LEARN had the privilege of talking with Brian Silverman and Artemis Papert recently, about programming in our Quebec schools. Being the first episode of this school year, so I wanted to have a casual conversation about how education is shifting more and more towards computation and programming/coding.
Brain and Artemis have been exploring computers in education for the better part of their lives, developing and supporting programming from Logo to Scratch to Turtle Art, always with the idea that more programming in schools only makes students lives more relevant. Their beliefs are entrenched in project-based learning with code as just another tool for demonstrating ideas, concepts, learning, and that it is crucial for our learners to develop computation as a necessary skill. Fascinating conversation with many thoughts to ponder and process!
You can download this audio file from Soundcloud if you are ‘on the go’.
edited for legibility
Chris: Welcome to our first edition (of 2021/2022) of ShiftED podcast that LEARN Quebec has been doing over the last few years. This episode I have some wonderful guests that are going to
talk to us a little bit about coding and programming in the future thereof. I’d like to welcome Brian Silverman and Artemis Papert to ShiftEd today.
Hi. How are you doing?
Artemis and Brian: Good. We’re doing good
Yeah it’s nice to hear from you, I thought that it would be really fun to kind of hear your
perspectives on you programming/coding in our educational sphere
I want to start off by asking you, as I often get this question when i go into schools and when
I’m talking with teachers of the difference between ‘coding and programming’ and I never really have a good answer. Do you have an answer for that?
Artemis: I don’t think I have a good answer. I’m old enough that when I first saw a computer
and did my first program, ‘programming’ was the only word around. At some level I think it’s just
semantics, but there’s a lot of initiatives they say ‘coding for kids’ rather than ‘programming for kids’.
Brian: You know it’s funny though because actually having two words for overlapping things is always a little bit confusing which I guess is why people are asking you that. I don’t have a good definition here’s a bad definition. When you ask some grown-ups ‘what they do with their lives’ and they say ‘i’m a programmer’, the activity that those guys are doing is programming. All other uses of programming/coding script (or pick any word you want) are not programming. It may make sense to actually have one word to mean the professional still and another word to mean the superpower that you get by knowing how to do it well.
Chris: Interesting, I like that.
Artemis: Similarly if you wanted to have another analogy using writing…you do writing whether you’re a Nobel prize winner of literature or a political prize winner of literature. What are you? You’re a writer. Even if you write poems just for yourself, you still know you’re also a writer.
It is writing. We don’t have two words, one for the professional skill and one for the everyday hobby when you explore the skill.
When telling the computer to do something, we say coding and programming. I think it’s interesting culturally how we evolved these two words but not for other things.
Chris: So I can say if you’re talking about programming or coding with students you can interchange the two?
Artemis: I would but not everybody would.
Brian: Yeah, I would but we should say that the people who are designing the experiences for kids should be pretty clear about the fact that there’s two different things going on.
Chris: Exactly. Let’s rewind to your first experiences. What was the first exciting thing that you guys were doing with computers when you were first starting your journey?
Brian: The thing is we’ve been at this for a long time but that’s balanced off by the fact that surprisingly we got old. When I was a kid, computers weren’t really in the world for real people. Computers then were sort of like the space program now, something that lots of little kids were
really enthusiastic about but it was kind of distant. You would see it in science fiction and films but the whole notion of actually having access to a computer was pretty foreign. Having access to computers is something that like in my life only started when I was 18 or 19 years old.
Chris: What were the kinds of first things you were doing, Brian, with your computer when you got it at 18 or 19?
Brian: No, the first time I got a computer I was like 24 or 25.
There’s some early pre-experiences, I have an older brother Barry who is
about two years older than me. He went off to school and he started taking
computer classes and when he’d come home for holidays he would show me his
Introduction for Fortran books. I thought they were intriguing in a way that I would not find intriguing now. Barry managed to convince the real estate company, where my father worked, to use computers to help sell houses. The company put together a system that would be not be surprising now but it was really surprising back in the early 1970s. Barry got involved with the company putting the code together and I ended up getting a summer job or two. So the first experience I had in programming was data entry for a real estate company where the system ran an accrued version of Basic and also a language called a Programming language
Artemis: The first time I remember seeing a computer I was 10 years old. I was at the
Artificial intelligence building at MIT with my father. He showed me – I think it was the top
floor- where there was this huge floor filled with computers. Each computer was as big as a refrigerator. They were different machines maybe it was one whole big machine. I can’t even remember but it was air-conditioned because otherwise the thing would overheat and melt away. It was a big thing and then on the other floors, there were those terminals, where you could type things and it would somehow communicate up there. I had no clue. The machines I was shown were for the Logo programming language back then.
Chris: Artemis, what was Logo programming?
