Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Learning Creative Learning: Reading List for Week 4

There's quite a lot in this one. If its a "too long; didn't read" skip it, but consider these open questions before you go:
  • How can I create an ego-boosting community in my classes (similar to stack-overflow, wikipedia contributions, the open source movement,  modding communities, etc.), where students are recognised and praised by their peers for contributions to a common goal?
  • What desirable and common end-goal should all students be working towards anyway?
  • How can I leverage students to work as beta-testers; looking for possible tweaks/improvements in the product (Maths education) I offer to them?
  • How can I make collaborative learning a fundamental part of Maths class? How about in Maths homework?

John Seely Brown and Richard Adler (2008): Minds on Fire. Educause Review.

Discusses the shortcomings of traditional schooling, and offers an alternative; open participatory learning ecosystem. It is certainly an interesting read, but is hard for me to take much from as a teacher, as it starts from the premise that teaching itself is fundamentally flawed, and its alternative proposals (in my opinion) are kind of fuzzy.


  • He describes what happened when his students were required to share their coursework publicly:
    "Because my goal as a teacher is to bring my students into full legitimate participation in the community of instructional technologists as quickly as possible, all student writing was done on public blogs. The writing students did in the first few weeks was interesting but average.

    In the fourth week, however, I posted a list of links to all the student blogs and mentioned the list on my own blog. I also encouraged the students to start reading one another’s writing. The difference in the writing that next week was startling. Each student wrote significantly more than they had previously. Each piece was more thoughtful. Students commented on each other’s writing and interlinked their pieces to show related or contradicting thoughts.

    Then one of the student assignments was commented on and linked to from a very prominent blogger. Many people read the student blogs and subscribed to some of them. When these outside comments showed up, indicating that the students really were plugging into the international comunity’s discourse, the quality of the writing improved again. The power of peer review had been brought to bear on the assignments. "
I really like this idea and way to introduce collaborative learning as a fundamental part of class. I'm not entirely sure how it could be applied in a Maths class though.

Ivan Illich: Deschooling Society (Chapter 6: Learning Webs)

This is similar to the last essay, but makes more links to the open-source movement (discussed below), and makes the argument for decentralizing and openning up access to knowledge. I can see benefits and problems to this approach.


  • "What kinds of things and people might learners want to be in contact with in order to learn?"
  • Four approaches which enable students to gain access to any educational resource which may help him to define and achieve his own goals:
    1. Reference Services to Educational Objects-which facilitate access to things or processes used for formal learning. Some of these things can be reserved for this purpose, stored in libraries, rental agencies, laboratories, and showrooms like museums and theaters; others can be in daily use in factories, airports, or on farms, but made available to students as apprentices or on off hours.
    2. Skill Exchanges--which permit persons to list their skills, the conditions under which they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills, and the addresses at which they can be reached.
    3. Peer-Matching--a communications network which permits persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage, in the hope of finding a partner for the inquiry.
    4. Reference Services to Educators-at-Large--who can be listed in a directory giving the addresses and self-descriptions of professionals, paraprofessionals, and free-lancers, along with conditions of access to their services. Such educators, as we will see, could be chosen by polling or consulting their former clients.

Eric Steven Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar (essay) [Note: Open in a new window or tab] 

This is the reading that really piqued my interest this week. It is an account of the development of an open-source project, fetchmail, that was run as a deliberate test of certain theories about the Bazaar-style development process of the Linux OS.

