Seymour Papert 2002 Interview

I believe that this interview was recorded for the 2002 Squeakers documentary DVD by a team from Ball State University. The timecode in the transcript does not match accurately. It is about 10 seconds behind.

Crew:

Seymour, what’s the Learning Barn here in Maine, and what is this all about?

Seymour:

The Learning Barn is a little congenial environment for me to develop the ideas that I think are important in education. I’ve spent most of my life as an academic and as an activist on a big scale, I think it’s time for partly some quieter reflection, partly for honing outside political skills. I do think that the issue about technology and learning is not about school. It’s a political question, it’s a social question. It’s what people think the future is and how they think about the future.

Maine, I’ve always been in love with, but I’m particularly in love with Maine because it’s a state that’s small enough and homogeneous enough and independent minded enough for things to move politically. The example I can quote that this Learning Barn has contributed to, is that right now Maine is the first state that has committed itself to giving a laptop computer to every kid. Right now, these computers are moving into the seventh grade. By next September, every seventh grader in Maine will have an iBook, and by the next year, every seventh and eight grader and so on.

Of course there are a lot of schools where this has been done on an individual school by school basis, but a school can’t revolutionize its curriculum. It can’t make big changes, doesn’t have the resources. When a state does it, there’s at least that chance. I’ve been very heavily involved in the past three years in working with Angus King, the Governor, and with the permission of education, with many educators, and with a very bitter and hard battle, we got this surprising legislation through.

Crew:

Why has that battle been so bitter and hard? What’s the resistance?

Seymour:

Everybody’s got an idea of what school is, and really the significance of computer digital technology in the school is not to improve school as we’ve known it, quite the contrary. It introduces a dissonant element and I think that the net effect of technology in schools has been negative.

The importance historically is that we will transform our whole concept of learning. We’ll transform what we learn, what we expect kids to learn, how they learn it. The curriculum that we impose on kids is something that’s been inherited from the 19th Century with minor adjustments as we go along, adding something here and there to modernize it.

Basically, it’s been established by a mindless historical process for a context where we lacked the needs for knowledge of the modern society, and especially we lack the means to learn, the tools for learning. As a result, we teach a lot of stuff that’s there partly because it was useful long ago, like all this arithmetic, this calculation stuff, and we spend our calculated on average, 15 to $20,000 to program children to be able to do what a $10 calculator could do better.

In programming children to do this, we also program into them the idea that school is useless, it’s got nothing to do with real life, it’s just formalistic, gobbledy gook. Teachers are forced to lie to kids by telling them it’s important to learn this arithmetic because you might need it, I don’t know where, in the supermarket, or, in fact, nobody uses it in the supermarket and the kids know that.

The net result is that any confidence in believing what teachers in school say is undermined. We’re going to have to rethink the whole thing, the whole idea. We might still have something called, “School.” Obviously, there’s a need for places where kids can go to develop intellectually, but I don’t think it would look the slightest bit like school.

The idea of segregating children by age so that you spend say your seventh year learning how to socialize with seven year olds, but then you see another seven year old in your life. Then you’ll spend your eighth year learning how to socialize with eight. It’s nonsensical. The only reason for the structure of first grade, second grade, third grade, first period at school, second period, was that the only means we had of bringing knowledge to kids was so static that we had to and so disengaged and so irrelevant to the kid’s lives, that we had to use an assembly line technique.

Assembly line, you push the kid along, it’s the first period of the day in first grade, and then second period and then second grade. If it’s an assembly line, you push them through this. It’s ridiculous to do this in the modern environment where kids can work on very deep projects that are very challenging, very exciting, and they can get the knowledge they need when they need it.

Crew:

This has to come from the teachers. How are you going to educate [crosstalk 00:06:07]-

Seymour:

My belief is that teachers [crosstalk 00:06:12]-

Crew:

Sorry [crosstalk 00:06:17]-

Seymour:

I’m not talking about a change that can happen in a day or a month or a year, it’ll take time. I know it’ll take 10 years or a whole generation. I’m an optimist. Ten years ago I was being pretty pessimistic. What we’ve been able to do in Maine is by no means revolutionize education. All we’ve got, as Alan Kay says, is a piano, although it’s not one in the classroom, it’s every kid has an iBook. This creates the conditions for new ways of thinking about learning to develop. It’s not in itself, a revolution in learning.

