Turtles in China and Australia

During our sabbatical in Beijing and Brisbane, we had a surprising common theme: turtles.

I’ve always liked turtles, so perhaps it was natural that I saw them everywhere we turned. It started when we asked Caroline, a ten-year-old friend from Canada, about her classes at the Bei Da elementary school. She described a strange typing class, which involved typing expressions such as “FD 100 RT 120 FD 100 RT 120”. Although she didn’t realize it at first, this was not typing class, but computer programming using the Logo language. The commands were eventually to be used to command a robotic turtle, or one on a computer screen. In this example, the turtle would be commanded to draw an equilateral triangle, 100 pixels on a side.

We decided that turtle talk was a nice, limited domain in which to practice our feeble Chinese. Wang Dongyi, a Chinese friend, was helping us with that, and we were helping him with his English. Before long we had a bustling turtle circus going in our apartment at Shao Yuan on the Bei Da campus. Caroline, Emily, and Stephen played the turtles, with occasional help from certain childlike adults. We’d issue Logo commands in Chinese or English, and learn from the consequences of the turtles’ behaviors. In this way, we were all practicing both language and programming skills. We of course had to learn the Chinese word for sea turtle, Hai Gui (海归), so that we could say Turtle Emily, forward 30, or its equivalent in Chinese.

These navigational commands happened to be useful for us visitors, as we were continually seeking of giving directions. We began to refer to taxis as Hai Gui, since they needed to execute programs such as forward ten blocks, left, then forward three more.

Hai Gui, from Woodblock Dreams

We saw images and sculptures of turtles. We even ate Hai Gui, probably more than we realized, since we couldn’t always identify or obtain a name for what we were eating. We then learned that the “Hai Gui” or “sea turtles” of China are the returning professionals who contribute to the growth of the Chinese economy. These are the students who were sent abroad, like baby sea turtles, to get advanced degrees and Western experiences, then return to lay their eggs in their homeland.

When we reached Australia, we spent a lot of time outdoors, taking advantage of the beautiful countryside in Queensland. We saw many turtles in lakes and in the ocean, and even swam with adult loggerheads. One highlight, near Bundaberg, was Mon Repos Beach, one of the two largest Loggerhead turtle rookeries in the South Pacific Ocean. Successful breeding there aids survival of this endangered species. The research program conducts animal surveys of nesting turtles, studies of reproduction, migration, behavior, incubation, and genetics.

Visitors can watch the turtles, and if they’re lucky, see the adults lay eggs (from mid November to February) or even better, see the hatchlings emerge and crawl to the sea (from January until the end of March). We couldn’t miss that. The night we went was magical. We saw baby turtles hatch and then crawl to the sea. Emily and Stephen took on the role of turtle guides, standing with legs spread and using a flashlight to guide the way. The turtles would follow the light until they neared the ocean edge and then could follow the moonlight.

Susan and I would not have done well as turtle guides since watching Emily and Stephen do this was too wonderful on its own. As Susan wrote in an email at the time, “The theme of any future message will be turtles; we did see the hatchlings and Stephen and I swam with a huge loggerhead on the [Great Barrier] Reef, a few seconds that were worth the total airfare.”

In that year, we were Hai Gui ourselves, emerging from our safe nest with little understanding of the world we were about to encounter.

The bottom line in health care

healthIn my previous post on Single-payer health care: Why not?, I talked about our family’s experiences with health care in France, UK, Ireland, Italy, China, Australia, and other places in comparison to that in the US. This included health care for children and the elderly, and both minor (blood donation, physicals, skin growth removal) and major (broken hip, eye infection) procedures.

Thinking a bit more about this I realized that there were four essential facts that emerged from this wide variety of experiences. In every industrialized country except the US,

  1. Equitable: Everyone has the right to health care.
  2. Effective: People live longer, healthier lives.
  3. Economical: They spend less on health care, as much as 50% less.
  4. Efficient: There is much less bureaucracy, fewer forms, less running around, less waiting.

dollarI might add a fifth point, too: The scare stories that we hear (“you have to wait forever!” “you can’t choose your doctor!”) are simply false, or they index issues that are the same or worse in the US. The information we get about health care promotes profit, not health.

There are many issues–changing demographics, new technologies, new medical knowledge, changing standards, globalization, and more–which affect health care. But the fundamental difference in the current US situation is that health care is driven by the bottom line. Insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, media corporations, hospitals and clinics, doctors and other health care professionals, and all others involved in health care operate in a system in which rewards bear little relation to the overall quality of care or efficient use of resources.

