June 18, 2013
TECHNOS QUARTERLY Fall 2002 Vol. 11 No. 3
Hard Fun . . . Squeak!
To read the long version of this article, click here: www.mime.indiana.edu/squeak.
By Thom Gillespie, Maitre d' Igital
I teach a lot of university classes using Macromedia Director and Flash.My students need these tools to do what they want, but I have never really liked these programs. They seem metaphorically cobbled together. They have timelines; they have objects; they have scripts, stages, libraries, and cast members;t hey have all sorts of metaphors — but it doesn’t really hold together. In addition, the price of these programs is artificially high. So, I’m always on the lookout for the “Macromedia killer.”
Last January, I heard about something called “Squeak.” It is described as “a collaborative, open-source project available to the public free of charge.” Apple’s Alan Kay had been involved in its development, and Disney was somehow connected. So, I took a look but felt as baffled by Squeak as I was when I first looked at HyperCard, before any books had been written about it. Here was a tool that did all sorts of things. Squeak, like HyperCard, for me was almost impossible to classify — which was good. It meant that Squeak probably could do anything, once I figured it out. But, my students have certain market realities they must deal with, such as getting a job after spending two years with me, so I never seemed to get the time I needed to spend with Squeak. I kept going back to it, though, and I eventually joined the emailing list so Squeak started coming to me. It was persistent! Over a very short period of time, it was also obvious that Squeak was not standing still; it was evolving fast. Once I discovered that Squeak could handle all sorts of multimedia data types, I decided it was time for a real look because now it might be that my students will need Squeak for their economic realities.
No, Squeak is not “there ” yet — but it is close, and part of my job is to prepare future teachers for what “might be.” I’m betting that Squeak will be part of their future, which is why I sent email to Kim Rose, executive director of Viewpoints Research Institute, the nonprofit umbrella organization of Squeak.org and Squeakland.org.We talked about Squeak ...•
Give me some background on how Squeak got started.
Squeak was first born at Apple Computer. We were part of Apple’s Advanced Technology Group. Our small group, directed by Alan Kay, ran a research project known as the Vivarium. We worked with kids and schools looking at a variety of questions related to technology. Maybe the most basic was trying to answer the question of, what is a computer when it is being its own medium and not emulating media such as books or radio or TV or a music player? What can this thing, the computer, be on its own, and how can it amplify learning? While looking at this question, we started to look at existing popular programming environments like Java, and we decided we could do this better creating something of our own — and thus Squeak was born. We were a year in development at Apple when Disney asked Alan to join Bran Ferren’s Fellows Group to think about computing media and its role within Disney. At that time, Apple was going through a lot of leadership changes, so we got together to decide what we wanted to do with our futures. One saying we have is “The research stays the same but from time to time the funding model changes.” Apple allowed Squeak to become open source and put out on the Internet. Apple holds the original license to Squeak ,but it is an open-source license. When we came to Disney, we explained Squeak as an open-source project which could be used by Disney to create some interesting and valuable con- tent and Disney could own the branded content it developed — but Squeak itself would continue to be open source and developed by a volunteer community.
Is Squeak just a follow-up to Logo?
No. But, we really have to thank Seymour Papert, who was Alan’s first inspiration for thinking about computing systems for kids. Seymour gave Alan his first idea of what computers can be really good for, what kids could learn through Logo. The basics of Logo can be found in Squeak. I mean, you have this object, call it a turtle if you like, and you are giving it commands and it is doing things. Maybe Squeak is Logo++. The basis for pedagogy and underlying epistemology has to recognize and acknowledge Logo and send deep and profound thanks to Seymour, who has always talked about powerful ideas for children. Alan and I and the teachers are continuing to pursue this because we believe in it deeply. I work specifically in elementary education, in the eToys system.
I taught Logo 20 years ago in Alaska, and there was a time when it was hot but then it faded and sort of disappeared when HyperCard came out. How do you keep Squeak from getting marginalized?
