I meant by that. I had no clue why they were asking me this question, because the answer seemed obvious to me – I wanted to learn how the computer worked of course! However, I was offered a range of courses that would take me into the realms of managing a spreadsheet or learning to word process as well as learning how to write a program in basic – no brainer of a choice for me then. I duly arrived at my first evening class ready to build something, no idea what, but something. I loved it, even though my outputs were modest:  a greeting on the screen (you know the one), a date reminder, but I was hooked. I wanted more and much to the bafflement of my husband and to my children aged 5 and 3 I announced that I was going ‘back to school’ and was going to apply to read Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at University. I was a distinctly mature student and was a little afraid that I would be the ‘silly old woman at the back of the class’. My fears were unfounded – most of us felt silly when it came to programming, because for most of us it was very, very hard!

After my BBC basic baptism, I entered the heady world of pop-11 a langauge designed to help novices learn how to program and to grapple with AI.

 

To be continued….