Christian Long

Alan Kay: A Powerful Idea about Ideas

In TED Talks on May 23, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Reflection by SUSIE C.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

Alan Kay: A Powerful Idea about Ideas

Lots of people are always saying that kids shouldn’t be taught complex, difficult things because it will be to hard for them to understand.

Even when “little” kids know fairly large, complex English words they are only taught simple words in foreign languages, or at least this is how it was for me.

I loved vocabulary and my parents refused to “dumb down” their own vocabulary when speaking to me, so I quickly picked up larger, more complex words than my classmates.

However, in Spanish, I never really learned much beyond the colors, body parts, and simple(and rather useless) words such as “monkey” and “volcano” until the ninth grade. In the defense of my school, I didn’t take Spanish in sixth through eighth grades, but still, when am I ever going to use “Eskimo” in an everyday Spanish conversation.

It wasn’t until I transferred to our school and entered high school that I learned any Spanish that was truly useful, and up to that point I had very frustrated with my Spanish.
Alan Kay suggests that subjects that are considered “too complex” for younger children, such as math and science, can be easily understood by them if presented in the correct manner.

He gives the example of a kindergarten class in which the teacher gives the students an “art” project. In this project, they cut out small shapes and glued them to a paper and then used those small shapes to create a larger version of the same shape, which they glued next to the previous shape. By repeating this over and over and then writing the numbers in a chart, the students, who are six years old, quickly saw a pattern. They had discovered what mathematicians call a first order discreet differential equation, but without the complex terminology which makes math hated by so many students.

Using a simple and understandable method, Gillian Ishijima, the kindergarten teacher, taught her students a complex math idea.

Alan Kay’s powerful idea is to make complex, often abstract ideas more accesable and simpler so that younger children can understand them. Kids don’t have an inability to learn complex ideas until they are older, they just don’t have the tools they need, such as a large vocabulary that includes “discreet” and “differential”.

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