I think one reason this happened with Logo — and maybe it will happen with Squeak — is that a lot of people thought about Logo, “This is really hard.” That’s right. It is hard, but it is also fun. And, the kids say it is hard and they say it is fun. They also say it is challenging, and they love it when they finish a project that they’ve felt challenged by. Both Alan and Seymour talk about “hard fun ” and “soft fun.” Here is an example: Soft fun is watching people play baseball; hard fun is playing baseball. And, soft fun is watching someone play the violin and listening to a concert; and hard fun is you playing the violin. That is how we see Logo and Squeak, as constructive activities. It is harder — you have to use your head. It is not just putting other people’s stuff together. But, you don’t learn to play a musical instrument in a couple of days; it takes time. It is a deeper learning instrument. It is kind of anti what much of our culture and society is doing and learning and expecting these days — fast food, fast everything. Our current model is generally not working a long time to gain a deep understanding. Squeak runs contrary to a lot of currents in our culture.
Do you think schools, the way they are structured these days, are actually set up for “hard fun”?
No, I don’t think they are — but within those schools there are individual teachers who are set up for hard fun. Also, because Squeak is delivered over the Internet, schools aren’t necessarily our prime target. Home schooling is an area that is growing tremendously. Kids are learning on their own at home, through libraries, and at computer clubhouses. I think individuals and other environments are set up for hard fun and Squeak, but I think the general infrastructure of a traditional school is not set up for hard fun. One thing we often come up against is a school where a teacher wants to use Squeak but the school has a policy that won’t allow downloading and installation of plug-ins on their machines — and Squeak must be run as a plug-in. Schools are fraught with complying with acceptable use policies and how to keep simple local area networks up, etc., etc.
Maybe this is subversive, but we are trying to get in there and have some success to show people how great learning can happen when you focus on a powerful idea for several weeks, not just for a half-hour at a time. Big ideas take time, and if you really want the kids to understand the ideas and not just memorize something and parrot it back, then it calls for “hard-fun ” learning.
What is your biggest success with Squeak so far?
Under Alan’s guidance, B. J. Conn, a teacher at the Open Charter School in Los Angeles, and I have been developing a curriculum to amplify math and science learning, and we just saw 60 fourth and fifth graders grasp some very difficult concepts in math and science, and we feel that they were able to do so because of some of the activities in Squeak. It wasn’t just because of Squeak — because we also developed off-computer activities, because we know that some things can only be learned in the real world. In this case, the teacher reported that she couldn’t have gotten the kids to the level of understanding they achieved without creating simulations in Squeak in conjunction with off-computer activities, such as digital video recording as a kind of measuring device. We were able to bring this digital video into Squeak, slow down the playback, and really examine what was happening. B. J. and I are going to include a report on this in a book we’re working on.
http://www.squeak.org/ (for techies)
http://www.squeakland.org/about/index.html (for teachers)
http://lists.squeakfoundation.org/listinfo/squeak-dev (main Squeak developers’ list)
http://www.viewpointsresearch.org (Viewpoints Research Institute, nonprofit umbrella for Squeak activities)
Squeak: Object-Oriented Design with Multimedia Applications, by Mark Guzdial, December 2000, Prentice Hall (college-level Squeak textbook)
Squeak: Open Personal Computing and Multimedia, by Mark Guzdial and Kim Rose, August 2001, Prentice Hall
Squeak: A Quick Trip to ObjectLand, by Gene Korienek, Tom Wrensch, and Doug Deshow, December 2001, Addison Wesley Professional (tech/computer science audience)
What is your background?
Fine arts, cognitive science, and media studies — I am not a computer scientist. I had the joy of working and studying with Neil Postman at NYU in his media ecology program. As an undergrad, I was a fine arts major at UCLA. I started working with Alan Kay in 1986, when there were no courses in multimedia or interface design. I have been in the classroom with teachers since then, looking at computers as media, and then I further pursued that track with Neil Postman.
Do you think Neil Postman would consider Squeak as yet another attempt to amuse ourselves to death?
No, because of Squeak’s constructive nature. If it were more a consumer technology, I think Neil would consider it as amusement, but since it is a construction kit that the user has to bring something to it and has to think about it, it is more than mere amusement.
Email Thom Gillespie at email@example.com.