Changing Minds: Computers, Learning, and Literacy

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Andrea diSessa's career as a scholar, technologist, and teacher has been driven by one important question: can education — in particular, science education — be transformed by the computer so that children can learn more, learn more easily at an earlier age, and learn with pleasure and commitment? This book is diSessa's informed and passionate affirmative answer to that question.

While written at a level that anyone with a good acquaintance with high school science can understand, the book reflects the depth and breadth of the issues surrounding technology in education. Rejecting the simplistic notion that the computer is merely a tool for more efficient instruction, diSessa shows how computers can be the basis for a new literacy that will change how people think and learn. He discusses the learning theory that explains why computers can be such powerful catalysts for change in education, in particular, how intuitive knowledge is the platform on which students build scientific understanding. He also discusses the material and social reasons for the computer's potential and argues for "two-way literacies," where everyone is a creator as well as consumer of dynamic and interactive expressive forms. DiSessa gives many examples from his work using the Boxer computer environment, an integrated software system designed to investigate computational literacies.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Can computers really extend our intelligence? Might new "computational literacies" alter the face of education, expanding and accelerating learning possibilities? Research scholar, teacher and technologist DiSessa thinks so, and posits a future in which computers "will have penetration and depth of influence comparable to what we have already experienced in coming to achieve a mass, text-based literacy." But why should ordinary people learn about not just the function, but the structure of these new tools? DiSessa answers this question through many compelling narratives of how students actually explore sophisticated science and mathematics topics with the "Boxer" software system, a product that DiSessa and his research colleagues have developed to further their research on cognition and learning. Their findings reinforce many of our commonsense understandings about optimal education: that students learn best by doing; that tacit, intuitive knowledge is important to the acquisition of concepts; and that learning needs to be carefully tailored to an individual's domain of competence. DiSessa also concretely illustrates how to lead students toward complex technical competence and become active creators, not just passive consumers, of new technologies. While a good deal of his book is geared toward scientifically and mathematically literate readers, the personal narratives make it accessible to anyone interested in how computers may change not just the way we learn, but the way we think. (May) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
One of the original designers of the children's programming language Logo, DiSessa has spent most of his professional life thinking about how kids use and change technology and, ultimately, how technology changes kids. Here, he examines how computers are creating a new literacy, particularly for science education, where the computer is more than a tool for funneling instruction to students. This will fit comfortably between two books by Seymour Papert: Mind Storms: Computers, Children, and Powerful Ideas and The Children's Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer ; recommended for all libraries.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780262541329
  • Publisher: MIT Press
  • Publication date: 10/1/2001
  • Series: Bradford Books Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 293
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Andrea diSessa is Chancellor's Professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the National Academy of Education. He is the coauthor of Turtle Geometry: The Computer as a Medium for Exploring Mathematics (MIT Press, 1981).

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Read an Excerpt

Changing Minds

Computers, Learning, and Literacy
By Andrea A. diSessa

Bradford Book

Copyright ©2001 Andrea A. diSessa
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0262541327

Chapter One

Computational Media and New Literacies—The Very Idea

Literacy in the conventional sense of being able to read and write is both highly valued and commonplace in contemporary society. Although almost everything else—especially values—seems to be in dispute, no one questions the importance of reading and writing as foundational skills. Of course, there is plenty of disagreement about exactly what constitutes literacy and how we should go about bringing up children to become literate. Still, not even the most extremist politicians can expect to win converts by cheering the latest study that shows college students can neither string two sentences together coherently nor read a map.

Because the social value of literacy is so important to this book, it is worth taking a few moments to evoke a more lively sense of the multiple roles literacy plays in our lives. Everyday life is a good place to start. When I get up in the morning, I usually find time to look at the newspaper. I glance through international events, partly just to keep up, partly because I have a few special interests stemming from overseas friends and personal associations from travel. I amnot very fond of national politics, but it is interesting to see who is trying to do away with the U.S. Department of Education this year and whether National Science Foundation funding for social sciences will really go away.

I usually look in the business section mainly because that is the most likely place to find technology news, but also because I hope to find useful information that will help me save for retirement and pay for my sons' college education. Sometimes I'll find a good recipe and other times a piece of medical or health information of use to my family.

My interests in newspaper news are partly personal, organized by my own orientations and multiple group memberships, and partly professional. I keep up with some aspects of my work that don't get covered in professional journals (such as what features one gets in an inexpensive home computer these days), and I "accidentally" become a better-informed citizen and voter. For all of this, I lead a bit richer, probably slightly better, and more meaningful life. Many people buy newspapers, and I'm sure they have similar experiences.

