Alan Kay Still Waiting for the Revolution
Squeak / EToys
three phases to learning
non universals

alan kay's achievements:

Alan Kay's achievements, his individual role, needs to be situated in the groups he was working with eg. Xerox PARC in the late 60s, early 70s
- he visualised the concept of the "personal computer" (dynabook?) - see p. 72 of 'The Early History of SmallTalk where he describes this insight

- led the invention of Smalltalk, the first OOP language, invented the term "object oriented"

- invented the GUI (gave it away to Apple) CORRECTION - "PARC is incorrectly credited with having invented the GUI. Of course, there were GUIs in the ’60s. But I think we did do one good thing that hadn’t been done before, and that was to realize the idea of change being eternal" (from A Conversation with Alan Kay)

- invented a different user interface (check ->explain !)

- laptop computer

- tablet computer

Kay believes that computer science has not progressed much in the past 30 years, that people in the field have forgotten how to think and the courses are java vocational courses - Is computer science an oxymoron?


  • the best way to predict the future is to invent it
  • the best way to predict the future is to prevent it
  • Technology is anything that wasn't around when you were born
  • Most software today is very much like an Egyptian pyramid with millions of bricks piled on top of each other, with no structural integrity, but just done by brute force and thousands of slaves.
  • I fear —as far as I can tell— that most undergraduate degrees in computer science these days are basically Java vocational training. I’ve heard complaints from even mighty Stanford University with its illustrious faculty that basically the undergraduate computer science program is little more than Java certification.
  • OOP to me means only messaging, local retention and protection and hiding of state-process, and extreme late-binding of all things. It can be done in Smalltalk and in LISP. There are possibly other systems in which this is possible, but I'm not aware of them.
  • Computing spread out much, much faster than educating unsophisticated people can happen. In the last 25 years or so, we actually got something like a pop culture, similar to what happened when television came on the scene and some of its inventors thought it would be a way of getting Shakespeare to the masses. But they forgot that you have to be more sophisticated and have more perspective to understand Shakespeare. What television was able to do was to capture people as they were. So I think the lack of a real computer science today, and the lack of real software engineering today, is partly due to this pop culture.
  • Most creativity is a transition from one context into another where things are more surprising. There’s an element of surprise, and especially in science, there is often laughter that goes along with the “Aha.” Art also has this element. Our job is to remind us that there are more contexts than the one that we’re in—the one that we think is reality.
  • computing is a new kind of reading and writing medium that allows some of the most important powerful ideas to be discussed and played with and learned (source)
  • Point of view is worth 80 IQ points. explanation: At PARC we had a slogan: "Point of view is worth 80 IQ points." It was based on a few things from the past like how smart you had to be in Roman times to multiply two numbers together; only geniuses did it. We haven't gotten any smarter, we've just changed our representation system. We think better generally by inventing better representations; that's something that we as computer scientists recognize as one of the main things that we try to do. another explanation: what is special about the computer is analogous to and an advance on what was special about writing and then printing. It's not about automating past forms that has the big impact, but as McLuhan pointed out, when you are able to change the nature of representation and argumentation, those who learn these new ways will wind up to be qualtitatively different and better thinkers, and this will (usually) help advance our limited conceptions of civilization (source)
  • People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware (source)

main source of quotes

Alan Kay Still Waiting for the Revolution

If you look with a squinty eye at most of personal computing today, you'll see we're basically just automating paper—using digital versions of documents and mail ...

I can go into virtually any school that has computers and see children who are happily using them, as well as see teachers who are happy that the kids are using them. Parents are happy, principals are happy, and school boards are happy. But if you know anything about computing or about math and science, you can see that very little of importance is going on there ...

One of the things that pollutes a lot of computer use in schools is a heightened sense of vocationalism. Parents are concerned about whether their children are going to get jobs, and so they really want the schools to train the kids. But my belief is that the training part is kind of like driver's ed: It takes about as long to learn how to use a computer as it takes to learn how to drive a car, maybe less. So it's not something you really want to pin twelve years of school on.

That's one of the reasons why, in my research, I've retreated into early childhood. The earlier you go, the further away you are from the thing that parents are worried about—which is whether the kids are going to get jobs. However, vocationalism is now rampant in elementary schools, even in kindergarten.

I think the most difficult part is helping the helpers. Logo was a great idea and it failed. It didn't fail because computers couldn't do Logo, and it didn't fail because Logo software was bad. It failed because the second and third waves of teachers were not interested in it as a new thing, and virtually none of them understood anything about mathematics or science. It's very hard to teach Logo well if you don't know math...

But I think the big problem is that schools have very few ideas about what to do with the computers once the kids have them. It's basically just tokenism, and schools just won't face up to what the actual problems of education are, whether you have technology or not.
Think about it: How many books do schools have—and how well are children doing at reading? How many pencils do schools have—and how well are kids doing at math? It's like missing the difference between music and instruments. You can put a piano in every classroom, but that won't give you a developed music culture, because the music culture is embodied in people.
On the other hand, if you have a musician who is a teacher, then you don't need musical instruments, because the kids can sing and dance. But if you don't have a teacher who is a carrier of music, then all efforts to do music in the classroom will fail—because existing teachers who are not musicians will decide to teach the C Major scale and see what the bell curve is on that.
The important thing here is that the music is not in the piano. And knowledge and edification is not in the computer. The computer is simply an instrument whose music is ideas....

The most critical thing about the 20th and 21st centuries is that there's a bunch of new invented ideas—many of them connected with modern civilization—that our nervous systems are not at all set up to automatically understand. Equal rights, for example. Or calculus. You won't find these ideas in ancient or traditional societies.

If you take all the anthropological universals and lay them out, those are the things that you can expect children to learn from their environment—and they do. But the point of school is to teach all those things that are inventions and that are hard to learn because we're not explicitly wired for them. Like reading and writing.

