Microworlds and Learning

The central problem of humane education is how to instruct while
respecting the self-constructive character of mind
. Teachers face a dilemma in
motivating children to do schoolwork that is not intrinsically interesting.
Either the child must be induced to undertake the work by promise of some
reward or he must be compelled to do the work under threat of punishment. In
neither case does the child focus his attention on the material to be learned.
The problems are someone else’s problems. The work is seen as a bad thing
because it is either an obstacle blocking the way to a reward or a cause of the
threatened punishment.[1]

Psychologists know that – however much insights do occur – learning is often a
gradual process, one of familiarization, of stumbling into puzzles and
resolving them by proposing simple hypotheses in which a new problem is seen as
like others already understood and performing experiments to test the latest

Computer-based microworlds can be seen as sets of programs designed to provide
virtual, streamlined experiences, play worlds with agents and processes one can
get to know and understand. Properly designed microworlds embody a lucid
representation of the major objects and relations of some domain of experience
as understood by experts in the area. This is where the knowledge of the
culture is made available, in the very terms in which the microworld is

Children can absorb that knowledge because the microworld is focussed not on
problems to be done, but on “neat phenomena” – these show the power made
available by knowledge about the domain. If there are neat phenomena, then the
challenge to the knowledgeable expert is to formulate so crisp a presentation
of the elements of the domain that even a child can grasp its essence. The
value of the computer is in building the simplest model which an expert can
imagine as an acceptable entry point to his own richer knowledge.

If there are no neat phenomena that a child can appreciate, he can make no use
of knowledge of the domain. He should not be expected to learn about it until
he is personally engaged with other tasks which will make the specific
knowledge worth learning as an aid in achieving some other personal objective.

Publication notes:

  • Written in 1981.
  • Published as MIT AI Memo 652 and Logo Memo 60, “Some Powerful Ideas,”1982, April.
  • Published as a series “Logo Ideas,” in Creative Computing, 1982-83.

Text notes:

  1. This point is argued more extensively in the classic paper The Psychological Situations of Reward and Punishment in A Dynamic Theory of Psychology, selected papers of Kurt Lewin, published by McGraw-Hill.
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