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Participatory Software

notes on the computer environment for young children


I begin this discussion reporting some legitimate fears people have about the potential impact of technology on their children and conclude that the practical problems of humanizing technology are addressable if people can and do cooperate and participate in the construction of computer experiences which will shape the lives of their children. Our world is becoming progressively artificial. For a humane democracy to survive, the technology of intelligent machines must be controlled by the people for their own best development.
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Personal computers have seized America's imagination, but many thoughtful people are worried, worried especially about their use in education. There are the practical and economic fears, that schools will invest in this technology beyond their means and then be saddled with equipment which no one knows how to use and which may not be what is really best suited for their needs. Such are legitimate concerns. Some people wonder how expenditures for this new technology can be justified at all when there are experienced preschool teachers making minimum wage, and when there are national preschool programs that spend less than 15 dollars a year per child for supplies. [1]

Even more profound worries trouble those who fear that technology will dehumanize education or those who are committed to supporting subdominant cultures within American society. Such fears are also legitimate, and they are shared by people from other nations around the world. It was my privilege, while I worked in Paris at the World Center for Computers and Human Development, to meet representatives from several of the smaller countries of Europe. These people expect children to be changed by their experiences with intelligent machines. They told me of their fear of solid state software, their fear that languages and intelligent facilities built into computers in foreign factories would simultaneously engage their children with a dehumanizing technology and alienate them from the languages and cultures of their homelands.

At the end of these notes, I propose that in education, instead of solid state software, we should prefer something different, a sort of "do it yourself" software that I call participatory software. Along the path to that conclusion, I want to consider some specific ideas about learning, to notice some computer facilities that can be especially significant (sprite graphics and the Logo language), and to focus, for discussion's sake, on a particular purpose, something one might want to achieve with computers: I will explore how computers can help young children develop pre-reading and reading skills. The following discussion goes forward in two stages. First, I'll draw upon material from my book, Computer Experience and Cognitive Development (distributed in the USA by John Wiley, 1985) to exemplify how a reasonably mature performance can be traced down to the concrete details of everyday behavior. Then I will go on to suggest how you might use such a point of view about cognitive development in thinking of good things for your children to do.

Anchoring with Variation

In Computer Experience and Cognitive Development, I analyze case study material about a six year old child, my daughter Miriam, who was under intense observation for six months. She came over to the laboratory to work with me, and I made tape recordings of all our experiments. Beyond transcribing these recorded experiments, I made exceptionally detailed naturalistic observations of her behavior. This was possible because I was the primary caretaker in her life then; we spent all our time together.

A Math World Example

I will use one incident from that study to illustrate the idea of anchoring with variation in arithmetic problem solving. Miriam at six years had not been to school other than a non-didactic kindergarten. She was sitting in our kitchen one day with her eight year old brother, Rob, a second grader. The children were making a kind of play-dough by mixing flour, salt, and water, kneading it all together, and folding it over in plies, rolling it thin, then folding again. My son counted the plies as he folded them over "...ninety three, [then he rolled it thin], ninety four, ninety five, ninety six." Since the lump was getting very unwieldy, he took a knife and cut the stack of 96 plies in half, put the second piece on top of the first, and said, "Now we've got 96 plus 96." Miriam said immediately, " That's a hundred and ninety two." This was a surprising mental calculation for an unschooled six year old. My son turned to his mother and asked, " Could that possibly be right?"

Before I tell you what happened next, let me go back a little bit in the history of Miriam's developing mind to describe what her knowledge of number was like, so we can understand in detail how she came to this surprising result.

Well Known Results as Anchors

Like many children her age, Miriam remembered some simple sums and counted on her fingers. She had even developed a slightly more sophisticated counting procedure, where she could sum seventeen plus six, for example, by beginning "seventeen, [then counting with her fingers] eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two, twenty three." That summarizes Miriam's counting when we started our research.

At the MIT Logo project, Miriam came to do a lot of addition with big numbers, numbers like twenty, and forty, and thirty five. We played with a very simple computer game, called SHOOT. A circle was drawn on the video display screen, and the child commanded an object, which we called the screen turtle -- a little triangle -- and tried to turn that turtle so it would point to the circular target. In making such turns, sometimes Miriam would confuse right and left. She might turn left 35, for example, instead of right 35. To achieve her goal after such an error, she had to do either a right turn 35 and then a second right turn 35 or a single right turn 70. In such a fashion, this world of homely computer play led her into calculations with big numbers. She was able to add numbers like 35 plus 35, this way: "30 plus 30, that's like 3 plus 3 [counting on her fingers], 60, and 5 plus 5 is 10 more, seventy."