Artemis: At the time, there was nothing like Hour of Code or ‘coding for children’. The idea that the child could use a computer was considered total science fiction. Cynthia Solomon Seymour Papert and Danny Forsyth decided to have a programming language for children in the 1960s.
What Seymour Papert would say is he wanted a language that was simple enough for a five-year-old to use and powerful enough for a professional programmer to use. At the time it wasn’t impossible to think of a language that could fit those two poles. Now professional programming has become so complex that it’s way harder to have something that can span both ends of the spectrum. Logo started before there were screens when computers were done by teletype that printed onto sheets of paper. Logo became known for the turtle and treasure geometry but at the beginning, it was more or less manipulations. The first thing that was able to draw with Logo was with what we called the floor turtles which were these big things on wheels attached by a cable to a computer. They had a pen, a real pen in there. They could draw with the pen touching the paper that was put on the floor or they could put their pen up hence the ‘pen up’ command which is in a lot of block (coding) languages today. There were a lot of geometrical patterns and that was something that a lot of children found exciting and interesting.
Chris: I work with students as well and we do something similar now in Scratch that has kind of brought that to its next level. Also with your Turtle Art which we’ve played with tons of students where you’re actually need a screen but it’s doing you know it’s creating forms and shapes through code which I always thought when I brought it to students that ‘oh this might be too complicated’ and to my surprise, I could bring your Turtle art into a grade one class and I would get kids creating these things that were just outstanding with very little instruction. They just seemed to be able to just pick it up.
Brian, could you talk about when you guys first were bringing out Turtle art and the response that it got? Because it is that evolution from Logo, correct?
Brian: Would it be okay if I continue to answer the last question?
Chris: Yes, absolutely.
Brian: This is very consistent with what you’re saying in that if the thing that you’re doing is about programming, about coding and it’s less exciting than if the thing that you’re doing is being engaged in some project for which coding or programming is material rather than the end.
What you asked about my first experiences with this, the things that I
mentioned it really then it was just about itself the first two projects that
I did were um the last one that I put on my father’s computer is we implemented
Conway’s game of life and very very interesting thing you look it up it says there’s all sorts of stuff about it and then I went off to school and I wanted to take a computer programming class and it turned out that the only one that was easily available was in Fortran so when I told my friends who all worked at the Logo lab that I was taking a Fortran club course when they stopped laughing they suggested that what we should do is there is an extension of Tic-tac-toe which is like polar tic-tac-toe they suggest that they’ll write their program in Logo and I’ll
write my program in Fortran and we could play them against each other now it turned out that of the Logo gag one but it was outnumbered three to one so it wasn’t really that but after that after that many projects that I did were we’re in Logo because all my friends work in local labs so um you know what
Chris: Was Fortran’s life very short-lived?
Brian: No. Fortran in my life it was but Fortran came out in 1959 and it’s still being used by scientists everywhere. Fortran is it’s kind of the lingua franca of big models in science. It never really went away but it is a very different domain. The beginnings of Turtle art is what I think and you know Artemis actually had a real role in this. Logo was about a lot of things but one of the things it was about that it wasn’t solely about was making art with code. What we did with Turtle art is rather than trying to make a bit of software that could be anything we decided instead to make a bit of software that was something. That particular something was really focused on static two-dimensional images that are of artistic value at least to the creator.
Artemis: When Brian first showed me Turtle Art, he said ‘I wanted to bring back
Turtle Geometry because I’ve been rereading the AI memos and they were, they are just great.’
He wanted to create something that could bring those back to life again so he shows me Turtle Art. He said ‘with my colleague Paula Bonta, we’re not quite sure if it’s about math, about geometry, or about art’
After using the software for 10 minutes, I said ‘what a dumb question, it’s obviously about the art! What else do you want it to be about?’
I am an artist and I use Turtle art for a lot of my artwork. There’s a big debate in the art world
if you’re using codes or programming, whatever you want to call it, is it real art? I want to tell those people look when I use a brush and acrylic paint it’s about art. It is not about the
acrylic and the brush. Yes, of course, they are the medium I’m using will allow me to do
certain things. What I can do in acrylic that I cannot do in watercolor or with pastels or with crayons but it’s your art. It’s still me the artist making all the artistic decisions. It’s not the paint making the decisions for me.
The same thing when I use code for doing artwork I’m making the decisions.
Chris: Artemis, how did your art and programming kind of get fused? Was it when Turtle art was becoming or had you had prior experiences where you brought art mediums and computers together?
Artemis: No. As a child, I had used on and off Logo but at the time the displays were really very crude. One day we had this big revolution you could have eight colours on the screen or something. The resolution of the screen was, you could see the pixels that were nearly millimeters by millimeters square. I’m exaggerating a little bit. I guess because of the limitations of the technology or whatever, the Logo culture wasn’t really about art. Then Turtle Art appeared and I was there and that’s the Logo I always would have wanted to have but for technical reasons, we couldn’t have it back then.
