Learning as Debugging


Recently in Luxembourg there was a talk on ‘Mathematics Education’. As always being interested in STEM and the cultivation of learning and thinking, I found this fascinating.
I came across on Robert Talbert’s excellent blog, the following:

Yes! As somebody once said, true learning consists in the debugging process. And that’s where the fun in learning happens to lie, too. Let’s give students as many shots as possible to experience this process themselves.

The ‘someone’ he referred to is Seymour Papert. Such views are also proposed by Marvin Minsky in his OLPC Memos.

Many people are firmly convinced that to have a mechanical image of oneself must lead to a depressing sense of helplessness—because it means that you’re doomed to remain what you are, and there’s nothing that you can do about this. However, I’ll argue exactly the opposite: seeing yourself as a kind of machine can be a liberating idea—because whatever you might dislike about yourself, that might be caused by a bug that you could fix! For example, contrast these pairs of self-images:

I’m not good at math. —There are some bugs in my symbolic processes.
I’m just not very smart —— Some of my programs need improvements.
I don’t like this subject. ———- My current goals need better priorities.
I am confused. ———–Some of my processes may conflict with others.

If you think of yourself in terms of “I”, then you’ll see yourself as a single thing, that has no parts to change or rearrange. But using “My” can help you to envision yourself as composed of parts, which could enable you to imagine specific changes that might improve your ways to think. In other words, if you can represent your mind as made of potentially repairable machinery, then you can think about remedies. For example, you might be able to diagnose some bugs or deficiencies in the apparatus that you use for everyday functions like these:

Time-management. —– Organizing Searches. ——-Splitting problems into parts.
Selecting good ways to represent things. —–Making appropriate cognitive maps.
Allocating short-term memory. ———- Making appropriate Credit Assignments.

It seems clear that some children are better than others are at doing this kind of “self reflection.” Could this be a skill that we could teach? Perhaps, but this might not yet be practical because we don’t yet know enough about our human mental machinery. However, the types of projects this essay recommends could help us to promote that goal, by giving our children more tools to use for constructing better views of themselves!

The notion of viewing yourself as someone who can change, and that ‘debugging’ is part of the learning process is extremely valuable. Perhaps the greatest advantage that computers in STEM education have is to accelerate this process of ‘debugging’. In some sense when one tries to recall information by studying, one is debugging. One writes ones first ideas, and then compares with the correct concepts, and this can be used to develop the ability to for instance learn proofs.
I’ll think some more about this in the future, and probably in other posts, but I think this is an extremely powerful idea. One that ties into the ideas of Carol Dweck on Mindset.
So thinking of oneself as a Machine, is something which can’t be ignored, and may ultimately be empowering