On March 16, 2000, Dr. Seymour Papert was invited to deliver a daytime lecture broadcast on a local public radio affiliate (and sadly lost to history) and evening public address at Bates College on the theme of “Technology and Education in the New Millennium.” (press release) This forum was less than two months after Maine Governor Angus King proposing that every 7th & 8th grade student in Maine be provided with a personal laptop computer. The following is video of that evening address and an uncorrected transcription of it.
Seymour Papert at Bates College – 2000 from Gary Stager on Vimeo.
Jim: As you know, this is part of a millennial series that the Muskie Archives is doing. As I was saying to somebody earlier, it occurred to me that a millennium is not an insignificant moment in the history of the planet and that in order to capture it from the commercial world that was making lots of bucks on it, I thought the educational world ought to capture it for a reflective moment and so we came up with this series as a way of trying to stop a think a little harder than we normally do.
We try very hard to think hard here all the time about certain key issues and certainly technology is one of those issues and, of course, immediately one name popped into my head as the person who could do this with real aplomb and it is Seymour Papert and then I thought how can I add drama to it and so I called Angus King–
??: That’ll do it every time. As many of you know, I didn’t.
Jim: But it does add a certain kind of significance and brings home the importance of thinking hard about technology and what it means in a variety of students but I think most importantly what it does mean in the way in which we teach an learn and as move into the information edge, it seems to me that we’ve moved into a “we’re good” and some would argue, we’ve always been in it but we’re in it in a new way. It’s important to think hard and reflect hard about those sort of things.
Dr. Papert can help us do that. Many of you know him but just briefly let me introduce him to those of you who do not know him. He’s a mathematician and one of the early pioneers of artificial intelligence and has recognized and has been recognized for a number of years as really one of the basic seminal thinkers in the broad big picture of what the computer as a kind of icon of a certain technology means to the world we live in.
Professor Papert was born and educated in South Africa where he participated in the Anti-Apartheid Movement. While from 1954 to ’58, he did mathematical research at the Universities of Cambridge and Paris. He studied at the University of Geneva and began under the tutelage of Jean Piaget to study how children learn and think and that led him to the computer, to technology and eventually to Lego.
He’s the author of many, many books: The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap in 1996; Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, 1980; there’s also a product out by that name, connected to this book; The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer in 1992.
He has won numerous awards, including the Computerworld’s Smithsonian Award, the Marconi International Fellowship Award, and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Software Publishers Association.
You know him as an engaging speaker, a big thinker, a creative mind in a world which needs imagination and creativity that doesn’t come out of boxes like this but comes out of this and I have to say that it was reassuring for a Luddite like me to walk into this room with all this high technology and to see Seymour Papert standing here with a piece of chalk in his hand.
That’s my sense of high tech but you’re going to get much more than that. Please welcome Seymour Papert.
Dr. Seymour Papert: Well, thank you, Jim. I don’t know how to live up to that but what can we do except try.
I guess this week the question to ask in Maine is “Why should every seventh grader have a laptop computer?” The short answer is, well, every seventh grader should have a laptop computer because everybody should have a laptop computer. And why? Again the short answer is “Well, I have one.”
I couldn’t get to do a quarter of the things I do without it and everybody I know with very, very few exceptions engaged in any sort of intellectual creative work, writers, artists, historians, mathematicians, they have and use these things, so it seems obvious that it’s the prime instrument for our days for intellectual work.
Now you might not think that the work of kids is intellectual. If you don’t think that, that’s why we’re in such trouble, it is and ought to be and so they want to have this instrument and having said that we turn to the longer answer, including why is it that anybody would resist this? Why would it occur to anybody to deprive them of this intellectual tool since many of the people who are to deprive them of the intellectual tool themselves would protest vehemently if we tried to deprive them of their computers.
Well, my long answer starts with why there’s such conservatism about school and I’m going to say that I diagnose the situation about schools and all the trouble that schools are in, in a very simple way. Society has moved very fast, school has moved very sluggishly, at all, the gap between school and society increases and increases and increases. Kids are highly aware of this gap. School is out of sync with the world they’re in. They don’t buy into the idea that school is what prepares them for the real world.
Well, it just doesn’t match the real world they see and that disparity is showing itself in the state of Maine by the fact that isn’t nearly 30% or it’s nearly 50%, I can’t keep numbers right this way. Because it’s shocking, whatever it is of our children have some contact with special education, sometime in their school careers. Our school systems are being strangled by the cost of this curious epidemic of learning disability.
Now pretty amazing there wasn’t any such thing 30 years ago, it’s like the AIDS epidemic that sprung from … Well, we know where that one sprung from, although it took a long time to find out. And perhaps, we need to spend as much time and effort to find out where does this epidemic come from?
There’s a notion called … Ah oh, I’ve forgotten what it’s called … Diseases caused by doctors. And in fact at the beginning of modern medicine was a series of experiments demonstrating against the resistance of the medical profession and of the whole world that doctors were in fact infecting from one patient to the next and nobody knew that. And so analysis of that phenomenon led to the idea, well, least wash your hands before you touch the next patient. This is a revolutionary idea.
I think that our problems, our kids are caused by something wrong with our schools. It’s not our kids who are troubled, it’s our schools who are in trouble, but notice what we do about it. Almost to a person, to these days, what we do about it is say, “Let’s go back to the old way. Let’s move school back to where it was and let’s undo the small amount that school has moved,” thereby exacerbating rather than curing the problem.
You see the same thing on the individual level. I can give you clearly documented cases in fact this morning, I heard from Mr. Gary Stager, who’s there with that camera, who’s working with me on a project in the Maine Youth Center where we have, we’re working with a group of very troubled kids, some of whom were, have been in trouble at school since the beginning. I’m seeing kids there, this isn’t true of all of them but I’m seeing some kids who were diagnosed early, these are the clear cases, special ed learning disabilities in special ed classes and there passes the following phenomenon.
The kid comes to school with their mind full of imagination, wanting to learn, wanting to understand, and school tries to put this mind into a straight jacket. And the mind resists. And the kid with the biggest imagination and the greatest desire to learn and the greatest intellectual honesty because this kid’s not going to give the right answers just because you’ve told, is the one very often who has the worst trouble with school. It’s bored to tears, constrained, frustrated, does badly.
So what do we do? We say: “This kid has a learning disability, so it follows that school work is too hard, so let’s give him easier things to do.” So you put him in a special class where he has only easy things to do and so he becomes more bored, more frustrated, and so the downward spiral goes and so the number of kids in special ed increases from year to year to year until it will swallow the whole system unless something happens to change that.
This is our crisis. Now if you don’t recognize the school system’s in crisis, maybe everything I’m going to say is irrelevant because you think everything’s fine and this is typical of systems in the state of collapse that the people who like them think they’re fine until it collapses around their ears.
I have often made the analogy with the situation in the Soviet Union where that system was collapsing and we were all taken in as much as they were that this is a strong and powerful and rich enemy, when in fact it was just falling to pieces, rotten to the core. But even when they began to recognize in the ‘80s, in the time of Gorbachev that it was bad, they still tried to fix the little faults without changing the fundamental.
That trying to fix the little faults without changing the fundamentals is what we’re doing, using the same name “restructuring” which translates into Russian as Perestroika. And this I think is a second cause of our crisis in schools. We refuse to recognize it. When we do recognize it, we think that we can fix it by patching here and there.
What else could we do? In a paper recently written for the National Governor’s Association by myself and Governor Gaston Caperton who was governor of West Virginia and who, I think, can be credited with having created the–what I hope is going to be the second biggest statewide installation of computers in schools. We wrote a paper about the– what’s wrong, what’s missing in education.
You will find it on a website
[writes papert.org on the chalkboard]
where we examine there are a lot of causes. People say it’s a lack of funding or it’s lack of research, it’s a lack of teachers, it’s a lack of … We, let’s make another suggestion, there’s a lack of vision. And I’d like to emphasize what I mean by asking you how many have you, have seriously thought, seriously tried conjure up an image of what learning might be like in 20 years time.
Now let’s be serious about it. We’d imagine a child who grew up in a home where there were computers from the day one of coming to consciousness. This child is used to there’s no end to it. At dinner we were, somebody was mentioning an example of how they are right now, this very instant, there are websites you can look into where there are cameras all over Africa at drinking holes, not man, nobody’s doing it. It’s direct contact with nature there by the way.
Somebody asked me about that and you can just go in to it and maybe you’ll see nothing. Or maybe you see a lion. Or there’s no end there, you could see anything. Cameras just there and it’s pouring this information into the web and you can tap into it at any time. Wow. Okay, suppose you’ve grown up with that kind of experience and you come and sit down in first grade and they open this textbook with a few little pictures of places in the world, so called Geography curriculum.
What you say? “What’s this?” you say. You won’t sit for it. It doesn’t make sense. It does not make sense for us to think that we can continue business as usual, fixing a few faults and a few leaks in the roof and a few other little problems that schools might have. We need something radically different and we’re going have something radically different. That’s not what our choice is, any more than it was the choice facing Gorbachev and the others in the Soviet Union.
There was going to be something radically different, where they had a choice and they made it the wrong way was whether they would wait for things to tumble around their ears and then try to reconstruct from the wreckage of whether they would take their heads out of the sand and look and see something very different is coming and we had better do something about anticipating it. We’d better try to understand what is the fundamental difference between what we’re doing now and what might be possible in that future and we’d better try to at least do some experiments, some ways of seriously going towards it.
