PAPERT'S IDEAS: MAINLY FROM MINDSTORMS

- Bill Kerr, October 1991.

MISSING OUT ON THE MINDSTORMS

Before I read Mindstorms and had only read about Mindstorms I gained the impression that Papert's educational philosophy was open ended discovery learning and that was about it.

Some of the articles that I have since read about Logo or about Papert's philosophy convey just this sort of impression. They talk vaguely about the "Logo philosophy" and about how some teachers who use Logo are aware and others are not aware of it.

It could be that either some Logo commentators do not understand Papert or, alternatively, they water him down so as to make him appear more respectable. I don't think that this is right. If Papert's ideas are important then we ought to find out what he is on about and if they inspire us, passionately propagate them. After all, ideas when they are put into practice do change the world, either for better or for worse.

At best, some writers about Logo talk about the importance of Logo to problem solving, debugging (children reflecting constructively about their "mistakes") and using Logo to develop learning about learning and all that guff. In other words, the sort of reflections on Logo that often pass for informed educational comment are so consistent with current modern educational thinking they would scarcely cause a ripple in the mind of the informed teacher. No Mindstorms here!

In my view the central tenants of Papert's thesis are educationally, socially and politically somewhat more radical. So, what is Papert really on about?

CONSTRUCTIONISM

Papert's beliefs are rooted very firmly in Piaget's findings about children's learning. Papert worked with Piaget for 5 years, applying his own expertise in maths to help build Piaget's theories. Two points from Piaget stand out:

Piaget found that incredible amounts of learning occur without formal teaching. In his work, Papert tries to discover and promote the factors that are causing this "hidden" learning and also asks: Why is it that learning often does not occur with formal teaching (and often does occur without formal teaching)?

MATHSLAND: RESTRUCTURING TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE

Piaget was not an educational psychologist but a genetic epistemologist. These obscure words are highly significant. Papert has recently moved to a new lab at MIT which has been named the Learning and Epistemology Group. Clearly epistemology is central to the concerns of Piaget and Papert. So, what is epistemology and what is genetic epistemology?

Piaget has recognised it as a mistake to separate the learning process from what is being learned. The study of what is being learned is epistemology. Hence, a genetic epistemologist is a person who investigates the evolution of the structure of knowledge in the minds of young people!

This is a much more dynamic conception than a traditional psychology of the learning process which passively accepts the traditional structure of knowledge as a given. Piaget and Papert are suggesting that there is a dialectical relationships between knowledge and people. Papert quotes Warren McCulloch tellingly to make this point:

"What is a man so made that he can understand number and what is number so made that a man can understand it." (Mindstorms, p. 164)

In looking at learning it is not enough to look at "learning how to learn" (ie. concentrate on the learner) but we need to study the basic structure of the subject itself. Papert investigates the basic structure of mathematics in some detail including a critique of the formal logical thinking emphasised in Bertrand Russell's Principia Mathematica and the "new math" of the 1960s/70s. In Piaget/Papert's view the basic structure of maths is derived from the thinking of the Bourbaki school: order, proximity (topology), combination (algebra).In Papert's view it is not natural that advanced maths ideas are inaccessible to most. What Papert has tried to do is restructure maths so as to accommodate the natural tendencies of the child. Instead of mathophobia Papert hopes to create a mathsland where it will be natural to learn maths, like learning to speak French in France.

Logo was designed with this philosophical/mathematical background in mind. Logo was developed as a language so that mathematically naive users could learn how to program and control the computer as well as more sophisticated users.

TOOLS, CULTURE AND PEOPLE

Change is inevitable but widespread change will only occur when there are significant changes in the wider culture. This applies to both social change and change in patterns of intellectual development.

The printing press on its own did not create poetry, but by spreading poetry around it helped to create new poets. The steam engine on its own did not create the industrial revolution. Tools are made by people and when tools call out for revolution they will speak through people.

Computers will not create an educational revolution. Forget about computers (for a minute!); culture is central to change! Papert is not a mechanical technological determinist. He is more on about reconceptualising traditional subject domains and using, in this instance, the computer as a tool to help do this.

This is a vitally important point when we come to evaluate the effectiveness of logo for if logo is implemented as a technical act (in a formal, teacher centred, Instructionist classroom) then obviously Papert's beliefs are not being given a fair trial. Papert has clearly rejected this technological determinism:

"Technocentrism refers to the tendency to give a ...centrality to a technical object - for example computers or Logo ... (this) betray(s) a tendency to reduce what are really the most important components of educational situations - people and cultures - to a secondary, facilitating role. The context of human development is always a culture, never an isolated technology ..." (Papert, quoted in Solomon, p.128)

Since culture is central to change then it follows that a teacher ought to aspire to be an anthropologist. The computer is merely one important recent addition to the cultural landscape. The question that the anthropologist/teacher ought to focus on is which cultural materials are relevant to intellectual development

The computer will not replace the teacher. On the contrary, teachers will have to become more skilled to incorporate the new technology into the overall educational context:

These skills are necessary for a modern educational system. Currently, one of the main problems with regard to developing creative applications of computers in education is training teachers with these skills. But lets not blame the teachers for this when education departments and governments are not providing the time, the infrastructure or the educational insights to make it all possible.

Papert has proposed a new field of teacher training called humanistic computer studies, where:

"In my vision of this field its professionals will need special combinations of competences. Apart from a foundation in scientific knowledge and technological skill they will need high degrees of psychological sensitivity and 'artistic' imagination. For the ones who will make the greatest social contribution will be those who know how to mold the computer into forms which people will love to use and in ways which will lead them on to enrichment and enhancement...." (from Solomon, p.133)

THE ROLE OF THE COMPUTER

If culture is central then what is the role of the technology? The new technology provides the underlying basis for a radical change in the educational and social system. Computers are obviously an important new part of our popular cultural landscape and everyone agrees that their influence will grow in the future.

However, the point is that the future possible pathways for education and society are manifold and that these decisions will be made in the cultural and political arenas - popular culture often determines political expediency. Logo taught in a constructionist framework represents a great educational opportunity but unless cultural persuasion and political pressure is brought to bear on the formal education system then the opportunity will be lost.

In today's world computers will usher in new cultural change but the sort of change that occurs will be fought out socially, in the world of business (how can productivity be maximised?), in the world of institutionalised education, in schemes for alternative schools, in the home with PC's, in the Arcades with the latest computer games. There is no social inevitability about the future pattern of usage of computers.

Computers may be used to mechanically increase productivity by crunching words, numbers and data. Others will use them as an expressive and creative tool to develop individuals with new insights into traditional subject domains, including human psychology. As a tool the computer is versatile enough to do both! Alan Kay has claimed that the computer can be used to simulate anything:

"...[the computer] is a medium that can dynamically simulate the details of any other medium, including media that cannot exist physically ... it has degrees of freedom for representation and expression never before encountered and as yet barely investigated." (Sunrise Notes Number 2, June 1990, p.29)

Papert says that the role of the new technology is twofold: both instrumental and heuristic.

Instrumental simply means that as computers become cheaper, more powerful and more popular they will carry and spread the ideas and social relations embedded within them amongst larger and larger groups of people. Papert expresses the instrumental role of computers spreading ideas around very powerfully with the metaphor "computer as pencil".

The heuristic influence of computers is a more complex and surprising idea.

Computing science is not fundamentally a technical science of computers. Rather, most of it is the science of descriptions and descriptive languages. Hence computing science (especially AI research) has something to offer learning theory, since descriptive languages are used to talk about learning. At an elementary level it is clear that concepts such as input, output, feedback, subprocedures (modularisation), recursion, debugging and extensibility could provide at least part of a framework for explanations of biological and human behaviour.

Papert and Minsky argue that ideas from computing science are instruments of explanation of learning and thinking. More, they are instruments of changing, altering the way in which we learn and think. In this way computing science and AI Research has ushered in a whole new theory of human psychology as outlined by Minsky in Society of Mind.

PAPERT'S CRITIQUE OF THE EDUCATION SYSTEM

Those who invented the automobile didn't do so by an in depth study of the horse and buggy! This is Papert's comment on the educational horse and buggy!

