Looking at Technology Through School-Colored Spectacles
By Seymour Papert
A version of this article was published in Logo Exchange in the winter of 1997. It was adapted from a talk delivered by Seymour Papert at the MIT Media Lab, June 4, 1996, at an event sponsored by The American Prospect Magazine.
I’d like to give an overview of a direction of writing that I’ve been trying to develop over the last year and has engaged me in a lot more talking than I usually like to do — listening too. And that is the kind of discourse going on about technology in education. That is, a slightly different slant on it. I usually jump in and I know what I want to say and I know what will happen and I have a particular idea to position in such debates. But I thought recently that it might be very interesting to stand back and look at the nature of the debate, what is going on, what kind of positions people are taking, and most important, what positions are people not taking. If this little talk has a title, it’s something like “Looking at Technology Through School-Colored Spectacles.” Basically my thesis is that the idea of school in many of its features is so deeply ingrained in people’s thinking that when they look at technology to discuss it in relation to computers, they see it in a particular and very narrow way dominated by the nature of school as they’ve known it. And so it is not surprising that the discussion, and not only the discussion, but the serious research and the large amounts of money and people’s time being expended on technology in education really consists of taking sides about an enterprise that consists of injecting technology into an otherwise unchanged school system and then coming to the conclusion that it is not going to change school very much.
Now some people, of course, think that it is a good thing that it is not going to change school very much, it will just make it work better. That’s one position. But then there are the others who think that it is a bad thing. They think that school ought to be changed but they don’t see technology as the potential agent for changing it. Those are really the two camps.
Way back when I wrote Mindstorms I used a little parable that I find useful for guiding thinking. The parable is about a brilliant engineer around 1800 who invented the jet engine. Since he was dedicated to improving transportation, he took his invention to the people most involved with transportation, namely the makers of stagecoaches. He said, “Look, I’ve got this thing. Find out how to use it.” So the makers of stagecoaches looked at it and they said, “Well, let’s tie it on to a stagecoach and see if it helps the horses.” So they tied the jet engine on the stagecoach and of course it shattered the stagecoach to pieces. So that wasn’t any good.
However, somebody got a brilliant idea, “We’ll make a tiny little jet engine. And we will put that on the stagecoach, and it won’t shatter it to pieces. Besides, its price is affordable.” In fact, very careful statistics managed to show that this did have a minor affect on the performance of the horses.
I hate to say it, but I think that this is a very accurate portrayal of what is being done with computers in schools. In fact, it’s not an accurate portrayal of what is being done, because here and there, there are scattered attempts to do more, scattered people are doing much better with the computer than that parable would imply. But overall on average it’s what is being done. What I find very serious is that in the talk about computers in schools, the stagecoach model fits exactly.
What is exact about the stagecoach model is that these people have a certain idea about transportation, namely you have this wooden box and you put people in it and you have horses that pull it and it runs on wheels and so on. Within that concept of transportation they did the best thing with the jet engine that anyone could probably do, which was to get rid of it, I suppose.
And I think if your concept of school is what school is as you’ve seen it in the past, well what else would you do with the computer except put it in there? But why is there no discussion about whether school could be very different, and how different it could be? Now, very different can mean very different things to very different people, to everybody.
So, I’d like to run through a few of the features of school that I think are clearly, or at least plausibly enough, technologically determined. In particular, they are determined by the previous epoch of information technology in which print and writing on a chalkboard and all the rest of the stuff we know were the only ways we had of disseminating knowledge. This was when certain ways of doing “education” took form. I would like to say that almost everything you can think of about school is a product or reflection of that epoch. And so it is oxymoronic — not to mention just plain moronic — to think that the role of the computer should be to get in there and improve a system which exists as a result of the technological limitations of a previous epoch.
Let’s take some examples. I’m going to pick on one little corner of school, namely mathematics. I am a mathematician, so it is easy for me to talk about math, but what I have said applies to everything. Now in mathematics the dominating feature is the content. I recently did a little research on what discussion there is in the world about real change in the content of school mathematics.
