Thursday, April 23, 2009

Tangible Tech

Eisenberg attempts to develop Mindstorms a step further by suggesting not only integrating computers into life like Papert first suggested, but rather by integrating computers and technology back into the tangible environment of life. He suggests ways in which designers should aim to make programmable glow in the dark string that the child himself could program to change color on his wall. Or the use of memory metal to make new shapes at certain temperatures. It is an attempt to make the tangible world of the child into a “Mathland” that Papert first advocated, not only on the computer screen, but literally outside “the box.” I like the idea that technology can be integrated into the cuddly “security blankets” that children carry around with them because they can’t bear to separate from them. I know that I got particularly attached to my yellow turtle, cow, and clam in my Microworld program.

Moreover, there has actually been considerable research suggesting the importance of tangible objects in a young child’s world—in particular, blocks—that support Einsenberg’s suggestion to integrate technology into fabrication tools. Blocks aid a child’s cognitive and physical development. They allow a child to not only deconstruct a larger idea but also construct a new idea from base elements. Unit blocks such as the ones Einsenberg talks of have been shown to be important tools for children to symbolically represent themselves and their limitations within the world.

However, with the addition of technology, the children will be able to transcend these limitations in ways that will help them to realize impossibilities that may soon, with the aid of technology, become realities. Perhaps, a child exploring ideas of balance and gravity may become an avid astronaut but is currently too tethered to the realities of gravity on earth to imagine the possibilities that exist outside his current environment. Thus, I agree with Einsenberg that as education moves toward integrating technology into its curriculum, it is integral to fabricate tangible counterparts for the ideas explored on screen, just as the original turtle existed as a robot that could be touched, held, and moved manually and electronically. In particular, I remember using blocks of various lengths to illustrate algebraic models and it helped me to understand how an “x” could be multiplied to create an x2 square or an x3 cube.

Edwards spends a significant amount of his article discussing language that surrounds microworlds, as they have been said to “represent” and “embody” elements of mathematical and scientific ideas. While Eisenberg discusses the importance of a microworld as being a controlled environment where rules pervade and experimental error can be more or less be controlled for, Edwards finds microworlds to sometimes be limiting. He quotes diSessa as explaining the importance of discovery in a microworld: “As diSessa has noted (diSessa, 1982), it is during moments of surprise, when the unexpected happens, that the power of a microworld is most apparent” (67). Consequently Edwards reprimands programs like Geometer’s sketchpad because it has pull down menus from which children can automatically create triangles and squares instead of programming them. However, Edwards fails to mention that the purpose of that program was to discover more advanced geometry principles, and in this way it helps streamline the learning if triangles and squares can be created simply so that angles, rotations, and transformations can be explored.

While I agree with Edwards that computer programs disguised as games can be great ways for children to learn, I would advocate Eisenberg’s idea of fabricated tools to help that cognitive development. Edwards himself talks about the importance of kinesthetic cognition, and as a dancer, I am not one to argue. Lastly, Edwards brings up a great point about the calculator as a potential tool for exploration. While it was originally set up to make more complicated calculations simpler, children who discovered the factorial button outstretched the borders of their current knowledge. This idea of using tools in alternative ways is something that should be advocated in learning, not reprimanded.

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