Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Emerging Creativity: NetLogo and all those extra turtles.

To Mindstorms and Beyond

"All through her creative process, she was mindful of the most natural and comfortable design for the actual use of the device. As an added bonus, she programmed the Cricket to play music while one would get their nails done. Her project, even though may not have appeared technical or scientific at first, had much science, engineering, industrial and artistic design. These types of projects present an excellent path into and preparation for scientific thinking." (Martin et al. pp. 13-14)

The quote above refers to one child's endeavor to create a nail salon using the tools she had learned from LOGO. It emphasizes not only her ability to logically think about the processes involved in her creation--ranging from the types of sensors she needed to use to detect hand presence to the most efficacious motion of the buffer cotton--but also, the project required that she used creativity to generate ideas for alternate uses of technology and the skills she was learning. I recently watched a video on TED by Ken Robinson about how schools are crushing creativity in exchange for teaching skills. While the chicken and egg discussion could be had in reference to fact/skill learning, there is something to be said about learning creativity. Again, this balance needs to be struck between concrete and abstract knowledge.

James Flynn attributes the "Flynn effect" (rising IQ scores in the 20th century) to the shift from concrete practical knowledge during pre-scientific revolution to abstract ideas post-scientific revolution. However, he also notes that if one was to have a person from the 1950s and a modern day person---each without knowledge of a car--fix a motor, it is likely that the 1950s participant would succeed due to his concrete knowledge. This idea, to me, reflects the use of LOGO and NetLOGO as a way of returning to concrete knowledge behind the black box of a computer. In this way, the computer itself can be broken down to its constituent parts. However, Flynn also argues that the reason why modern society has been able to move on to abstract thinking (assuming that we believe that abstract formal knowledge is more "advanced" than concrete practical knowledge) is because concrete knowledge is already being performed for us by technology. So, the question remains, to what extent do we need to dissect the black box if the black box allows us to think a step further? Or, can we even get to that next step if we do not know how the black box came to the "simple" conclusion first?

Thinking in Levels

"However, as long as students hold tightly to the deterministic mindset, they will never develop a complete understanding of “emergent levels,” since they will miss the key role that randomness plays in the mechanisms of emergence" (Wilensky & Resnick, 10)

While I agree with Wilensky and Resnick that emergent levels are a good way to conceptualize larger phenomena, I'm wondering about the ways in which emergent systems could be applied to other subjects. Could it be applied to literature or a field where individual entities are not self-governing? In many ways, teachers already take an emergent approach to teaching writing, as they focus first on the individual cells (words) and then the larger phenomenon (the paragraph, the essay). These concepts are not hierarchically learned but rather learned in levels of parts and a whole. The most intriguing element of using NetLogo models for studying real world phenomena to me is still the element of the unexpected, the randomness component. When creating a model of a larger phenomenon it is easier to enforce what one thinks will happen, however when each individual turtle is given simple rules, unexpected phenomena will emerge.

Moreover, I wonder about how this ideal would be implemented in collectivistic cultures? Would it be more accepted across the board merely because collectivistic societies already see communities as the individual entity working for the good of the whole?

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