For example, should we teach fractions? Some people say yes, you need to know that a half is two quarters. OK, well this is stuff that I’ve noticed that my six-year old grandson knows. He likes playing in the kitchen and he has learned a few things about halves and quarters and thirds. I have no doubt that is very good stuff. But that is only a tiny sliver of what they do in school. There is all this other stuff, like knowing how to add and divide fractions. What reason could there possibly be for teaching this?
Now, I am not advocating the abolition of fractions. I am drawing attention to the fact that here is a human activity on which billions of dollars and countless hours are spent. Incredible psychological harm is done to people who don’t succeed in doing it and therefore classify themselves and are classified by others as stupid or incapable or whatever else they are classified as. And there is no discussion whatsoever about why this is a good thing to do.
Sometimes people have proposed abolishing teaching fractions and there has been some discussion at those times. For example, there was a big movement in the late ’30s to abolish fractions on the grounds that people had done statistical studies of how much people used the fraction stuff they learned in school. And they came up with the obvious result that you all know, that nobody ever uses them. Not even mathematicians. Nobody ever uses things like dividing one fraction by another, so it was said, “Let’s throw it out of school.” So the other people said, “Well, people do use it occasionally.” You can find an occasional use here and there. But that’s not the basis on which we should settle this debate. You can’t judge whether the knowledge is good on the basis of whether you actually use it, because knowledge can serve all sorts of other purposes, and this discussion seems to have quelled that movement. Everybody wanted it quelled anyway because it is just too hard to contemplate the idea of eliminating these things from the curriculum.
Now this other thing that learning factions is supposed to do for you is not very clear. It’s never been spelled out. It’s rather like the old argument that learning Latin was good for developing the mind. And you might say that learning fractions is good for developing the mind. Some people say that learning fractions is good because you need it to do more advanced mathematics. Well, why do you need it to do more advanced mathematics?
OK, you can find an advanced mathematics book that will use an example that presupposes that the reader knows about fractions. Of course, why shouldn’t the writer of the book use that example since everybody has been through this experience? But that doesn’t prove that you needed that experience. If you take it all together, my personal view is that this is just harmful stuff to teach. In any case, there is no rational discussion about why it should be taught. So there is room for making theories about why it is taught, and I think there are a couple of these theories.
One theory was that manipulating fractions was actually closer to what people needed back before there were calculators. So a lot of school math was useful once upon a time, but we now have calculators and so we don’t need it. But people say that surely we don’t want to be dependent on the calculator. To which I say, “Look at this thing, these eyeglasses, that make a dramatic difference to my life and the life of everybody who reads or looks at any tiny detail. Once upon a time we would have been crippled, severely handicapped. Now we’ve got these and we don’t need to go through all that suffering. So we are dependent on this little thing.
Well, so what? There is nothing wrong with being dependent on a little thing that everybody can have lots of. It doesn’t even cost much. So, that is no argument. But I think historically that was a factor. I think the other important factor was for various reasons people thought we ought to teach something called mathematics because since the days of the Greeks mathematics was ensconced as one of the major elements of knowledge. In fact, I don’t know how many people know this, but if you want to know where the word mathematics comes from, the stem, math, comes from Greek mathein which is the word to learn. In fact, all the words in math in ancient Greek didn’t mean what we mean by them, they meant learning. And somehow in the course of the intervening centuries, my sort of intellectual ancestors, talking now as a mathematician, somehow managed to con the world into thinking that the only good learning was this kind of learning. And so the word slipped over with hardly a trace of its original meaning.
Well, there are some traces, like the word polymath. A polymath is not a person who knows a lot of math. It is a person who has learned a lot of different things. But that word has been thoroughly appropriated by mathematics and so by definition knowledge includes doing some mathematics. Actually, I would agree, except that I don’t think that working with fractions is really mathematics. And I do think that if we think about what mathematics means to me as a mathematician, it’s got nothing to do with things like those formal operations that you do with fractions and it’s got absolutely nothing to do with the way you do it in school. And so if we are going to prescribe mathematics for children we need to do something very different.
Now this something very different isn’t very hard to imagine, although it will need a lot of work to develop. And that is one reason why it isn’t done. It is not hard to imagine in the context of modern technology. We have developed lots of examples to show how with computers there can be a radically different relationship between children and learning – learning all sorts of things, including mathematics.
