Sunday, 24 August 2008

Alan Kay on Research into Learning and Teaching

SecretGeek asked Alan Kay about the paper "The Camel Has Two Humps", and received a fascinating reply. Excerpts:

Notion 1: Good science can rarely be pulled off in an environment with lots of degrees of freedom unless the cause and effect relationships are really simple. Trying to assess curricula, pedagogy, teaching, and the learners all at once has lots of degrees of freedom and is *not* simple.

So for example we've found it necessary to test any curriculum idea over three years of trials to try to normalize as much as possible to get a good (usually negative) result.

Notion 2: Most assessments of students wind up assessing almost everything but. This is the confusions of "normal" with "reality".

For example, in our excursions into how to help children learn powerful ideas, we observed many classrooms and got some idea of "what children could do". Then I accidentally visited a first grade classroom (we were concerned with grades 3-6) in a busing school whose demographic by law was representative of the city as a whole. However, every 6 year old in this classroom could really do math, and not just arithmetic but real mathematical thinking quite beyond what one generally sees anywhere in K-8 [kindergarten and grades 1 through 8].

This was a huge shock, and it turned out that an unusual teacher was the culprit. She was a natural kindergarten and first grade teacher who was also a natural mathematician. She figured out just what to do with 6 year olds and was able to adapt other material as well for them. The results were amazing, and defied all the other generalizations we and others had made about this age group.

This got me to realize that it would be much better to find unusual situations with "normal" populations of learners but with the 1 in a million teacher or curriculum.

Kay gives two examples of quite famous teachers who have written books about their methods:

I found Tim Gallwey [Inner Tennis, Inner Work, etc.], who could teach anyone (literally) how to play a workable game of tennis in 20 minutes, and observed him do this with many dozens of learners over several years.

I found Betty Edwards [Drawing with the Right Side of the Brain] who could teach (again literally) anyone to draw like a 2nd year art student in one intense week.

It is also an interesting social question as to why it is ok to celebrate amazing teachers in film -- e.g. Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver -- but not to look more closely at their methods and try to work with them to re-jig teacher identification, training and school curricula.

No comments: