Seymour Papert’s CUE Keynote (May 2000)

California Computer-Using Educators Keynote Address by Dr. Seymour Papert
May 2000

Generously transcribed by Whitney Hoffman for Gary Stager

Seymour Papert  : Well, Thank You and I’m very honored and happy to be here. ______Please, It’s churlish of me to say that what I’m really here to talk about is the abolition of CUE.

It had to be about ten years ago when I was invited to give a keynote at the World Conference of Computers and Education in Australia, and I had forgot about that until reviewing it recently, and even then I asked this question: “How much longer are we going to have conferences on computers in education?”

After all there isn’t an organization called PUE which is pencil users in education. You know they, the people who believe that writing and the pencil and the paper, the book and the chalkboard are the last word in technology – they don’t put any prefix on them- they’re just educators. As technical, it’s granted an educator will be able to read, write, and use paper, books, pencils and all the rest. If you are happy with computers and I think that we could help it happen much faster if we stopped labeling ourselves as computer using educators as if that were something special and different, and really try to hold out this image and stand tall with this image that the day will come when there will be a conference for Paper Using Educators, and it will be a collection on antiquarians who, or maybe historians interested in the quaint ways things used to be. And I think that we have to hold off that image, because it makes a lot of difference to what we do, how we do our work and how we formulate it.

(Time 2:18)

This is not the first Conference where I’ve come in and the first four people I spoke to complain how boring things are in the exhibit hall.  I haven’t been there myself, but I’ve been to others.  And they’re not boring in the sense that one goes in there and one sees a lot of ingenious and energetic people who’ve done ingenious and energetic things and in a certain sense there’s nothing new. It’s the same stuff that I remember.  And the reason for this is what I want to talk about.  The reason is that we are losing vision as the people who are making the education of the future, and allowing ourselves to be defined as some sort of servant of the education of the future.  That is, we define ourselves as using technology to improve the way that school as we’ve always known it  and the curriculum as the way its always been, to improve the way this is done.  And there’s a limit to how much it can improve, because it’s an obsolete thing, that should have died a century ago.

( Applause- Time 3:27)

So there’s not much more you can do to improve things. Where you can make a big step forward and I’m seeing this as my mission to try to be with people and get a handle on people ready to make that jump and say “We’re not trying to improve that thing, we’re trying to make it obsolete.”  We have to make something new.

Now that means a certain amount of guts.  In a recent article on Papert.org I said what we need is Chutzpah.  And what we need chutzpah for I’m about to take a few examples.  We need chutzpah to face down those people who say  “ Hey who are we to say technology should dictate what children learn, that technology should dictate the curriculum. No- technology should be the tool for implementing the curriculum. It’s other people who dictate it.  Who do you think you are to say what children should be learning?

(Time 4:38)

Well, I think the boot is on the other foot, so to speak. Because in fact our curriculum or 90% of it is dictated by technology. By an ancient and outmoded technology.   Almost everything we teach in elementary school, especially in the subjects of math and science, and I’m afraid in technology is dictated by what you can do with very primitive methods, with pencil and paper.

Under the guise of math- I hate to use the word mathematics, it’s not math- there’s a distinction between mathematics- which is the noble creative peak of human endeavor and this thing called math that we teach in schools, which has nothing to do with creativity, nothing to do with true learning, nothing to do with thinking.  It ought to be abolished.

The only reason it’s there was two factors, both tied up with being in the epoch of pencil and paper.   One of them is for people that needed it before calculators and so on, which they needed some of it, which they don’t. And the other is that it lends itself to the kind of exercise that you can do at a desk and the teacher can correct right and wrong, and all of this runs right through 99% of what we teach under the guise of mathematics.

(Time 6:22 )

So, I think that I’m trying to incite you to say, take a braver stab. We need a different vision- this community has lost its vision and lost its purpose. We need to have a slogan- I think maybe abolitionist versus slave mentality is the slogan – Are we the slaves of that system trying to perpetuate itself against all odds, Or are we trying to abolish it and open the door to something really new and the future?

What can we do about that?

I think unfortunately although that this is the case, I have to agree with The Senator’s remark about the goal should be to put equal technology in all of the schools in the State. Because if you are going to be confined to what you can get to be accepted everywhere equally, you’re not going to make very much progress. You’re going to make  Incremental steps.  That the task of putting forward something really different, you can’t expect that it will be accepted by everybody.

