failures of dogmatic constructivism

May 18th, 2008

My truly shitty classroom

There’s a deep and excellent essay here by Ivan Krstić, recently displaced of the OLPC project. Man, we all had such high hopes for this P.O.S., but it looks like Negroponte’s ego and gung-ho adherence to the flimsy tenets and dogma of Constructionist thought have conspired to sink the boat:

As far as I know, there is no real study anywhere that demonstrates constructionism works at scale. There is no documented moderate-scale constructionist learning pilot that has been convincingly successful; when Nicholas points to “decades of work by Seymour Papert, Cooper Peters, Alan Kay, and Jean Piaget”, he’s talking about theory. He likes to mention Dakar, but doesn’t like to mention how that pilot ended — or that no real facts about the validity of the approach came out of it. And there sure as hell doesn’t exist a peer-reviewed study (or any other kind, to my knowledge) showing free software does any better than proprietary software when it comes to aiding learning, or that children prefer the openness, or that they care about software freedom one bit.

This passage took me back to my (mercifully short) time teaching computer science at a local Western Massachusetts high school. I had a classroom full of truly shitty Windows machines, which annoyed me to no end at first, but soon enough I discovered with an install of free software on them (Firefox, WAMPserver, Notepad++) they became perfectly reasonable ways to teach HTML and PHP.

By using the correct software, the underlying OS fell away, and it wasn’t important that these machines were 8+ years old and running Windows — they did what they needed to do to serve the students’ needs. The fact that the software was free and open was lucky (because the school system was essentially broke!) but not at all necessary for the learning process. Having the students editing text via emacs, vi, or nano wouldn’t have meant anything at all — and now, having come around to finally embracing this mode of thought and “lowering his standards” to allow a plebian OS such as Windows XP on his beloved hardware, it’s too late. The industry has figured out how to make better OLPC-style hardware powerful enough to run Windows, linux — whatever the kids might need to use in order to learn.

The true shame is epitomized by this reddit comment:

The most depressing part of it is that Negroponte rejected [Steve] Jobs’ offer of free Mac OS X on basis that it wasn’t fully open source. Now he’s thrilled to get a cut-down version of 7-year-old closed-source, commercial OS at $3 per license + $7 for extra memory to hold the bloat.

Ouch. It’s funny because it’s true.

~Jeff

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