The Future of School

The Future of School

The following discussion between Seymour Papert and the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paolo Freire took place in Brazil during the late 1980s. It was sponsored by Pontifícia Universidade Católica, the Catholic University of São Paulo; and the Afternoon Journal TV show. It was broadcast in Brazil by TV PUC São Paulo and KTV Solucoes.

The following text is an adaptation of a transcript of the discussion, which was conducted in simultaneously translated English and Portuguese.


real video file

Seymour Papert: Somebody is going to ask me a question like, “What did you learn from Paulo Freire?” So I was wondering, then . . . the answer is, well, everything . . . a lot. But this question made me think about what I learned from Paulo Freire.

I used to have cut out on my wall — a cartoon, a joke from Punch Magazine, which showed a little girl who came to the teacher after class and said to the teacher, “What did I learn today?” And the teacher said, “That’s a funny question. Why do you ask me that?” The little girl said, “When I get home, Daddy will ask me, ‘What did you learn today?’ and I never know what to say.”

And I think maybe the serious thing that I learned from Paulo Freire is that the cartoon is not just a joke, that it sort of says what’s so wrong with the whole school idea. This girl . . . the teacher’s doing something to the girl. The girl is not conscious, doesn’t have a consciousness of what it’s all about. And that what we’re really trying to do in education in small children is to…you can say it all sorts of ways: give them more consciousness of the process, more control, or allow them to throw themselves into it. But however you describe it, it’s the opposite of them wanting to ask …having to ask … the teacher, “What did I learn today?”

Paulo Freire: I think that what Papert has just said with a sense of humor is indeed much more humor than irony in the profound meaning and distinction between humor and irony. Joking is good; mocking is not.

The story emphasizes the mechanically quantitative comprehension of knowledge, which is absurd. The girl could have asked, “Teacher, how many envelopes of knowledge have you deposited in me today?” This is an understanding of the act of teaching, and that’s why Seymour Papert says with humor that what somebody can learn with Paulo Freire is exactly the opposite of traditional “learning”.

I am the antagonist of pedagogy. I am the antagonist of epistemology. I am the opposite ethic. I am nothing of that, because I am the antagonist of that. And I insist, I don’t like discourses. I am not a “good boy.” I try to be a good person, but “good boy” — God forbid! If you want to hurt me, call me a “good boy.”

I am an educated person, very educated, polite, disciplined, and courteous. That I am, indeed, and more. I try to be respectful, but “good boy,” for God’s sake, no! So I am antagonistic to all this. I am contrary, the opposite of all this. I believe in the pedagogy of curiosity. That’s why I defend, along with the Chilean philosopher Fagundes, the pedagogy of the question and not of the answer. The pedagogy of the question is the one that is based on curiosity. Without that pedagogy there would not be a pedagogy that augments that curiosity.

Once again I ask you to forgive me because I took advantage of your question in order to make a speech, like the Babainos, the Brazilians from Bahia, who love the microphone.

Seymour Papert: So I’ll take advantage of your speech to make another speech. Let’s see. Let’s be very provocative. I’m going to say something oversimplified. Paulo said you can’t understand how anybody could say there’s learning without teaching.

Now of course, fundamentally, that’s absolutely true…. However, in the world as it is, there’s a certain balance between learning and teaching in which teaching is so overemphasized, compared with the importance of learning, that it might become true to say that our task is to valuate learning at the expense of teaching. So I’d like to say something about how I see the role of technology, in one aspect, in how the construction of learning and teaching has taken place.

Of course I’m oversimplifying, but within this context I’m going to recognize three stages of learning. Now, these are not stages like those Piaget might talk about, stages of development of the nature of the brain or the mind. They are stages in the relationship between the individual and knowledge.

Stage one happens when a baby is born. And from that time there starts a process of learning by exploration, by touching. Everything is put in the mouth. Of course it’s not only in relation to things. It’s people as well. But there’s a learning going on that is driven by the individual, that the baby is determining. Parents might … think that they are determining what the baby has learned, but it’s only a minor factor. Probably the baby is learning in a self-directed way.