The number 90 is a very important number when you're working with geometry, and you have to know right 90 means a specific thing -- turn right through 90 degrees. As we began our experiments, my daughter didn't know that. During one game, Miriam pretended she was the turtle and Rob directed her "right 90". Miriam didn't know what to do, so she turned some (about 30 degrees), counted one, and continued turning and counting. After a few complete turns, she realized that although her action made sense one step at a time, it couldn't be what right 90 meant. Rob provided a little instruction. "You do it this way," he said. "You stand still and you look straight ahead. Hold out an arm, the right arm -- now keep your arm right there, don't move it. Then you jump your body around under your arm. That's what right 90 is." From further experiences with this little world, she learned that 90 plus 90 amounts to 180 degrees. Back to our story about those plies of clay-like material. When Rob asked his mother if this answer of "192" could possibly be right, Miriam spoke up and said, "We know that 90 plus 90 is 180, and 6 is 186... [then counting on her fingers] 187, 188, 189, 190, 191, 192." She gave him a proof for a calculation that seemed extra-ordinary, but the roots of her ability were based very directly on the particulars of her concrete experience. (My research focuses on such detail in order to make it possible to understand the processes of learning.) [2]

Let me now characterize this process of my daughter's mental calculation in the terms of two psychologists from Stanford, Amos Tversky and David Kahnemann. [3] They asked how people make estimates for calculation problems that are too hard to solve. Their characterization, which describes my daughter's mental calculation, is that she "anchored" her thinking at a particular result, 90 plus 90 is 180, and then she performed variations on that well known result with other procedures, concatenation and finger counting in this case. To me, her working of this problem represents the basic situation which people learn through solving problems at the frontier of their knowledge.

If we take seriously such a vision of the role of very concrete and specific knowledge as the roots of competence in performing mental calculation, we might ask "What could possibly be the specific elements of knowledge which underlie a much more complicated mental performance, such as reading." Let's address that question now.

Anchoring with Variation and Reading

A Word World Example

I'm lucky to have not merely one daughter, but three. I've been performing a detailed study of my second daughter's cognitive development during the period in which she's been learning to read. We've had computers in the house all the time, and I have made things for Peggy to play with, because I play with the computers myself, because I like her, and we like to play together. As background, let me review some of the kinds of knowledge about words Peggy had and then go on to discuss how her computer experiences have affected her developing language skills.

The reading study began when she was about three years old. There were many books in our house, but the word knowledge she got from them was quite limited. For example, one of the few words Peggy recognized early was "by," because it was on the title page of all those stories that my wife and I read to her. She saw again and recognized "by" in other contexts. In reading an Asterix cartoon book, an import from France, one of the characters would frequently say things like "By Jupiter." Peg would recognize that word without having the faintest idea what it meant. A second kind of word knowledge she had was the names of members in our family. I am fortunate to have received many love notes from her, which begin "To Dad" or "Bob", present a picture, and conclude "Love, Peggy". The sound of "Bob" was clearly associated with its well known spelling. The real novelty in her experience was using the computer and learning a number of specific words with the computer.



I made for Peggy on a sprite graphics microcomputer a picture of a little scene to represent the beach where she and I often went to play, collect shells, and so forth. In this little world of experience, one can use single words to perform either of two functions. The first function is to create an object. The second is to manipulate the object. The word SUN creates a little yellow ball on the display screen. The word UP moves the object up from its initial location. Other words can change the object's location, direction, or color, and set it in motion. This collection of programs provided Peggy a little world of experience which she could populate and manipulate through the use of individual words. I call such a scene and collection of active objects a computer microworld.


It's possible to populate the scene with a realistic collection of objects. Peggy's scenes were more fanciful. She would often have multiple suns of different colors in the sky. It was her privilege to make the world be what she wanted. Typically, she would go through a prepared collection of 4 x 6 cards and select one for use at the keyboard. She might or might not know what the word meant. For a word she knew, its use satisfied her objective. A word she did not know became the source of a discovery. An error or a guess became, often enough, the occasion of a pleasant surprise. The objects, once their recognizable shapes appeared, became the focus for manipulative activities, often as members of a representational scene, equally often as agents for extreme action (making the SUN ZOOM across the sky) or absurd juxtapositions (a HOUSE in the road or under water). Such programs within the computer embody a little bit of knowledge which a child can call upon when she wants it, if she wants it. She can perform little experiments on things which will increase her knowledge directly in a straightforward and comprehensible way.