So that’s when I started using computers for making art and I still use classical paint.
Chris: Have you ever fused those two together where you have a piece of a work that’s programmed and the other is using paint or pastels or charcoals. Have you ever fused those two together?
Artemis: I haven’t really fused them but there’s some images I did. One of the very first tutorial images I did I wanted to try to see if I could reproduce on the screen something that had the same texture as strokes of paint on the canvas. So I have an image that the paint on canvas and the transition into the art.
Chris: Wow that’s really interesting. Brian let me ask you this: I always talk when I’m talking to teachers about [how] that eventually the technology becomes invisible. How would you respond to that? Do you get that idea that the tool eventually just becomes the tool and its purpose becomes really the forefront of things?
Brian: Let me just – How would I respond to it? Yes. The goal of the technology should be to disappear. Seymour Papert used to like telling the story that one of the first times they gave kids lots of time with computers in classrooms, he said, in the first month or two, he’d visit and he’d ask, ‘kid, what are you doing?’ The kid would say, ‘I’m working with the computer.’ Then after another couple of months, he’d stop and say, ‘what are you doing?’ The kids would say, ‘I’m programming in Logo.’ Then a little bit after that, he’d visit, the kids would say something like, ‘I’m working on my skeleton project.’ When we’re doing Turtle Art images, the fact that it’s on a computer or that it’s with code is the furthest thing from our mind.
Chris: Right, I love that. Those are some good points.
Artemis: When you write, you don’t think about the paper or the pen anymore.
Brian: Or Microsoft Word keeps popping up and calling your attention
Chris: No, for sure. Bringing it back a little bit in more depth into the educational system, why is it important for programming in education? Quebec seems to be lagging a little bit behind other provinces where they’re actually making a conscious decision of bringing programming in. Why is that important in 2021, that all kids are exposed to this form of literacy?
Brian: Why is it important? There’s been a debate in Education that’s lasted maybe five years, maybe two thousand years, about learning through didactic means versus a project approach to learning. One of the things that computers and coding allow you to do is provide a project approach to math and science in a way that isn’t really possible without them. The real reason that it’s important is a lot of us, I think everybody in this call, believe that a project approach to Education is what we should be going for. If you’re buying into a project approach, you can push it further in the maths and sciences if you have computational power.
Chris: I think that too is one of the trickier parts for some teachers particularly in our Math and our Science, where it’s very content-oriented, [who] have difficulty seeing how they can integrate it into a class where they know they have to cover certain amounts of materials. What would your replies be to a Science teacher saying, ‘Yeah, programming. I just don’t have time for it, [it] doesn’t fit in Science.’ What would be your retort to it, to a comment like that?
Brian: Depending on how polite I was feeling? Maybe you don’t have time to not do it? It may be that if what you’re trying to do is get kids to get a feeling for the process of Science, they should wander around any science lab and see what people are doing that minute. The answer is probably, for a fair chunk of them, what they’re doing is something to do with computation.
Chris: Right. You keep mentioning computation and I love the idea of computational thinking. Can you guys give a little Coles note on, ‘what is computational thinking’?
What’s the basis of that and why is that something that should be on Education’s radar?
Brian: It’s funny though because you’re asking the question about computational thinking and I think I said computation rather than computational thinking because the phrase computational thinking has been having a definition that’s been bounced around. A lot of people are using it to mean a lot of different things. Now, for computation, if I could be so bold, computation is to the 21st Century what Mathematics was to the 20th century. As in, Mathematics was a descriptive language for describing all sorts of things in Math itself and Science. Computation is kind of a superset of that. It’s Mathematics, a representational system as powerful as Mathematics with a better-established notion of time. Now, I don’t know if the question is, what I would say to the math teacher or if I said to school principals who said we don’t have time to teach computation. I would say, ‘well, it’s simple. Replace the Math curriculum.’
Chris: Right. What would that look like? If we push that one step further, how would that practically look like if we – ‘
Brian: For little kids, it would probably look like the environments that were described by Papert and Solomon in their early Logo memos. This is getting back to the point we touched on just a few minutes ago, the real change in thinking is moving from a knowledge-based approach to more of a project approach. What it would look like is: Kids working on projects that were idea-rich.
