by Seymour Papert
thinking about the 'impossible'|
Think of other big changes that came via technological breakthroughs. The
Wright Brothers thought of making a flying machine because for
generations and centuries people had nurtured this impossible dream. Or
think of impossible political changes - the fall of the Berlin Wall or of
If the way we think of change is limited by imagining things very much
like the ones we know (even if 'better'), or by confining ourselves to
doing what we know how to implement, then we deprive ourselves of
participation in the evolution of the future. It will creep up on us and
take us unawares.
This is not a personal criticism of any individual: everyone working in
the field of education inherits a timidity that has been inherent in the
culture of the field. Thus the first step towards action in better uses
of technology in education is 'working out' directed at exercising our
own ways of thinking.
the parable of the jet powered stagecoach|
As a work-out exercise imagine an early nineteenth century engineer
concerned with the improvement of cross-continental transportation.
Someone comes to them with a design for a jet engine. "Great" the
engineer says "we'll attach this to stagecoaches to assist the horses."
When they try they soon see that there is a danger that the engine would
shake the vehicle to pieces. So they make sure that the power of the
engine was kept down to a level at which it would not do any harm. (It is
not on record whether it did any good.)
In their essential features our schools are based on a design that goes
back at least as far as the nineteenth century. They are stagecoaches,
is obsoleting the model of a learning environment in which teachers -
who - know hand out knowledge to students - who - know - not
Now it might be that this is the way it should be: perhaps the ideal
design for a learning environment was invented back then; if so we should
use new technologies to assist the way it has always worked. But before
we decide that this is the right approach, surely we should give some
effort to considering whether something very different would be possible
and desirable. Is it possible to invent the educational airplane?
My purpose here is show how carrying out an exercise of this kind can
lead to a better understanding of the changes and the resistance to
change in real schools that have come in the wake of the computer.
Such an analysis will help us pose sharply the question of incremental
change. One could not move from a stagecoach to a jumbo jet by making a
series of small improvements. Is it possible to go from the school of
yesterday to the school of tomorrow by a series of incremental
improving the educational stagecoach|
(and giving the cybercritics a
Virtually all discussion of the role of technology in schools is focused
on two very short term objectives:
- improving existing school practices, including the teaching of the
- introducing very elementary forms of 'computer literacy' or
'technological fluency' in the form of vocational knowledge justified by
being needed in the workplace.
You can't say these goals are bad, but they are like improving
transportation by making better grease for the axles of the stagecoaches
or better training seminars for the drivers.
The focus on these narrow goals gives the critics like Todd Oppenheimer
(see Atlantic Monthly, July 1997 and the discussion which
took place last January on this site and Mr. Clifford (Silicon
Snake Oil) Stoll huge openings for attacking the technology where it
is at its weakest doing a job that is not what it can do most powerfully.
For example Oppenheimer states that "there is no good evidence that most
uses of computers [in present day schools] significantly improve learning
In my view the answer has to be that he is right.
And as long as schools confine the technology to simply improving
what they are doing rather than really changing the system,
nothing very significant will happen. The members of the blue ribbon
panel invited by the Milken Exchange to comment on Oppenheimer's article
did not really contradict the quoted statement: telling us about good
things that happen in some schools does not contradict his
assertion about most schools. A closer look shows that the
technology is doing best in the minority of schools where it is being
used to go beyond improving traditional performance of school.
|playing with the idea|
of the educational airplane
I am quite sure that when historians of education look back at our
will be looking at very different aspects of the role of the
content of learning will be radically changed
Certain topics that are regarded today as sacrosanct will be
or greatly reduced. To make the point I focus on mathematics, but the
kind of consideration applies to all subject areas. Long division is
commonly used example of a commonly taught skill of dubious value,
whole area of manipulating fractions is a more serious one. Yes,
needs to be able to manipulate halves, quarters and thirds. And every
succeeds without schooling. The trouble comes when kids have to learn
5/12 + 4/15 or worse. But why should they? It is neither practically
in the age of the calculator nor a good entryway to conceptual
If you examine the current 'math' curriculum with an open mind at
of it will be recognized as inferior to the examples of mathematical
that are made possible by these three conditions:
- free access to computers for much more than a few hours a week
- a level of technological fluency (that has to develop over years)
to the levels of reading fluency we now regard as basic skill
- freedom from having to pass tests on nineteenth century
Many topics that were unteachably abstract in the context of pencil
and paper technologies will be considered as appropriate for children in
the context of a digital technology that makes the previously formal
a six-year old who has learned modern forms of Logo programming
uses a "random number generator" to create surprising and
appealing dynamic graphics effects.
