How to wage the game of challenges and survive it.

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Patent pending
© 2013 Georgiy Kuznetsov

Good news: ROBOPEGS now has apps.


Augmented teaching may help to raise kids smarter than we are.

When TLG's mom looked at the blue and yellow cross from MAKE THEM MAD's chapter called A LESSON, she immediately said: but don't you see it's built around two crossing lines?

TLG did not. At that moment she could not recognize even one of her favorite shapes in two-color disguise. She learned to see the shapes behind the colors later.

On many occasions, I offered the challenges TLG found too hard, to her big sister, who was 9 when TLG was 4. The sister solved them easily except, maybe, for three or four particularly brain-twisting creations.

While was I teaching TLG then? By the age of 10 she would have learned all that stuff without ever thinking about it.

First of all, the big sister could have not been so good. I did not test her systematically. Next, there was the price we paid. The big sister suffered through math. She definitely would have become mathematically disabled for the rest of her life, had I not treated her with SCHNUMBERS. I don't expect TLG to be nearly as miserable at school.

Games of challenges naturally occur between youths. You can see dogs, cats or squirrels challenging each other to race along. Human kids do this too, and as they learn to speak and to learn, they start challenging each other intellectually. School problems are boring because they are not framed like challenges. On the contrary, the modern public school struggles to look non-competitive. The teachers don't want to make them mad. It's not safe.

Anyway, a grownup brain is a great advantage in such a game, and mine, I believe, was not the worst of all. Early in my life I developed good spatial imagination.

Yet, challenging TLG was not always easy. I had to play with the board on my own before building such puzzles confidently and quickly, right before her eyes. Speed is the most important factor. I've never asked TLG to turn her back to me or leave the room. She just could not follow and remember my moves.

Just as my role started getting too challenging, I learned to design layouts on the computer using general purpose vector graphics editors, and this was an instant boost. I also stopped taking pictures and started writing stories, usually encompassing several interrelated lessons. I currently have a number of such heavily illustrated chapters (and plans for more).

TLG built several complex designs from my printouts and partial printouts. Next, I made two animations, and she reproduced them "walking" the shapes peg by peg.



Walking small shapes is easy. The hard part was to recognize them. Four color spinners, for example, come together four times, forming a solid color spinner. TLG could find the original spinners in this mess, and walk them out.

The animation called Rhombi briefly forms one infamous magic symbol. Technically, it's just a dodecomino, and it rotates the wrong way, but it may cause bad things, like even closing Facebook accounts. TLG has played with this shape and the numerous derivatives of it. I am not going to publish those pictures, but this challenge was special. It took three lessons to work through, and it became TLG's crowning achievement. I decided to keep it for now and remove it later.

I started watching the development of wearable displays and augmented reality systems many years before Google Glass. Time and time again, I wished I had something like this, but I knew the existing products were more of a curse than a blessing.

Displaying layouts to the parent is easy. A wearable camera could let a computer see the board and suggest the actions. Albeit exotic, such solution seems to be more realistic than hooking up a pegboard to a computer as an input device.

Every such technology goes through several waves until it creates a mass market. We may be approaching the threshold. If not, we have smartphones yet. They are quite awkward, but capable to help, and some people have became used to holding them all the time. Imagine pointing the camera to the board and watching directions on the screen. Or snap a picture and let the computer draw the guides. Even without computer vision, a simple slide-show can turn a mediocre spatial thinker into a super-parent.

I wouldn't consider it cheating. Rather, it's like following a runner on a bicycle - an augmented teaching, where the computer stands between the parent and the child.

We have to watch what we teach, though. When TLG started playing on the board placing more than one peg at once, I found her frighteningly immune to the sunk cost fallacy. Instead of escalating commitment, she would rather clean up the problematic part of the layout and start from scratch pretty ruthlessly. I realized she must have learned this strategy from the stacking rings, and offered her a course of evolutionary transformations.


A Poor Parent's Mechanical Turk: Is a fully automated solution feasible?

I would like to see parents spending time with their kids teaching them, but it's not realistic. Computer services are already more available than human attention.

A device delivering the full real life experience would be nothing less than a Mechanical Turk. Actually, much more. Meanwhile, a cheap imitation of a pegboard can be projected to any touch device.

An app for parents could do few more things. It could offer a library of layouts to build. This would be a mixed blessing because, for example, how many parents and grandparents would understand what affine transformations are? And most would probably want to teach without learning themselves.

So the app would have to offer the courses, track the progress, and suggest the next steps. Did I hear impossible? Maybe, but it could pretend. In a market like this cheating is perfectly normal.

Then, as we would have the parent's interface, could we just add the student's interface? And let the parents go free?

To make sure the computer screen does not make challenges less challenging, I tried to offer them to TLG through the FIREPEGS design program. She was making mistakes very similar to those she would be making on the pegboard. Yet, screen can change the game. For example, a new peg on the board immediately becomes just a peg. On the screen it can direct attention by blinking or changing color.

That's not all, though. Unlike augmented teaching, which must be rather easy to implement, a flat screen cyberparent might become something much more advanced, than, say, a cat with human eyes.

Without the plastic pegs, we still need to make students mad. Otherwise, the game dumbs down to the safe and easy level, inevitably becoming useless.

Problem solving is a fight. Like any fight, it's lost at the moment the fighter gets mad. The most important parent's role is to manage the child's emotions, turning anger into inspiration and teaching to do it. This is a tricky, sometimes even risky business, but without it, I believe no great achievement would ever be possible.

I can easily imagine a program blocking TLG's access to the movies until she gets right a challenging layout on the screen. The outcome could be anything from a broken computer to total withdrawal from the game. Occasionally success, but only occasionally.

Without human emotions, perception and reasoning, and especially without the parent's face and mind behind the toy, the game of challenges makes no sense. A cyberchild would copy any layout line by line and peg by peg. Understanding is not at all necessary. Yet for entirely mysterious reasons, human kids rejected this easy mechanical approach and learned to be humans.

You may have heard very optimistic statements regarding the emotional intelligence of computer software. Soon they may learn to deal with the maddened customers over the phone. Will they learn to lead a child through a game of challenges, customizing problems, watching the progress, evaluating the player's emotional conditions, taking into account the personality and the personal history of playing, diagnosing the difficulties and offering meaningful concessions?

Not in my life time, I hope, and this is good, because such mental profiling, potentially leading to the accumulation and exchange of valuable and damaging information, is scary. Yet the process is taking place. US schools are allowing commercial companies to collect identifying data, teach, and grade their students. Apparently, nobody cares.

Games of challenges, like the ones described here, may be a good experimental platform. The challenges are formal and accessible to computers, yet diverse, and human ways to approach them, leading to successes and failures, may be very possible to express in rules.

Compare MAKE THEM MAD, FIREPEGS and SOFTPEGS. There are zillions of online courses for programming, and they are mostly like a regular group teaching. I wish I was wrong, but I don't know of any such course which would be truly adaptive. Adaptive behavior is not entirely unheard of in schooling. The teachers do assess the learners, find their weaknesses and tell them what to pay attention to. Sufficiently smart student can do it without the teacher, but dealing with a class, a teacher can't possibly offer much more.

Children have a very limited ability to direct their own learning. Teaching a child requires much more, and a game like MAKE THEM MAD allows more. A daily challenge could be (and usually was) stuffed with many different smaller challenges. Most of the time I was able to identify the cause of any specific difficulty and offer a mitigation or a workaround. Without this smart adaptive teaching factor, the game would die. Well, it was for only one child.

A MAKE THEM MAD schools for parents and toddlers could become a venue to study children's thinking.

Patent pending