teaching machines

Bruner on the Power of Writing and Mathematics

I’d seen Jerome Bruner’s Towards a Theory of Instruction recommended somewhere, and my library had a well-worn copy of just waiting to be read. Bruner himself is apparently also well-worn. He was born in 1915—and is apparently still teaching!

Much of what Bruner has to say revolves around active learning. Probably this book was more revolutionary for its readers at the time of publication than it is for me. Having grown up in an educational system that benefited from Bruner’s work, I find many of the ideas familiar. At one point, he confesses that he sometimes would rather teach a writing course than courses in his discipline of educational psychology. Writing, he claims, is one of the most transformational activities one can engage in. But then he despairs about the state of things:

It is more than a little troubling to me that so many of our students dislike two of the major tools of thought—mathematics and the conscious deployment of their native language in its written form, both of them devices for ordering thoughts about things and thoughts about thoughts. I should hope that in the new era that lies ahead we will give proper consideration to making these tools more lovable. Perhaps the best way to make them so is to make them more powerful in the hands of their users.

This last sentence made me feel excited about my own field of computer science. The digital blank slate of a computer represents a platform where two things are relatively easy: creating and sharing.

Creating is easy in the sense that this is the natural thing to do on a computer. One teaches it to do something that it doesn’t already know how to do, leaning heavily on knowledge from other domains, especially mathematics and logic. It’s a brink into an undefined world that will be built up only by us breathing it into life.

Sharing is easy in the sense that distributing our creations to a worldwide audience is as simple as uploading some files to the Internet. Consumption of a digital resource does not deplete it in any way, and copies are virtually free.

To many young folks, the physical world that we live in feels preassembled and stuck in an imperfect state governed by external authority. The feeling of powerlessness leads to boredom and indifference. The computer represents a new beginning. On it we forge worlds built by our math, our words, our design, our knowledge, and our imagination. Then we let others in to explore. The computer hands out free power.

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