Technological fluency will be valued far less as something needed
workplace than as a language in which powerful ideas can be
example lower elementary school-aged children using the latest
Lego extended by "programmable bricks" (small programmable
computers that can be built into your model) meet ideas from system
theory and control engineering usually encountered only in engineering
school. In turn these ideas from engineering give concreteness to
powerful mathematical ideas such as:
|What is really important is mobilizing powerful ideas|
- solving problems by successive approximations
- using limits
- using probability
Entrepreneurial thinking, management of long term projects and skills
of learning will be treated as the "basics".
The structure of places set up for learning will be so different that
perhaps the word 'school' will no longer be used. If it is still used the word
will have a very different meaning
Many aspects of the structure of schools that have been taken for
granted will become obsolete. For example segregating children into age
groups, fragmenting knowledge into subjects and fragmenting the day into
periods will all be recognized as quaintly old-fashioned ideas of the
assembly line period of industry and education.
The distinction between learners and teachers will be blurred.
The lines between home-learning, school-learning and work will be
I imagine a teacher saying:
"Those dreams are fine. I'm sure that will happen someday. So will
vacations on Mars! Meantime, what do I do Monday? I have a class of kids
who are not technologically fluent, who don't have free access to
computers and whose parents (and our school superintendent and our
President) insist that they compete with the kids from Korea on passing
tests that measure knowledge of fractions. So I'll do the best I can with
the few computers I've got to improve their scores, give them some fun on
the web and make sure they know how to use Microsoft Office."
My answer is that if you have a vision of Someday you can use this to
guide what you do Monday. But if your vision of where it is going is
doing the same old stuff a bit (or a lot) better your efforts will be
bypassed by history.
But using the Someday vision to guide Monday might mean you have to stand
the usual criterion for judging progress in education on its head: you
have to stop trying to improve the functioning of the old system. Instead
lay down the seeds for something new. Maybe this will result in decreased
performance according to the traditional measures. Remember that the
first airplanes were not so good as stagecoaches as means for getting
around. But they were destined to revolutionize transportation.
the Trojan horse strategy|
One example of a project that scores high on my measure of preparing for
Someday is Generation WHY, a
project which contributed Ryan Powell to that same forum organized by the
Milken Exchange to discuss Todd Oppenheimer's article.
Powell is a 14-year old participant in the Generation WHY project, by far
the largest of several projects across the world that mobilize students
who have acquired a good level of technological knowledge to teach
teachers about using the technology.
|technological fluency will be valued far less as something
needed for the workplace than as a language in which powerful ideas can
The genius of this idea is that by contributing to solving a recognized
problem facing schools, it rallies support from schools for something
that goes against the grain of their traditional ways of thinking.
I doubt if there is hard evidence that this kind of project has produced
improved learning or teaching of the traditional curriculum. But there is
clear evidence that it has done something more important in the long run:
it is helping schools face the fact that the technology is obsoleting the
model of a learning environment in which teachers-who-know hand out
knowledge to students-who-know-not.
Instead it demonstrates a model in which younger people and older people
are able to give one another the kinds of knowledge that each happens to
have. A model in which the old teacher/student relationship is replaced
by learning together.
My point is not that this project is the panacea. I use it to make a much
more general point about choosing uses of the computer that challenge
school's assumptions. But the Generation WHY project does have a special
connection with a critically important trend in the relationship between
computers, kids and schools.
|kid power: at last a real force for change|
A hundred years ago John Dewey was showing the faults of the
curriculum-driven, non-experiential ways of teaching favored by schools.
