What computer science teachers could learn from painting instructors and media artists

Papert, S. (1988). Does Easy Do It? Children, Games, and Learning. Game Developer Magazine. Retrieved from http://papert.org/articles/Doeseasydoit.html (Links to an external site.)

Papert, S., & Solomon, C. (1971). Twenty things to do with a computer. [Cambridge, Mass.]: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, A.I. Laboratory. Retrieved from http://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/5836/AIM-248.pdf?sequence=2 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.

Computer as Material: Messing About with Time

Teaching Computer Science and Drawing are not, and will never be the same.

Learning drawing is linear. Every stroke of paint translates directly into a visual feedback on a piece of canvas. Every new drawing technique reflects quickly onto a different perspective of relating to the drawing object. Learn computer science is similar to learning a new language – the learning process is not linear, but exponential. Understand how to say “hello” in a foreign language or coding language does not get one nearly as far as learning how to mark the canvas with a drop of paint.

As educators, our job isn’t about tricking learners into thinking learning computer science isn’t hard. As a matter of fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Learning computer science is not the same as learning drawing, and it never will be. To deconstruct the process of learning painting, we can think of gaining knowledge of different types of paper, paint, paint brushes, and observational skills. Each learning element remains mostly independent, affecting all other learning element with immediacy. On the other hand, Computer Science is a systematic languages that have much more complex inherent structures. Take for example the basic building block of a computer science language: Variables, Functions, Logic, Loop, Array, Objects, Interface, Inheritance. Variables and Logic build into Functions – ways to define behaviors that are not necessarily bound to specific objects, subjects, and can be manipulated very easily with Parameters and Input. Loops allow similar behaviors to be repeated efficiently with controlled variations. Arrays are structures that organizes Variables and Objects according to similar data type. Objects groups variables and functions in ways that’s very similar to how individual humans have memories and behaviors that’s uniquely different to each of us. Interface and Inheritance allows objects to share similarities while maintain differences.

Chocolate coated broccoli will never get kids to really like broccoli, but making the importance of eating broccoli even less convincing. Similarly, designing math learning platforms to “look and feel” like drawing tools isn’t enough either. The only way to help learners learn complex concepts is to break it down into tiny elements, so tiny that it really starts to feel effortless, like leaving paint marks on canvases. Also similar to learning painting, when teaching these elements, there needs to be immediate, intuitive feedback, which is another lesson computer science teachers can learn from painters. Each time when a tiny progress is made, there should be a genuine feedback to acknowledge the progress in a neutral way, similar to a tone being played at the struct of a cord.

TurtleArt and LOGOs are a tools that successfully accomplished these two learning designs – Modularity and Feedback. Some students and adults are finding these tools limiting again, because a new problem arose. TurtleArt and LOGOs successfully trained learners on basic computational concepts over a period of few weeks, but the learners are losing interests because they don’t know what to do with it. Although good design manages to convince the leaners to stay on for a relatively long period of time, it’s not long enough for students to grow an intimate relationship with the tool.

I think a fundamental disconnect about tools like TurtleArt is because the creator was designing a digital and computational learning tool, while the leaners are looking for an experience of an entirely different nature. Today’s young learners don’t think of engaging with digital and computational media as a learning experience to prepare them for a future life, but life itself. Today’s young learners belong to part of the generations that grew up together with technology. They spend more time crafting their facebook profiles and talking to friends on snapchats. To them, building cities in Second Life and MineCraft isn’t just another simulated learning experience, it is thoughts, feelings that are just as real as feelings and thoughts generated in physical reality.

In new media classrooms, learners no longer see technology as a tool for innovating new vocabularies of expression, but expression itself. In the new media objects they create, there is a humanistic layer deeply embedded within the usage of media technology. So, we need tools not designed for learning, but expressing. The literal interpretation of learning is one of “the latest example of a larger modern trend to externalize mental life”(Menovich, Lev). By asking students to find “innovative ways” to complete pre-defined project ideas or solve pre-defined problems, we are mistaking our own challenges and aspirations for our students’. One other reason why students stay with drawing as a life-time learning journey is because it doesn’t feel like learning. When we draw, we are creating a mental space to engage a deep and intimate conversation with various identities of the Self – a space that’s limitless, ever expanding and never concluding. 

When we use the concept of “interactive media” exclusively in relation to computer-based media, there is danger that we interpret “interaction” literally, equating it with physical interaction between a user and a media object (pressing a button, choosing a link, moving the body), at the sake of psychological interaction. The psychological processes of filling-in, hypothesis forming, recall and identification, which are required for us to comprehend any text or image at all, are mistakenly identified with an objectively existing structure of interactive links. This mistake is not new; on the contrary, it is a structural feature of history of modern media. 

– Lev Menovich

In order to account for the psychological, conceptual, emotional, and aesthetic aspect of digital learning, I’d like to point to media production platforms like Processing and Unity as alternative tools for learning computer programming, alongside with learning generative art and interaction design principles [to be continued]








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