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An Email about Computers and Learning

For several years I was a consultant in a group of computer scientists, teachers, and artists working on a number of fronts including: computers as classroom tools for learning and creativity, simulation-building for exploration and understanding, and programming for non-programmers. Two of the major projects were Squeak, a programming language to serve non-experts as well as professionals; and Etoys, a system for children to build computer simulations. Squeak and Etoys found many enthusiastic users beyond the research group; this email responded to a question about using Squeak and Etoys even as they kept evolving.

Mon Mar 10 20:45:35 PST 2003

Thank you for these comments, Jerry. I think you're bringing up 
important points.

I think it needs to be emphasized over and over again that Squeak is 
a research system. It is not a completed product, but a work in 
progress, and that causes ome of the frustrations teachers and other 
novices experience. Perhaps more could be done on the Squeakland site 
to make this clear.

Any programming environment provides challenges to non-expert users, 
and expert help is often needed. In my opinion many who promote 
computers as tools for learning say too little about the amount of 
support teachers and students need in order to get good results.

I'm sure most people on this list are excited about the promise of 
Squeak--many kinds of promises, really. It's astounding that Squeak 
has come so far, and that has a lot to do with people helping one 
another. Clearly, to get to the next stage, with ordinary users and 
ordinary teachers being able to use Squeak, much more needs to 
happen. The book by BJ Conn and Kim Rose is one step in that 
direction. But you are right to remind us not to confuse 
possibilities and promises with what is really doable now. While 
working to make some of these possibilities real, the Squeak community 
needs to try to stay clear about what's not real yet.

One other thought: Squeak is interesting not just because it makes 
certain things easy, but also because it is rich and complex. Rich, 
complex things (music, sports, math, art, etc.) are often difficult, 
often need very good helpers to be present, and sometimes need a huge 
amount of infrastructure. For instance, I am a musician today only 
because my school had a very good music teacher and a pile of 
instruments made by expert craftspeople and music manufactured by 
expert composers and publishers--and my parents got me lessons with 
still another expert, and I was able to play in youth orchestras with 
more expertise at hand. Even with all this help and encouragement, 
and even in such a supportive context, it took many years for me to 
get any good at all. Most of the helpers were able to provide very 
satisfying projects at every stage--even students who did not become 
professional musicians were able to have a good time participating.

Probably very few schools can offer the kind of infrastructure for 
computer learning that my school music program offered. Yet I think 
computers need the same kind of multilayered help and expertise, and 
a supportive context of enthusiasm and encouragement for the activity.

Maybe we need to lose the idea that doing interesting and valuable 
things on the computer can happen in isolation. One of the 
constantly-reinforced fantasies about computers is that they will 
make good things happen all on their own. It's an attractive notion, 
but it's a fantasy. If good things are to happen, people will be 

    John Steinmetz
   Squeak enthusiast
   bassoonist, composer

>I am hoping this message will not make a persona non grata on the 
>Squeakdev list, or make me go squeaking back to my little lurker 
>hole in the wall ... but as a competent programmer in many languages 
>(and around Squeak since *before* 2.7), I nonetheless feel the way 
>R. O'Keefe does, *in spades*.  And as for Rachel, cited in H. 
>Hirzel's epigraph/email, she, like so many newbies to the 
>squeaklist, appears to be long gone.  I did begin, awhile ago, doing 
>a kind of ethnography-of-disappearing-squeak-newbies, tracing their 
>initial enthusiastic postings, the helpful replies (always, always 
>including Ned Konz, bless you sir), the dreadfully high percentage 
>of cases in which this initial enthusiasm would fade away ... but it 
>was too depressing, and to what end?
>I am not here to trash Squeak -- far from it!  I have been around so 
>long, on and off, because I truly do believe, on the one hand, that 
>herein lies a potentially *great* environment for newbies to 
>programming.  As a teacher of teachers and an advocate of 
>programming, this gets me very excited, as you can imagine.  (And 
>the record 2005 posts to squeak-dev in Feb 2003 was due in no small 
>part to a sudden upsurge in the pedaogical consciousness of the 
>list...also exciting...less so recently...)  But I think that if the 
>Squeak insiders really believe that "kids in fifth grade are able to 
>master etoys" (A. Raab, 2/10/03) without one or more Squeak insiders 
>hovering close by, they are sadly mistaken!  (This is similar to a 
>problem a fellow named Papert had vis a vis the "learnability" of 
>Logo in the late 70's - early 80's....)
>"So why should we even listen to this guy?"  ("Maybe he really can't 
>even program his way out of a paper bag...") Well, maybe some of you 
>have stopped already.  I've made many false starts in Squeak, and 
>the responsiveness of Ned Konz, Karl Ramberg, and Stephane Ducasse 
>(to name a few) to my previous postings is part of what keeps me 
>around ... now I'm responding, instead of Rachel, to Hannes Hirzel's 
>  >But we need "customers" like you. What are your interests in
>>doing with Squeak?
>***I want to see -- and show others -- a viable learning path 
>through etoys to Morphic-Squeak proper.***
>I have some "field notes" from an attempt I made to show etoys to 
>teachers-to-be in UCSD's Teacher Education Program that I would love 
>to share with people on this list.  Some of the contents border on 
>painful, but if I could only answer all *their* questions (and 
>remember, if I am twice-, these teachers are three-times-removed 
>from Squeak-insiderness), I would be able to document some of the 
>projects on Alan's "Partial list of Etoy Projects" -- posted to 
>Squeakland 2/11/03 (but not SqueakDev!).  Get a load of these (the 
>total "partial" list was almost 40 lines long):
>Gradient following - Salmon and Clownfish
>Tree Growing
>Multiple Mentalities
>Grey Walter Conditioned Response Learning
>Circuit Models
>Anyone who could create projects like these in any programmable 
>medium, I'd say, would have a serious leg up on "real" programming 
>by anyone's hard-nosed definition of that elusive (and 
>ever-changing) concept.  My students (same ones as above) wrote 
>programs in NetLogo, Microworlds (a descendant of Logo), and 
>Stagecast Creator, including a "Turtle Epidemic" model in NetLogo 
>for which I wrote the tutorial (see 
> and a "Food 
>Fight" game in Stagecast Creator, for which I'd love to be able to 
>write the "etoys tutorial", if I could only see how to do several 
>simple things in Etoys, for example
>   * have an agent (smiley) create another agent (burger) in the 
>space next to him
>   * have an agent (smiley) send a message to a counter agent (count 
>down) each time he "uses up" a burger, and another message to a 
>counter-scorer agent (count up) each time one of his burgers hits 
>his opponent
>...just to name two.
>So, speaking of "viable learning paths", does anyone have a 
>suggestion for one for *me*?  Who wants to respond to all the 
>questions my teacher-students raised in my field notes?  Who wants 
>to help me complete all the projects on Alan's list?
>If *I* can't figure out how to do this stuff on my own, there's no 
>way any of the teachers I teach -- even after they've been 
>thoroughly Balzano-indoctrinated to the virtues of programming and 
>completed my 
>more-rigorous-than-99%-of-other-teacher-ed-computer-courses course 
>-- will be able to figure it out either.
>Respectfully submitted,
>Jerry Balzano
>Dr. Gerald J. Balzano
>Teacher Education Program
>Dept of Music
>Laboratory for Comparative Human Cognition
>Cognitive Science Program
>UC San Diego
>La Jolla, CA 92093

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