Now there comes a time when the infant is seeing a wider world than can be touched and felt. So the questions in the child’s mind aren’t only about this and this and this that I can see, but about something I heard, saw a picture of, or imagined. And I think here the child enters into a precarious and dangerous situation because not necessarily, but, I think, in point of fact in our societies, there is now a shift from experiential learning — learning by exploring — to another kind of learning, which is learning by being told: you have to find adults who will tell you things. And this stage reaches its climax in school.

And I think it’s an exaggeration, but that there’s a lot of truth in saying that when you go to school, the trauma is that you must stop learning and you must now accept being taught. That is stage two: it’s school, it’s learning by being taught, it’s receiving deposits of knowledge.… I think many children are destroyed by that, strangled. Some, of course, survive it, and all of us survived it, and that’s one reason it’s often dangerous discussing these questions among intellectual people. In spite of the school what happened to us was that in the course of this stage two we learned certain skills. We learned to read, for example; we learned to use libraries; we learned how to explore directly a much wider world.

Now I think that there’s an important sense in which stage three is going back to stage one for those who’ve survived stage two — creative people in any field, whether in a laboratory or in philosophy … whether artists, businessmen, journalists … all the people in the world who are able, despite all the restrictions, to find a way of living creatively. We are very much like the baby again. We explore; it’s driven from inside; it’s experiential; it’s not so verbal; it’s not about being told.

So now I want to tell a story about my grandson that shows, I think, how new technologies might change the three-stage pattern. When this grandson was three years old, I saw him go and take from a shelf a videotape, put it in a VCR and press the buttons, and he said he forgot to rewind it and he pressed the button and he rewound it, and then he played the videotape.

Now what is interesting is that this child spent the next 30 minutes immersed in a piece of the world that was beyond his reach. And this particular tape was about road-making machines. You know, all those big machines on the side of the road. They are very fascinating for children, and he loves this tape, and he’s gotten to know much more about these machines than I ever will. And I notice the difference when we’re in the car and he sees one of the machines: he asks more intelligent questions than I can because he’s thought about it more.

Now we’re going to see what’s remarkable about this.… The first thing that amazed me was this little child working this machine. It’s amazing, here’s this little child working this VCR machine, and many adults don’t know how to do that. But we really shouldn’t be amazed at that, because it’s not more complex than putting his toys away or getting his clothes out of the drawer. Working with these machines is not more complex in any way than the things that 3-year-old children all do. That’s not what’s amazing.

What’s really amazing is the comparison between what he could do at 3 and what I could do at 3. Because if I was interested in road-making machines, it was quite a few years later than 3 when I would know enough to be able to learn something about them except by asking somebody and being told. So here I see the big break. What we’re seeing is that stage two is becoming unraveled as a necessary stage. That this child is beginning to short-circuit stage two. And with what I saw there with this grandson who’s got a few videotapes, it’s only scratching the surface. It’s just the beginning.

And already just a few years later — this happened two years ago — he could be using an interactive CD-ROM, or he could use the Internet and have that whole range, not just the few videotapes or CDs that he has in his house, but the whole range of human knowledge that, in principle, is accessible to him.

So that’s the end of my speech. I think that the key point about this technology and education is that it short-circuits stage two. It enables us to not put children through that traumatic and dangerous and precarious process of schooling.…

Now of course I said this in a non political way, and I don’t mean at all to imply that it is only that… I don’t think that school and the banking model of knowledge and so on is just politically neutral. It’s been used by social structures as a basis for all sorts of conservatism and oppressive kinds of policies.

However, I think I see in these little situations the possibility that 3-, 4-, 5-year-olds, very small children … have a new instrument with which to refuse the oppression, to refuse to be placed in this position and to maintain their curiosity and a sense of their own intellectual power that they had when they were born.

You see, nothing is more ridiculous than the idea that this technology can be used to improve school. It’s going to displace school and the way we have understood school. Of course, there will always be, we hope, places where children will come together with other people and will learn. But I think that the very nature, the fundamental nature, of school that we see in this process, is coming to an end. And I think that in 10, 20 years.… We don’t want to be prophets, but in this area things have usually happened much faster than in other areas.

