circles & squares (Codevember 2016), Eliza Struthers-Jobin

P5XJS // Mindstorms — week 1&2

Since the beginning of July, p5.js’ diversity initiative has been holding an interactive book club in collaboration with Princeton StudioLab.

Pre-script: This post will be more casual than my other writing here on Medium — so far, most of the work I‘ve shared has been generally ‘academic’ or journalistic in tone — but I wanted to be able to talk about broader ideas & projects that don’t necessarily call for so much formality. So if you’re into it, keep reading!


“What is happening now is an empirical question. What can happen is a technical question. But what will happen is a political question” -Seymour Papert

While I missed the inaugural digital huddle on July 12th, I made sure not to miss the next one this past week. Twelve of us tuned in to share our impressions of Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms. The book uses the LOGO Turtle to illustrate how computers can and should be used as educational instruments. He argues they enhance creativity and innovation within the learning process, expounding on what computational thinking can do for children’s relationship to learning.

I never realised just how much I think about thinking — or perhaps how much the mechanics of thinking is taken for granted by the world we live in — until picking up this book. With just a few chapters under my belt, Papert has already managed to reframe so much of the resistance I’ve found myself confused by over my schooling years. During which time I’d inevitably turn to my teachers and ask them “…why do we do things the way we do? Why do we have to think about things in this particular way?” Few ever really had an answer for me beyond a pretty stale “…this is how I’m teaching you, so this is how you’re going to learn.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back to the book club: the concept is simple enough: read a few chapters each week and respond to a prompt. Ideas are welcome in all forms, but what would an interactive book club be without some interactive sketches (powered by p5.js, of course!)

Left: Sharon’s sketch changes “the hue of a color by subtracting, multiplying, adding and dividing based on the mouse position (can you guess which of the sides is which?)” Right: Aatish’s sketch explores the “‘body knowledge’ about math by animating the bicycle tracks problem.”

Since I was playing catch up, time didn’t afford me the chance to respond in code. (Sorry, but I was too engrossed in having my entire educational experience confirmed by Papert…) Above are some of the sketches others have responded with, and one I made last year that afforded the type of intuitive ah-ha moment Papert suggests is so fundamental to learning (a.k.a that time the ‘artsy’ kid discovered she could enjoy learning about science & math concepts.)

My twist on the random walker, in which it’s trailed by a random follower (over time, as the magnitude of orbit increases, follower struggles to trail walker — catch me if you can!)

Computers, Culture & the Fear of Learning

As mentioned, it’s my first time reading Mindstorms. Since digging in to the book’s initial chapters I‘ve found myself nodding and underlining like a mad woman. Papert echoes so many ideas that have crossed my mind in some form or another over the years. His optimism about the potential for computers as a conduit for creative learning mirror many of the revelations I’ve had since finishing uni and reluctantly finding my way into computer science, (more on that in a bit.)

Some things that really resonated with me (Preface to Chapter 2):

  • Relying on the computer only for deliberate programmed instruction is really selling ourselves short and ignores the potential that mechanical thinking has in improving how we learn not only with regards to coding, but in all areas.
  • The computer as a bridge between isolated subjects (math, science, art), as a seed for cultural change. I’ve written about these particular ideas before, feel free to check those articles out here and here.
  • How mental models can both enormously help but also hinder how we relate to what we’re learning. What are the models children intuitively deduce and use to problem solve, and how can we help ensure these models are challenged and tested in the right ways? How can we help children uncover that there is no one-model-fits-all solution when it comes to thought processes?
  • From a culture of Right vs Wrong to a culture of Debugging: it’s not about finding the “correct” answer, but instead about how to get something to work.
  • How we relate to frustration in learning & the narrative we might tell ourselves when the feeling arises (“I’m learning and haven’t quite grasped this yet, let me keep trying” vs “Nevermind, I can’t learn this. I’m not a brain…”)
  • Dissociated learning and the defeatist/ambivalent relationship it can create between student and subject. When a child finds themselves confronted by their disinterest in subjects that are served up in stale and outdated fashion, they fail to intuitively grasp concepts, instead defaulting to rote learning techniques. This can dangerously shape their idea of what they think learning is (memorisation vs true understanding.)
  • The QWERTY phenomenon a.k.a sticking with outdated systems and models based on justifications that no longer hold, and the myths society creates around them in order to maintain rudimentary methods and methodologies that just don’t match up with the technologies that we’ve grown out of and into.

Mindstorms has me rewriting a narrative I never knew I had created for myself — those not-so-fundamental-truths about how our brains work that I’d always just assumed were true: you’re either a math/science person, or you’re artsy… people’s capacity for learning is limited, boys are generally better at mathy subjects than girls… One thing in particular that I really believe Papert gets right is the idea that there are many, many ways and angles of understanding to take when it comes learning about anything.

In my own journey to learn to code I’ve spent countless hours getting frustrated by my failure to put certain concepts into practice. I would sit with my instructors and try to force my brain to understand their rationale until one day one teacher said to me: “if you don’t yet follow what I’m trying to explain to you, it just means that we haven’t found a frame of reference that makes sense to you yet.” That my friends, is the mark of a good teacher.

Which brings us back to Papert’s argument that teaching kids to code can help them learn to “think about thinking”, and thus help them “learn how to learn” fundamental concepts and ideas.

Part of the reason that I only came to coding post-grad is because I was afraid of the math involved. Some seasoned developers might be scoffing a bit at this. “But you don’t really need math to code!” many have told me. I know, I know… Which is why I finally gave myself permission to try. But lo and behold, what interests me about coding isn’t so much about getting your run-of-the-mill website up and running. Instead I’m most passionate about how code can be used for creative & artistic purposes. Give me color, give me movement, give me interaction, and hey lets bring it all to life with some data! But wouldn’t you know… for that you need math and science.

Womp Wom- …but wait.

So to make this blob move the way I want it to, I have to decide where it is and where it’s going. Enter vectors, enter magnitude. But how fast do I want it to get there? Enter velocity, enter acceleration. And is anything is standing it’s way? Enter force.

All of the sudden I was playing around with physics. And this was just the tip of the of the iceberg — or rather the edge of the very deep rabbit hole I soon found myself happily tumbling down. In fact I’ve been tumbling for a few years now and couldn’t be happier. When science and math became creative tools for me, a whole world burst open in my mind. Papert seems to have hit the nail on the head: give a kid(-ult) a sense of purpose and power and they’ll feel invested in and inspired by what they’re trying to understand.


I would be remiss not to point out that if any of my ramblings tickle your curiosity about diversity in tech, creative coding, epistemology or how we learn it’s not too late to join the discussion — the book club is open to everyone!

Also worth checking out is this rundown about how the p5.js diversity initiative got started. It’s creator Chelly Jin was inspired by Lauren McCarthy’s experience creating the p5.js library, which saw a slew of inclusive individuals come forward to contribute to the endeavour. In what feels perfectly appropriate, my own reticence to get into code was pretty much squashed after I discovered how all-in the creative coding community truly is during my first Processing Paris workshop back in 2012. Processing (older sibling of the p5.js library) pretty much blew the lid off what I thought programming could be about.

LINKS

#diversityp5js #mindstorms