Seymour Papert’s Valedictory Speech Upon Being Named LEGO Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab

February 21, 1989 – Cambridge, MA – MIT Media Lab

MIT President Dr. Paul Gray

Mr. Kristiansen. Mr. Papert. Friends. It’s a great pleasure to be here, and to take part in this symposium and celebration marking the endowment of the LEGO Chair of Learning Research, and marking, as well, the announcement that the first chair holder is Professor Seymour Papert.

I would like to express, on behalf of all my associates at the institute, our special thanks to the LEGO group, and in particular, to Mr. Kjeld Kristiansen, its president.

Now, as many of you already know, today’s event is not a first time introduction of donor to beneficiaries. All of the parties here today are well known to each other. This event symbolizes an escalation of an already fruitful relationship to an entirely new and more substantive scale of interaction and collaboration between LEGO and MIT.

Recently, there’s been a great deal of talk and publicity about why American children do less well in science and mathematics. Less well, both in the context of our own society, and previous levels of performance, and less well, most pointedly, in comparisons with similar performance elsewhere in the world. 

Why are American children not performing as well as they might in these fields? In looking for reasons, there has been speculation that it’s not just a matter of how well we teach science and math, but that there is in, in this society, a certain negative cultural attitude toward the learning of these subjects.

Much of Seymour Papert’s work is directed at finding ways of changing that attitude. Professor Papert’s group tries to build up a positive and personal sense of what science is all about. One of the ways he has done this is by replacing the traditional learning tool of the pencil with the computer.

The pencil precluded teaching at an early age about such things as motion, movement, and [inaudible 00:02:15]. The computer, in contrast, offers limitless opportunities to play with such concepts, and to play in such fashion that information is acquired through informal, personal, experimental, and impromptu processes. 

The LEGO work provides another example of how children learn through activities that are informal, personal, experimental, and engaging. I saw it once, with the generation of my children, I see it all over again with the generation of my grandchildren. Children all like LEGOs, but do not think of their play as related to science and technology, or even to learning.

By using LEGOs as material for more serious and complex projects in which scientific principles play a key role, children work with these ideas and acquire knowledge through processes that are quite different from the traditional, dutiful, and structured settings of the classroom. 

Albert Einstein said that love is a better teacher than duty. Love is a better teacher than duty. Professor Papert’s group believes that teaching, which treats science as something to know, and which it is one’s duty to learn, will not be as successful as those approaches in which children learn through informal, experimental, and some would say, playful processes. 

There is, I submit, no more suitable place than MIT for the development of ways to meet the challenge, this challenge, to our educational system. Although we have no School of Education, this institution has a long tradition of contributing to the development of new curricula in mathematics, in physics, in integrated science, and a long tradition of finding new and creative ways to teach these fundamental subjects.

The work that Seymour Papert and his group is doing will be important in improving mathematical and scientific literacy in this nation and around the world, and we are most grateful to LEGO for both their support, as symbolized by the creation of this new endowed chair, and for their shared vision of how a lively engagement with science and mathematics can be accomplished through the MIT tradition of learning by doing. 

Thank you, very much.

Nicholas Negroponte:

Our next speaker is Mr. Kjeld Kristiansen, the president of the LEGO group.

Kjeld Kristiansen:

Good afternoon. Members of the MIT community, distinguished guests, and fellow members of the LEGO family. On behalf of the LEGO group, I am proud to unite with MIT in making the school of the future the reality for American children.

You may wonder at the relationship between the LEGO group and MIT. After all, what is the connection between children’s building bricks and the world of high technology? A lot more than you might think. Both groups have deep interests in the future of children and education.

Actually, the beginning of our relationship goes back five years. My colleague, Steve [Crestonson inaudible 00:06:01] saw Dr. Seymour Papert on Danish television in 1984. Dr. Papert, a world renowned innovator in the field of computers and education, was shown demonstrating his Logo computer language with the aid of the turtle. Steve thought the turtle should be made of LEGO bricks, and contacted Dr. Papert during the next week.

After much consultation, conversation, and meetings, we decided that work and cooperation between the LEGO group and MIT would be appropriate. For the past five years, the LEGO group and Dr. Papert’s team have been collaborating to link the Logo language of programming that is used in 1/3 of United States elementary schools, with LEGO bricks, a product in 2/3 of American households with children under the age of 15.

The LEGO group, like Dr. Papert, sees learning as a constructive process in which children learn new ideas through active exploration and experimentation, and not rote memorization. The first tangible result of the collaborative effort is a system called LEGO TC Logo, which allows children to write computer programs that control their LEGO inventions.