It’s amazing that this could happen against all the obstacles and the prejudices. What’s most wonderful is the response we’ve seen from teachers, even many who were skeptical and afraid of it, when they’ve got them they’re fantastically excited about what they can, and open to, and I’ve never seen teachers so open to doing something really new. Now they don’t know exactly what, and they’ll need a long process of development.

I think in two or three years you’ll see quite dramatic changes in at least some of the local places in the state, and that’ll be a model for other people to use elsewhere. It’s got to be accepted by the system, it’s got to be accepted by the public. As long as parents think that what you’ve got in kids, their kids have to know is what they learned at school, you are, you just can’t make any deep change.

Crew:

You’re talking about very brave teachers that are taking this on. Teachers, I mean you have to educate the teachers? The teachers that are teaching math again? I mean do you, what has to take place with the teacher?

Seymour:

I’m working very hard on making a concept of a learning environment, of educational material, which allows the teacher to do as much learning as the kid does at that time. I mean the idea that you can retrain the teachers in some sort of training seminar, it’s ridiculous. The only way you can really intellectualize school, is to restructure it so the teachers are learning all the time. Not even give them time off. They should have time off to do more reflection, but they’ve got to be learning as they work, or else it’s hopeless.

Besides, I have this favorite analogy that if I want to be a better carpenter, I go and find a good carpenter and I do some carpentering with him, so if I want to be a better learner, I should go and find a good learner and do some learning with that learner. School doesn’t allow that.

Teachers are supposed to know before they came, they weren’t being paid to learn, they’re being paid to teach what they already know, which means we deprive kids of the possibility of learning with somebody who’s already more mature than they are as a learner. We have to turn school into a learning community where everybody is learning. To do that, we have to give up this idea that there’s a curriculum that lays down exactly what everybody has to know, because obviously in that case, nobody, the people who know it aren’t learning it.

Crew:

What do you think the way Bush has been handling this? You have to have these standardized tests [crosstalk 00:09:47], you know?

Crew:

What is learning?

Seymour:

I think we’ve seen in the United States most strongly, also in other places, of course, we’ve seen a strong movement against change in education. It doesn’t make me pessimistic. It’s very annoying because a lot of kids are going to suffer from that. I see it as the last twitch of a dying dragon’s tail. This bureaucratic system of education. I’ve got a Soviet system.

There’s nothing in our country that’s more like the kind of centralized command economy that didn’t work in the Soviet Union, than our schools. I think it’s breaking down. We’re seeing it’s cracking up all over the place. We see the home schooling movement, the charter school movement. I think even this epidemic of so called learning disabilities.

All these are signs that the school system is breaking down in much the same way as the Soviet Union was breaking down by the ’70s or ’80s. It will collapse and the reflex of the system is to tighten our closed ranks, force people to conform. They can’t. It won’t work, but it’ll be painful and it will damage a lot of people on the way, so I can’t be altogether pleased about it. Really, from a long historical perspective, I see what’s happening as highly encouraging. It’s a sign that the system knows that it can’t continue business as usual.

Crew:

[Ellen Can 00:11:22] Squeak. Are you familiar with Squeak?

Seymour:

Yes. 

Crew:

I used to do experimenting with Squeak in schools in Los Angeles right now. Do you, what prospects do you see with this new program?

Seymour:

Making a new programming language is like putting all the computers in all the schools in Maine. Very important, but it’s part of a larger whole and we’ll look at that larger whole. That larger whole is deep change in how we think about what kids learn and how they learn it. I think that programming is the most important skill that kids could learn.

I think that the idea that’s prevalent nowadays that you should just learn how to use the computer, it’s only a tool and we shouldn’t bother kids or teachers with how the computer works or how to program it, is thoroughly anti intellectual and anti educational because concepts around programming, related to computation, are central to what made the last part of the 20th Century unique, and that will determine the intellectual atmosphere of this century. To deprive kids of that is another example of building walls against progress.

