Thursday, March 7, 2013

Powerful Ideas

Creative Learning - Week 4

Video Notes: Panelists Alan Kay and Brian Silverman. Discussing the nature and implication of powerful ideas. Trying to get at the so what. The idea isn't to assemble a list of powerful ideas, then we teach that. The idea is... we're not sure.  Bruner's advice on curriculum: if you don't know what to do, implement Piaget's stages. In other words, create an opportunity for tinkering. But tinkering is not inherenty valuable. When computers were first on the scene, teachers were happy to see students tinkering. But they weren't doing anything valuable because they weren't playing around with powerful ideas. Maybe tinkering should be "design process with materials in hand"( contrasted with engineering process of plan then assemble).They seemed to feel like there is some tension between story and tinkering, which was mystifying. On the whole, chock full of academic hemming, hawing, citation and, hence, not worth your time.

Reading: the star of the reading again was Papert. His article on the Pedagogy of Powerful Ideas. One paragraph: "Or consider the cognitivist who says: Michael will have a better relationship with fractions if he understands the concepts behind them. This might be so if he could really understand how the invention of fractions was as awesome as the invention of the mousetrap and how the intellectual methods that were used to invent fractions could be used to make new inventions of his own. But the cognitivists are not trying to recreate the intellectual situation in which fractions were invented—and (as far as I can see) could not do so in the context of an elementary school math class. They simply want Michael to see the connection between one set of ideas about which he does not care and another similar set." (There's a story in the article about a previously disengaged student recognizing the cool idea behind the Rat Pack. Er, a rat trap.) Close to the end, he notes: "What I am suggesting here is a program of idea work for educators. Of course it is harder to think about ideas than to bring a programming language into a classroom. You have to mess with actual ideas. But this is the kind of hard that will make teaching more interesting, just as idea work will do this for learning."

Assignment: Create a project with TurtleArt, and reflect on any “powerful ideas” you engaged with in the process. (Why TurtleArt instead of StarLogo?)

  • Zeroeth powerful idea: I want a turtle script with some randomness and some pattern. So that in repetition you can see an abstraction of the pattern.

  • First powerful idea is one that's missing: I want variables!  There's no way to save or store a randomly generated number, that I know yet. [Tinker, tinker] Oh... that's what the boxes are.

  • Second powerful idea: progression. Hmm. Is the random too crazy? What if there was progression instead? Only two variables, though. Might have to do same fancy-schmancy manipulation of the numbers. Does it obey order of operations? [tinker, tinker] Seems like no. Parentheses to make up. (Might be stack based like RPN. Explore later.)
  • Third powerful idea: undoing/inverse/solving. If I'm incrementing a value, how do I recover how many times it's been increased?
  • Fourth idea: copy/paste is a very helpful function, but I don't know how to do it in this context.
  • Fifth idea: repeatable blocks. Finally figured out how to make subroutines. The nicer neater structure appeals to me.
Other thoughts about TurtleArt: at first the limitations bothered me, but I do believe in general that restrictions help creativity. The help took me a while to try (I prefer documentation. Nerd.) But it was intuitive once I gave it a go. Never did figure out how to copy blocks or groups of blocks.  Somehow they get the code to save in the .png file when I thought I was just saving the canvas image. That is COOL.

I got my polygons basically working but thought they made for boring art. So rather than fine tune for aesthetics, I switched to spirals. Knowing what I needed to about the program I could make subtle shifts to get what I liked. I did put some randomness in, and made a rule for "finishing" - three runs of the program without adding to the screen meant it was done. Here's my favorite spiral TurtleArt.

Dave in the comments had the good idea of sharing the actual files: polygon progression and spirals. Once you've saved the files (which are .png), just open with TurtleArt instead of your default image editor. Thanks! His point about better social sharing would be a good thing. Scratch totally gets that right. Here's the code to read:

I do like the idea of discussing with students what they see as the big ideas, but it probably needs to be done in an inquiry/tinkering style culture.  I'll be trying that out for some workshop reflections in my classes. 

Image credits: He-Man is totally owned and operated by Mattel, I have no rights to the images.


  1. I really like Turtle Art. What I think would make it a more powerful platform for creation is if they included more of a social aspect to it. Look at how you had to share your code with me! Unless you give me a copy of the same file that you open I'll have to re-enter your program by hand. :(

  2. For copying blocks there is the stamp tool. The one to the left of the ? (help) tool.