More than a thousand elementary schools are now using the LEGO TC Logo system. Children have used the system to construct imaginative projects, such as an automated candy factory, a house of the future, and a robotic dog. To the children, these activities feel like playing, but in the process of building and programming projects, youngsters learn important ideas from the fields of mathematics, science, and design.

According to Dr. Papert, when children build things they care about, they learn that learning can be exciting. We, too, at the LEGO group have learned exciting things through our involvement with Dr. Papert, and the media lab at MIT, and we are even more intrigued with the future.

Everyone is interested in the future. In what lies ahead, and particularly this is true of our relationship with MIT. Peering into our crystal ball, we visualize the future as a trip across uncharted land, as we attempt to build tomorrow’s classroom, today. It is our hope that this collaborative effort with MIT will further the development of international learning by mapping out the future of education.

It is at this time, I would like to present the LEGO Chair of Learning Research to Dr. Seymour Papert, for his outstanding contributions to the future of children and education.

Nicholas Negroponte:

Well, if it’s not obvious, our last speaker is the LEGO professor himself. It gives me great pleasure, because amongst other things, Seymour is a very dear friend. Seymour?

Seymour Papert:

Well, of course, the idea of the LEGO Chair, or its name being the LEGO Professor, produces a smile every time it’s mentioned. The first few times, I felt a little shy about these smiles, until I began to feel that … how appropriate that is, and how appropriate it is not only that learning should be associated with smile, but the idea of professor and chair and MIT and all the rest should get this injection of jokingness and I have come to like what, at first, I felt to be a little abashing.

I’d like to start by recording my own first meeting with MIT. In about … in 1964 I first came here after spending five years in a very different kind of atmosphere, in a very different country, Switzerland, and Geneva. In Switzerland, I had worked with Jean Piaget’s team, and we had studied children, and children’s play, and children’s learning, but although we had studied these things, including studying play for learning, we did it in a Swiss culture in which one discretely kept one’s own jokes quiet and one’s own playfulness to one’s self. 

It was not an overtly playful culture. I said overtly because I think all creative cultures are, in the end. Some people are more open than others about showing this, and I think that making that more open and spreading and developing the idea that laughing at one’s self, and the playfulness of learning and science and research and knowing, that this is something we should bring out in the open, I think is a task that we should set ourselves as one of the intellectual goals of the coming period. I see that as an integral part of learning about learning, and of building a learning culture that will be more effective, more humane, more childlike.

I came from this one world of Switzerland to a world of MIT and was injected into MIT just at the time when a bright new fresh computer culture was beginning here, and was injected into the world of Building 26 and its basement with [inaudible 00:13:29] and Tech Square, where Project Mac was just beginning, and where there was the beginning of a new thing that is known by a name which we, I think, whose pride we should recover, because it’s been appropriated and misused. The culture of hackers, is the culture of people for whom joyful and wonderful learning was life, and where there was no difference between life and joy and learning and playing, and people learned things because … well, just because. Not because anything. It was just polite breathing.

For example, I see Jerry’s husband there, and remember his learning to fix watches, and not because it had any purpose other than living, other than any of the other things that he did, and I think that incident is just part of that culture into which I was very privileged to find myself at its beginnings.

I think it is very much an MIT phenomenon that such things can happen. I think that our media lab is maybe taking the … oh, what do you call those things? The relay race … 

Crowd: Baton.

Seymour Papert:

Baton. And being the forefront now, perhaps of that type spirit. Be that as it may, I think that this is an MIT phenomenon, and another reason why it is so appropriate that there should be a LEGO chair an … at MIT, an association between MIT and this LEGO group. I think that what happened in that culture that I found here, this culture of playful learning, has become for me the model to use in thinking about what kind of learning environment we would like to build for children.

I think it’s so totally appropriate that the best and most childlike learning environments should be spawned and should develop inside MIT. One might think that they are as far apart as anything can be. The serious, deep, hard science of MIT, and the soft, gentle playfulness of children, but no. It is this spirit of playing with ideas, of throwing yourself into them, of living them, that has made MIT the great place that it is, and I’d like to talk in the rest of this time about some of the issues involved, some of the strategies in creating for children a learning environment in which they can be those same conditions which we have seen work so successfully at the level of grown up graduate students and undergraduates, for that matter, and other people in our institute.

I call this talk, Learning Playing, Playing Learning as an incitement to play with those words and listen to their multiple meanings. One might start with learning playing. What does that mean?