Getting kids into a situation where they can program is fundamentally important. I think that this is going to give the formalism for learning mathematics and science and grammar, it will happen. I mean these are the, this is the intellectual framework we need in order to bring kids in contact with powerful programming ideas.

Where is Squeak in that? I think it’s not the first nor the last, It’s a step along the progress. I think that in developing our language Logo in the ’60s and ’70s, this was a step in that direction and Squeak is the latest around in an evolution that, and it’s going to turn into something that none of us can anticipate. Certainly [Step 00:13:49] is on the front edge of the most important intellectual way of, for the development of thinking in children and thinking about children.

Crew:

In your mind, what makes a Squeak environment so, or is it special, and different from Logo or different from anything else that’s out there right now?

Seymour:

You’ve got to say there isn’t much out there that is … The idea of that kids should master real programming was much more active among cutting edge educators in the … By the, say up to the early ’80s. Let me say that again, differently.

I mean the idea of kids programming has been squeezed out of the education innovation scheme. I didn’t mean to say that. This is a delicate thing, so got to try again [crosstalk 00:15:02]-

Crew:

You can have all the time you want, Seymour.

Seymour:

When we look eat concretely at what it would mean for kids to program the computer, they need to have a programming language, and this needs to be connected with what the present generation of computers can do. It’s got to incorporate the power of the computers and be able to master those processes with computers that kids are familiar with.

It must also connect with powerful ideas that we think, society thinks kids ought to be acquiring. This was an idea that drove the creation of Logo back in the ’60s and ’70s. It was an idea that excited people on the cutting edge of education innovation in the ’70s and early ’80s.

In the later ’80s and the ’90s, people thinking about computers and school took a much easier road, because they were offered the opportunity to bring it in, make a lot of money, sell, get a lot of fame and consulting fees, and so this whole field deteriorated its intellectual quality. The idea of programming moved out of the center of the radar screen of people thinking about how to bring change into schools, and even thinking about technology in schools.

I think we now have the conditions for a revival of a real place for children programming. Squeak is the only new act on that scene. Logo, in its original form, needs upgrading, updating. I think of Squeak as the present new round of Logo. I don’t think of Squeak versus Logo. I don’t altogether agree with [Adam 00:17:15] about all the details of how you would create the system, but I think it’s got to evolve. It’s part of an evolving process into something that isn’t for an individual to invent. It’s got to engage as a social process.

I think the importance of Squeak is that it will engage a lot of intellectually active people engaged in educational innovation, and it will lead them to think about how they can use the computer in powerful ways. Out of this will emerge something, a big tree from this little seed.

Crew:

You talked about programming.

Crew:

Just for a sec [crosstalk 00:18:03], chair, just a little bit. [crosstalk 00:18:07] Slide you back just a little bit, it’ll give you a stable foundation.

Crew:

Pull this back and [crosstalk 00:18:13].

Crew:

Talked about programmers [crosstalk 00:18:15]. People nowadays still think of programming as someone with a pencil and a lot of pencils in our pocket at a computer. You don’t think of children as actually programming computers. It’s not a mindset in schools nowadays. I can see where you’re coming from, but a Squeak is … I learned a lot in Squeak. I learned when this kid was, he made a car from Squeak, I wasn’t very good at mathematics but he drove the car to the right and it was plus 30 wide-

Seymour:

Of course it’s a huge step for people to think that kids could learn a deep skill that they can’t really understand, which for them is known only through stereotypical images. It’s as if suppose the only image people had of writers were newspaper journalists in smoke-filled rooms as they might’ve been in the movies of 20 years ago, writing off the latest story to the press. Is this what we want our kids to grow up into?

Well it’s not bad, they wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing, but that’s not an image that would justify putting writing at the center of our school activity, of our school goals. We put writing there because we know that the written word plays such an incredibly deep role in all thinking in our cultures and what we’ve learned and what we do.

The programming of the computer hasn’t yet come to play that familiar role. Comes back to what I was saying about politics or public education. No, people will not really accept it unless they can feel what it is, understand more deeply. I think justifying it by will these kids get better results in the traditional school where, yeah, they do, but I don’t think that’s going to be a sufficient basis for really changing how people think about this new kind of activity.