So I think the number one task has to be to really create spearheads, nuclei of change where we can really demonstrate that something really different can be done  – something not improvement, but radically different.

(time   7:50 )

Yesterday, I was in an amazing place near Seattle, a place called the Cyber School.  Now the Cyber School, what’s almost paradoxical about it, is that this is a school district that set up a school for homeschooling. Now there’s a paradox, but not quite. There’s still schooling and learning- The school district provides a staff, there’s a principal, but there’s no set curriculum, there’s no set schedule. What the kids do is determined by a negotiation between them and the parents.  They have to be there five hours a week in order to be registered, so they can be at home. Actually, many of them are there for many more hours a week than in regular schools because they really want to be there.

And I’m reading the following interesting statistic-that we’ve found in many other places- these kids do better on standardized tests than the kids in all the schools where teachers are teaching to the test and undermining real education.

We ought to be shouting this from the rooftops. We ought not to be allowing the political atmosphere, the political determination of what happens in schools, the desire, as much as we’d like it for democratically uniform progress everywhere, to undermine the fact that we have to recognize that we can only make change if we could find the pinpoint spread, change can really take place.

(Time 9:43)

I’d like to say a little about two of the things that I really been involved with recently and that were mentioned in the composite introduction by the Apple computer.  In February, the Governor of Maine, Angus King, with whom I have been in sort of, cahoots, for the last two years in working on trying to find a way to break through the vision barrier.  Angus found suddenly that there was an unexpected surplus in the budget.  So, what to do with it? He made an outrageous suggestion.  That this money should be used to establish an endowment that would guarantee every kid, as you leave elementary school, you get your own portable, your own laptop. Yours to take home, every kid in the State.

Of course, there was a tremendous outcry.  And I think the fact that there was that outcry is a really significant fact- that there’s no giving it up.   The outcry took the form of- there has never been an issue which in so short a time provoked as many editorials, newspapers, op-eds, columns, letters to the editor, emails to Governor – there was a huge upcry and it spread beyond the borders of Maine.  And I think It was in California that Clinton picked it up and made a reference to it,which I think stands in big contrast to what he’s doing which I don’t think is mind-breaking.  But I’ll say something about that in a moment, but…
(time : 11:50)

Most… In the first week, almost all of that actual reaction was negative. He’s gone out of his mind.  What can the Governor be thinking?  We’ve got serious problems. There’s  schools whose t roofs are leaking, how can we be talking about laptops? We could use this money for health services, for etc. etc  everybody could think of a thousand different ways [to use the money] and this persisted.

(Time 12:17)

Gradually, over the next few weeks, there was a gradual shift.  And we saw, nobody ever shifted in the opposite direction.  It was like entropy in physics.  Bit by bit, people shifted from negative to positive.   And two weeks ago, a budget was signed that is assigning, not quite everything but is assigning 50 million dollars- keep in mind that Maine is a very small state, so that’s a more significant amount of money than it would be in California-  dedicated to kids getting technology.  And exactly how this is to be carried out will be determined by a task force of which I was the first member, I’m proud to say, and I’m sure this task force will come out with something even bolder  (and more important over time.).

(Time:13:08)

What I’d like to talk about it what it meant for this topic to be raised in discussion.  Two weeks ago, two weeks before the signing of the budget, it was universally accepted – and I even believed this- that there was no chance this thing could get through.  Angus King is an independent governor. The two parties, the Democrats and Republicans, had both come out against it. And there was not a single legislator who had made a firm commitment, and then it started (in appropriations? prom-bill?)  (Time 13:46)

Now at that point, I thought, “Well, maybe it won’t get through, but we’ll mount a great victory because we’ve changed the way people are thinking.”   And I’‘ll say that in a couple of different ways.  And I’ll just pick on one of them.  We’ve changed the image of what “computer and kid” means. Because until then, for 99% of people or more, “computer and kid” meant, maybe a lab in a school, maybe a computer connected to the internet in a classroom, maybe a kid sneaking away to do pornography on the lam. But the idea that each kid would actually have their computer – It’s not that people were against that idea or for it- for most people, it never crossed their minds. And even if they had heard it, they heard it as some kind of way off, crazy idea.  It had not been taking seriously, and all of a sudden, discourse changed.  That the discourse about computers and education was no longer about what kind of lab or whether schools should require enough.  It was about every kid having a computer.