But all his work had only a marginal effect on what schools do; they have
changed in some details but most are not essentially very different from
those which Dewey criticized way back then.
Critics of school reform (including Todd Oppenheimer) are fond of quoting
the failures of past movements as evidence for the extreme difficulty of
changing school and hence casting doubt on the likelihood that
revolutionary change is likely to come this time round.
But the critics are misled by their failure to look below the surface of
what is happening to the learning environment. If they did they would
recognize three aspects of a profound difference between the present
situation and anything that has happened in the past.
Each of these takes the form of a reversal:
- Reversal #1: Children become a driving force for educational
change instead of being its passive recipients.
Dewey had nothing stronger than philosophical arguments to support his
attempts at changing school. But academic arguments can never budge an
institution as firmly rooted as the School Establishment.
This time we are beginning, just beginning, to see the effects of a wave
that will soon become a veritable army of young people who come to school
with the experience of a better and more empowering learning environment
based on their home computers. There is much talk about schools setting
higher standards for students. But what is more important is that these
students are demanding higher standards from schools. And moreover they
come armed with the know-how that makes better learning possible.
Reversal #2: Teachers' technologies vs. learners' technologies. The
emergence of Kid Power as a force for change is closely related to the
fact that digital technology is a learners' technology. This makes
it radically different from the educational films and television cited by
the critics who scream about previous technologies promising to bring an
educational revolution and fizzling.
These technologies were teachers' technologies. The fact is that a
teacher talking out of a TV set is not different in kind from a teacher
lecturing in front of a class. These earlier technologies did not really
offer something really new. The computer does: it offers a fundamental
reversal of relationships between participants in learning.
- Reversal #3: Powerful advanced ideas can become elementary without
losing their power. The reversal that is most often missed is the
opportunity for making accessible to young children very powerful ideas
that were previous encountered only in specialized college courses.
I have mentioned two mathematical ideas in this class:
- random variables and
- successive approximations
one from engineering:
- negative feedback
and a whole area of knowledge about project management.
However, while this may be the most important reversal, it is also the
one that has to overcome the most severe obstacle: for these powerful
ideas are by their nature not familiar to teachers and parents raised in
the days when they were inaccessible.
The strategy for overcoming the last obstacle brings us full circle to my
for those of us who want to change education the hard work is in our own
minds, bringing ourselves to enter intellectual domains we never thought
existed. The deepest problem for us is not technology, nor teaching, nor
All these are important but what it is all really about is mobilizing
is a mathematician, one of the early pioneers of Artificial
Intelligence and internationally recognized as the seminal thinker
about how computers can change learning.
Papert was born and educated in
South Africa where he participated actively in the anti-apartheid
movement. From 1954-58 he pursued mathematical research at the
universities of Cambridge and Paris. He worked with Jean Piaget at the
University of Geneva from 1959-63 and it was this collaboration that
led him to consider using mathematics in the service of understanding
how children think and learn. In the early 60's Papert came to MIT
where, with Marvin Minsky he founded the Artificial Intelligence
Laboratory and co-authored their seminal work Perceptrons. (1970)
Dr. Papert is the inventor of the
Logo computer language, the first and most important effort to give
children control over new technology. He is the author of The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap (1996); Mindstorms: Children Computers and Powerful Ideas (1980) and The Children's Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer (1992)
as well as numerous articles about mathematics, Artificial
Intelligence, education, learning and thinking. In 1985 he was one of
the founders of the Media Arts and Sciences Program and the MIT Media
Laboratory and in 1988 he was named LEGO Professor of Learning
Research, a chair created for him.
His advice on technology-based
educational methods has been sought internationally by governments and
government agencies in Africa, Latin America, Europe and Asia. In the
United States he is often called to testify before Presidential
commissions and congressional committees. He frequently speaks at
meetings of school boards, School Board Associations, academic
conferences and other gatherings concerned with the future of
His work on education has been
recognized by many awards including The Computerword Smithsonian Award;
The Marconi International Fellowship Award and the Lifetime Achievement
Award of the Software Publishers Association.