My favorite example recently is having kids learn enough programming their own video games. Almost all kids find this an exciting thing to do because video games are important in their world. Besides, it is very challenging to make a video game. It leads you to reflect on yourself and interact with others. It has got all sorts of wonderful advantages that kids are sensitive to. But if you are going to make a serious video game, you are very likely to run into mathematical problems. For example, if you take a jump, how do you describe the trajectory?
Well, how do you describe it? You need a mathematical concept for describing it, a parabola. And how do you find that out? Well, these same computers that give children the occasion to want to find out also give them the means. We can have all kinds of search procedures. You can get at all sorts of kinds of knowledge embedded somewhere in the computer system.
You can also reach people. Michelle Evard here at the MIT Media Lab, one of our graduate students, is working on a project in which children making video games use a kind of mail system/newsgroup system to ask questions and pose problems to others who have had similar experiences. So all those children with experience get mobilized as consultants and teachers. They learn as much or more from these roles as they learn from doing the work in the first place. So there are other ways the computer system has created that enable somebody to get knowledge. Now this leads not only to a radically different idea about what kind of knowledge it is, because there is nothing numerical and nothing about fractions in the description of the parabola that we give them. But this is also radically different from the idea of the curriculum, where you learn a piece of mathematics because it’s the 17th of May and your third-grade year and so it’s inscribed somewhere that on this day you are going to learn some particular information.
That’s no way to learn, not if there’s an alternative and the alternative is that you get into situations in which you need knowledge. The problem of the education innovators is to create situations in which you need it, and to create means by which you can find the knowledge when you need it for your purposes; but this is going a long way. We have thrown out the content, we’ve thrown out the idea of curriculum, and we might as well now throw out the idea of grade level. The very idea of having first grade, second grade, third grade makes no sense except if we are going to chop up knowledge into little pieces and dish them out in some sort of systematic order for which we need to organize people in such a way that we can know that we are getting this piece this year and that piece next year and so on.
But if knowledge is going to come by other means, there’s no sense in dividing people up by age. At home in the family, where excellent learning and psychological development happens, people are in all sorts of mixtures of ages, and this was even more so when there were extended families with great grandparents and little siblings all living together and learning form one another. In fact, it is quite absurd to think that there’s any social or psychological advantage to segregating children by age. All this segregation is merely the consequence of technological epoch that is over now but is entrenched and is hard to change.
So, standing back then� if we want to discuss what computers mean for education, we might come to the conclusion that all these things are so hard to change that we’ll never change them. It’s just impossible. Well, OK, so be it if that is the truth, but let there be talk. Let there be discussion. Let this be what the debate is about. About whether there are ways in which we can envisage different kinds of learning environments that are not colored by the school spectacles that make you see things in terms of curriculum, fractions, grammar, periods, the classroom. If you look at recent books they are all about how computers can be used in the classroom to teach the curriculumfor the subject. These books presuppose that school is going to be as it is — it is not going to change. I think that there are serious difficulties and that we have learned that you can’t just come along and design a new social system, like school, and impose it. It won’t work, that kind of social engineering doesn’t work. But I think we can draw from experience a number of lessons that we at least could digest and at least talk about, which is all I am asking for. Talk about them.
Something that is very clear from the outset is that the categories of subject matter have become deeply ingrained. I see a link to Howard Gardener here, and so I am going to express a little admiration and also a little quarrel. I think he has heroically fought against the idea of a single type of intelligence — that all people are the same, and for this there is nothing but applause and his work is totally in line with the kind of enterprise I am suggesting. I think there is something not intended perhaps, but essentially mischievous in the idea that there are several kinds of intelligence, perhaps one of which is mathematical. I don’t believe that. Of course there is empirical evidence that some kids can and some kids can’t do that stuff that you call math at school, but that’s not math in any sense that I understand it as a mathematician. To call the ability to do that, even if this is innate in some people, which I doubt, but even if it is, to call that mathematics and to recognize it as a kind of intelligence is as if to say that people who don’t like to or don’t want to do that sort of stuff are missing something, even if they have something else that is very great. I think that idea is something we need to purge radically from our minds. It’s a very hard job to purge from our culture the idea that there is a thing called mathematics and that it consists of the stuff you did in school and that some people are good at it and most of us aren’t and all the rest.