Virtually all learning difficulties that children face are caused by adults' inability to set up reasonable environments for them. The biggest barrier to improving education for children, with or without computers, is the completely impoverished imaginations of most adults...

Don't even worry about computers yet. When did math and science actually start becoming important for everyone in our society to know? Probably 200 years ago. Now think about how poorly math and science are being taught in elementary school today. So don't even worry about computers; instead, worry about how long it takes for something that is known to be incredibly important to get into the elementary-school curriculum. That's the answer. Of course it's taking forever—because the adults are the intermediaries, and they don't like math and science.


Etoys (squeak for children)

"Etoys has many scriptable media objects, and the children can create more. These include: drawings & paintings, text (including ability to do extensive layouts), pictures (BMP, JPEG, GIF, PNG), animations, movies (MPEG), sound (MP3), sound recorders, sound synthesis (sampling, FM, etc.), MIDI player and editor, "books" (like Hypercard stacks), enriched webpages, etc. These are all WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) intermixable and authorable via direct manipulation and scripting.

Etoys as an environment for education was originally inspired by the ideas of Seymour Papert (who was influenced by Piaget), Montessori, Dewey, Vygotsky, and Jerome Bruner. The basic theory is that children learn ideas best if they can encounter, play with and construct the ideas kinesthetically, visually & sonically, and symbolically. The ideas often need to be put into representations that are better matched to the cognitive abilities of the children in their current stage of development."

more at

the goals of squeak

"The most important thing about powerful inexpensive personal computers is that they form a new kind of reading and writing medium that allows some of the most important powerful ideas to be discussed and played with and learned ...

This is what our work and Squeak is all about. We are interested in helping children learn to think better and deeper than most adults can. We have made the Squeak medium to serve as a new kind of electronic paper that can hold new ways to represent powerful ideas."
- how children learn

three phases to learning

(1) guided creation (2) specific challenge (3) open play
from a squeakland discussion about lack of documentation

"Human beings (even really smart ones) have a hard time coming up with
ideas that are better than mediocre. For example, if you put a piano
in a classroom, the children will explore it, and develop a
"chopsticks culture" with it, but they won't invent for themselves
how to play a keyboard instrument (it took centuries for experts to
work it out). But every child can be taught to play the piano.
Similarly, the children will not invent or discover important ideas
in mathematics by themselves. But every child can be taught a
powerful version of the calculus of vectors, and many other kinds of
advanced mathematics. And both of these can be taught as a kind of play.

If you give children a medium to explore, they will generally wind up
doing stories and games with it (in large part because that is how
nature has set all of us up to learn when we are children). For
example, Etoys is used widely in a number of places in the world. The
places that emphasize "creativity", "discovery learning", "free
exploration", etc., all wind up with lots of stuff done by children,
but virtually all of it uses simple animations and multiple tasking
to act out stories and games. This is no surprise (it took humans
100,000 years to invent math and another 2000 to invent science). If
we are interested in having children learn non-obvious powerful ideas
-- e.g. in math and science -- we have to scaffold their learning and
discovery by careful curriculum design.

This teaching doesn't have to feel like the kids are being put in a
lock-step chain gang. It can be much more like teaching and learning
an established sport or musical instrument. There are parts that are
almost impossible to invent, and thus have to be shown and practised.
But with these parts there are large elements of free joyful play.

We suggest using at least 3 phases for each idea.

- The first is a guided creation of something interesting -- for
example, how to make a robot vehicle on the screen that will follow
edges. This can be done in a number of ways including Socratic
leading questions, but basically it is giving the children something
they would not think up for themselves. But as David Ausubel pointed
out "People learn on the fringes of what they know".

- Now that the children know something, they can be given a specific
challenge -- such as "Come up with a car and a road where the car
will stay on the road". There are 5 or 6 ways of doing this and most
children working singly or in pairs will find one of them. A few of
these are elegant, and a few children will find these. Sharing the
solutions as demos gives the children a sense that such problems are
not only solvable, but there is more than one solution.

- The third stage is open play, where the children now know enough to
think of many different fun ways to use what they've just done (and
many of their ideas will be in the forms of games or stories). For
example, some of the "middle of the road" solutions lend themselves
to making a multilane racing track with multiple vehicles and using
the random number tile to generate random speeds to make the race
difficult to predict."

my comment on three phases to learning:
We can't expect children, without guidance, to rediscover the best efforts of the most advanced human minds over thousands of years. But we also don't want to shove it down their throats (rote learning) because that doesn't lead to deep or meaningful understanding, either.

I like what he is saying, that he uses timely multiple approaches, but also think that the importance of effortful study is being missed out here. (from my blog: guidance, challenge, play)
- BK 1Jan07

non universals

what should schools teach
this is interesting but not learning theory, it is what should be in the curriculum

He then presented a list of non universals, the things that humans find harder to learn. This list was shorter and included:
  • reading and writing
  • deductive abstract mathematics
  • model based science
  • equal rights
  • democracy
  • perspective drawing
  • theory of harmony (?)
  • similarities over differences (?)
  • slow deep thinking
  • agriculture
  • legal systems

I'd be curious as to where alan kay got his list of "non universals" from and would like more details about them. I put a question mark after a couple I didn't understand but which sounded interesting.

When I google "non universals" anthropology not much comes up but the search universals anthropology was more successful

Here are a couple of books that might be useful for future research:
The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker. I already have a couple of other books by Pinker, 'The Language Instinct' and 'How the Mind Works'

Human Universals by Donald Brown

This article, Living without numbers or time , suggests that Chomsky's idea that humans inherit a universal grammar (mentalese) is wrong. It reports conflict between Chomsky and Pinker on that question.


predicting the future
background on how children think