So the goal of educators has to be to think about new ways of relating to children and relating in the triangle between the adult and the child and knowledge. I think we just need thoroughly different relationships, and that’s not going to come easily or automatically. And that’s the test.

See, the other thing I learned from Paulo Freire is to make a long speech. I’m sorry.

Paulo Freire: His speech is profoundly stimulating and, hence, challenging. First I’d like to make a sort of list of themes — the generative themes, closely related to my own terminology — that I have heard in his speech.

For example, the “historical dimension”, “history and technology”, “history generation and technology”, “culture”. Talking about culture, I immediately include the culture of classes. My 23-year-old grandson beats any specialist in this Internet thing. He’s keen on it. And I have a 6-year-old granddaughter who works on the computer. But they are a minority in the Brazilian society. What do we say about the 33 million Brazilian children who at this moment are dying of starvation? What is the repercussion of technology in the majority of the lives of these Brazilian children today? And 20 or 30 years from now these millions of Brazilian children will be even farther removed from the current technology.

I agree with Papert’s analysis of the three stages, the three moments he established in the experience of the production of knowledge. I find this division very lucid, and I agree with his criticism of the second stage, which is the school stage. But I don’t accept his proposal that this isn’t really a proposal. He does not propose. He says that the ending of school is inevitable. It’s the end, that is not proposing.

Seymour Papert: And it’s very hard to get educators to see that distinction.

Paulo Freire: Yes. Absolutely. To me this is not a statement yet. I state that school is bad, but I don’t state that school is disappearing and will disappear. That’s why I am appealing to all of us who have escaped cognitive death by school — who are the survivors here — to work on modifying it. For me, the challenge is not to end school, but to change it completely and radically and to help it to give birth from a body that doesn’t correspond anymore to the technological truth of the world  to a new being as actual as technology itself.

So I keep fighting in the hope of putting school on the level of its time. That doesn’t mean to bury it, but to remake it. And I explain: I’m quite sure that if we go back in time some millenniums ago, when men and women were eating an apple or banana, it doesn’t matter now. There is new research that claims that the sin was committed because of the banana. It doesn’t mater whether it’s an apple or a banana.

Men and women, while experiencing themselves socially, while confronting challenges, ended up discovering that they were doing something, they didn’t know exactly what it was yet. Very probably there wasn’t yet any word in their vocabulary indicating the thing they were doing. They probably knew, but the verb didn’t exist yet or, perhaps, the language was only created millenniums after men and women were already changing the world.

The first thing we did was make change. Giving a name to change came later with language. We began to know a long time before saying that we know. We learned before teaching. And it was precisely the realization that we’ve learned without teaching that taught us to teach. It was the experience of learning, the experience of the last and first stages, that invented the second one.

To me, the problem we face today is the correction of the mistakes of the second stage that are not all didactic and not methodological mistakes but, indeed, ideological and political ones. Thus, what we must do is to change the world politically. It’s the power that ought to be changed. In order to do this we shouldn’t say that history is dead or that the classes have disappeared. All this is just talking in order not to change the second stage. All these speeches of the new liberal perspective ideology are trying to preserve the second stage. Nevertheless, in order for us to change the second stage we have to change the liberal speech.

Seymour Papert: But, I just want to say something.

Paulo Freire: Yes?

Seymour Papert: Will there be school? I’m not saying that school is going to go away. It depends what we mean by school, but I think that what we need to note and very clearly – and this is something else I learned from you, actually – is that we must be conscious and critical of what it’s about fundamentally.

And now what’s wrong with schools is not details. What’s wrong with school is absolutely fundamental. It is so fundamental that to say you’re going to correct that is not very far from saying we don’t have school.

And I just have to make a list of problems with school because I think there are some we haven’t even touched on.  I mean I know you concentrate on the political, which is there, but and I agree, but let’s take something else. How ridiculous is this?  First of all, the idea  that school is a place where you say now you are learning, not living. [That these actions are somehow distinct.] Then there’s the fact that we segregate people by age.

Paulo Freire: Well, look, I agree with you but, my main question is this: Is this an ontological problem or a political problem? It’s political, not ontological.

Seymour Papert: No, no! It is all these things.

Paulo Freire: I want to say that the school is not burying itself.

