Making, Thinking and Learning in the Digital Age
Learning and making have always been intimately related. Consider, for instance, the roles of the abacus, the sundial, the remarkable Antikythera mechanism, and the astrolabe, in making sense of arithmetic, time and the cosmos. Such artefacts are the precursors of a wide range of instruments and devices in the sciences and humanities that have had a transformative impact on how we construct, and conceive, the world. They include objects associated with new conceptual insights, such as the slide rule that followed the invention of logarithms, specific practical applications, such as Lord Kelvin’s machine for tide prediction, and more speculative models (sometimes called ‘construals’) developed to clarify and communicate provisional understanding of unfamiliar phenomena, such as Faraday devised in his experiments on electromagnetism.
The advent of the computer has had a major impact on the nature of the artefacts that can be constructed to support learning. Open-ended support for exploratory and creative activities is provided by software tools for special-purpose design and management roles, such as spreadsheets, CAD environments and geographical information systems. Computer support for design and making has stimulated new and broader perspectives on software development where the emphasis is on establishing connections in experience, as an instrumentalist does through looking, listening and learning, rather than on abstract computational thinking alone. In this way, computing has revolutionised many practices of the pre-digital age – but perhaps not all. For instance, is it conceivable that computing could have facilitated the making, thinking and learning that led Faraday from his personal, provisional understanding to the construction of the first electric motor?
The significance for learning of the thought-processes that accompany writing a computer program was recognised by Seymour Papert in connection with his theory of ‘constructionism’. For Papert, a program was first and foremost an ‘object-to-think-with’ with rich associations that embraced “cultural presence, embedded knowledge, and the possibility for personal identification”. He considered many possible ways in which objects-to-think-with might find digital expression: most notably as Logo programs, as microworlds and as educational robots. Further proposals for digital environments to support construction have been based on other programming principles, such as dynamic geometry and spreadsheets, on other languages, such as Scratch and Wolfram, and on other technologies, such as virtual and augmented realities.
CONSTRUIT 2017 is the first conference of its kind. As well as reflecting on the theme of making, thinking and learning from many perspectives, it will introduce a new practice called ‘making construals’ for developing flexible examples of things-to-think-with. The conference is the culmination of an EU Erasmus+ Project CONSTRUIT! which itself arose out of the long-standing Empirical Modelling Project at the University of Warwick. In both projects the supporting environment is based on a novel, broader approach to computing which is arguably closer to how humans think and learn than classical approaches have been. The vision for the conference is that it be a forum for engaging with a wide range of learning environments, a showcase for some of the achievements of the project, and a launch pad for new CONSTRUIT! initiatives. We welcome everyone with interests in computing and education to participate. We have listed a number of questions and issues in the Call for Contributions.