Adapting the Microworld For the Child

Images of Objects

Some people may be a little concerned, thinking perhaps that very young children may not be ready to begin typing words. Peggy began with a very simple microworld whose objective was the following: when the child pressed any key, there was displayed on the screen of the computer a shape which she could recognize and might have some significance in her life. The shapes were made specifically for her by her older brother and sister (aged 10 and 8 then). The most unusual one goes with the letter N. Peggy has a red nightgown, her favorite article of clothing. My older daughter knew that and proposed we make N the nightgown letter so it would be special for Peggy. Years later, Peggy still distinguishes between N and M as the "nightgown" and "moon" letters. The central point here is personalization of computer facilities to reflect something of significance to the particular experience of a little child. The value of such personalization is clear. How hard is it ? Not very. A five year old can make sprite design with a graphics shape editor. Miriam at age 8 made most of the 26 shapes used by the program.

Procedures as Names of Objects and Actions

Even more important for children than modifiable screen images is the ability to create new words. For example, when first introduced to the BEACH microworld, Peggy created a SUN image and moved it up to the sky. Informed she wanted to set it in motion, I proposed the word SLOW and found it for her. She wanted the sun to move faster. When I produced the card with the word FAST, its effect was still not satisfactory. " I want it to ZOOM," she told me. Nothing easier. Using the Logo programming language, [4] I wrote for her the following procedure:
The microworld was then more to her liking. ZOOM became one of the first words she could read and key with full comprehension.

Some days later, Miriam played with Peggy while I was away from the house. Together they decided the BEACH world should have a PONY. They made a pony design with the graphics editor, and Miriam wrote a procedure to create it (by copying and changing the SUN procedure). This is her procedure:
Adapting Microworlds to Other Languages

When I joined the World Center for Computers and Human Development in Paris, my family moved to France. Miriam, then 10 years old, translated the BEACH microworld for use with French words, as she proudly noted "in only five hours." That's true, but it is not something I want to make any claims about. What I consider significant are two characteristics of the computer language she was using which permitted her to do so. Logo is a high level language. This means you have a lot of power available to you through a series of reasonably simple language commands. No less important is that Logo is a procedural, interpretive language. This means you can make new words whenever you need to do so. Since those words can be any string of letters entered at the keyboard, the words can be those of any alphabetic language.

Adapting Microworlds to Other Cultures

While in Paris, I worked as a consultant and instructor to colleagues from other countries. My most interesting work was with Senegalese, some government computer scientists and primary instructors from a laboratory school of the Ecole Normale Superieure at Dakar. When we met in Paris, they asked me how they could adapt this computer technology and these programming ideas for use with children in Senegal. Literacy is an issue that is central for their nation. [5]

The Senegalese hope to develop materials in their traditional language which will permit their children to view Wolof as a language of the modern age as well as the home. They can make the attempt because the computer language they have adopted permits them to define new words whenever they want to -- and those letter strings can be words in Wolof.

If a microworld such as BEACH, the French version PLAGE, or a much different Wolof variant XEW were seen as a reading program, it would clearly embody a limited, a pre-syntactic kind of language use. Yet such materials could be precisely what PRE-readers need -- if we take seriously the Piagetian idea that mature performances emerge from the interaction of different but compatible precursors. If children begin to know very well the meaning of many words, such as they could learn from a large number of microworlds, something very special may begin to happen.


An Anecdote

There has been a long-standing debate among educators as to the relative importance of a child's ability to recognize individual words and the child's ability to analyze words she could not recognize at first encounter. (This is the "whole word" versus "decoding" controversy.) Cast your mind back to that earlier example of my daughter's calculation. It was very important in adding 96 plus 96 that Miriam knew a result that she could hold on to, like 90 plus 90 is 180, to get her close the solution of her current problem. Think about reading in the same terms, and consider this example. My second daughter Peggy sat at the kitchen table the other night, poring over the pictures in a cartoon book, and she asked "How do you say the word 's-o-b'?" And then she continued, "It must be /sob/." The child encountered a word she didn't recognize, then figured out how to pronounce it. This is one problem solved in the much longer effort to comprehend the alphabetic code through which the sounds are represented as letter strings.

