Computing at School (CAS) "TeachShare"
to be broadcast on June 6th, 8pm-9pm.

Supported by Vital.

Topic: What is Computing? Why should it be taught?
Presenter: Aaron Sloman
University of Birmingham

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Expanded reorganised PDF slides from the presentation are here:
And also on slideshare.het (using flash), here:

The recording of the presentation is here:

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What is computing?  Is it merely concerned with practical goals such as how to make computers
do things that are etc.?  Or is there more?

There is no doubt that the study of varieties of information and information processing
(whether done by computers, networks of computers, brains, micro-organisms, insects,
socio-economic systems, or anything else) is part of this field of learning. Computers
acquire, manipulate, store, transform and use information, but they are not the only
things that do so.

Studying information processing systems, natural and artificial, is as important for
understanding the universe as the study of physics, chemistry, cosmology and the other
sciences. But it isn't easy. That's because, although some of the behavioural effects of
information processing (e.g. an animal avoiding an obstacle, or catching its prey) can be
observed easily, most of the internal processing is very hard to inspect.

Opening up a computer and peering with a microscope, or physical measuring devices, will
not help you understand what problem it is solving or how. Likewise opening up brains.

Such largely invisible information processing (some of it apparently using biological
virtual machinery) is essential to all aspects of life, including the control of behaviours in
a microbe, the development of a fertilised egg, the construction of a brain, the operation of
the immune system, and of course all kinds of perception, motivation, decision making, control
of actions, learning and communication. Much of that uses chemical information processing.

Understanding the information processing mechanisms supporting learning abilities is an
essential requirement for designing and providing good educational systems.

It may also be essential for future technology -- designing and building artificial systems
that extend themselves to cope with changing requirements and environments.

This is a huge topic -- and an hour long discussion provides time only to scratch the
surface, presenting a few illustrative examples.

For example, we can look at a modern highly sophisticated robot and a far more
sophisticated human toddler, and ask what sorts of information processing capabilities
might account for the differences.

Unfortunately, there is massive ignorance about information processing in nearly all
university entrants, including those who want to study very complex information processing
systems, e.g. taking degrees in psychology, neuroscience, biology, english language,
economics, sociology, or philosophy. Our educational system needs to change, so as to
feed new capabilities and knowledge into all those disciplines.

There are implications regarding required languages and tools in this
proposal. In particular, for some forms of education it is not enough to
think of the programming needs of the pupil: gifted teachers will have
great ideas about things that require development of languages, tools or
packages that provide new launchpads for student learning, as described
in a paper published in 1984:

    Beginners need powerful systems

I'll end with some examples of types of teaching based on ideas and programming
For teachers who wish to consider including such things into a school programming curriculum to
languages from AI, that are importantly different from other things currently being taught in
most schools.
There's some optional background material in these PDF slide presentations and online papers:
    What does AI have to do with Biology?

    A proposal for a two year, four unit, syllabus for AS-level and A-level including
    Cognitive science and artificial intelligence in the context of trying to understand
    humans and other animals and how they evolved, as well as learning about practical

    A proposal for teaching computing and AI in an introduction to philosophy at school level:

    Computing: The Science of Nearly Everything (presented at the 2010 CAS conference):
    PDF Slides available here:
    (Too long!)

    Professor Maria Petrou's specification for a domestic ironing robot and her cartoons:

    Experiencing Computation: A Tribute to Max Clowes
Marvin Minsky's essays for OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) Project

Marvin Minsky is one of the "greats" of computing in the last six decades.

With Seymour Papert he helped to develop some of the ideas now found in SCRATCH
(indirectly inspired by the work of Jean Piaget, with whom Papert studied for a while).

Minsky's essays may be of interest to some CAS members trying to understand what learning
is and how teachers can help it to happen. All the essays are available via his web page
(along with other things relevant to computing education).