Quotes on interest-driven motivation:

  • # 1. Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch.
  • # 4. If you have the right attitude, interesting problems will find you.
  • # 18. To solve an interesting problem, start by finding a problem that is interesting to you.
  • From Pyotr Alexeyvich Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist:
    "Having been brought up in a serf-owner’s family, I entered active life, like all young men of my time, with a great deal of confidence in the necessity of commanding, ordering, scolding, punishing and the like. But when, at an early stage, I had to manage serious enterprises and to deal with [free] men, and when each mistake would lead at once to heavy consequences, I began to appreciate the difference between acting on the principle of command and discipline and acting on the principle of common understanding.The former works admirably in a military parade, but it is worth nothing where real life is concerned, and the aim can be achieved only through the severe effort of many converging wills."  
  • Linus [Founder/"manager" of Linux development], by successfully positioning himself as the gatekeeper of a project in which the development is mostly done by others, and nurturing interest in the project until it became self-sustaining, has shown an acute grasp of Kropotkin’s “principle of shared understanding”. 
  • Human beings generally take pleasure in a task when it falls in a sort of optimal-challenge zone; not so easy as to be boring, not too hard to achieve. A happy programmer is one who is neither under-utilized nor weighed down with ill-formulated goals and stressful process friction. Enjoyment predicts efficiency.
There is lots of talk in this essay about building a base of volunteers around an interesting problem. People helped with fetchmail because they saw the promise of what the program might be able to achieve eventually. It was also an ego-boost to contribute in this community of hackers.

Quotes on ego as a motivating factor:

  • Linus was keeping his hacker/users constantly stimulated and rewarded – stimulated by the prospect of having an ego-satisfying piece of the action, rewarded by the sight of constant (even daily) improvement in their work [through OS updates].
  • The “utility function” Linux hackers are maximizing is not classically economic, but is the intangible of their own ego satisfaction and reputation among other hackers.
  • Voluntary cultures that work this way are not actually uncommon; one other in which I have long participated is science fiction fandom, which unlike hackerdom has long explicitly recognized “egoboo” (ego-boosting, or the enhancement of one’s reputation among other fans) as the basic drive behind volunteer activity.
  • We may view Linus’s method as a way to create an efficient market in “egoboo” – to connect the selfishness of individual hackers as firmly as possible to difficult ends that can only be achieved by sustained cooperation.
This resonates with my attempts to create a learning culture in my classes, where the effort and struggle of learning new topics is rewarded by peer recognition.

Quotes on building interest:

  • When you start community-building, what you need to be able to present is a plausible promise. It can be crude, buggy, incomplete, and poorly documented. What it must not fail to do is (a) run, and (b) convince potential co-developers that it can be evolved into something really neat in the foreseeable future.
  • It is not a coincidence that Linus is a nice guy who makes people like him and want to help him. It’s not a coincidence that I’m an energetic extrovert who enjoys working a crowd and has some of the delivery and instincts of a stand-up comic. To make the bazaar model work, it helps enormously if you have at least a little skill at charming people.
Two other motivating factors are listed here: an intriguing/desirable and acheivable end-goal, and a charismatic personality (That's me!).

 Quotes on crowd-sourcing and benefitting from a user-base:

  • Treating your users as co-developers is your least-hassle route to rapid code improvement and effective debugging.
  • Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone.
  • If you treat your beta-testers as if they’re your most valuable resource,they will respond by becoming your most valuable resource.
This is very much how I see this edu-twitter-blog-iverse thing; you have an idea put it out there, it gets ripped to shreds and you come out with something much better than you started with. Unfortunately most comments at the moment are limited to few blogs, so most people don't see much of this process. 

 Quotes on reuse and the iterative process:

  • Good programmers know what to write. Great ones know what to rewrite (and reuse).
  • "Plan to throw one away; you will, anyhow.”
  • Release early and often.
  • When you lose interest in a program, your last duty to it is to hand it over to a competent successor.
This is certainly how I work in general; have an idea that sounds great in my head, try it and watch it crash and burn, rebuild it, watch it crash and burn more gracefully, repeat until it can fly.


  • Often, the most striking and innovative solutions come from realizing that your concept of the problem was wrong.
This reminds me of the idea that when a student asks "When will we ever learn this?", they aren't really asking that question.

The GNU Manifesto

This is a manifesto written at the start of the open-source movement and details both the ideals the movement tries to achieve and the reasons behind them. Definitely an interesting and inspiring read!

The Free Universal Encyclopedia and Learning Resource

(Kind of) an initial manifesto for what would later become the giant that is Wikipedia.