“We noticed that it required a separate intention of the eye, a more free and abstracted vision, to see the reflected trees and the sky, then to see the river bottom merely” – Thoreau
Throughout software and school, we go through our day formatting paragraphs and taking spelling tests. We follow the familiar processes. We step-by-step our way along with comfortable goals and imagined praise for each small accomplishment. We stay focused on the river bottom.
But, a central question looms unseen by most. Behind each pair of eyes that watches you teach, within each mind that uses your software, there sits an unspoken query, a plea: do you know who I am? Every child, every user comes to the lesson wondering how it applies to them. And rather than answer this, we spout repeatable process with no regard to personal context. As Seymour Papert puts it, we effectively “program the child” (or user). We teach at them, not with them.
Yet with a separate intention of the eye, we can see a whole new world. By shifting our focus from the lesson-at-hand to the child receiving it, by making a personal connection before imposing our knowledge on another, we become collaborators on a shared journey of guided discovery. We become mentors, not teachers.
You ask, “How is this practical? How can you do this in a class of twenty students?” The answer is, “You can’t.” Through our Waveplace work, we experimented with student-teacher ratios and found that mentoring requires a ratio of at most seven students to one mentor, which confirms the findings of Alan Kay and others. In some settings, such as Haitian schools, a ratio of four to one is needed because the students need more.
Most dismiss such an approach as an extravagance. They see merely the logistics, the costs, the river bottom. Such ratios may be effective for teaching music and art, they’ll say, but for general studies, hiring three people to do the job of one is deemed unnecessary. We’ll pay the money to learn cello, but not to learn to think.
And so we must rely on software, the ever-patient, affordable, one-to-one surrogate of our dreams, though current software is even worse than the most overburdened human teacher. Do you know who I am? Better to watch a video of a teacher talking (Khan), than try to make a connection with the software of today.
Time for some smarter software. Time for cognitive agents.
In the time before people flew, a teenage boy sat by the docks and dreamed of a sailor’s escape. Little is known of his life back then, of the home and family he left behind to board a steamer in Aberdeen and sail into a new life. My grandfather was fifteen when he joined the Merchant Marines. I can only imagine the excitement and fear he must have felt on his first voyage away from the familiar. Were he to have kept a journal in those days, I’d read it gladly, to learn of my heritage, of risk and rewards, of disappointments and dreams. And while his story is lost to time, my own is still fresh for the telling. And, so I’ll write this book, for my own daughter to read someday, and perhaps her children as well.
My voyage will be quite different. While his involved shoveling coal and staring off at an ever-present horizon, mine will take place on a comfortable chair, imagining a very different destination. To say the world has changed since my grandfather was a boy is, of course, an understatement, but one essential truth has not changed: we still don’t teach children how to think for themselves. The school lessons he left behind in rural Scotland weren’t very different from those my daughter learns in her progressive Quaker school. We’re still teaching *at* children, not *with* them. We’re still requiring them to memorize without much reason why.
My dream is to change this, if only a little. During the next year and beyond, I’ll leave behind my familiar life of high dollar software contracting for something leaner and more meaningful. With barely enough money to pay the bills and eat, I’ll create a software world that my daughter herself can use to kindle and grow her love of learning. She’ll explore abstract concepts in relevant, fun ways. She’ll learn to collaborate, to teach those around her. Most of all, she’ll learn how to think, how to solve problems creatively, not because she was assigned a task and will get in trouble if she doesn’t do it, but because she wants to keep going, because the lesson is hers.
Learning is the highest form of play. So let’s make a game.