December 7, 2011

The rarely editorializes. The point of this site is to bring the words, wisdom and powerful ideas of Dr. Seymour Papert (bio here) to educators, policy-makers and citizens concerned. Although Papert made pioneering contributions to the worlds of epistemology, mathematics, artificial intelligence, computer science, educational gaming, learning and school reform, he receives too little credit.

Seymour Papert is often called “the father of educational computing” and published three seminal books and countless papers about learning. His speeches seamlessly weave together the common threads of epistemology, learning, technology and a highly-developed vision of reinventing education. Alan Kay often recounts how Papert’s work with children and computers in 1968, led him to imagine the idea of a personal computer. (Watch Kay tell this story)

I created The nearly a year ago to honor my friend, mentor and colleague Seymour Papert by delivering his powerful ideas in bite-size chunks, four days a week, for an education committee reluctant to read an entire book. It has been a labor of love that will continue to remind all of us that we stand on the shoulders of genius.

A week or so ago, I received a snarky tweet hoping to provoke a flamewar. It was the first I had seen of the #pencilchat meme going around blogs and Twitter. I was shocked to see so much amusement caused by the idea of injecting pencils into the school system as an allegory for school reform, since Papert created that metaphor and has used it in print and speeches for many years.

A cursory search of the #pencilchat stream demonstrated that Papert was not credited with this idea, nor do I suspect many of its participants were cognizant of the provenance of the idea.

Today, GOOD Magazine published, Why #Pencilchat May Be the Most Clever Education Allegory Ever, without nary a mention of Dr. Papert. One might expect a the magazine education editor to do her homework.

I find this a bit disturbing and further evidence of education’s disregard or ignorance of our heroes and their powerful ideas.

Seymour Papert has used the pencil imagery for at least three decades. It was a standard part of his speeches and testimony. Here are just a few examples.

From 1980

For me, the phrase “computer as pencil” evokes the kind of uses I imagine children of the future making of computers. Pencils are used for scribbling as well as writing, doodling as well as drawing, for illicit notes as well as for official assignments. Kay and I have shared a vision in which the computer would be used as casually and as personally for an even greater diversity of purposes. But neither the school computer terminal of 1970 nor the Radio Shack home computer of 1980 have the power and flexibility to provide even an approximation of this vision. In order to do so, a computer must offer far better graphics and a far more flexible language than computers of the 1970s can provide at a price schools and individuals can afford.

Papert, Seymour A. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas (Kindle Locations 3160-3165). Basic Books. Kindle Edition.

From 1984

Imagine (if you can) that we lived in a world without writing-and, of course, without pencils, pens and books. Then one day, somebody invents writing and the pencil, and people say, “Wow, this would be great for education. Let’s give these things to all the children and teach them to write.” So then somebody else says, “Hey, wait a minute. You can’t just do that. You can’t just give every child a pencil. You’d better start by doing some rigorous experiments on a small scale. So, we’II ‘put one pencil in a classroom and we’ll see what happens. If great things happen, we’ll put two pencils in a classroom, and if greater things happen, then we’ll put in more…”

Papert, S. (1984). “New Theories for New Learnings.” School Psychology Review, Oct.

From 1996

“Imagine that writing has just been invented in Foobar, a country that has managed to develop a highly sophisticated culture of poetry, philosophy and science using entirely oral means of expression. It occurs to imaginative educators that the new technology of pencils, paper and printing could have a beneficial effect on the schools of the country. Many suggestions are made. The most radical is to provide all teachers and children with pencils, paper and books and suspend regular classes for six months while everyone learns the new art of reading and writing. The more cautious plans propose starting slowly and seeing how “pencil-learning” works on a small scale before doing anything really drastic. In the end, Foobarian politicians being what they are, a cautious plan is announced with radical fanfare: Within four years a pencil and a pad of paper will be placed in every single classroom of the country so that every child, rich or poor, will have access to the new knowledge technology. Meantime the educational psychologists stand by to measure the impact of pencils on learning.

I first used this parable in the early days of computers to warn against basing negative conclusions about computers on observations about what happens when computers are used in a manner analogous to that pencil experiment. At that time I ended the story with something like “And not surprisingly, the Foobarians concluded that pencils do not contribute to better learning.” Subsequent events have indeed shown my fears to be well-founded: Conclusions of a Foobarian kind have in fact slipped into the accepted wisdom of American educators. For example, educational experiments in which children’s access to computers and to computer culture was far short of what mould be needed to learn programming have been accepted as proof that programming computers is not an educationally valuable experience for children. But in telling the Foobar story today I would give it another, even more insidious, ending.

In fact what I now understand that the Foobarian educators would actually do is not reject the pencil but appropriate it by finding trivial uses of the pencil that could be carried out within their meager resources and that would require minimal change in their old ways of doing things. For example they might continue their oral methods of doing chemistry but use the pencils to keep grade sheets. Or they might develop a course in “pencil literacy” which would include learning what pencils are made of, how to sharpen them and perhaps how to sign one’s name.”

Papert, S. (1996).  Computers in the Classroom: Agents of Change. The Washington Post Education Review Sunday, October 27, 1996

From 1995

“I have noted elsewhere (Papert, 1996b), that School’s math can be characterized by the fact that its typical act is making marks on paper. Explorations in the Space of Mathematics Education develops this idea by imagining an alternative mathematical education in which the typical activity begins with and consists of creating, modifying, or controlling dynamic computational objects. In this context the parabola may be first encountered by a child creating a videogame as the trajectory of an animal’s leap or a missile’s flight; here, the natural first formalism for the parabola is an expression in a child-appropriate computational language of something like “the path followed when horizontal speed and vertical acceleration are both constant.”

Many readers will say that is too abstract for children. This is because they have in mind children who grew up using the static medium of pencil and paper as the primary medium for representing mathematical ideas. Attempts to inject this treatment of the parabola as an isolated innovation into an otherwise unchanged School will confirm their negative view. For children who have acquired true computational fluency by growing up with the dynamic medium as a primary representation for mathematical thinking, I argue that it would plausibly be more concrete, more intuitive, and far more motivating than quadratic equations. My experiments support this expectation by showing that the dynamic definition is indeed accessible even to elementary school children who are given the opportunity to acquire a degree of computational fluency that is still very limited though considerably more than a few students develop in what are misleadingly called computer labs in contemporary schools.”

Papert, S. (1995). Why School Reform is Impossible. In The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 6(4), pp. 417-427.

From 2000

‘In a recent speech at Bates College, Seymour Papert — MIT scientist/educator, world renowned technology/artificial intelligence expert and Blue Hill resident — asked his audience to imagine some ancient time before there was writing. There were schools, but all knowledge was word of mouth.

Then, one glorious, epochal day, writing was invented. And along with it, an implement. Say, the pencil.

The Sumarian School Board, seeing the potential of this marvelous device, decided to get one. If it worked out, next year they’d get two. Eventually, they foresaw having a whole pile of pencils and once a week, for perhaps an hour, the pupils would march down to the Pencil Lab for cuneiform class.

Professor Papert then observed that all kids today have a pencil, the lucky few perhaps several. They use them even before they know their ABC’s — they scribble, doodle, explore, express, create. The naughty ones even run with them.

He further observed that the leaders of the Soviet Union saw momentous, inevitable democratic change coming and did their level best to ignore it. The result is that today, while several former Soviet satellites are progressing nicely, Russia is in year 10 of trying to rebuild from economic and social rubble.

By this point, the perceptive audience (this was, after all, Bates College) figured out that Seymour Papert wasn’t really talking about pencils or the Politbureau. In general, he was talking about how kids learn with computers and how the digital transformation of learning is a force as unstoppable as democracy. In particular, he was talking about Gov. King’s laptop proposal.”

Kyle, B. (2000). Acute Pencil Shortage Strikes State LawmakersBangor Daily News. March 30, 2000.

At the very least, a bit of humility on the part of the #pencilchat folks would be nice. They could acknowledge that their “meme” originated with Seymour Papert. Perhaps, some people may even familiarize themselves with his work.

Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Curator: The DailyPapert


8 Responses to “December 7, 2011”
  1. I have read the twitter stream, nor do I ‘get’ the metaphor. But I know the guy who started it. If he hasn’t read Papert, I can recommend he do so. If he came up with the same idea after Papert, it must be an idea whose time has come. Maybe it’s not the sort of idea that needs to be credited?

    I think Papert is brilliant, and I understand your loyalty. But I don’t understand this as a conflict…

  2. gary says:

    I don’t see this as a conflict as much of an oversight and a lack of credit where credit is due.

  3. David Wees says:

    Aaah yes, let’s start another battle, rather than point out useful resources to extend one’s thinking. I’m certain that John and Liz would have “given credit where credit was due” but neither of them has read Seymour Papert’s work in as much detail as you have. Rather than flinging stones, perhaps a softer approach would be more appropriate?

  4. gary says:


    I believe that I shared copious resources in bite-size chunks, with links to the full text. What more would you like?

    As I said, it saddens me that no other reader of the “hilarious” Twitter stream recognized the origins of the idea.

    You can lead a person to the Internet, but you can’t make them think.

  5. Jeff Russell says:

    This is ridiculous. I’m not saying it because you are pointing out an oversight. I’m saying it because you’re turning Papert’s good name into something synonymous with a petty whiner.

    I have not read Paper, though he sounds extraordinary. But, if he felt the way about education that the majority of the participants in #pencilchat do, he would have most likely jumped on board and joined us.

    You can recognize and create metaphors, you don’t own them. Let’s celebrate Paper by appreciating the idea that he existed to contribute to education, as opposed to detracting from it with insecure and small minded complaints.

    By the way, your examples of Paper sound more like similes and not metaphors or allegory.

  6. Eric Nentrup says:

    I’m THRILLED to NOW be in the know of Seymour Papert’s brilliance, as a result of the #pencilchat meme and GOOD’s writeup. And that IS the sequence that led me here:>#pencilchat>JohnSpencer>you_pissed_off>Papert = WEALTH OF BRILLIANCE ON SAID TOPIC

    And lest we too fall prey to another education adventure in missing the point, I’m going to agree with the others posting here.

    The writers for the article overlooked a great opportunity to make a connection from JOHN SPENCER’s recent publication back to the ideological genius of Papert, but it seems FAR from irresponsible to me. And it wouldn’t be the first time that the “pioneer” of any particular idea or discovery didn’t receive the fame. Though GOOD never mentions Papert (and I could presume that SPENCER doesn’t either in his book), at least YOU do. I just wish you could do it without getting your panties in a bunch. That’s what Papert would likely do based on the demeanor reflected in the wondrous quotes of his you’ve curated here.

    I don’t even remember who wrote the GOOD article, even though you did mention them above. They’re just reporting the stuff and are currently about 8 articles past this one–my guess.

    So, good on ya, just put you big boy pants on.

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