Mail time is another bit of everyday life that reminds us how deeply literacy pervades our lives, frequently without our notice: letters from offspring or parents (we'd better write back), magazines, solicitations that every once in a while get noticed and acted on, forms to fill out (taxes!), sometimes with daunting written instructions (taxes!) ...

Work gives us another perspective on literacy. As an academic, I have a special relation to literacy. It would not be a bad approximation to say my professional life is reading and writing. This book, for example, may be the single best representation of at least fifteen years' work on computational media, and it is likely to be only a small percentage of my career writing output. I'm writing now at home in front of a wall of books eight feet high and twenty feet wide; perhaps half of them are professional books. My professional dependence on literacy may be easy to dismiss as atypical in society—and surely it is atypical—but I am not too modest to claim that academia makes significant contributions, particularly in educating the young and in pursuing new knowledge outside of narrow special interests that measure new accomplishments only by dollars or by political or social power. There are many other "niche players" in society for whom literacy is nearly as important as in the lives of academics. Science and high technology are critically literate pursuits. I am certainly glad my personal doctor reads and that some doctors can write well enough to convey new ideas and practices effectively. In a wider scope, business and bureaucracies run on information, reports, memos, spreadsheets, concept papers, and so on.

A third perspective on literacy may be the most obvious and most important. Literacy is infrastructural and absolutely essential to education, to creating people who are knowledgeable and competent. Infrastructural means that literacy is not just a result of the educational process, but a driving force within it. Every class has textbooks, not only English class or other overtly literacy-oriented classes. If you can't read well enough or don't have basic mathematical literacy, you can't profit from history, science, or mathematics textbooks. Education has producers as well as consumers. Teachers, too, read to learn more and improve their practice. Someone has to write textbooks. Most teachers, especially the best, also write to help students—notes, handouts, evaluations—even if they are not writing to and for fellow teachers.

Enter the computer, a "once in several centuries" innovation, as Herbert Simon put it. Computers are incontestably transforming our civilization. Comparisons of our current information revolution to the Industrial Revolution are commonplace and apt. Almost no corner of society is untouched by computers. Most dramatically, science and business are not remotely the same practices they were twenty years ago because of the widespread influence of computers.

Education and schooling are, as yet, an ambiguous case. Few can or should claim that computers have influenced the cultural practices of school the way they have other aspects of society, such as science and business. Just look at texts, tests, and assignments from core subjects. They have changed little so far. Numbers tell a more optimistic but still muted story of penetration. In 1995, K-12 schools in the United States had about three computers per "average" thirty-student classroom. A decent informal benchmark I use is one computer per three students before core practices can be radically changed. This is the ratio at which students can be working full-time, three to a machine, a number that I know from personal experience can work very well, or each student can work alone one-third of the time, well above the threshold for infrastructural influence. One computer per ten students seems some distance from one per three, but consider that schools have been adding regularly to their stock of computers by about one-half computer per classroom per year. At that rate, average schools can easily meet my benchmark in a decade and a half. More than 10 percent of the high schools in the country are already above the threshold benchmark.

I fully expect the rate of computer acquisition to accelerate. That one-half computer per classroom is a fraction of what school districts spend per pupil, let alone per classroom, each year. Add the facts that in, say, ten years, computers will be easily ten times more powerful (thirty is a more responsible scientific estimate), that they will cost less, and that there will be vastly more good learning materials available, and I see inevitability. Despite amazing entrenchment, general conservatism, small budgets, and low status, schools will soon enough be computer-rich communities, unless our society is suicidally reluctant to share the future with its young.

Assuring ourselves that schools will have enough computers to do something interesting is a long way from assuring ourselves that something good—much less the very best we can manage—will happen. That is precisely what this book is about. What is the very best thing that can happen with computer use in education? What might learning actually be like then? How can you assure yourself that any vision is plausible and attainable? What sort of software must be created, and what are the signposts to guide us on the way to realizing "the best"?

I've already set the standard and implicitly suggested the key:

Computers can be the technical foundation of a new and dramatically enhanced literacy, which will act in many ways like current literacy and which will have penetration and depth of influence comparable to what we have already experienced in coming to achieve a mass, text-based literacy.

Clearly, I have a lot of explaining to do. This is not a very popular image of what may happen with computers in education. For that matter, it is not a very unpopular image either in the sense of having substantial opposition with objections that are deeply felt or well thought out. Instead, I find that most people have difficulty imagining what a computational literacy, as I propose to call it, may mean, or they dismiss it as easy and perhaps as already attained, or they find it immediately implausible, almost a contradiction in terms, so that it warrants little thought.

