Back in the Code

I do not know how many times I’ve said to myself that, “I’ve learned my last programming language.” But it’s what got me hooked on computers, that in 1981 the only way to making them useful was to learn to program them.

Interactive area graphics representing data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Click the Image to see the interactive version.

During the last years of my advocacy work I became fascinated by infographics and data visualization. Data viz was more captivating because there was magic there, “..making numbers tell their story,” I use to say.

Anyway, reading about some of the visualizations being featured in the dataisbeautiful sub/reddit, I learned that a lot of people were using a language called R. Above are a couple that I’ve been working on for the past week or so. Click them to see the interactive versions.

Computing: 1980 Style

Click to visit the book’s web site.

I saw my first personal computer in 1981. At that time, the closest you could come to a computer store (where I lived) was a back corner of the local Radio Shack store. There you found models of their TRS-80 computers, offering all manner of unimagined possibilities – but almost no software. Ready to buy and load (via audio cassettes) were a basic word processor (Scriptsit), a spreadsheet program (Visicalc) and a handful of games, including Galxian, Asteroids, Targ and Zork.

Dot-Matrix Print

But we didn’t buy computers because we wanted to play games or even to word process. Have you ever seen the print from the early dot-matrix printers? We bought computers because we wanted to learn about this new thing that was “going to change everything.”

Early Computing Magazine

Unsurprisingly, we had to go to print in order to learn and a few early magazines was the bast place to go. Even then, the gestation time of new books was way to long to be reliably up-to-date. New issues of zines were frequent and regular, and among them were BYTE, PC, Compute and even Family Computing.

We learned the latest that was known about these early TRS-80, Atari, Apple and Commodore computers. But better, was the programming tips we could learn by typing code that was included on the zines’ pages.

A Home Accounting program for the Commodore Pet computer
Submitted by Robert Baker of Atco, NJ
January 1980

Of course, the programs never worked the first time. It was impossible to key the code in without mistakes. So we spent as much time going back and decoding the programs, OR we taught ourselves how to write our own programs.

😉

Quiet Revolution Promo Video 2

Click to visit the book’s web site.

Without any software for my 11 TRS-80 computers, I set out teaching myself how to program them myself.  Fairly quickly, I found myself on my knees thanking every Algebra teachers I had ever had.  There was finally a purpose for what had seemed to me like purposeless form of mathematics.

The BASIC programming book that came with the early TRS-80 computers.

You see, I instructed the computer with numbers and mathematics was the language.

Algebra was my syntax.

Video 2

 

Are We Missing the Point?

Coding Super Power

The title of this article is a question, because I admit my ignorance of the answer.  I’ve not been paying much attention to THE conversation, since I have finally accepted my status as retired. Wahoo!  But I am working on another book, so my mind is still in our righteous endeavor, even though my PLN has evolved.

The book I am working on will be a history of technology in education, as I have witnessed it – so programming is on my mind.  You see, that’s what we called it back in the 1982, programming.  So I was struck by a sense of déjà vu when I saw so much of the edtech discussion, at the recent Raleigh NCTIES conference, devoted to coding.

But are we (and I’m asking this question seriously) missing the point of a skill that has been so important to me, not to mention a pure personal joy?  You see, what has made coding so important is not necessarily its practicality, though I have been able to support the educational endeavors of many teachers with my tools.  It’s not even the bread it has put on my table, though I am enormously appreciative of that.

I often tell the story that on that first afternoon, after spending my first couple of hours teaching myself how to program (uh, code), I got on my hands and knees and I thanked every algebra teacher I had ever had.  There was finally a practical use for those mystical techniques for manipulating numbers.

But there was a major difference between how I was using Math and how I was taught Math – and it is a difference that strikes right at the heart of what we’re doing wrong in education.  You see, I immediately understood, though I may not have been able to express it, that I was using Algebra as a language, in order to instruct the digital environment (Radio Shack TRS-80 computer) to behave in the way that I wanted.  If you can communicate with a computer, then you can use it to learn and express.

We learned Reading so that we could read our textbooks and other more authentic sources of knowledge.  We learned to Write so that we could articulate our growing knowledge.  Maybe we should learn Coding in order to learn the language of numbers, so that we can learn from our own thoughts and express our ideas in endlessly creative ways.

..instead of teaching Math and teaching Coding.

Of course, I’m not the first to suggest such a radical idea.  It was during those earliest years that some very smart people (Seymour Papert & my friend, Gary Stager for two) were already suggesting and putting into action this very idea with the Logo programming language.

Image Attribute – Coding: It May be the Closest Thing We Have to a Superpower [Digital Graphic]. (2016). Retrieved from http://sfmstechapps.org/2016/02/lets-code/coding-super-power/ From the web site of Spring Forest Middle School Tech Apps Activities

Learn by Doodling

Circuite Scribe

If you are a follower of this blog, then you’re aware that I am employing both of my children to curate their own teacher resource blogs (Infographic-A-Day & Vid-A-Day), and that I syndicate them into 2¢ Worth.

One, posted by Martin the other day, really caught my attention (Circuit Scribe, the new way to teach and use circuits). It’s an ink, developed at the university of Illinois, through which electrical current can be carried. Their (electroninks) intent is an innovative way to help youngsters come to understand circuits. They doodle their circuit ideas with Circuit Scribe pens, lay components on their drawings, and throw the switch.

Part of what intrigued me about the project was our education community’s growing interest in helping students learn by making things – with tools, wires and code. This product is such a threshold-free approach to learning circuit design.