Crew:

What is more powerful thinking? What is learning? What really is that to you? I mean what’s … What is thinking and what is learning? What should the children be …

Seymour:

You know, when I was a young student, people used to have debates, there’s been serious intellectual debates about what is life? Is it some kind of force or is it that it can … It was because we didn’t know much about how life worked. As we came to know more about the mechanisms of biology, people stopped asking that question, nobody asks that kind of question anymore.

I think the same thing applies to learning. When we didn’t know much about it, maybe we stood at that level very, on the whole. We asked questions like, “What is learning?” It’s too big and complex, I think, for that sort of question. I can say what learning isn’t. School. I think that school has been set up, has been created in a way that reflects the needs of an earlier society and maybe one would have to say this was learning back in the 19th Century.

For the 20th Century, a kid coming into school has to give up learning and accept being taught. For a modern kid who has grown up with all this stuff around where a new computer game comes out and you learn that game yourself, and there’s much more in learning some of these games than anyone would dare put in a school curriculum. The kid’s got a concept of what it is, a feel for what it is to learn, that’s out of touch with the pace and narrowness and rigidity and top down dictatorial nature of what happens in school.

School is out of touch with the learning culture that we live in today. That’s what’s going to change, I mean that. The question about school is how long can an institution that serves a society and is part of that society, continue to be out of touch and out of sync with the evolution of the society. Our society has changed dramatically. It’s changed most dramatically in areas touching information, knowledge, I’d say learning, knowing. These are the things that school is mostly about, but school has changed, if at all, at a snail’s pace and more likely has gone backward.

The gap between society and school increases. The more that gap increases, the more we have problems in school. Kids can see the gap and they’re disaffected, they’re bored. Learning disabilities develop. Parents pull their kids out and keep them at home. They drop out. All the problems of school reflect this growing tension between the society and the school. That’s got to, that’s got to come into line.

When I think of learning, what is it? I don’t want to give a definition. I want to look at a lot of processes. In some that’s culturally, it’s different in different cultures under different circumstances, and we can say a lot about the dynamic of how it changes and how it resists changing.

Crew:

The public school system, in your view, as a whole, is really out of step, the politics of the public schools is to politicians have to … The school boards and they’re run by politicians and everything. I mean who’s going to change the politicians? Who’s going to change the politics of the way the schools are run? How’s that going to [crosstalk 00:24:51] or from the outside, or-

Seymour:

I don’t know who’s going to change the politics. What I do know is that school as a system is either going to adapt or disintegrate, and quite quickly, now. I think it’s got maybe 10 or 20 more years at the very most. I don’t know, which of these will happen. I hope we don’t get a disintegration like we saw say in the Soviet Union, where the whole government disintegrated and the whole structure of society, it wouldn’t be quite as bad as that.

We’ve seen examples in some public school systems where it’s pretty close to meltdown. I think we’ll see this on a wider scale unless it can adapt. Again, that’s why I’m so excited about having been able to get this measure through in Maine, because everybody said, “Impossible.” For the first three or four months after the Governor of Maine announced this, not a single legislator would sign up for it. The newspapers wrote editorials on the lines of, “Governor’s out of his mind.”

In fact, it got through in the end after … Do we need to …

Crew:

Hold on. [crosstalk 00:26:13] Do you mind picking that up, Erika?

Seymour:

Somebody else will pick it-

Crew:

Yes?

Crew:

I don’t know where it’s [inaudible 00:26:19].

Crew:

[inaudible 00:26:17] [crosstalk 00:26:18]

Crew:

I took it off the hook.

Seymour:

Shall we do that last bit again?

Crew:

Yes.

Seymour:

What were we, yeah.

Crew:

Did she answer?

Crew:

Yeah, let’s try.

Crew:

Okay. Talking about politics, we were talking about disintegration.

Seymour:

I don’t know what will change politicians sufficiently and the political system sufficiently to bring about radical change in the public school system. What I do know, is that one of two things going to happen. Either the system is going to find a way of adapting and changing very deeply, or it’s going to disintegrate. It will disintegrate much as other ill adapted systems like my favorite example again is the Soviet political and economic system. This cannot continue forever. It is too much in contradiction with the spirit of our times.