One can debate each of the points above, but the evidence from OECD, UN, WHO, WTO, and other international organizations is overwhelming in support of them. Other systems offer health care that is more equitable, more effective, more economical, and more efficient.

So, why is single-payer, or national health care not even worth discussing? Why does the Obama plan dismiss it? Why does even public broadcasting ignore it?

Messing about in technology

If we were to establish a hall of fame for reflective writing about teaching, especially for texts revealing deep, yet accessible ideas about pedagogical theory/practice, it would be difficult to find better candidates than “Messing About in Science” by David Hawkins (1965). The paper describes his work in a fifth-grade class teaching about pendulums as part of the Elementary Science Study, which grew out of his discussions with Eleanor Duckworth, another insightful science educator. Although the study was grounded in a specific setting, the ideas might be applied to any subject of study or types of learners, including learning about and with digital technologies.

Phases in science learning

Hawkins identifies three patterns, or phases, of school work in science. These phases induce different relations among children, materials of study, and teachers. If we substitute “mentors” or “colleagues” for “teachers,” we see that they apply fairly well to science work itself and to other kinds of learning and work. That’s not so surprising, given that the essence of the phases is that the form of inquiry in science is not that different from the form of inquiry in learning. In fact, Hawkins prefers the term “work” over “play” in his model, even though it might appear that he’s just arguing for allowing children to have time to play.

Hawkins has in mind the kind of work one might do on a boat, citing the famous passage by in The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame (1908):

“Believe me, my young friend”, said the water rat solemnly, “there is nothing…absolutely nothing…half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing…nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular…”

slipping pennies into water

(Slipping pennies into water in an investigation of surface tension, in a school in Brisbane; note the name tape on the forehead!)

Hawkins discovered that in order to learn in science we need ample time to “mess about.” Because it may appear that we don’t “get anywhere at all,” this phase is often neglected and undervalued. Thus, he devotes most of his article to the circle (◯) or “messing about” phase, in which learners engage in “free and unguided exploratory work” (p. 67).

In the pendulum study, Hawkins had planned to allow the children to explore for an hour or two, before getting into the science lesson per se. But he soon discovered that they needed more time to become familiar with the materials. Moreover, the materials provided a structure to their investigations. Their messing about was far from chaotic or undirected. In fact, as they messed about they began to generate the very questions that the lesson was intended to address, but in a way that was more involved, and connected to their direct experience.

Hawkins goes on to describe two additional phases, which he sees as essential, but more often included in science teaching. The triangle (△) phase, involves “multiply programed material” to support work that is “more externally guided and disciplined” (p. 72). The square (▢) phase is for “discussion, argument, and the full colloquium of children and teacher” (p. 74). The phases are unordered, and all are important. Learning in science requires the opportunity to experience al of the phases in a connected way, and to move easily among them.

Franz and Papert (1988) build on Hawkins’s ideas in a paper about students learning how to measure time. They argue that using computers well for learning requires

open-ended projects that foster students’ involvement with a variety of materials; …activities in which students use computers to solve real problems; …[connection of] the work done on the computer with what goes on during the rest of the school day, and also with the students’ interests outside of school; …[recognizing] the unique qualities of computers; …[taking advantage of] ow-cost technological advances…, which promote integration of the computer with aspects of the students’ physical environment.

Youth community informatics

In our Youth Community Informatics project, middle-school students make podcasts of stories important in their lives. Their work (learning) appears to follow the models we see in the pendulum and time projects, especially in terms of the value of messing about. They need time to explore, experiment, and become comfortable with the technologies.

In the project, young people select images from the web, scan in family photos, create graphics, find and download music, create audio files, edit audio using Audacity, and create presentations. They learn about copyright and citing sources, as well as about design and story-telling. More importantly, they use the podcasts as a way to connect with and talk about their families and their lives outside of school.

Like Hawkins, we see the value of guided inquiry (△) and of full colloquium (▢) in this work, but we have seen increasingly the need for ample time to mess about (◯) as well. Doing that allows students to make the technology part of their lived experience and not something divorced from it.


Hawkins, David (1965). Messing about in science. Science and Children, 2(5), 5-9.

Franz, George, & Papert, Seymour (1988, Spring). Computer as material: Messing about with time. Teachers College Record, 89(3), 408-417.

Beijing and Brisbane, 1996-97

family Xiao Guor
Liqian Stephen in 6th grade in Bardon, Brisbane
Sabbatical with major stays in Beijing, China and Brisbane, Australia and stops in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, California, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Italy, and Wales along the way, 1996-1997.


While in Queensland, Emily and Stephen attended Rainworth State School in Bardon, Brisbane.