GSoC 2020: Unified Visions

Published 8/3/20


So the last month has been a bit of a wild ride! There was a lot of work done on a very detailed design document laying out different methods for implementing the component upgrading system. That is, the system for adding dropdown blocks to components that had already been released. There were a lot of tradeoffs related to different aspects of backwards compatibility (blocks compat, Java compat, and Companion compat) and the level of abstraction we wanted to have.

What ended up happening is that we decided to finish implementing a completely concrete system, which is guaranteed to be 100% backwards compatible. Then we will implement a sanitization system within the Scheme runtime (which lives on the companion app) to convert concrete values returned from the Java to abstract enum values, if that particular function returning the values has an annotation stating that the value can be converted. This will gain us more abstraction while being backwards compatible.

So lots of work is happening! All of the functionality and basic dropdown blocks are implemented, the code just just needs to be reviewed and merged. I'm pretty confident that by the end of the month (and my project) we can get a good chunk of the work completed :D And it should be left in a good place so that others can continue the work after I am gone!

Unified Visions

So recently I finished two very good books, Mindstorms by Seymour Papert and Finnish Lessons 2 by Pasi Sahlberg, both of which have been making me think about American's collective vision for education. Seymour Paper had (what seems to me to be) a pretty clear vision for what he thought future of education should be. He thought that formal education should change to be focused more on the independent curiosity of the child, and should be built to facilitate their exploration of the world and their innate ability for what he called "Piagetian learning" which is the kind of "unconscious" learning children experience when they first learn language.

Similarly John Dewey (whom I have not read yet, but I am slowly getting an impression of) had an idea that schools should be a democratic environment where students have an opportunity to take ownership of their education. He had a vision where a school was not just a place for learning your ABCs but also learning to be the best you you can be.

Sir Ken Robinson (again whom I have not yet read) talks about finding your "Element". A thing that you are not only good at, but enjoy doing. He seems to have a vision for schools where they facilitate children finding the thing they want to do for the rest of their lives, rather than training set skills.

This demonstrates that America has a swath of innovative educational ideas, which begs the question: Why hasn't America done anything yet?

Honestly, if you think about it simplistically, it's kind of ridiculous that America's educational system is in such the sorry state that it is. America is a hotbed for pedagogical innovation and research, yet it seems like very few of those innovations make it into our schools, while at the same time they are adopted by many other countries.

I think that Pasi Sahlberg's Finnish Lessons has given me some perspective on this. He explains in his book that Finland's educational system used to really suck. But Finland was small enough and unified enough that they could create a unified vision for a new system of education. A system based on comprehensive, individualized, and diverse schooling. A system which considered the profession of teaching to be a creative, fulfilling, but also research-based career. And a system which was highly influenced by the constructivist ideas of Papert, the democratic ideals and social-reform aspirations of Dewey, and the individual potential praised by Robinson.

Sahlberg argues that there are many interconnected governmental and social systems which allowed Finland's educational system to flourish. A point which I tend to agree with. The main governmental system he sited in influencing Finland's schools was the welfare state. He argues that the idea that everyone has a right to governmentally funded welfare, regardless of their contribution to society, gives the government an interest in improving the contributions of their citizens, which is done primarily through education. And he argues that the meme of Finland as a knowledge-based economy lead individual citizens (as well as businesses) to value the education of the young.

This discussion of Finland has given me some new ideas about why America still has such a poor educational system, despite our interest in pedagogy.

The Size of America

Changing a country's educational system requires decades of directed work (in Finland's case, at least 3). This requires a unified (if not detailed) vision of what the populous wants the educational system to look like.

I disagree with the statement that America is "incredibly diverse". Compared to the size of our country I think our cultural diversity is actually quite low (but that's based on nothing hehe). What I do believe is that our country is incredibly divided, and part of that is because we are such a large country.

Changing an education system requires broad fundamental agreement, which is difficult when you have 330 million citizens (compared to just 5.5 in Finalnd). Especially when you are dealing with a country struck by serious historical divides (like racism), and a terrible, divisionist voting system.

The Identity of Americans

The obvious solution to this problem of agreement would be to work on a smaller scale. For example, 3/5 US states have a population comparable to, or less than, the population of Finland. It would make sense to enact educational change on this smaller scale, where you can generate more agreement.

I believe the problem with this is that Americans do not identify with their states in the same way they identify with their country.

For example Sahlberg sites Finland's desire to be a knowledge-based economy as a strong driver of their education change. I don't believe that this is available as a state-based driver of change because Americans simply don't know the economic state of their states. For example, quarterly economic reports for America are highly publicized, but the quarterly state reports rarely get coverage.

I also think that America's educational system has become increasingly nationalized, which makes it difficult for individual states to take responsibility. Starting with Bush's No Child Left Behind and then continuing with Obama's Race to the Top, we've become more and more focused on nationalized "standards". These nationalized guidelines make it harder for states to act as individuals, and change their own educational systems.


So at this point, I doubt that America's educational system will improve in the way it needs to to be competative on the national stage. The social pressures are simply not focused in the right directions to get America's educational system to move.

I hope that as more young people get into leadership positions, this system can improve. I also believe that a more representative voting system (such as Single Transferable Vote) would grease a lot of wheels wrt our government.

So maybe in the future there will be an opportunity for system-level educational innovation in America. But for now I think we are stuck with stagnation.


Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. Paper, Seymour A

Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Pasi Sahlberg

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