How did Peggy solve this problem ? I asked her, "Why do you say that?" Peggy replied, "Well, it's like 's' with Bob." My name is one she knows very well, as a sound and an associated string of written symbols. Anchoring her analysis of "s-o-b" at the letter configuration "b-o-b" and its spoken association, Peggy varied her interpretation to make a good hypothesis about how that word should be pronounced; from that partial result, she could speculate about the meaning of the word in the context.

The Engineering Challenge

Let's suppose that problem solving through "anchoring with variation" is an important precursor activity through which a child typically learns those elements of knowledge and those skills which permit her to comprehend how English phonemes are encoded as letter strings. The educator's challenge -- it is a knowledge engineering task -- is to ask "how would you go about making facilities to help children learn an optimal set of anchors ?" I approach the task this way. First, I would analyze the monosyllabic words of the language to choose those which best represent the phonetic/orthographic correspondences.[6] From these I would try to select those words for which little pictures could represent objects and words that understandably represent actions which change the of state of such objects. Finally, I would develop a collection of microworlds -- which could be augmented and tailored to the specific experiences of individual children -- whose vocabulary would cover the largest possible collection of potential word-anchors for use in later reading activities.


Who is able to create this kind of educational software ? Different people can make different parts. For example, my interest is in how ideas develop. I focus on problem solving processes and on content analysis, as a curriculum specialist would. As an experienced programmer interested in making programming accessible to other people, I make models of microworlds. High level languages, such as Logo, provide a tool for other people to make their own versions of microworlds tailored for use by individual children. Who can participate in this process of tailoring microworlds ? Shapes can be made easily with a graphics editor. Even some little children of five years can make their own. Parents can make them for their young children or toddlers. Older kids, parents, teachers, and helpers can make new words for playing with. Kindergarten children can do so for themselves. Background scenes can be made by more technically inclined people, adults or adolescents (some younger children can do so), but if scene-making seems beyond the reach of young children, please observe that even little kids can say what they want the scenes to be. Developing new microworlds requires both ideas about content and technical skill; people can cooperate with one another. That is the main point: many people with different skills can participate in developing computer based materials which will help make the whole world more comprehensible to children. This is what I mean by participatory software.

If you're thinking of introducing technology into a preschool program, the technology should be one that parents, teachers, and their helpers can master and control.

In the close social situations of early childhood education, where adults and children can work as a group on providing a good learning environment for the little children, it must be clear to the children that the technology they have available is not something created by and only supportable by remote experts who shape their lives but care nothing for them.

I began this discussion noticing some legitimate fears people have about the potential impact of technology on their children. I conclude with the conviction that the practical problems of humanizing technology are addressable if people can and do cooperate and participate in the construction of computer experiences which will shape the lives of their children.

Our world is becoming progressively artificial. I have set forth some ideas about technology here as a psychologist and information systems engineer. I hope that I have also spoken to you as a father of children and as a fellow citizen. For a humane democracy to survive, the technology of intelligent machines must be controlled by the people for their own best development.

Publication notes:

Text notes:
  1. I can not address such questions, even though I respect them. I try to present here a view of what is possible, which can in turn inform decisions of what is desirable and feasible. For a current assessment of fruitful future directions, see "Promising Areas for Research and the Development of Prototypes", an informal survey of 30 selected, active researchers in the Artificial Intelligence and Education community. These notes were prepared by R. W. Lawler for inclusion in Information Technologies and Basic Learning, 1986, a series of studies prepared by the Center for Educational Research and Innovation at the Paris Headquarters of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
  2. More detail of this story is available in Chapter Two of Computer Experience and Cognitive Development., R. W. Lawler, 1986. Alternately, see "The Progressive Construction of Mind," in Cognitive Science (1980, pp. 1-30), also available in the digital text extending this online collection of materials.
  3. See "Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases", Science, 1974, 185, 1124-1131.
  4. Logo is a programming language which permits a user to define new assemblies of its primitive functions as words at any time.
  5. Their country was under French colonial rule until the end of the Second World War. The official language in the country is French in government, commerce, and education. Yet in their homes the children speak different languages. The dominant traditional language in the home is Wolof.
  6. For a systematic analysis of possible and existing English monosyllables and their alphabetic representation, see my paper "Computer Microworlds and Reading: An Analysis for Their Systematic Application", Instructional Science, Vol. 14, 1986.

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