I think that means a number of things. Some obvious, and one obvious one was captured, to my taste very nicely, by Bertrand Russell, who formulates a thought which we can all recognize as our own, and that’s what makes a great thinker. Not that he is original, that he has thought something that nobody else has thought before, but that he somehow can produce in his mind, that he has that sensitivity to produce in his mind the thoughts that resonate in a community where they can catch. 

Well, Russell said something simple, that in play, the species … the young of any species rehearse and practice the activities they will perform in earnest early on. The play of kittens resembles the behavior of cats with mice. Children love to imitate any work that they have been watching, such as building, or digging.

So much is fairly commonplace, but then he says, the more important the work seems to them, the more they like to play at it, and I think that his capturing of the use of the word ‘important’ there, is what makes his statement different from the thousand statements that might start in the same way.

Here, learning playing means learning by playing, or learning in playing. But, play with those words and listen to other meanings, too. Learning playing also means learning to do it better. Learning to play. I suppose those kittens and those children are certainly born players. They know how to play. It seems to be an instinct. They also get better at playing. You see more complex play as they grow older, and so do children. So do children of our species.

I think that … so there is learning to play. Is there learning in playing? I think, up to a point, yes. I think it’s clear that as we go through the ages before school, children are certainly getting more and more complex residue in their future behavior from their playing.

I fear, though that once they get into school, something happens which tends to reverse, or at least slow down that process until it becomes very dubious whether most people in our society are still learning by playing and improving their learning of playing. Of course, no process is completely efficient, and so some people escape, and so we find some people like those I’ve already mentioned, in the media lab, in the early computer worlds in MIT, in fact, in maybe all successful intellectual endeavors, we see people who, despite these influences, remained all their lives active learners, and playful learners, and became more and more expert at learning in playing. 

It is a pity, though, that this has to happen through the inefficiency of a system. We need a new system. But I think that in making this new system, we really need to look very profoundly at what learning is, at what playing is, and what are the conditions that make for these two things to go together.

How do we go about such a study? I think, to begin with, we might look at the masters. For example, it’s … I’ve recently found it instructive to have teachers read the writings of Richard Feynman. I think his recent books, where he has written in a very playful way that’s accessible to a lot of people about playing and science, are an important cultural event. 

Many of us who knew him, or could appreciate his more technical writing, or saw the famous films of his famous lecture series knew this, but for a larger public of children and teachers, that idea of science is something that has not penetrated.

Feynman tells of an incident, a rather moving one which is located in Cornell University at a time he is first in … in his first academic job as an assistant professor of physics, and very unhappy. He is very unhappy because of the ways of academia, the seriousness. He is very unhappy because of the expectations. People are saying, work on this problem and you will succeed, do that and you will be … Come to the Institute for Advanced Studies and work on such and such project, and he is more and more withdrawing from the scene. 

He is thinking of quitting and giving up physics, until one day it occurs to him, why give up? He is getting a salary, he’s got a [inaudible 00:22:14], he’s got a contract for several years, he likes working with students. Why not just stay there, take the money, and play? 

That’s the word he uses, and that’s what he does. He starts playing. Now, for him, playing is playing with ideas and with the physical things and the stuff the world is made of, and the people around him, and he describes in his book how, in a remarkably short time, imagine months, this play led directly to the discoveries that, in turn led to his getting the Nobel Prize for physics.

So, he did not anticipate that, and it comes as a surprise to some people that playing would lead to that, but not to those who have been there. I think it is extremely important for us to understand that kind of … That dynamic of that situation, and make this known to a larger world, and how can we do that?

I think, not simply by preaching about it. I think somebody like Feynman writing entertaining books helps, but it’s not enough. I think that something like that, these LEGO materials and the spread of computers, and the accessibility of more and more complex technologies provides us with the subsoil in which writing and ideas, and the development of concepts can grow. So we need both sides. We need to harness the growth of this technology to those ends, and we need to anchor the development of thinking about education to the infrastructure that the technologies can give us. 

Putting these two together provides, I think, the opportunity for the realization of educational dreams that have been in the world for a long time. We are not the first people, by a long way, to think that by doing, you learn better. Enjoy, you learn effectively. But, until this generation, the world has not found ways of making that a reality for children.

I think that our technologies allow us another shot at doing what previous generations of educational innovators and thinkers could not do. But, we have to be careful, because there are easy ways of thinking these thoughts. There are easy translations of them into dangerously misleading forms, and I’d like to talk a little on a negative note about ways of interpreting the wanting to make learning playful, which I think are very prevalent and need to be analyzed and recognized as not what we are talking about.

Before defining such situations, let me play a little more with these words. Learning playing, and playing learning. Especially playing learning. You know, to my ear, playing learning can mean quite a few things. It’s got a lot of ambiguity about it. This is a nice word game.