Seymour Papert: Yes, it is. If school means a place where children are segregated from society and segregated among themselves by age and put through a curriculum. Now, go and ask any school administrator in the world, “What are you doing?”

Paulo Freire: It is being done like this. But it does not necessary hold true.

Seymour Papert: Well, we could have something else that you can call school if you would like to.

Paulo Freire: Yes. Look. Do you know what my question is? For example, I also don’t accept that men and women were born to be dominated, that the blacks are inferior to whites. I cannot accept this. That is what I consider a fact of metaphysical thinking, not the scientific thinking. School is not bad in itself, but it has been bad.

Seymour Papert: Let me look at this from another angle. Here’s another side of the politics and a quarrel with another statement: that we, who went through school and survived it, should change it.

I don’t think that we are the force that will change school. I think that in the past there have been many people who’ve proposed more or less radical changes in school. Like Dewey. He said many things and of course he’s – in many ways he’s he made himself impotent – by neglecting the power of the political. But basically he had a philosophy, and he said, “Agree with my philosophy and you will change school.”

And I think Ivan Illich also thought that schooling is a good idea, and I think I’m not saying that  it’s a good idea to change school. I’m saying that it is inconceivable that school as we’ve known it will continue. Inconceivable. And the reason why it’s inconceivable is that little glimmer with my grandson who is used to finding knowledge when he wants to and can get it when he needs it, and can get in touch with other people and teachers, not because they are appointed by the state, but because he can contact them in some network somewhere. These children will not sit quietly in school and listen to a teacher give them predigested knowledge. I think that they will revolt.

Paulo Freire: There’s a similarity between us until a certain point in the road. At a determined moment I tell him, “Good bye, I am going this way.” And he goes the other way. And what’s worse is that we both want the same thing. The turning point that separates us is that his analysis seems to be metaphysical and mine is politico-historical. I think that is the difference.

This doesn’t imply the least decrease in the perspective of his analysis. I am not diminishing his work. I am only explaining why I disagree. Here is an example of my difference. It’s the same difference between me and Ivan Illich, for example. I remember the times I was in Cuernavaca. It was with him and the author of Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro School Children in the Boston Public Schools, Jonathan Kozol. There we were, Kozol, a group of American intellectuals, Latin Americans and me. At first, Ivan Illich was against the schools. In a second moment he considered the schools bad in themselves, a bad institution which should be eliminated. Then he was against education. That was during an education seminar in Geneva back in 1974. To the European philosophers, he said, “A few years ago I was against school and now I come here to say that I’m against education.”

We were and still are good friends. I used to tell him that the difference between us is that you are against education and I’m against one type of education. I am not against education because I consider it a great phenomenon, and one of our historical inventions. Therefore I might be naïve. Maybe I am naive. Logically I am naïve. Maybe I don’t become angry because if you said to me, “It’s naiveté,” I’d say, “Thank you very much.”

Then again, it is possible that I am naïve, but I’d rather fall in the hopeful naiveté category, with the hope of one day being able to change, than to cross my arms today in fatalist yielding and give up all possibility of change.

Seymour Papert: I think maybe this is not a real issue. I mean the question is, What is changing school? And some good models that I see some places where there are a few school districts  For example, in some school districts in New York City they will allow a group of teachers who have a proposal to start a small school with a different philosophy of education, provided that they win an argument and that parents are prepared to let their children attend.

They can set it up within the school system, so it’s still school. I mean it’s even in the same buildings and ultimately it’s controlled by the same people that control other schools. The same people pay the janitor, but what is happening in some of these is very different from the defining structure  of what I’d call school with a capital S, which is about curriculum and classes and all – that, we agree, is a bad thing. So I think it’s possible that there will be a shift that within school, within schools alternatives can grow up. I think also we’ll see alternatives growing up outside of the school. I think we’ve seen in the United States recently a tremendous increase in the home-schooling movement. People are just keeping their children out of school.

So I think this change is coming about in all sorts of places, and we must work for it. And I seem to be taking a harder position, that school is bad, that I think that there’s a kind of, we call it “narrow liberalism” of discourse inside education that talks about curriculum reform, strains of school management but that has a general flavor of conservatism, and it ignores historical features too.

