Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Building "A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer"

Neil Stephenson's book "The Diamond Age" presents a fascinating piece of educational technology called "A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer" (See diagram below).

The primer is an interactive book that can answer a learner's questions (spoken in natural language), teach through allegories that incorporate elements of the learner's environment, and presents contextual just-in-time information.

The primer includes sensors that monitor the learner's actions and provide feedback. The learner is in a cognitive apprenticeship with the book: The primer models a certain skill (through allegorical fairy tale characters) which the learner then imitates in real life.

The primer follows a learning progression with increasingly more complex tasks. The educational goals of the primer are humanist: To support the learner to become a strong and independently thinking person.

A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer Diagram [Click to Enlarge]
Currently, educational technology has early examples of adaptive tutoring systems. However, an artificial (pseudo-) intelligence that can mentor a learner in real-life complex problems is still far away.

For example, the IBM Watson computer can understand natural spoken language and give simple answers. Educational toy company LeapFrog developed the LeapPad - a tablet computer for children that resembles the "Young Lady's Illustrated Primer" - except for the goal of subversive critical thinking.

Another example, the teaching software for the One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) wis directly inspired by the "Young Lady's Illustrated Primer". It is even named "Nell" (after the main protagonist in the novel). posted an example of how children in a remote Ethiopian village use Nell. Nell uses an evolving, personalized narrative to help kids learn to learn without beating them over the head with standardized lessons and traditional teaching methods:
Miles from the nearest school, a young Ethiopian girl named Rahel turns on her new tablet computer. The solar powered machine speaks to her: "Hello! Would you like to hear a story?"
She nods and listens to a story about a princess. Later, when the girl has learned a little more, she will tell the machine that the princess is named "Rahel" like she is and that she likes to wear blue--but for now the green book draws pictures of the unnamed Princess for her and asks her to trace shapes on the screen. "R is for Run. Can you trace the R?" As she traces the R, it comes to life and gallops across the screen. "Run starts with R. Roger the R runs across the Red Rug. Roger has a dog named Rover." Rover barks: "Ruff! Ruff!" The Princess asks, "Can you find something Red?" and Rahel uses the camera to photograph a berry on a nearby bush. "Good work! I see a little red here. Can you find something big and red?"
As Rahel grows, the book asks her to trace not just letters, but whole words. The book's responses are written on the screen as it speaks them, and eventually she doesn't need to leave the sound on all the time. Soon Rahel can write complete sentences in her special book, and sometimes the Princess will respond to them. New stories teach her about music (she unlocks a dungeon door by playing certain tunes) and programming with blocks (Princess Rahel helps a not very-bright turtle to draw different shapes).
Rahel writes her own stories about the Princess, which she shares with her friends. The book tells her that she is very good at music, and her lessons begin to encourage her to invent silly songs about what she's learning. An older Rahel learns that the block language she used to talk with the turtle is also used to write all the software running inside her special book. Rahel uses the blocks to write a new sort of rhythm game. Her younger brother has just received his own green book, and Rahel writes him a story which uses her rhythm game to help him learn to count.

The video by CGP Grey outlines a vision for a individualized learning tool called "Digital Aristotle":


  1. Love your blog. I have had exactly this thought from the moment I first wiki'd the Stevenson book. This concept is key: revolutionizing education by creating an app that can form fit to a kid from birth to help bring them the knowledge, skills, and habits required to be successful, happy, and good people.

  2. I read The Diamond Age some years before the IPad. Good stuff. Turning a tablet pc into "primer" is something that is close at hand but (and its a BIG but!) i'd be remiss not to point out that Dr. William Ayers (look it up) is a Doctor of *education*. This might be a problem.

  3. Here is an example.

  4. Thanks for this article! It makes it easy for me to explain the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer to my friends :)


  5. I read "The Diamond Age" well over a decade before the iPad. What does Dr. Ayers have to do with anything? He's not mentioned in the book, on this page, and is not part of the OLPC or Leappad projects.

  6. Congratulation for the great post. Those who come to read your article will find lots of helpful and informative tips.

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  8. Great article. I think It's completely related to this video of cgp grey:

  9. I'm reading the book at the moment and had the same (I guess quite obvious?) idea of making the Primer. Thanks for this post and the extra info - especially about the project in Ethiopia - awesome and quite far along then! Also, weirdly, I found this page because I was emailing IBM about the Primer as an idea for Watson (which you also mention). Clearly, this is an idea whose time has come (although the martial arts might be a few decades off yet). Stephenson predicts the future (again!)


    The game is afoot and I think my job as a teacher might be on the line...

    I remember seeing something like the Primer in JJAbrams' new Star Trek where Spock was being grilled on astrophysics or something. The teacher just wandering around the students' 'tutor pits', doling out discipline and moral correction.

    I knew when I saw it that it was the Primer and I wanted to build it... unfortunately teaching takes absolutely hours every week!

  11. Beat -

    I just stumbled across this article while researching the prospects for building an artifact akin to the Primer.

    Have you done any further work on this topic, or can you recommend related papers / works on the subject? Anything's greatly appreciated.


    - Heath

    1. Hi Heath,
      Thank you for your interest. There has been a lot of work in the area of 'intelligent tutoring systems', for example to teach students mathematics or computer languages. These systems work reasonably well for narrowly defined areas of knowledge with clear 'correct/false' analysis to which the system can react. However, there are no such systems to support areas like creative writing.