One of the meanings is the kind of thing Russell was referring to, and I’ve been talking about, that is a kind of learning which is playing learning, as opposed to say, rote learning, or serious learning, and we do want to foster playing learning. But, there’s another sense of these words which, I think is ominous, and that is playing at learning. 

Like animals play dead, like we say play possum. I think there’s a lot of playing learning in that sense. Why would anyone do this? An animal plays dead to protect itself from a predator, and quite often children do it to protect themselves from the teachers as they see them. The obvious case is the child sitting in the back of the class, saying, with that carefully studied, thoughtful, studious expression on their face that masks thoughts altogether somewhere else.

In this case, only the teacher is being deceived, and very few teachers are really deceived. They will catch on, and this is not the serious case, it’s only the obvious one. The more serious case is when we deceive ourselves. For example, we all do it. Sometimes, when we resort to substituting for the real learning of something, the learning of rules. As when people might say to divide fractions. Or, dividing fractions means you turn the second one upside down and multiply. 

We all have such rules, and I see such rules as a way of avoiding learning, and deceiving ourselves about whether we really are learning that subject matter. Of course, as consenting adults we can do whatever we like, no doubt, but in a society that has become very unconscious about the learning process, and very unconscious about the nature of the way the mind works, and very shy and reluctant about letting people look into the workings of one’s mind, or looking into the workings of one’s mind one’s self, people slip easily into this kind of simulacrum of learning without evening knowing, and I think this is another part of our task to break down these habits of imitative learning. 

These habits of playing learning, rather than learning. Playing at learning. And how do we do this? Again, by giving exciting models of what it’s like to learn in a truly genuine, exciting way.

So, we can reformulate this goal as making people aware of false learning, the concept of false learning, and encouraging the conditions for the growth of a true learning. I mentioned example … I mentioned a danger, and I think that with that distinction of false and true learning, one can formulate the danger like this.

I am saying we can make learning more real by making it more playful. That that serious learning that so often takes place in the classroom is not real learning, that that playful learning that takes place in the building of such a chair is more real. But, I have to take issue with some of the strategies that are sometimes proposed for doing that, and in particular, what seems the point in particular, through the concept of educational game. 

The concept that, well, children don’t like learning arithmetic, so lets build the arithmetic operations into a kind of video game where the children will add and subtract as part of shooting down the enemy spaceship. I think this is a dangerous thing to do, and I think it’s a very useful exercise to think through why this might be a dangerous thing to do. I think this is particularly necessary at a time when, in our newspapers, there is almost panic, certainly concern, about our test scores compared with test scores in other parts of the country.

I do believe you might be able to raise test scores by such means, but I also think that in doing so, you encourage, foster the idea of the opposition between play and learning. By fostering this opposition, we encourage what I mentioned at the beginning, the decline in … With age, the decline in playful learning in very many people in our society. 

If playing with numbers is so boring that it has to be dressed up in a video game, this is quite apparent to children, who are no fools, and are not gullible. They can see this, and they might learn those arithmetic rules, they might practice them, but they also see that working with numbers is not something intrinsically valuable and interesting.

Our task is not to dress up the old activities of the classroom to motivate them. What our new technologies offer us is the opportunity to create new activities. New things for children to do. I like to make a distinction these days between two trains in thinking about how to improve the learning environment, how to improve education. 

One is instructionism, and the other constructionism. Instructionism puts the blame for all that is wrong on the methods of teaching, and sees the source of improvement as better methods of teaching. Well, better methods of teaching are certainly for the good, and I’ve nothing against it, but I don’t think that is the reason why we have problems.

Dr. Gray mentioned one reason, and that’s the prevailing social attitudes towards mathematics and technology in our society, now think another though is that so much of the knowledge that children acquire can only be acquired as a dead language, that is, something that it’s not obvious how to use that knowledge.

Mathematics is learned like Latin used to be learned. You store up these facts to be used 12 years later when you get out into the world. When we can give children access to computers to program and graphics to put in the screen and robots to build, and all the rest of these technological opportunities, these … A huge stalk of human knowledge becomes highly relevant to the children.

The teacher’s role, very far from being abolished or made unnecessary by computers, is made more important, perhaps more difficult, but more exciting and more attractive. We see that teachers can, instead of being policemen obliged to force children to learn stuff that they don’t want to know, can be in the more enviable position of being the source of knowledge and of help for children who need that knowledge in order to do something that comes from their heart.