This bureaucracy has it’s own interest; this bureaucracy is not  open to argument about what’s in the best interest of the children. I mean, I’m not saying bureaucrats are all bad people, but they’ve also got their own culture that they live in and I don’t think we can appeal to them or try and persuade them or argue with them.

I’d like to add one more example to this discussion. I have a chapter in my last book, which just got translated into Portuguese, that I think is an example of taking a historical approach on a minor scale — it’s not on the big scale of history of society.

So if you go into schools nowadays, you see a lot of computers, and almost everybody agrees that computers are not being very well used. Now the liberal discourse says, “The schools don’t know how to use the computers. Let’s do research and find out the best way to use the computers, and then they’ll be used well and we will have all sorts of good results.” Now, I think it’s exactly the other way around.

The school bureaucracies know very well how to use the computer  in order to reinforce their own concept of school. And I find it very interesting that  in the 1970s the first times I saw any microcomputers in schools, it was always through the efforts of a visionary and rebellious teacher who didn’t like what he or she — often she — was supposed to be doing and saw the computer as the way of doing something different. And often this is a bit romantic.  They felt the potential of this thing and they wanted change. So it was an instrument of radical change — that’s what they thought it was. And then around about the middle of the 1980s, this computer got into the hands of school administrations and the ministries and the commissioners of education, state education departments.

And now look what they did with them: no longer are there computers in the hands of visionary teachers in the classrooms. The establishment pulls together and now they’ve got a computer classroom, there’s a computer curriculum, and there’s a special computer teacher. In other words, the computer has been thoroughly assimilated to the way you do things in school.

Participant: I’d like to ask to you about something. The school is a social institution controlled by historical and cultural forces. What would be the foundation on which we could build our faith in potential change? Where is the seed of change? Professor Papert said it is in the children themselves. But wouldn’t it be that those who are now controlled would become the controllers? There is obvious difficulty in surpassing this control — the social control. How can we change this?

Seymour Papert: Well, every revolution works like that. The fact is, you know, that it’s a political act. But we do see examples in the world of where teachers in a school have demanded and won the right to do things differently. So they’ve escaped from overbearing control. And I think that this is one of the political axes that we work with. And the parents and especially the children are going to be more and more allies in helping teachers bring down the control of the bureaucracy in the schools. So I didn’t say it’s easy, and you might say, “Well, then, it’s not school anymore if they do bring it down.” But that’s  a semantic difference. It’s only through people challenging that control that there can be real change.

Paulo Freire: Yes. Basically the issue Papert proposes has a lot to do with the 70s and the reproductivist thesis of Althuser. I’ve seen this since the 70s when I was living in Switzerland. I’ve read the first essays of Althuser about this subject, and those of his colleagues, too. And I’ve always tried to see the other angle of the reproductivity of the school, which has as its task to reproduce the dominating ideology. The other side, of which I have a more dialectic and less mechanistic understanding, is precisely the side of those who take upon themselves the nonreproduction of dominating ideology. And this is the same fight of those who want to change the general politics of society.

I personally didn’t come to this world to help the “right.” I know that I may have helped the “right” in some moment of naivety. Consciously, I wouldn’t help the “right.” Sometimes the fight is easy, and other times it gets very hard. And this applies to the naivety of the schools, too.

Now, there’s another aspect in this speech that I’d like to mention. It’s about the first, second, third stages. In the first place, the problem, in my opinion, is not in preserving the name school. You could call it tomorrow as well as memory, which brings us back to school. The name doesn’t matter. What matters to me is the determined space and time where determined tasks are accomplished. Social historical and political tasks, not only individual ones.

For example, I think that the second stage is horrible. But if this stage succeeds in executing some of the tasks assigned to the school today in the right way, I wouldn’t have anything against calling it memory or enchanted or the island of beautiful women. If there were a school by this name, it would be wonderful. I don’t have an objection to that. What I would like to know is how some tasks will be organized.

For instance, one of the reasons for the creation of school, that only became clear much later, is that in the experience of the first stage, you don’t get to the systematization of the knowledge that ensures the continuity of the search for a new knowledge. One of the main tasks of school is to provide the knowledge of the already existent knowledge and to produce a nonexistent knowledge. These are the two main tasks of the school: to get the already known knowledge and to produce the knowledge not yet in existence.