I need to identify and reject an unfortunate cultural artifact that can easily get in the way of thinking seriously about relevant issues. Computer literacy is a term that has been around since the early days of computers. It means something like being able to turn a computer on, insert a CD, and have enough keyboarding and mouse skills to make a few interesting things happen in a few standard applications. Computational literacy is different. In the first instance, the scale of achievement involved in computer literacy is microscopic compared to what I am talking about. It is as if being able to decode, haltingly, a few "typical" words could count as textual literacy.

If a true computational literacy comes to exist, it will be infrastructural in the same way current literacy is in current schools. Students will be learning and using it constantly through their schooling careers and beyond in diverse scientific, humanistic, and expressive pursuits. Outside of schools, a computational literacy will allow civilization to think and do things that will be new to us in the same way that the modern literate society would be almost incomprehensible to preliterate cultures. Clearly, by computational literacy I do not mean a casual familiarity with a machine that computes. In retrospect, I find it remarkable that society has allowed such a shameful debasing of the term literacy in its conventional use in connection with computers; perhaps like fish in the ocean, we just don't see our huge and pervasive dependence on it.

I find that substituting the phrase material intelligence for literacy is a helpful ploy. People instinctively understand intelligence as essential to our human nature and capacity to achieve. Material intelligence, then, is an addition to "purely mental" intelligence. We can achieve it in the presence of appropriate materials, such as pen and paper, print, or computers. This image is natural if we think of the mind as a remarkable and complex machine, but one that can be enhanced by allowing appropriate external extensions to the mechanism, extensions that wind up improving our abilities to represent the world, to remember and reason about it. The material intelligence—literacy—I am referring to is not artificial intelligence in the sense of placing our own intelligence or knowledge, or some enhanced version of it, into a machine. Instead, it is an intelligence achieved cooperatively with external materials.

In the remainder of this introductory chapter, I have one overarching goal. I want to examine traditional literacy in some detail, including both micro- and macrocomponents. The microfocus shows a little about how traditional literacy actually works in episodes of thinking with a materially enhanced intelligence. The macrofocus introduces some large-scale and irreducibly social considerations that determine whether a new literacy is achievable and how. Much of the rest of the book builds on these views of conventional literacy, extrapolating them to consider what exactly a computational literacy might mean, what it might accomplish for us, whether it is plausible, and how we can act to bring it about.

Three Pillars of Literacy

Before getting down to details, we might find it useful to set a rough framework for thinking about the many features and aspects of literacy. I think of literacy as built on three foundational pillars. First, there is the material pillar. That is, literacy involves external, materially based signs, symbols, depictions, or representations. This last set of terms, as well as others, holds an essential magic of literacy: we can install some aspects of our thinking in stable, reproducible, manipulable, and transportable physical form. These external forms become in a very real sense part of our thinking, remembering, and communicating. In concert with our minds, they let us act as if we could bring little surrogates of distant, awkwardly scaled (too big or too small), or difficult to "touch" aspects of the real world to our desktop and manipulate them at will. We can read a map, check our finances, write our itinerary, and plan an automobile trip across the United States. Even more, we can create and explore possible worlds of fantasy or reality (as in a scientific exploration) with a richness, complexity, care, and detail far transcending what we may do with the unaided mind.

The material bases for literacy are far from arbitrary, but are organized into intricately structured subsystems with particular rules of operation, basic symbol sets, patterns of combination, conventions, and means of interpretation. These subsystems all have a particular character, power, and reach, and they also have limits in what they allow us to think about. Associated with them are particular modes of mediated thought and connections to other subsystems. Written language, the prototype of literacy, has an alphabet, a lexicon, a grammar, and a syntax, and above these technical levels are conventions of written discourse, genres, and styles, and so on. Written language is expansive in what may be thought through it, it is variable in its level of precision—we can use it carefully or casually, from a jotted note to a formal proof—and it is generally a wonderful complement to other subsystems, for example, as annotation over the graphical-geometric component of maps.

Other subsystems have a different character. Arithmetic, for example, is much narrower in what you may write about with it. You can't write much good poetry or philosophy in numbers. But what it does allow us to think about, it does with great precision. We can draw inferences (calculate) using arithmetic either perfectly or with as much precision as we care to spend time to achieve. The power of arithmetic is tightly connected with other components of human intellect. For example, scientific understanding frequently is what liberates arithmetic as a useful tool; an engineer can calculate how big a beam is needed in a building because we understand scientifically how size, shape, and material relate to strength. Other important mathematical subsystems—algebra, calculus, graph drawing and interpreting, and so on—also have their own character. Each has its own structure, expressive range, associated modes of thought, and "intellectual allies."

The material pillar of literacy has two immensely important features: the material subsystems of literacy are technologically dependent, and they are designed. It is not at all incidental to contemporary literacy that paper and pencils are cheap, relatively easy to use, and portable. Think back to quills and parchment, or even to cuneiform impressions or rock painting or carving, and consider what you have done today with letters that would have been impossibly awkward without modern, cheap, portable implements. Think what difference the printing press made in creating a widespread, popular, and useful literacy.