The essays are all very readable (and may be found controversial):


    What makes Mathematics hard to learn?
    Students need Cognitive Maps of their Subjects
    Bringing Mathematics to Life
    The Impoverished Language of School-Mathematics.
    Mentors and Communities
    Emphasizing Novelty rather than Drudgery?
    Negative Expertise

    = Note added by M.M. 24 March 2008 =
    The U.S. Department of Education has issued a 90-page report proposing 45 improvements
    in math education. This report makes almost all the mistakes that I complained about
    in this memo.   Its most emphatic recommendation:

    "A major goal for K-8 mathematics education should be proficiency with fractions
    (including decimals, percents, and negative fractions), for such proficiency is
    foundational for algebra and, at the present time, seems to be severely
    underdeveloped. Proficiency with whole numbers is a necessary precursor for the study
    of fractions, as are aspects of measurement and geometry."

    The report says almost nothing about using computers except to suggest that learning
    to program may bring some benefits "if students' programming is carefully guided by
    teachers so as to explicitly teach students to achieve specific mathematical goals."

    Warning: the full report is likely to make your mind throw up. See it at


    Effects Of Grade-Based Segregation
    The 50-minute hour
    Children have different Cognitive Styles


    Role Models, Mentors, and Imprimers and Thinking
    Thinking about Thinking about Ways to Think
    How do children acquire self-images?
    Finding Mentors in Network Communities


    Questioning "General" Education
      "It is better to solve one problem five different ways, than to solve five different problems one way."
        - George Polya:
    A Theory of Human Self-Critical Thinking
    Abilities, Talents, and Mental Resources
    Horizontal vs. Vertical Specialties
    Some predicaments "brainy" children face.
    How can we help Self-Critical Thinking develop?


    Education and Psychology
      "But if "good thinking" is one of our principal goals, then why don't schools try to
      explicitly teach about how human Learning and Reasoning work?  Instead we tacitly
      assume that if we simply provide enough knowledge, then each child's brain will
      `self-organize' appropriate ways to apply those facts.  Then would it make sense for
      us to include a subject called "Human Psychology" as part of the grade-school
      curriculum?  I don't think that we can do this yet, because, few present-day
      teachers would agree about which "Theories of Thinking" to teach."

      "So instead, we'll propose a different approach: to provide our children with ideas
      they could use to invent their own theories about themselves!  The rest of this
      essay will suggest some benefits that could come from this, and some practical ways
      to accomplish it -- by engaging children in various kinds of constructive,
      computer-related projects."

    1. Why we can't yet include  "Psychology" in the Primary School Curriculum.
    2. Some deficiencies of behavior-based theories.
    3. Teaching Cybernetics instead of Psychology
       Other Suggestions for Cybernetics Projects
       (Several examples presented.)
    4. How it can help to think of oneself as a Machine

    Minsky invites comments from readers

I may add some links to relevant videos and other things later.


I thank Simon Humphreys, one of the main drivers of CAS, for setting things up and inviting me to give this presentation.

I thank Tim Bateson for providing technical support required to develop the virtual linux package explained here,
which gives me hope that schools imprisoned in Microsoft walls will at last be able very easily to make use of
powerful learning and teaching software that runs on Linux and is not easy to port to Windows.

It was Max Clowes who, in 1969, introduced me to Artificial Intelligence as a source of new ideas for thinking
about what humans and other animals are, and who, in the late 1970s inspired what were then unique
ways of teaching computing, even using the Unix command line interface and paper terminals.
Alas, he died in 1981, much too young to see how his ideas, and similar ideas could flourish as the available
technology grew and transformed itself, though not always used in ways he would have commended.

There's a vast amount of scholarly background information in Margaret Boden's massive two volume history of
computational cognitive science: "Mind as Machine" (OUP, 2006).
Her earlier books are highly recommended for bright, adventurous, open-minded learners.

Maintained by Aaron Sloman
School of Computer Science
The University of Birmingham
Aaron Sloman
Last updated: 29 May 2011; 12 Jun 2011
Installed: 27 May 2011