The Future of Reading and Learning

Some excerpts that I found interesting from Alan Kay’s paper on the future of reading and learning.

New Medium Adoption

Becoming a fluent reader and writer requires new and deep skills to be learned, to the extent that we are not the same human being afterwards. Anthropological studies of societies show that literate societies think differently than oral ones. In other words, a literate society is not “an oral society with a writing system” but is a new ecology of ideas and thinking.

McLuhan pointed out that what is most important about a communications medium is what we have to become in order to use it fluently.

The more different and difficult the medium, the less attractive — or even visible — it appears. Another McLuhan insight is that new media which are adopted at all first take their content from older and more familiar media. For example, it was important that the printed Gutenberg Bible be a Bible, and also look like a hand-made manuscript copy. Gradually, if the new medium has powers of its own, these will start to be found and used. The real message of printing was not to imitate hand-written Bibles, but 150 years later to argue in new ways about science and political governance. These are what forever changed Europe, and then America.

For example, the American system was argued into existence and shaped by writing and reading. Tom Paine’s Common Sense was an argument against the commonsense of the day that “Monarchies seem natural” Instead he urged “We need to design our governance system”. The Constitution was argued pro and con in the newspapers of the 13 colonies. The pro collection is “The Federalist Papers”, and there is also a collection of “Anti-Federalist Papers”.

Four Systems

Another powerful perspective on the worlds we live in has arisen in the 20th century: Systems. In simplest terms, we humans are embedded in four great systems of systems: the natural universe, our social systems, our technological systems, and ourselves: “The systems we live in, and the systems we are”. This way of looking at complexity has its own powers, outlook, vocabulary, dynamics, theories and principles.

Many of the most important issues of the 21st century can be fruitfully examined through the eyes of systems organizations and dynamics.

Learning to Learn Difficult-To-Learn Things

Most of the invented “powerful ideas” — such as mathematics, science, equal rights, systems, musical architectures such as harmony and counterpoint, etc. — had to be invented because they are not strongly built into our genetically constructed brains. We can learn them to some extent because we can make structures and processes that are a bit like biological brains from internal representations in languages, and skills in manipulating the languages. For example, we aren’t wired for the notions of change that Calculus was invented for, but we can get fluent enough in the artificial system of Calculus to outthink the greatest geniuses of antiquity in these areas. In many respects, the main reason for structured education is to help people learn difficult to learn things.

The future of learning difficult-to-learn things depends on the willingness of learners to spend many hours over years getting fluent.

The best of the ideas have to do with how to harness the intelligence and drives of the learners to provide deep interior motivation for many hours of learning and practice.

The future of learning difficult-to-learn things is the future of learning to make difficult-to-make things — in other words, the future of “reading” depends on the future of “writing”.

Building a Computer Teacher

We aim for a computer learning helper agent that is better than no teacher, better than a bad teacher, as good as a decent teacher, and will not attempt the magic of a great teacher. We need at least:

  1. To see and interpret what the learner is doing and feeling
  2. To be able to communicate in the usual human modalities
  3. A good model of the subject matter
  4. A good model of how the subject matter is best learned by a variety of learners
  5. A good model of human commonsense reasoning, to put the tutoring agent as much as possible in the same world as the learners
  6. “Relationship theories”, e.g. strategies that avoid becoming a prosthetic for the knowledge, but which constantly move towards helping the ideas and skills get built inside the learner
  7. Authoring systems for “teachers of the computer agents” that allow content and pedagogical experts to inform a general tutoring system about specific subjects and methods of approach.

The next qualitative advance in user interface environments will be: a teacher for every learner — user interfaces that can deeply help end users learn new ideas and whole subjects.

The Real Computer Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet

Part of a new idea — whether application or how to be more facile on one’s computer — can be the “advice to the user interface” about how to help the end user learn the new ideas.

This means that the real computer revolution hasn’t happened yet. And, that we will miss it if we can’t think beyond the long present that was created by a few inventions 40 years ago. One of the ways to do this is to “cross out the present” and try to move beyond what we believe we want, to think about what we actually need. Only then can we understand the future powers of technologies in the grand tradition of writing and the printing press to amplify the best parts of our nature and help us move beyond our genetic cages to our more enlightened destiny.