(Time: 14:57)
And its that shift in what the discourse was about that was significant.  Whatever decision they kept.  And I think again it’s our job and our honor and our privilege to be able to try to carry that shift in the way people think. But its not only thinking about computers, thinking about kids.

One of the common kinds of objection that were raised, besides the leaky roofs in schools was “Oh, How can you give teenagers expensive things like that?” Because They’ll break them, they’ll lose them.  And so the discussion about that, which was even more significant,  got into a question of talking about how people talk about kids, teenagers and how responsible are they.  And it was amazing to see – one of the most moving things that I experienced in this whole (fabulous) campaign, in the last two months- this has been my forty hours a day kind of activity and being immersed in it.

The most moving thing, maybe, was to have a few people acknowledge that this had changed their attitude towards their own teenage kids.  A somewhat popular, easy sort of, just one little incident that sort of sums it up – actually Angus King, visiting a school, asks a seventh grader, “What do you think of this?”  The seventh grader says “Great” and Angus said “I was talking to your Mum and she told me you lose your gloves all the time- aren’t you going to lose the laptop?” And the kid said “Governor, you don’t understand! You can’t send an email with gloves!”

(Time: 16:55  )

Yes, Teenagers lose Gloves.  Yes, I’m ashamed to say that the beautiful gloves that my wife gave me last Christmas, I’ve lost.  I don’t lose my computer.  Most teenagers don’t lose their bicycles.  They don’t lose their gameboys.  There are some things they don’t lose. And that’s a significant fact.  It’s not that they’re irresponsible, that they lose things.    They’ve got to have more focused thinking.  And to do some incredible more focused thinking, about kids now- think about them– that’s a big step forward, whether or not they get their laptops.

(Time:  17:37)

So I think we need to reformulate what our goals should be. We’re not Computer Using Educators.  Our goal is no longer to get computers out there.  Everybody knows now that everybody needs computers.  We won that battle twenty years ago, ten years ago, five years- wherever you want to take the cut off point.  But its won.  What we are now about is changing mindsets about fundamental things.  How do you think about learning?  How do you think about kids?  How do you think about school? How do you think about yourself and your relationship with your family and your kids?

These are much deeper, deeper questions, and those are the ones that are on the agenda of today. We ought to be taking the lead in thinking about because we happen to have an insight that, into the way in which a new medium of expression can (carry that medium? 18:40) in dramatic form that -  Just because it meets head on into resistance, is able to shake people up, make them think, break their mindsets.  That’s what it’s got to be about.  We have got to get people to think differently.  And you won’t get them to think differently by making genius software that will get them get better scores on student tests.

(Time: 19:05)

[unclear]  [So don’t be mad and nuts about all that the softwares are trying to do] – I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it- but we shouldn’t be doing that.

I think it’s a paradox that at this particular point in history, we get this test mania, and a couple of other associated things. How does it come about? I think it will be, in twenty years time, certainly in fifty years time, professors of the history of education will give an assignment to their kids, to their students, to write term papers about how it came about that just at the time- Just at the time- when the whole learning structure was about to change more radically than in any living memory, or any memory at all at the time (change?)  just at that time we suddenly find that digging into ways of casting the past in concrete.  Because it’s not that the tests are bad.  It’s that what’s being tested is the knowledge of the 19th century, slightly, slightly updated in order to be able to first put in the twentieth century, but basically the whole idea of what testing is consolidating -  a curriculum and an approach that is really upended. How did it happen?

(Time 20:42)

Well, there are lots of theories. My favorite one is that this is the last sort of flick of the dying dragon’s tail.  That this system that knows it’s right at the end of its tether, is digging itself in. So this is the time you have to decide.  Each of us individually- which side are we on?  Are we part of that system, digging itself in, or are we part of what’s to come afterwards.

And I don’t think there’s anything in between.  I think you have to decide.  One way or the other.  Of course, from day to day, you have to work with the system. That the way in which you work with the system is different if you think that you’re (about ) to abolish it, think you’re an abolitionist, than if you think you’re a slave to it and you have to serve it and help to to try to survive a little longer by doing a little better.

