The phrase “pleasure of writing” makes me pause. At this very moment, writing is not altogether pleasurable. The ticking of the clock telling me that the deadline is coming close frustrates me. I am stinging from the pain of having to throw out a whole paragraph because “it wasn’t going to work” even though it had a phrase with which I had fallen in love. So maybe “pleasure” isn’t quite the right word. Nor is “fun.” We need a better word for it and maybe that first grader in San Jose provided the best one. We are talking here about a special kind of fun … “hard fun."
—Seymour Papert (founder of the AI, MIT lab and researcher in cognition)
A girl is growing up in a rural American town in the middle of the twentieth century. She hits her teens and begins to notice that some of her classmates are wearing cooler dresses than can be found in the local department store or the Sears Catalog. She asks around and learns these girls are sewing their own dresses.
While the girls started on mother’s machine, most eventually save for or receive a gift of the trendy model that is simpler and cheaper, and they send away for catalogs of sewing patterns and cotton and wool fabrics. The girls begin to share patterns and catalogs and start a school club to talk about their hobby.
The local sewing enthusiasts discover a national club that’s sponsored by the manufacturer of the now ubiquitous machine. The club creates contests for best-sewn products and for sewing patterns invented by the girls. As amateur pattern design takes off, budding entrepreneurs launch commercial journals targeted to the hobbyists.
Manufacturers notice the personal sewing boom and launch both more expensive and cheaper machines, but they sell poorly because the sewing hobby is identified with the machine that launched the boom. While this low-to-medium priced machine eventually breaks down, they’re simple to fix and third-party businesses jump in to create fix-it manuals and spare parts. The sewing machines are kept alive well past the time the engineers who developed them would have guessed. Newer, more expensive machines are undoubtedly superior—more sophisticated, more robust—and eventually become favorites of those who start their own pattern-design business, but the masses stay loyal to their first machines because they alone retain the most important element—the community of creativity.
The oldest and geekiest of readers might realize that the hobbyist sewing boom I describe is a parable of the Apple II computer and the community that formed around it. (I know nothing about sewing.) First issued in 1977, Apple continued the model until late 1993, nearly a decade after the far more sophisticated Apple Macintosh, its intended replacement, was introduced and a dozen years after the more expensive and business-oriented IBM PC, the ancestor of the modern Windows computer, was released.
Why did the Apple II persist despite its inferior engineering and its own company’s attempts to lay it to rest in favor of the Mac? Because the Apple II became the foundation for the greatest modern example of creating a community of creativity and a community of learning. Let me summarize the points made in the sewing example: while the technology came from the top, the manufacturers,1 the community came from the bottom, the enthusiastic Apple II users. As they went on to design games and design business and home software, many of these early users became the driving force of modern personal computing. The hobby also hatched journalists, publishers, hardware add-on designers, and authors of how-to books and journals.2
My son and his younger sister were homeschooled,3 but when they hit ages eleven and seven, the “homeschool resource center” run by the school system opened.4 Our daughter, at the time our socially interested child, engaged enthusiastically in learning Spanish and American Sign Language and more enthusiastically in the musical theatre class.
Musical theatre became fashionable in the 90s, even hatching hit TV shows and movies. High schools had sponsored competitions, and parents of means got involved by supplementing the costs of production.
At the homeschool resource center, aside from the contracted theatre instructor, the kids were on their own. When they decided to put on the then-famous musical, Cats, they knew their involvement would have to go beyond rehearsing and performing. They constructed the sets and the complex feline costumes (no doubt sewed on the machines from the parable above). Not only did they pull it off, they became finalists in the school musical competition chosen by Seattle’s professional Fifth Avenue Theatre, going against schools with professionally made sets and costumes. The homeschoolers didn’t win, but they carried the satisfaction that the performance was all their doing.
I’m an introvert, not part of a religious community, rarely felt a kinship with fellow counselors, and know no one who shares my intellectual interests. My idea of a tribe is rooting for the Seahawks. Since I began at age forty-eight, any community engagement I’ve had has been in a martial arts dojo.
I believe a good martial arts dojo can be a model for a learning community, and all it takes to create one are instructors (the sensei) who have devotion to their art and care for their students. I’ve been lucky to find that three times.
Why a martial arts dojo? First, while the instructor says do it like this, any instructor with ten minutes of experience means do it like this according to your physical and mental ability; they don’t expect every student to move with equal grace. Second, martial arts sensei like to tell as much as the next teacher, but as they’re teaching a kinesthetic skill, their focus is on show, that is, modeling, which is more effective for all instruction. Third, while there is competition—explicit ranking, and in sport martial arts, organized competition—the tacit if not always explicit message is you’re competing against only yourself. In other words, you’re training to be better than you were the day before. Fourth, martial arts creates a we’ve-got-each-other’s-back camaraderie. Despite what you believe from TV and movie dramas, the most dangerous aspect of a well-run martial arts school is the car trip to the dojo. Still, even if restrained, martial arts is physical combat, so there’s always potential for injury. And you can learn only if you consistently face what my Aikido sensei called a “sincere attack.” That potential for causing injury and for assisting others to learn makes you aware of your responsibility to your fellow students. Aware students help others and don’t hurt others.