There are a lot of deeply ingrained cultural assumptions that need at least to be faced. I don’t know how to get rid of them but I think they need to be recognized. Somebody who wants to at least probe the possibility of change has to feel the resistance of trying to change these things. So we need to recognize the need for deep re-conceptualization of how people think about themselves, about learning, about their children. This is hard and it must be recognized as hard.
Now, if we are going to do that, we’ve got to see that taking little steps is a dangerous thing. I think that another metaphor is useful, like the story of my jet engine inventor. I think that Al Gore and Bill Clinton are doing an incredibly mischievous thing, as is everybody who is propagating the idea that these NetDays, in putting one computer in every classroom connected to the Internet, is a good thing. Now of course it’s a good thing… there’s no question that it is a good thing — but if this is allowed to get confused with the idea of using technology to change education and to open new vistas for children, it is a very bad thing.
It’s a bad thing for a number of reasons. One of them being that incremental change, if you’ve looked at any system, has a particular way of breeding immune reactions and resistance to further change. If you bring in a little bit of change people adapt to it and then it gets professionalized. For example, in the early 80s the use of computers in schools was terribly exciting. You saw microcomputers in schools only when visionary teachers had brought them there. But when schools started having computer labs and putting the computers in them and giving students an hour a day and having a computer literacy curriculum… although some wonderful things continued to be done, at the same time there came about a professionalization of people who were teachers of this little itty bitty piece of computer knowledge. That knowledge is now their thing. They have their professional associations and their journals and their masters’ degrees on how to use computers, and once it’s built in you have a devil of a job ever changing it to take the next step.
So the incremental change can be self-defeating; it’s not a step on the way to the big change. A silly example: suppose that the inventor of the refrigerator found that the only way to persuade people to buy them would be to make a refrigerator that could drop the temperature by just one degree. Now that thing would be no use as a refrigerator, it would be a kind of step towards a real refrigerator. If you distributed these around people would develop ways of using them, they’d use them as storage boxes, they’d use them for all sorts of things because people are ingenious beings and they try to use what they’ve got. So, there’d come about a refrigerator culture based on ways to use refrigerators for purposes that had nothing to do with what we know refrigerators are good for. This is what’s happened to computers in schools. They’re being used in ways that have nothing to do with the potential of the computer to allow the possibility of a radically different way of learning.
Since time is running out I’d like to just mention one more thing, which I’ve mentioned over and over again. It’s amazing, you can write it down… there’s proof of the artificial nature of the way people have learned arithmetic in school. People who have gone through school, in fact the people who are running schools, think that computers are expensive. Now, OK, in some sense they are expensive. I can feel it in my budget when I buy one. If you really went out and bought 50 million computers you’d be in debt for the rest of your life, or worse. On the other hand, we shouldn’t ask questions like, “Is it expensive or not?” We should quantify the cost and relate it to other amounts. Now, the piece of arithmetic we want to do is the following: suppose we want to give every child, about 50 million of them, a computer. How much will that computer cost? Well, I say $500 or less. We could go buy a pretty good computer for $1,000, but if you really went out and bought 50 million of them, I bet that industry could beat the price down to $500 or less. Let’s say it’s $500. That computer would be good for 10 years. I know lots of schools are using Apples from the 80s. So that’s $50 a year. Now $50 a year, well how much are you spending per child? If we gave every child a computer it would increase the cost of education by about one percent.
So why do people think computers in schools are expensive? They do not know enough, they are not comfortable enough dealing with numbers to realize that this is just an accountant’s trick. If the computer has to be bought out of the same budget that’s there for buying pencils, of course it’s outrageously expensive. But if it’s going to be bought out of the same budget that’s used for building buildings, it’s a different story all together. It’s amazing that it’s so hard to break down this wall, and it’s because people are looking at the whole problem through all sorts of school-colored glasses. School-colored glasses determined the way they learned to think about numbers when they were kids, in a hopelessly abstract and inflexible way. But people are also narrow minded about the way schools should make decisions, and about what’s expensive for schools, and what can change and what can’t change. If you take amore flexible approach, at least you see that wherever the difficulties might be in putting together the necessary money, it is not that computers are too expensive and that we can’t afford them.