Papert is scathing of the established education system. He perceives our present schooling process as a technical act under the guiding methodology of Instructionism.

Although instruction is fine and an inevitable part of everyone's everyday learning this is different from Instructionism which is the entrenched methodology of a central person or curriculum transmitting pre-established pieces of information to an essentially passive, captive audience. Papert is against the teacher as technician under the control of the curriculum, against centralised control, against hierarchy, against the whole notion of a centralised curriculum and against accountability and national testing based on the above precepts. In short, Papert is swimming against the current winds of educational tightening up in this country but in doing so he is giving us some powerful weapons to effectively oppose the current disastrous, straight-jacketing trend. Papert's weapons are the ideas outlined above, computer software (logo) and computer hardware (LEGO).

In a dynamic, living culture there is little place for a centralised curriculum because the culture will generate its own interesting, unpredictable challenges on a day to day basis. Attempts to impose a curriculum onto this culture would only serve to cramp the style and creative interest of those who work within the culture.

Instructionism is misguided because it treats children as empty vessels to be filled up with knowledge. Instructionism ignores Piaget who emphasises that children construct their own internal mental worlds by integrating new information with already established structures (equilibration).

Hence, Piaget's findings and not computers as such are at the centre of Papert's radical critique of the education system. Papert would oppose the use of computers for Computer Aided Instruction (CAI) such as maths drill as a band-aid to patch up a basically sterile system.

In opposition to Instructionism, Papert advances the guiding principle of Constructionism for creating a humane and enriching education system. The learning environment is about building and creating things, eg. building rich cognitive structures internally and building things like LEGO machines externally. In this environment the teacher is first and foremost a fellow learner (who might spend more time instructing others simply because he/she may know more).

There is nothing new in Papert's critique of the education system up until now. In the history of education there has always been alternative schools with an emphasis on freedom. These movements have never really caught on partly because "...they were unable to handle the more formal aspects such as mathematics or grammar or many parts of science."(Papert, address to WCCE, 1990). So, what is new in Papert's vision is the use of modern technology (computers with logowriter and LEGO TClogo) to make possible interesting constructivist maths, science and grammar for perhaps the first time ever, historically.

CONCLUSION

Many teachers are enthusiastic to start with. Then, after ten years many teachers are burnt out Instructionist hacks, despite their best intentions. Don't blame the teacher, blame the system.

Fundamentally, Papert influences us because, if we really listen to him, he politicises the educational debate in a highly practical way. Papert has taken the most traditional subjects - maths and science - and has begun to restructure them to fit the user. Papert and his supporters have created an interesting maths-land and science-land that are both user friendly and powerful learning environments.

Hence, Papert and the MIT group are creating conditions that make it possible for people to become passionate about educational options. LEGO TClogo is something that you can take home and happily play with! It is hard to be passionate about maths drill and practice style textbooks, or Instructionism - broadcasting essentially the same lesson year after year, marking Common Tests, or whether Sarah was really worth a low A or a high B. Constructionism and Logo is different. It fits the user and has no ceiling in terms of expertise.

Papert's ideas have the power to change lives and to change whole education systems (eg. Costa Rica). Of course this will require a tremendous and possibly protracted educational/political struggle since the Instructionist model casts such a long shadow. As in all meaningful struggles the outcome is far from certain.

Since Papert's ideas are revolutionary they are not for the faint hearted. It is very difficult to mentally step outside of a system you are working in, that you are part of, that you help to reproduce by your day to day actions and then to turn around and to say that it is fundamentally at fault. It is easier for Papert to make this critique than it is for a practising classroom teacher. In the final analysis, Papert invites us to have the courage to embark on the adventure of tearing down the old ways while creating the new ways of teaching and learning.

REFERENCES:

Papert, Seymour. Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. Harvester Press, 1980.

Papert, Seymour. Peristroika and Epistemological Politics. Address to the 5th World Conference on Computers in Education, Sydney, Australia, July 1990.

Solomon, Cynthia. Computer Environments for Children: A Reflection on Theories of Learning and Education. The MIT Press, 1987

Turkle, Sherry. The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1984.