Artemis: Another thing you hear, we’re in the middle of a pandemic now, and you hear on the news reports: The model we have about if we do this, the results will be that; If we do this, the model we have about how many hospital beds are going to be taken. How many people are going to get infected and whatever. The models didn’t come out of thin air. Someone sat in front of a computer got the computer to do some number crunching and came out with a solution. If you had some experience yourself about having done anything even remotely similar with the computer, you know there’s not any magic to it. You know there’s some rational thinking behind it. Your model is going to be as good as the people doing the model are going to be. It makes people more informed citizens or gives the people the power to be more informed citizens. I don’t have myself the skills to do all that but at least I can have the skills to have some about critical thinking about whatever is given to me. This I know I can go and get more information about. I know I need to trust the person doing it because it’s way beyond what I’ll be able to learn in any sensible amount of time. What are the hints that I can trust you, it’s okay, I believe what you’re telling me. Oh no, I don’t trust you because there’s something that doesn’t quite seem sensible to me.
Chris: Do you think that all students are capable of programming? Is it a universal skill that all students should be able to access?
Brian: Maybe the right answer to that is, we should think of it as the fourth R. I’m just saying the fourth R that’s got as ‘R’ in it as reading and writing, right? Sorry, writing and arithmetic. The thing is, if you ask the question of, ‘are all students capable of the previous three ‘R’s?’ I’m not sure what the right answer is. At a younger age, absolutely. When you move into more advanced levels, the kids who are into it may do better than the kids that aren’t. At a simple level, yeah.
Artemis: Everybody should be exposed to it. Is it going to be to everybody’s taste? That’s a different question.
Chris: Is it large enough that we can get a vast variety of students into programming? Is it expansive enough to be able that everybody can find an avenue into it? Do you think that that’s a legitimate statement?
Brian: Well it’s more like…Is the category of projects that we’d like kids to be working on that would benefit by having some computational enhancement broad enough that there’s something for everybody? And I think to that, I’d say yes.
Artemis: I agree with that.
Chris. Right. Yeah, I don’t remember the date of it but I remember Seymour and Cynthia I believe…[do you] remember they put that ’20 things’ or ‘ten things to do with the computer’. [ 20 Things to do with a Computer ]
Artemis: Twenty things
Brian: Gary Steger just came out with a volume with a reprint of the paper and dozens and dozens of commentaries on it. [Twenty Things to Do with a Computer Forward 50]
Chris: Right and do you think that those projects that were presented in that paper…I don’t remember the date but I know it was like the 60s, 70s around there.
Artemis: It was 50 years ago.
Chris: 50 years ago.
Brian: I think it was ’72 because I think Gary wanted to have the book out for the 50th anniversary. What was really funny is…through the 80s and 90s and 00s, we kept tracking how many of those 20 things became possible. I think at this point in time all of them. But back in the mid-80s, it was only like a third of them, so you know technology is marching on.
Chris: Yes, absolutely. It’s amazing that we need to be aware of what’s out there but also not get too overwhelmed by it all because of the rapidness of change in technology. It seems like there’s a new thing out there every school year rather than keeping it focused on project-based and using it again as a tool.
Brian: Yeah because I think the thing that’s been consistent of all of it is the educational philosophy. The idea of learning by doing and being engaged in meaningful projects. I think that’s been constant. What the technology has done, is it’s [to] change the category of interesting projects for a particular point in time.
Chris: Absolutely. Well, it’s super fascinating. I want to thank you guys for taking a bit of time and sharing some thoughts. Every time I do these podcasts with our community I leave with a ton more questions and thoughts and ideas. So, I really appreciate both of you. Your words and I just want to thank you. I hope that we see each other soon and that you both have a wonderful holiday season and a great new year. It’s been really a pleasure exploring this idea of programming in education with you guys. My final question I’d love to [ask]. If we put our hats of the future on, where do you see all this going? If you had to pull your crystal ball out where, where are we going with technology and education and programming? Where do you think we’re going to end up? I know that artificial intelligence is coming in and there’s always something new on the horizon but what do you see of the future?
Brian: I’ve got a quote, Allen K., our wonderful friend who said the best way of predicting the future is by inventing it. If I wanted to predict the future without our inventions Id think that coding has been the flavor of the month for about as long as flavors of the month last. Artificial intelligence is moving into be the newer flavour of the month. We’ve been at this, even before coding had become super popular, and it was really coding as the appropriate way of arguing for a project approach to education. So, where are we going to go in the future is work and continue to try to promote a project approach to education.
Artemis: And to do project approach. The hour of something. What can you really do in one hour? You have a collection of one hours and preferably one hours that are adjacent to each other so you have chunks of four or five hours then you can start maybe doing something that has more meaning and more depth to it. I think one hour, what you can do in that [time], is pretty limited.
Chris: You have one hour of guitar playing and then you have to play a show.
Artemis: You wait another year because you do an hour of guitar or writing or of cooking or of anything.
Chris: That’s perfect. Well, thank you guys again. I really appreciate it and have a great holiday season and the best to you and your family.
Artemis: Same to you too and to the listeners.
Brian: Thank you for having us.
Chris: Oh it’s wonderful, thanks so much.