How it will happen, I don’t know, but I am strongly encouraged by what happened in Maine where three years ago, coming out of discussions I had with the Governor, he picked up the idea that every kid must have a computer. Everybody said, “Impossible. You’ll never get it through. People are too conservative. It’s too expensive.” Angus King had enough vision to say, “Let’s try.”

For the first three or four months after he launched the idea, there wasn’t a single legislator in the state who would sign up for it. Newspapers wrote editorials on the lines of, “The Governor is out of his mind, we’re a poor state, we’ve got schools with leaky roofs, we need money for healthcare, this is crazy to buy kids laptops.”

After a couple, two years of hard and often bitter fighting and campaigning, it got through. I see in that a big glimmer of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel that if it would get through here, it can get through in other places.

Crew:

It’s like telling me you can only have a piece of paper in one room, a piece of paper and pencil, you can only use it a couple of times a week. If every child has a computer, that means they’re … I mean every child has a piece of paper and a pencil. I mean that’s a very powerful machine.

Mathematics, why is it … This is a very elementary question, but why is it so important for children to really have a deep understanding of mathematics?

Seymour:

I think it’d be wonderful for children to have a deep understanding of mathematics, but I wish somebody would try that someday, but our schools do not give them a deep understanding of mathematics. They don’t even try. What they’re teaching in school, I like to call, “Math,” as opposed to mathematics. Mathematics is one of the great jewels of achievement of the human mind. Math is a lot of boring stuff that you make kids do with pencils and squared papers and filling in numbers. There’s no relation.

I mean there’s no reason why 99% of what we teach at school should be taught. There’s no reason for knowing it. Nobody’s going to use it. Sometimes people argue that well they’re not learning to multiply fractions because fractions are important, but because that’s a way of learning to think. Maybe it is, but it’s reminiscent of what they used to say about Latin. Learning Latin isn’t important, but it’s … That lasted for a generation or so. Beyond the time when everybody knew there was no point in learning Latin, they said, “You learn to think, at least.”

I don’t think you learned to think. I think you learned not to think. You’re learning to follow rules and not to think creatively. I just as well scrap it all. What more, I think that it’s irresponsible of a lot of the people in the computer technology movement to say that these computers will help kids learn math. If by math we means what they’re teaching in schools now, this is a perversion that something that could make that unnecessary to do that boring stuff because we can do something much more powerful and much more interesting.

To use it to support and do better something that shouldn’t be done at all, precisely because we’ve got this technology, is extremely perverse and undermines the possibility and the process of change because we are supporting this obsolete system, trying to make it work better.

There’s a contradictor that I’ve often fallen into and most people in this technology and education movement have fallen into. We want to get this stuff used, so we want to persuade schools that it serves their purpose, but it’s not the purpose of school as an institution to change into something else. It’s the purpose of all organisms to resist change.

We try to go to school administrators and say, “Look, this will support your old curriculum. It’ll help you get better test results,” because we want them to use it. By doing this, we’re undermining ourselves. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot because what we should really be saying to them is, “You don’t want your kids to be learning that stuff. We’ll show you how they could be learning something much more exciting, much more powerful, much more important to them and to society.” Did that answer your question? [crosstalk 00:32:43] My question, about everybody thinks kids should learn mathematics?

I’m a mathematician. I think it’s the most beautiful intellectual creation ever, so I would like people to learn it, I’d like people to enjoy it, but I don’t see any reason why people who don’t like it and don’t enjoy it should be forced to learn it.

Crew:

How do they know if they don’t like it, enjoy, could they learn it in a new way [crosstalk 00:33:18]?

Seymour:

This is a different question. Yes. I think that what I try to do is to find ways of offering kids and everybody opportunities to get a taste of what real mathematical thinking is like so that if they love it, they have a chance of falling in love with it. I believe they can get a lot of pleasure out of it, and I believe that having more mathematicians in the world will lead to a lot of advances in other ways that would be valuable for society.