What’s wrong with it? What’s wrong with it is that society has changed radically and rapidly and is accelerating change while school has basically not changed.  And it needs more than a few minutes to convey that sense of what dot I mean that it hasn’t changed.

Of course there are people who say “Yes, it’s a revolutionary change because we do this or that”.  I’ve been thinking of a few things that will be introduced are anywhere near revolutionary change.

The crisis in school is because kids are seeing that it doesn’t fit.  It’s got nothing to do with them.  And moreover, this crisis is one of morals and morality and trust.

(Time 22:39)

I speak to a math teacher and I say “How do you tell your kids the violation of the    learner’s map -Why should they know how to multiply fractions?”  And, well, I’m told that math is important in life.  So I say, “Where do you use it?” and “Did you multiply any fraction when you were alive? Recently?”  I get teachers having to say to kids, “well, in the supermarket, we do this and this and this..” and we’ll make our map relevant by instead of saying multiply three times five, we’ll say “buy five cans at three dollars each, and how much does that cost?” That’s not relevant.  Every kid knows that nobody in the supermarket does math except that machine at the checkout counter.

(Time: 23:35)

So the real bad thing about this is that kid’s teacher is forced to lie.  And the teacher’s forced to lie- that’s sick!  It’s undermining the whole [the whole way we educate kids] (unintelligible)  I believe this epidemic – this amazing epidemic of learning disabilities and special ed- it’s a really interesting phenomenon to ask “Where did it come from?” I think it needs some research. We’ve cottoned on to the start of the AIDS epidemic- this one started about the same time but there’s been less attention paid.  You know, It can’t be that all of a sudden something like 30% of our kids have some element of learning disability.  Come on. And thirty years ago nobody did? I think that although, obviously there are kids who have serious neurological problems and serious- all sorts of reasons- basically this is an epidemic that’s created by the relation of our society to learning both in school and out of school.

And its strangling the school system. Now you might almost say that’s a good think and this is a sick time to comment on it, but it is one of the things that we can rid the system of.  And while I’m not going to say Yes we’ll do something about it- I think that doing something about it, is going to be what will bring the system into a different form.

(Time 25:30)

I’ve got… I’ll just tell one last story. I’ve promised to refer to the two activities that were mentioned in the introduction.  The other was working, and [Gary] Stager’s been there, with some really fantastic contributions to this project, working inside a prison for teens.  And I started working in that, this came up and after having conversations with Governor Angus King, I started working at sort of a double sort of core. One was here is a bunch of kids- and this is a really serious national and international problem-Really serious- they’re really criminals.  Here’s a bunch of kids who deserve better.  They’re really kids.

Its also an opportunity to be able to do something, to create a model that could be used elsewhere. Because although that circumstance allows very bad things to be done to these kids,  the fact that in a sense that they were written off, also allows really good things to be done to them, with the kids.  And So we tried to create this model there- I can just tell you one story which is a little painful.  A little kid who spent three of his last four (years)-he’s now 16, it’s been three years ago, since he was twelve, in this kind of prison.  He’s one of those people when you see, how but for the grace of god kind of thing,…  The deeply moving experience was realizing that although a few of them had deep psychopathological, psychopathologies, most of them are just regular people like ourselves, like our own kids and how thin is that line that you go this way or that way.

(Time  27:17)

This kid has been, all his life, in the depths of special ed. In substantially separate classrooms.  Can’t read they say.  Except that he does sneak around the corner and does read where nobody can see him, because he’s learned its to his advantage.  And that’s a trap that many kids are in.

When I first,  my first attempt, my attentions were drawn to him in an incident that became my emblematic little station identity call.  I brought in a rat trap.  Was it symbolic, maybe, I can’t honestly say, unconsciously, you can guess what Freud might say.  The explicit reason was we were making vehicles there – they build them all the time, it was very constructivist environment- they were building all sorts of things.  So we were to build this vehicle and use the rattrap as a source of power.

So the rat trap evokes all sorts of responses and reactions, and some of the kids gather around  and say Wow- all sorts of macho things mostly, like “You can break somebody’s fingers with that” or “That’s nothing, I’ve set a bear trap.”  And this was mainly my activity, to be true.   This one little kid, after all this other stuff quieted down,  said “Wow… Awesome! That’s an awesome idea”-  Now he wasn’t thinking the car was the awesome idea, it was the mousetrap.

