Saturday, September 13, 2008

Alan Kay: powerful ideas for teaching ideas

This is a great talk that I recently discovered on that was given by Alan Kay earlier this year. In this video Alan shares an interesting perspective on the ways in which human beings experience reality and learn; he then goes on to discuss the implications of his perspective on education. Below I've put together a brief outline of what I found to be the most interesting parts of his talk.

Here is a little bit about Alan: he is a pioneer in the filed of interaction design. He has worked at XeroxPARC, Apple, HP and Disney developing numerous technologies including laptops and graphical interfaces long before they became widely available. You will have a chance to read about him soon in my summary of Bill Moggridge's book "Designing Interactions".

Key Concepts from Alan Kay's Talk

I will start with an insight that Alan shares from Betty Edwards regarding how we experience the world visually. In Alan's own words: "The way your brain perceives images is faulty. It is trying to perceive images into objects rather than seeing what's there." He uses a classic visual illustration from Edwards to provide proof for this claim. Having established that "human beings see things not as they are but as we are", Alan goes on to discuss the implications of this perspective:

  1. What we call reality is not an objective phenomena but rather a subjective experience that can be likened to a "hallucination, a 'waking dream'";
  2. What we consider simple and understandable might be complex, and what we deem complex might be transformed into simple and understandable;
  3. You cannot see how what is simple may be complex and vice versa until you admit that you are blind to "reality".
Alan goes on to discuss how over the past four centuries human beings have developed powerful ideas (which he terms "brainlets") that have enabled us to see the world in a different ways. In my view these ideas can be likened to new distinctions that have arisen in language and that have brought to life new shared perspectives, which in turn enabled us to extend our sensory and reasoning abilities.

After sharing these key concepts, Alan goes on to provide several examples related to children education to illustrate how some concepts that we believe to be complex can be transformed into simple and understandable.
Check out the video here.

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