I don’t, I think the idea that it should be a kind of 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt learn mathematics,” is not, I don’t see any justification for it.

Crew:

You’ve gotten a lot of creative pleasure out of mathematics?

Seymour:

Yeah.

Crew:

People don’t understand where creative comes into math. Most people do not understand that. Creative pleasure, artistic pleasure?

Seymour:

I think that more people will want to learn mathematics because they will find ways to draw on mathematics as, to enhance the things that they really want to do. For instance, I mean this is one way in which the computer technology radically changes the relationship between kids and various pieces of knowledge, including mathematics.

If a kid’s passionately interested in visual graphic arts, the computer could be an instrument for doing that, and the most powerful way to use the computer is to treat it as a mathematical speaking being, to understand the mathematics of the shapes and forms you’re creating and the mathematics of the way the computer does them.

Powerful ideas in mathematics can be connected to deep interests, passionate interests in art or music or history or anything else. I believe that this will want people … I believe that making these connections between mathematics and powerful ideas of mathematics and passionate interests, will lead people to want to learn mathematics, but that’s very different from saying they must learn it.

As a mathematician, I resent it when people are forced to learn mathematics in a way that’s disconnected with their real interests and feels to them even as contrary to their real interests because they’re being made to spend their time doing something that … When they could be doing much more interesting things. I resent it because I think that it undermines the public image of mathematics. It’s seen as a horrible chore, as an imposition, not as a thing of beauty, thing of powerful use. Something that I really, that people really love to appropriate.

Maybe we can turn these phone …

Crew:

I won’t answer that one. We did a show … Actually, we did a show with Mary Lacock, she’s a mathematics teacher for Alan Kay. I don’t know if you’re familiar [crosstalk 00:36:48]-

Seymour:

Yes I am, yeah.

Crew:

She told us that any kind of math that I can’t make pictures out of, I can’t enjoy. I don’t enjoy. She has to make pictures out of every, she draw, she’s continually making, for her kid she continually makes pictures and symbols and drawings instead of just numbers. Is that what you mean by when you mean computer can-

Seymour:

It’s half of what I mean and half of what I think is very wrong. The half of what I mean is that this individual teacher had a particular way of being able to cope with mathematics through pictures, and that’s wonderful, because mathematics can mean different things to different people.

The half that’s very bad is that she’s a teacher who’s imposing her way on a bunch of kids and what I think we should be seeing is the kids in a learning environment, in an environment where they’re able to find their own way of doing it. It’s not the case that everybody, even every mathematician deals best with mathematics in pictures. Some of them deal best with mathematics in words, like language, in kinesthetic feelings.

Einstein is famous for saying that he felt it in kinesthetically, as movement. I think I would be closer to Einstein in that respect. Yes, I think that what we can do with the computer is allow individuals to find their own way of coming to terms with what mathematics is and seeing it in a way that matches their passion and their intellectual styles. There’s no one way that should be imposed on other people.

Crew:

You think, I’m bringing it full circle now, this is a commercial, and Squeak is a way to maybe help, I mean have kids see there’s … Squeak, Alan says Squeak is not a program, it’s a process. It doesn’t, there’s not finite end to it. You can keep on discover … You, they hope to make it so you can, like law, we can keep on discovering, there’s no …

A computer game, there’s an end. You win or you lose, there’s so many ways, so many things you can do things a certain way. With Squeak you can find out, it’s infinite, or it can be, they’re trying to make it infinite in ways you can actually discover, learn, learn new things, learn new ways, that the people who programmed it didn’t realize what you could do with it. Is that true, or is that …

Seymour:

I’m a little bit worried about the way of saying Squeak is the way to do this.

Crew:

Okay.

Seymour:

I think we suffered a lot when people picked up Logo and said, “This is about Logo. Logo is the way to do this,” and that Logo’s good, Logo’s bad. Well it wasn’t. The point was not that, as soon as they said it’s about Logo, they lost the essence. The essence was being able to really command that computer. The essence was something, which it’s not really fashionable to say programming anymore, or the word programming maybe has evolved, but what we used to call programming. That’s what the essence is.