The other thing that provoked me to comment here is my son – and I hope that Martin doesn’t mind my bringing his personal experience into this. You see, Martin is incredibly talented at becoming an expert in areas that interest him. Many of you know that he is a celebrated master musician. But he constantly surprises us when he suddenly can talk with us about that never seemed of interest to him before, such as some old movie we’ve just seen.  He’s telling us about the director, actors, academy award nominations, related works and stories about its production. He’s especially fond of the Coen brothers and Wes Anderson.

He can also tell you almost anything about the NBA and is currently learning a lot about the NFL, via his fantasy football league. He is definitely not the athletic jock type (band geeks were big on campus in his high school) and has never expressed any interest in sports until recently.

To the point of this writing, I find it interesting that my son zoomed in on this video about Circuit Scribe. You see Martin dropped out of the computer science program of one of our state universities, because he hated programming – and I think I know why. They were not teaching him to doodle. I don’t mean literally draw his programs with conductive ink. They weren’t helping him learn to code the way I learned to code. He was being made to learn programming in the same way that I was taught grammar. It was about memorizing proper syntax, instead of learning to make computers do interesting and useful things.

My children will both find their intersections of play, purpose and passion, and it will (hopefully) be something they can make a living at.

..and they’ll do it in spite of the “test-prep” curriculum that dominated their childhoods.

 

Learner as Hacker

Bud The Teacher posted a great blog article last week, Centering on Essential Lenses. His references to lenses reminded me of a bulletin board I use to have in my classroom that said something to the effect that, “This classroom is your microscope on the world.” Not being much of a bulletin board guy, it usually stayed up all year and for some years my classroom was a telescope.

I especially liked Hunt’s references to DIY and hacking, and I agree about many people’ misconceptions of the word, hack. I use the word a lot and often to the widening eyes of the person or people I’m talking to.  I usually use it to describe a cleaver, sometimes elegant and often disruptive fix to a problem or unattained goal – and it always refers to a particular person – the hacker.  

Photo of Steve Jobs, taken by Ammar Abd Rabbo

I guess it’s our nature to villainize the people who disrupt business as usual, though we also often adore them (see right).  But do we talk about hacks and hacking in our classrooms.  Do we teach children where and when to use a comma as if the concept was written on stone and delivered from “on high,” or do we explain it as a clever hack that solved some particular problem of communicating in print?

I’m a big-time hacker.  Most of my toys, growing up, were the result of fashioning various shapes of scrap wood I found my my Dad’s workshop, using straightened nails, into the toy gun, or truck, or boat that I wanted.  Programming code is my primary language of hacking today, though I still do it with my hands, recently hacking the plans of an adirondack chair I downloaded (have I said lately how much I love the Internet), because I couldn’t find the cedar planks in the widths called for by the “Materials List.”

I talk and write a lot about learning – that “Being educated today has more to do with your ability to learn than it does with what you’ve been taught.”  ..and learning is often the practice of hacking.  It’s about tricking Google into reveal exactly the information you need and examining the information, pulling together its aspects to determine its validity and value and reshaping it to fit with other similarly fashioned bits of information.  Then fitting that new knowledge into an old condition and even hacking that condition so that it fits your solution.  

Learning today should rarely be about being told something, though a well-told story is a wonderful thing.  Learning today should be about hacking.

I taught my students about inventions and inventors, but I should have told the stories of how he or she did that, about how he hacked those filaments and electricity into something that would ultimately result in this…

Those stories need to be told, admired and emulated and they need to be an integral part of our classroom conversations.

“How did you learn that?”

“How do you know that’s true?”

“How would you find out why?”

“How do you think she came up with that conclusion?”

“What information do you think we would need to find that out?”

Practice it this summer.  Hack some new knowledge.

“Bon Voyage!”






Should they Know it in 20 Years?

A couple of weeks ago, I started a blog post recalling a course that I once took as part of my Masters degree. The 1992 course was about developing applications using dBase (look it up). The buzz in tech circles at the time was about Gopher, Veronica, FTP, and something brand new called the World Wide Web. The course was mostly programming – and I loved it. I suspect that many of my classmates (mostly educators in the same degree program) were not so thrilled nor the least bit interested in programming.

The gist of this story concerns the final exam.  A couple of weeks before the end of the semester, I sent an email to the professor suggesting that real programmers, as they worked, almost certainly did not rely on memory alone. They had reference books open on their desks so that they could look up various obscure coding options and syntax that might help them solve problems peculiar to the task at hand.

“Shouldn’t we be tested the same way, with the book open on our desks?”

He bought it, announcing at our next class meeting that, “Thanks to Mr. Istlandoll’s suggestion,” the exam would be open book. “Cheers!” He added that he was changing the exam appropriately. “Silence.” I suspect that some of my classmates felt more confidence with the memory of the solutions to problems they had studied.

I got my “A.”  But it occurs to me now that the difference between the exam given and the one intended, was that we ended out not being tested on what we knew – that is to say, just what we’d been taught.  Instead, it tested us on what we could do with what we’d learned.

I initially intended for this story to promote open book or open content learning. But I want to come at this from a different angle, owing partly to several pre-Educon blog articles I’ve recently read.  You see, if I were to take the originally planned dBase test today, under the originally intended conditions (memory only test), then I would fail it miserably — and I would probably be none-the-worse for the knowledge I’d lost.

However, if I were to sit down and take the test the professor actually administered, with appropriate reference materials available to me, I would probably do respectably well — even 20 years later.

My point is this. What should we, as educators, really care about? Is it just what students can recall at the end of the year or the course? or is it what they can do and whom they will be 20 years later?

If it’s the long haul that we are about, then I wonder, as we write our final exams for the students in our class – or end-of-year state tests, shouldn’t we be willing to ask ourselves, “Can I reasonably expect these children to be able to pass this test 20 years from now?”

If the honest answer is, “No!” then we’re just playing a game.

 

…Posted using BlogsyApp from my iPad