I would repeat the quotation from Einstein that Dr. Gray cited earlier, that love is a better teacher than duty, and our goal in all our educational work is making children love what they learn. Now think, if they love what they learn, they also will love themselves better, and love everybody else, and that we will be contributing in every possible way to making a more beautiful and more humane society for the future.

I come round then in a circle to why this LEGO chair is so very appropriate at MIT. Not only do we have at MIT a learning environment, we have here people who have been filtered out, I hope, [inaudible 00:35:20] much through luck, as well as through talent and ability, we have filtered out a community of people who love knowledge, and who love research, and who love the pursuit of new knowing, of new learning.

This is clearly the soil out of which can grow, out of which must grow the only hope for building a better learning environment for children of the future. I’d like to end by telling you about a project which our group has been conducting in collaboration with people in Costa Rica.

I’m telling the story not only because there is LEGO present in that project, but because I think it captures the message I’d like to leave you with, that when we think of education, when we think of what will improve the learning of children, we have to think way beyond what will improve their test scores, or how to instill this or that curriculum. This inspiring story of what’s been happening in Costa Rica is … illustrates the point, I think, very dramatically, that beyond the technical detail of how education is carried on, there is something much more important, which is the social vision, and the vision of human beings involved in it.

I’ve mentioned one Nobel Prize winner, Richard Feynman. Another is the President of Costa Rica, Arias, who was given the Peace Prize for his Central American Peace Plan. Three years ago, this man … Arias ran for election and made a promise that a computer would be placed in every school in his country.

This is a country which has traditionally spent a larger proportion of its budget on education than any other country. It’s a country without an army of any sort, although it is sandwiched there between Panama on the south, and Nicaragua on the north. 

The ideal of doing something quite dramatic in education was … came naturally in this country. After the elections, Arias looked around for ways of implementing this plan, and through multiple connections that have to do with the fact that Logo has gone out in the world, and like LEGO, is widely represented, and there’s this network that has become part of a sufficiently wide learning culture in the world for a connection to have been made, and asked to have had the opportunity to enter into the discussion, and first of all say, we’re putting one computer in that, in each school is really silly, because it will be shown at its weakness, it won’t be able to do very much.

So they accepted the idea of putting a few computers … I’m sorry, of putting many computers in a small number of schools in the first year, and then expanding from there. To do otherwise would be like placing one pencil in a school, and letting each child have access to the pencil for five minutes a week, which would, whatever purpose it served, would not serve the purpose of … That writing serves in our schools today.

The next issue, which was the one I really wanted to touch on, was what … Was about how those computers would be used, and how they could be used, centered around whether you would look for the use of the computer that automated teaching, in the spirit that people often still associate with the natural use of computers in schools. You would load a disk into the computer and some program would run that would lead the child by the nose through a curriculum.

Or, what we were proposing, was an intellectually strenuous plan of having these teachers, whose previous education was hardly at the level of our high schools, and many of whom had had no contact with technologies, had grown up in distant villages, we thought, give them access to computers. Let them learn to program them, let them feel master of the computers.

A debate waged in the country quite fiercely in its education circles. Is this feasible? Can it be done? Surely we in Costa Rica have to adopt a plan that will make it easy for the teachers, because our teachers have not had the advantage of teachers in the United States, or Europe, or Japan in having advanced access to technological knowledge.

Well, the debate waged for a while, and then an experiment was tried. The amazing result of the experiment was that those teachers in the first group of … that we had, I think learned faster and better than any comparable set of teachers we have ever seen in the United States, and I think they did this despite their lack of this very technical kind of school knowledge, because for them, they were affirming something deep.

They were affirming something about their country, they were affirming something about themselves. There was a challenge. It wasn’t just a challenge of what they could do with their children, they as people, as Costa Ricans, as teachers, and, I would mention, as women, in many of the cases, were energized by the need to, and the possibility of affirming themselves in all these ways, to do a miracle of learning.

I think that’s what we’re seeing when we take these LEGOs into schools. We see, especially in the case of children who have been deprived of the opportunity of success because of social background, or because they’ve been classified as learning disabled, or for many reasons, we see children with … Energized to a kind of explosion of creativity, and a sense of themselves, and that’s really what it’s about.

I think that’s really what those little bricks translate into for many children. The putting together of the bricks and the chip on the invitations for today I think is a brilliant stroke that I would really like to congratulate LEGO for, but I’d like to tell a story about somebody who received one of these, and that child saw … His three year old child saw it and grabbed it, as if to say, what a waste of a LEGO brick!

Pulled the LEGO brick off the invitation. Did not pull the computer chip. Not yet. Well, thank you very much.

A celebration of a 30-year partnership inspired by Seymour Papert