Squeak is one of the best ways that exists, maybe the best kind of cutting edge development of making programming available for kids. For God’s sakes, Squeak people don’t identify what you’re doing with a particular manifestation. It’s not Squeak. Squeak is a way of doing something. That thing that you’re trying to do with it is fundamentally important.

Crew:

Seymour, is there anything else you’d want to say about mathematics and the way children learn in relationship to childhood education in general? You got some …

Seymour:

I could talk for the rest of the week.

Crew:

I know you could. I want you to. [crosstalk 00:41:18]

Seymour:

What would run [inaudible 00:41:20], anything else I wanted to say about mathematics-

Crew:

Childhood learning, and …

Seymour:

I think what I, what I’d like to say, what I think is maybe the most important thing in the dynamic of developing new ways of thinking about learning mathematics, is to recognize that mathematics as an intellectual discipline emerges after a long, historically emerged after a long development of mathematical ways of thinking about other things.

The Egyptians didn’t really have mathematics, but they were building pyramids and there was emerging a mathematical way of thinking, and the Greeks took it further. It’s only quite recently that this thing called pure mathematical crystallized out of that. The same thing would apply to children, should apply to children, that before they come to school, we see beginnings of mathematical thinking in their dealings with the world around them.

Crew:

For example?

Seymour:

For example, they learn to master space. They learn to know their way around. They learn to deal with numbers. They learn to know what it is for, at a very young age they know what it is to lay the table with one fork and one knife and one setting for one person. This is mathematical stuff. Elementary, simple, mathematical stuff, but part of the life of children. Out of this emerges as Piaget has shown us, a certain body of mathematical thinking, which we don’t even call mathematics because it’s not named, and it happened informally.

When we get to school, it’s not a continuation of the same process. Basically, school mathematics is not related to anything in the lives of the children. My model of the future is that because the computer will diffuse into the lives of children from very early ages, and hopefully more and more activities will become available with mathematical content, so there will be an emergence of mathematical ways of thinking in the informal life of the kid growing up.

What formal instruction will be able to do is to build into this, to add elements that are rooted in what the kid has already learned and developed, spontaneously perhaps, or quiet from the culture, on an intuitive level. I make an analogy in my book, Mindstorms, with the way we learn, you might learn French by growing up in France. Everybody in France learns to speak French. If you go into our schools, most kids don’t learn [inaudible 00:45:15] French classes. Most kids don’t learn to speak French. This is not because they are not Frenchly minded. It’s because they were being taught in a way that was not congenial for them to learn.

The same is true of mathematics, that in mathematics, scrap all that. I think there’s a better way. Let me state it the other way around. I think the most important thing I would say about learning of mathematics in early childhood and into the school period is captured by a metaphor that I used in my book, Mindstorms where I discuss the question of how is it that tin our society, we are so firmly convinced that some people are mathematically minded? Most people are almost proud of the fact that I can’t do mathematics, as if it’s something about I don’t have a head for math.

There are even psychologists who have elevated the fact there is a mathematical kind of intelligence into a very influential theory of multiple intelligences, and so on. This misses a fundamental point because while it’s true that most people in math class don’t learn much math, most kids in French class don’t learn much French, but we don’t say that they’re not Frenchly minded. We don’t say that they don’t have a head for French, because we know that if they grew up in France, they’d learn French perfectly well.

I think that my image of learning mathematics is if we all learned mathematics in math land, we would all learn mathematics perfectly well, up to some level. Math land is to mathematics what France is to French. How can we create a math land? That’s really what it’s about.

Some teachers have done wonderful things trying to make a little piece of a math land in a class, but it’s not really a math land. I mean however good you make your French class, it’s not the same as living in France. Math land’s got to be on a social basis, and the way I see that happening is by the diffusion of computers through the society, and treating computers as mathematical speaking entities, rather than as some sort of utilitarian commodity device.

Again, I see programming the computer, I see Squeak, and Logo, and attempts to give young people control over the computer as making math land, as enabling us to talk to this thing in a mathematical language, and talk to ourselves, to one another, about it in mathematical terms. This is the way in which learning math could become much more like learning French in France. That’s the ideal that I see.