And I hadn’t really thought of that and I bet most of you haven’t thought of that- think of what would it take to invent the mousetrap.  Not a better one, that old one.  It’s an incredibly ingenious mechanism, an incredibly great idea there.  (29:12)

And this kid was struck by this idea. And you’ve got to know and realize this is the most intellectual form as kids.  For him, ideas are what are important.  And we saw this in a lot of his work once our eyes were opened to it- that  he made a – we do a lot of construction using lego and other material- but we do.. also it’s not only computers – that technology equals computers is a really bad identification we have, that I could spend another hour on, but, of course, they use computers a lot.   But we build.  Some, they build guitars, really professional quality guitars too, and they build airplanes, and work,  we’re building these vehicles out of Lego.  (time 30:00)

And I noticed that this guy didn’t particularly want to build vehicles. Mostly what the kid builds of this augmented lego, what we see is that a kid says “I can make a truck, a crane, a this or a that and maybe I need an idea or two to do it.”  But it’s the functional goal.  For him it wasn’t like that, it was the idea that came first.  He’d say ”Cool” the day he saw how a worm vehicle created a lot of force- he was entranced.  He made all sorts of things using worm gears.  So the project was in order to, in order to explore this powerful idea rather than to make something sexy or wonderful. And that’s a shift in thinking about projects- and it’s not just about this kid being so intellectual.

It’s pointing to us, that very often we’ve lost the depth of concepts and the excitement about ideas as the driving force as we move into trying to do more experiential and more project based things, and search on the web, and student oriented, student learner centered activities. (31:15)

So I think that is basically where I see the crux of what we’re talking about.

How can we retrieve, identify, give these kids like that, who’s not just capable of doing okay – he’s a genius and he showed it in many ways.   Only for whatever reason, historically or otherwise, he doesn’t want to read and write at this stage of his life.  So are we going to deprive society of him and set things up so that, he can become, turn his incredible abilities to crime, just because we’ve decided that if a kid doesn’t read by this age that kid is failing?   Surely not.

(32:02)

Well, So, this is what I’m trying to do.  And maybe there are six of you in there whose schools or districts  would like to join this project.  I’ve created in Maine a little not-for-profit called the Learning Barn and we’re trying to make a network of a small number of clusters of educators who really want to work at real change.  Whatever that means.  I don’t think that it means that we’re going to design the school of the future, but I think thats what going to happen in the future is diversity and many, many different ways of doing it.

But I think what we need now is people who are really ready to focus on making something spectacularly different.  In many different ways, but for example, something where this kid I just was mentioned can flourish and not flourish in the sense that we prove he’s successful by getting on that main track, mainstream and does what the other kids are supposed to do, but flourish because he can demonstrate the possibility of a new direction and while doing it, serve not only himself but the whole world by breaking those mindsets that think it’s got to be done this way, it’s got to be done that way,  it’s got to be tested in this way-  here’s what you’ve got to know and this is the age at which you’ve got to know it.  All those need to be re-challenged.  (time 33:48)

An example of the kind of setup I’d like to do is in Iowa, working with Drake University, we have this very interesting project. Drake University has committed itself to exploring what it might be like to make a course for teachers, really future oriented teachers who would go out, knowing not just how to use last years or five years ago kind of technology and scripted, but how to think about learning in a different way that becomes possible if you’ve got technologies that are going to be there, in a short time.  So this University is making a special effort.

But teaching teachers about all that is absurd unless there is also a place that they can practice such teaching. And what’s great about that is the Headstart, starting with three anf our year olds, and a kindergarten class in a public school in Des Moines, and a few other places have committed themselves to create learning environments, setups of the future.   Where these kindergarten kids have have laptop computers, where they have access to Lego Mindstorms, and lots of other technologies,  and really going to see what we can do with all of that and putting it together, these teams of teachers, of future teachers, began to learn in the context of working with something more like a future  learning environment.  I think great things will come out of that. And I’m looking for others that might join-

I don’t mean copy that.  Success in education should not mean that somebody copies or replicates, but that they take the idea and make it something even better and different.  So this is an appeal, a challenge, and invitation – it’s just the last few days that I’ve decided to go public and throw out – in the next couple of weeks it will be up on the website, of the Learning Barn, but for the moment, anyone can still send me an email, and start a dialogue.

Thank you very much .