GSoC 2020: Fundamental Unreformability

Published 6/14/20


A lot has happened in the past two weeks! Most excitingly I got the go-ahead to start building things. Currently I'm focusing on three things:

  1. Component Processing: We read the Java component definitions and turn them into a more abstract data structure.
  2. Java to Blockly: Then we move all of the data in the abstract structure to Blockly (via a JSON pipeline).
  3. Blocks: Then we use that data to create dropdown blocks.

I've got parts 1 and 2 done (or at least to the point where they're ready for review). And I'm almost done with step 3. I've just got to get code generation working, and test everything with extensions.

After that there's still a lot to do (translation, documentation, versioning, upgraders, drawer support... etc) but I think that the above 3 things are a good MVP.

The Fundamental Unreformability of Schools

I've done a lot of reading in the past two weeks, but the first thing I wanted to talk about was "How Children Fail" by John Holt, because it really convinced me that schools are fundamentally unreformable. If you're reading this you should definitely give the book a read because it provides many helpful, concrete examples, but I'm going to go ahead and summarize his thesis. Or the thesis I took from the book anyway.

First let me preface with the fact that I think the idea of equal education is fundamentally a good idea. I also think that teachers are wonderful and can really have an impact on their students' lives. This is a discussion of our current system of schooling (particularly American schooling). I don't mean to say that good, wonderful, and powerful things never happen in schools, because that's patently false. But I don't think that schools accomplish their goals.

So: Schools want to put knowledge into children's heads. How they decide what those things are is a topic for another discussion. But regardless I think that is the fundamental definition of schooling.

The problem is there will always be children that don't want to learn certain topics. Maybe they're not at the right stage of development yet. Maybe they find the topic incredibly boring. Or maybe someone told them they should find it incredibly boring. No matter what the reason, this conflict will happen.

So how do schools respond to this? They have to come up with some external motivation that makes the children "want" to learn the information. This can come in the form of rewards for doing good work, broadly known as "gamification". Or it can come in the form of threats, which are more common. "If you don't do your homework you'll get bad grades, if you get bad grades you'll get held back, and if you get held back your life will be ruined forever".

But these motivators (both positive and negative) don't encourage children to understand and internalize new information, they just encourage children to make it look like they've understood and internalized the new information.

I want to note that while this faking behavior is definitely reinforced by assessment and testing, I don't think that's the fundamental cause. Even if you got rid of all standardized assessment the teacher (whose job it is to put information in heads) will have to determine if the knowledge is in the child's head. Hence the child would still be encouraged to fool the teacher.

So children develop strategies to figure out answers to problems without understanding the answers (or the problems for that matter). They'll continue to say "I don't get it" until the teacher gives them the answer. Or they'll say a few answers until the teacher seems to like one. They'll guess the answer is C because it's usually C. Basically they learn the system and not the material.

In game design terms this is known as a First Order Optimal Strategy. It gives you lots of power (i.e. the ability to get correct answers) but it doesn't help you gain skill. This means that eventually it will come to bite you in the butt. But the reason students employ these strategies is that it takes less effort than trying to understand the material. It is indeed an "optimal" strategy from their perspective.

So we end up with a cycle where the kids are uninterested in the material, which makes them fake learning it, which means they can't learn things they are interested in in the future.

In a sense, the very goal of trying to put information in children's heads defeats itself.

My take away from this book is that if I do decide to do more work with Computer Science education, I don't want to focus on teaching or curriculum. I think the best thing for me to focus would be creating resources that could be used in schools, but aren't targeted at them. I've been taking a lot of inspiration from Montessori style resources, as well as things like Lego Technic pieces, Snap Circuits, and Scratch.

I wanted to talk about a lot more stuff I've been reading but I think I'll leave that for another week =)


Holt, John "How Children Fail" 1995, 1964

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