Coming directly to the heart of this book, computer technology offers a dazzling range of inscription forms (spreadsheets, electronically processed images and pictures, hypertext, etc.), of reactive and interactive patterns (think of game interfaces—from text typed in and new text returned in reaction, to intense, real-time reflex interaction, to contemplative browsing of a visually based interactive mystery story), of storage and transmission modes (CDs to worldwide networking), and of autonomous actions (simulations, calculation). With all these new forms and more to come, it seems inconceivable our current material literacy basis could remain unaffected.

I noted also that all these inscription forms, both the historical ones and those in current and future development, have been designed—either in acts of inspiration (e.g., the invention of zero or the pulldown menu) or slowly over generations by an accumulation of little ideas and societal trial and error. We have much to gain by thinking carefully about what the whole game of literacy is and about what we can do with computers that can either hasten or undermine new possibilities.

The second pillar of literacy is mental or cognitive. Clearly the material basis of literacy stands only in conjunction with what we think and do with our minds in the presence of inscriptions. A book is only a poor stepping stool to a nonreader. Material intelligence does not reside in either the mind or the materials alone. Indeed, the coupling of external and internal activity is intricate and critical.

This mutual dependence has both constraining and liberating aspects. Our minds have some characteristics that are fixed by our evolutionary state. Nobody can see and remember a thousand items presented in a flash or draw certain kinds of inferences as quickly and precisely as a computer. On the positive side, our ability to talk and comprehend oral language is at least partly physiologically specific, and without this physical equipment, written literacy would also probably be impossible. Similarly, I believe that new computer literacies will build on and extend humans' impressive spatial and dynamic interactive capabilities far more than conventional literacy does. I have much more to say about these issues later, mainly in chapters 4, 5, and 8.

New computational inscription systems should therefore build on strengths in human mental capacities, and they must also recognize our limitations. Intelligence is a complex and textured thing. We know little enough about it in detail, and we will certainly be surprised by its nature when it is materially enhanced in quite unfamiliar ways. The simultaneous tracking of our understanding of intelligence and knowledge along with materially enhanced versions of them is, for me, among the most scientifically interesting issues of our times. It may be among the most practically relevant issues for the survival and prospering of our civilization.

The third pillar of literacy is social, the basis in community for enhanced literacies. Although one may imagine that an individual could benefit in private from a new or different material intelligence, literacy in the sense investigated in this book is unambiguously and deeply social. Let's take a look at the boundary between the social and the individual to get a feeling for the issues.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is generally credited with inventing the calculus as part of building the intellectual infrastructure for his own accomplishments in understanding mechanics, the science of force and motion. His feat was one of those rare but especially impressive events in the history of science when a new material intelligence emerged out of the specific needs of an investigation; that new intelligence clearly contributed to Newton's ability to state and validate his new scientific accomplishments.

Fundamentally, the calculus is a way of writing down and drawing inferences about (i.e., calculating) various aspects of changing quantities. Newton wanted to reason about instantaneous properties of motion that were difficult to capture using prior conceptions and representations. A planet traveling around the sun is constantly changing its speed. Averages and constant speed situations, which were handled adequately by prior techniques, simply weren't up to dealing with facts about instants in a constantly and nonuniformly changing situation. The calculus allowed Newton to capture relations in those instants. Thinking about laws of nature that work in instants and at points in space has turned out to be one of the most fundamental and enduring moves of all time in physics. Nature's causality is local: there is no such thing as "action at a distance" (or "at a later time") in modern physics.

Newton's calculus sounds like a case of a new material intelligence emerging in the hands of an individual, which enabled and in part constituted a fundamental advance for all of science, but the details of the story betray important social components. In the first instance, Newton's accomplishment was clearly not developed on a blank slate. He borrowed and extended techniques, even graphical techniques, that had been around certainly since Galileo (1564-1642), fifty years earlier. (Galileo, in turn, cribbed many of these from his predecessors.) Newton himself said, "If I have seen farther than most, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants," and this was as true for the calculus as for his laws of physics.


Excerpted from Changing Minds by Andrea A. diSessa Copyright ©2001 by Andrea A. diSessa. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Computational Media and New Literacies - The Very Idea 1
2 How It Might Be 29
3 Snapshots: A Day in the Life 45
4 Foundations of Knowledge and Learning 65
5 Intuition and Activity Elaborated 89
6 Explaining Things, Explainable Things 109
7 Designing Computer Systems for People 131
8 More Snapshots: Kids Are Smart 165
9 Stepping Back, Looking Forward 209
Notes and Resources 249
Index 267
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