Last, martial arts tacitly gives responsibility for students to understand and fill the holes in their learning. While instructors can point to problems, I reach back to the limitations of human communication and cognition to point out there’s no way instruction can be fielded completely. I think that’s a good thing. Individual understanding evolves art and skill.
Seymour Papert was the cofounder at MIT of the first official artificial intelligence (AI) lab. Unlike the modern tech-bro culture, which is absorbed with self-interest, early AI culture was dedicated to learning, inventing, and sharing. To that end, Papert studied with the pioneering cognitive psychologist, Jean Piaget, for five years because he wished to contribute to the education of young children. He and fellow computer scientists designed a children’s version of the dominant AI computer language, Logo, and its accompanying “object to think with,” a turtle-shaped tethered mechanical robot that Logo could control.
The goal was to start a child as young as six to use turtle graphics to learn geometry. To begin, they’d walk the child through the steps the mechanical turtle would take to draw a square:
forward 10 (paces)
right 90 (degrees)
The child would then type on the computer keyboard to give the same instructions to the mechanical turtle. The child was introduced to abstraction, the domain of math.
With the invention of personal computers, a version of Logo with virtual turtles that drew lines on the screen soon made their way to the Apple II and later personal computers.5
Using Logo, young children were among the first to experience computer graphics, but soon advanced graphics would make their way to video and computer games.6 Papert never had children, but he spent significant time with his nieces and nephews and watched them play video games on consoles, which were introduced after he created Logo. He realized, if you look past the surface of cute animation, the games are difficult puzzles, and he was impressed that the reward for beating a level was a more difficult level. Papert concluded that the attraction of these games was not because they were frivolous fun, as we old folks may have believed, but “hard fun,” intellectual challenges that exceeded the dull lessons of the classroom.7 8
Seymour Papert was prescient. While there was a time the rightful descendant of the Apple II learning community was amateur web site development, that has become too complex for hobbyists. Games have become increasingly difficult as well but are still accessible to the determined, and users turn to forums, wikis (a Wikipedia for a single game), messaging platforms, and YouTube and other video channels, to gather playing advice. The most ambitious add their own content to games (called “modding”)—harder hard fun.
I’ve described various forms of learning communities and there are countless others: book clubs, writing groups, music jams, collecting, rock climbing, fan fiction, pet interests, role-playing, and many I’ve never heard of. What they have in common is the pursuit of hard fun, participation from members of various levels of competence, and sharing and mentoring. Contrast that with an increasingly common community, the tribe.
Learning communities versus tribalism
What largely separates learning communities from those defined by ethnicity, politics, religion, nationality, and the like is that the identity within the learning community is earned and the dominant part of that earning is what you give away as a mentor. Learning communities are also inclusive: anyone who shares the interest is welcome. Contrast with communities that are based solely on my tribe is better than your tribe or my tribe hates your tribe. Which community would you prefer to be part of, a community based on hard feelings or a community based on hard fun?
Unfortunately, unlike the mythical sewing hobby, which could even save money when the girls made their clothes, the Apple II, initially, was expensive (I couldn’t afford one) and got its initial sales boost from businesses because it had the first personal computer spreadsheet. Cheaper computers that came along to fill the low-price gap became primarily game machines because they didn’t have the creative community of the Apple II. Ideally, bottom-up passions would come at bottom-up prices, that is, not become another path for socio-economic divide. ↩︎
I use the term “homeschool” for convenience; home-mentored is more accurate. We required a minimum of book learning, pointed out various activities they might like, and otherwise left them alone. Our son did the so-called required work. Our daughter required that we leave her alone. ↩︎
The school district created the resource center so they could count the users as regular students for which they got funded. ↩︎
My sole reason for buying my first computer (at the age of 37) was its potential as a learning device for children and adults. I was not even aware of word processors or spreadsheets. My chief interest in computers is still as a learning device. ↩︎
Often used interchangeably, video games are played on dedicated game consoles, such as the Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch. Computer games are played on general purpose computers, such as the Windows PC or Apple Macintosh. ↩︎
I had a similar experience: During the educational software boom in the late 80s and early 90s, I published a journal where I wrote lengthy reviews comparing the software in each category, for example, math or biology. Out of dozens of programs, I found two that were worth using. I took a look at games and discovered they were far better learning environments than “educational software.” Fortunately, educational software is dead. ↩︎
Those who don’t play games may believe most gamers are still ten-year–old boys. On the contrary, children who grew up with games are still playing them decades later, so the average age of a gamer is mid-thirties. And though they tend to play different genres, the percentage of females who play games is equal to that of males. ↩︎