In the first stage the technological modification definitely accelerates the apprehension of knowledge, but not necessarily the reason of being of the knowledge. For example, the grandson operates the computer with the extraordinary ease of someone much older than he is because the boy was born during the computer era. He was born in the history of computer and the culture of computer. It is one thing to be the contemporary of a certain technological advance, it is another thing is to arrive before the advance of technology.

For example, what was I contemporaneous of? PRA 8 Pernambuco Radia Club. One fantastic thing! I was amazed. How could the man talk from a long distance and we hear it here? And all those buttons! Just that. Now, it’s the computer. I look at it and I’m amazed. I find it wonderful, but I’m not coexistent with it. I am not contemporaneous. And this weight, it’s in the air. The historical atmosphere is filled with the computer. It’s filled with these telephones these fools carry everywhere — cellular phones. There is a history of the facts that generate the facts. It’s difficult to translate. My problem is the following: How do we do the essential transition from the common knowledge and common sense to the more methodically rigorous knowledge of the sciences without the proper organization provided by an entity specialized in this matter?

It would be ideal if the second stage improved itself and substituted the mischievousness of the distortions that take place in the actual second stage without losing its teaching characteristics. I don’t know. I might be totally wrong. I’m contemporaneous of the school. Do you see the problem? I don’t say that I have the answers, but I challenge Bahamia. Because it’s not just by looking at and operating a computer that I understand the reason for the computer.

Seymour Papert: It’s not simply by operating it. For example, this morning we were at this Millennium 3 Project, seeing some kids who were making objects on a computer screen, geometric objects. And these were small 8-, 9-, 10-year-old children, and so I think that these children, better than anybody in a primary school, knew the raison d’etre of not only the computer, but of geometric knowledge, because they were using geometric knowledge to make things on the screen.

Paulo Freire: Yet they are learning that inside of a school.

Seymour Papert: No. I don’t think that  would we call a BIENAL a school? You see, I don’t know how much they learn. I think that simply by having access to this computer and a very small amount of teaching about how to do something, they can start building and constructing things and they begin to see exactly the raison d’etre — the reason for having — geometry. Now once they’ve got that, I’m sure that somebody who is articulate can serve a great function in tidying it up for them. So I imagine kids will become interested in and might spend a few hours in a little seminar or course where a mathematician, somebody who really has a mathematical perceptive, will connect together the ideas that they have.

I think that the time needed for doing that is maybe 10 percent of the time that we spend, and so, as I see it, it’s like kids going to piano lessons. When they want to, when they need to, they go. And I imagine that people of totally different ages who at some stage of wanting to know these things come together in a place where they can find them.

Paulo Freire: Of course!

Seymour Papert: In fact, you know it’s exactly right when you say, “Well the important thing is, how do they see the raison d’être? That’s exactly what school does not give them.

Paulo Freire: Yes. I agree with you.

Seymour Papert: And which they discover by themselves much more readily in this sort of less structure.

Paulo Freire: But this is what I want right now. You are not just saying that the school does not need to continue, you are proposing something different.

Seymour Papert: No.

Paulo Freire: Yes! This is fantastic to me. What the school would really have to do is challenge the epistemological curiosity of the students in order to provide an incentive to discover the raison d’être for the objects of knowledge. The school should not do what it is doing now.

If we can help the school, because when students come to the school they already know lots of things, which the school never taught them. It is easier for a good teacher to say, “Look, all the things you already now know have a certain scientific explanation which I will speak about now.” Fantastic!

Seymour Papert: I have spent a lot of time and I’m prepared to help any school that wants to do this. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s a good place to end this discussion because I think I’m going to get a little tired. I haven’t been well the last day. But I would like to propose that — this is a great discussion — and we should set a goal in the near future of having a day or two of this kind of thing — maybe with these people participating more.

Paulo Freire: Good!

Seymour Papert: I think the dialogue could be useful to a lot of people outside.

Paulo Freire: Good, good.

Seymour Papert: OK. Thank you.