I want to end with a few examples of the kind of discourse we get about the cost of technology in schools. During the last year I have reversed a long-standing policy of not taking part in policy discussions because they don’t get anywhere; I thought I’d better find out how people are talking. So for a while I accepted all invitations, and wow wasn’t it dizzying. Well, one of them was for congressional hearings. They had congressional hearings about technology in education. I did the arithmetic I have explained to you and at that meeting a certain gentleman, the chairman of a committee created at the White House to study technology in education, said (and you can read the Congressional Record or get the videotape from C-Span) that my idea that we can give kids computers inexpensively was not only absurd but also irresponsible. First of all, industry practice says that computers have to be upgraded not every 10 years, but on average every thirty months.
What kind of argument is that? Why does industry replace them after thirty months? Well, we don’t know. We don’t think about why, it’s not the custom in this kind of discussion. It’s a fact. Well, the reason they change them is that there is this crazy dance going on between the computer makers and the software makers. The computer makers make a more powerful computer and the software makers make a thing that needs more power and so it goes. Ultimately, the argument that we have to abolish, retire this computer after thirty months because it is no longer the latest thing sounds like taking an awful attitude to children. Certainly they deserve the latest thing, but what it boils down to is that unless we can give them a Cadillac that they should walk barefoot.
So, that was just one of the arguments. The next argument was that maintenance is expensive. He said it cost $70 an hour to pay a maintenance guy to fix the computer. Actually, last time I got a bill for $160 an hour. I can’t believe it. I am just going to use this as my last example, because it really points to something about the assumption that school is always gong to be what it is. I would imagine that if we really had a sensible policy of providing a computer for every kid, that every kid would become so proficient and competent and deeply understanding of computers that if they break you don’t pay $70 an hour to get some guy to come in. The kids would fix them.
There’s nothing that those people getting $70 or $160 an hour are doing that a fifth grader or a third grader couldn’t be doing after a few years of experience. Maybe very occasionally you would need a 12-year-old, but the fact is that this could be a self-sufficient enterprise with the kids in the school repairing their computers, making their software even, and developing the uses for it. But this is outrageous, because we are “exploiting kids,” I suppose, making kids work. And so I will just end on that. It’s another hang-up that we have laws about kids working merely because once upon a time kids in sweatshops and other places where made to do work that was bad for them.
Today, with this exciting new technology, a lot of the work that you could call technological and vocational is the work with the deepest intellectual content in our culture and our society. Making kids do that is so far from exploiting them that it’s almost the opposite. Not allowing them to do that is, I suppose, exploiting them in the name of our conservatism of maintaining a system that is only there because it’s always been there. There’s no justification for it. Well, maybe things that are sufficiently deeply rooted can’t change, I doubt that’s true, but if it’s true lets face it and acknowledge that that’s the reason.
Personally, I think we should adopt a different way of thinking and ask, “What interventions can we make that would create fertile ground for an evolution of change?” I think giving everybody a computer is an example. Don’t tell them what to do with it. Give everybody a computer. Then here and there and there and there, more and more people will find interesting things to do with those computers. The new ideas will grow and spontaneously grow and if we want to spend more money on it then we should have forces of people who are watching what’s growing and amplifying and improving and nurturing a better model… a horticultural model is maybe the best one.
These things will grow. We’ll nurture the growth. We’ll favor certain mutations and adaptations. I think that’s saying that you could conceive of social policies that are very different from the ones that admittedly have not worked. It doesn’t work when you try to superimpose from the top down a predigested, preplanned, pre-structured solution to an important social problem.
I think this planting of seeds for change is already happening. In fact, of the more interesting educational acts that I’ve seen recently, many more have been in homes in which kids have computers than in schools. I think that the locus of innovation in thinking about learning is moving rapidly out of the school into the home. Maybe the force for change that will really be effective in the end is the kids who have had something better at home won’t stand school as it is anymore. Kid power will force school to change or go out of existence.