Well, experiments can be of different sorts and, again, in a much quoted example that I’m very fond of. I like to imagine a world in which writing had not yet been invented but they had schools and of course, everything oral, we talked in, people taught. One day writing was invented and they made all these things like chalk and pencils and pens. Let’s call it a pencil or a writing instrument. Then somebody said, “Wouldn’t it be a great idea to give kids pencils and have them learn to write, because then they could learn much better.”
People say, “Well, go cautiously. So we’ll start off, we’ll put one pencil in every classroom and see how this improves learning and if it improves learning, we’ll then put two pencils.” The others say, “No, don’t do that at all. We’d rather have a special room where we have a big pile of pencils. Kids will go there for an hour–”
We laugh at that, yeah, but we’re doing it. We’re doing exactly that with the computers.
Now I’ve no doubt that in this hypothetical situation of writing being invented that ingenious teachers and parents and kids would invent some very wonderful things to do with these pencils and, no doubt, just as we see in a thousand schools, 10,000 teachers and a 100,000 kids doing wonderful things with their limited access to computers. That is, they can do wonderful things but what they would do with the pencils, bears no relation to the role of writing in our lives. It will be something different. I don’t know what it would be, but it would not be what writing is for people growing up in our society where the pencil is part of the child’s life from babyhood before the child even knows what writing means, it’s scribbling on the walls and annoying it’s mother and … but it’s the part of the life and then you use this pencil for everything. You write with it. You calculate. You draw with it. You threaten somebody with it. You trade it. You … It’s a weapon. It’s whatever… everything. It’s part of an integral part of, woven into the fabric of life.
I think there’s no doubt that computers are moving into that kind of status and the only way we can go along with that and get the feel of what it’s like, going along with that flow is to do it. And to do it we have to do something. Well, I won’t say there’s one and only one way to do it but the idea that every kid should have a computer outside of the restraining confines of school is a way and perhaps an essential part of any sensible way to try to anticipate their future.
It breaks down the barrier between school and home. It breaks down the aspect of our school world that’s most like what I see as the cause of the breakdown and the fundamental reason for the breakdown of the Soviet system.
I think the Soviet system could not work and increasingly in a modern world increasingly could not work because of its command nature, because of its centralized nature, because this is an economy based on a committee somewhere called the Gosplan that would decide what you would make, what you would do, what job you’d have right through the whole society. And this could work at the beginnings in the simple, simple early stages of industrial society, sort of, although, it’s pretty bad, didn’t ever really work but it got worse and worse.
We try to do this with our education system. We tried to have a curriculum somewhere that’s going to lay down, what you learned, when, how. It’s an exaggeration to say that it says you will learn this on May 7th because on May 7th this is the appropriate thing to learn but only a slight exaggeration. And I’d like to give an image of a different kind of approach to organizing learning.
It’s related to the concept, I mean to what I think happened to the Soviet system. We’re living in a complex and rapidly changing world. In a complex and rapidly changing world, what you need is individual initiative, people being able to pick on a problem and find an idea and try it and not be devastated if it doesn’t work, you will try something else or try and fix it. It was a time when perhaps it was the right thing to do to say “Our school should produce kids who can demonstrate that they can do what they were taught to do.”
No longer. We’re living in a world where half the people in the United States are doing jobs that didn’t exist when they were born. And I think if this state is going to have the economic future that it’s natural resources and it’s people deserve, we’ll have to move into a situation where 90% of its people are doing jobs that did not exist when they were at school. So under those conditions, the demand, the goal has to be different. Not that they can do what they were taught to do because nobody knows what they’re going to have to do and can teach them to do it.
What we need is to produce people who can do what they were not taught to do. How can you make an education system where we produce people who can do what they were not taught to do? We have to have different approach to flexibility, to initiative, and for that matter to measure in, assessing how well they are how well they’re doing. I think it’s a crying shame that it seemed to me horrific that we try to translate the very excellent Maine Legislation in the Maine’s Learning results in general principles, into a test where children spend day after day after day answering little detailed questions.
I’d rather, why don’t we put them in a situation where here is something totally new that you’ve never seen and nobody’s ever seen. How do you handle it and if you can handle it, you pass and if you can’t handle it, go try again. That would be a different kind of assessment and that’s what we’re going to have to learn to do. It’s not going to be easy to shift schools into that and so we have to break down the idea that it’s in school only that innovation and learning will happen because school is never going to be flexible enough in the foreseeable future to be able to do those kind of experiments and growing.
So now I’d like to use another analogy, it’s almost become my station identification call recently and that is the biggest thing that I’m trying to campaign for these days and it starts by telling the story that when I was a kid, we didn’t have such a concept that is now called environmental. In fact there wasn’t that word environmentalist. There was environment but it meant much simpler things. The idea of the environment, mainly earth, the water, the forests, the air, the whole planet did not exist as a concept.
We knew some of the problems. I mean, we knew there’s a polluted river here. There was soil erosion there. There was fog there but these were isolated separate problems and they were specialist people who dealt with them. There wasn’t a profession of people who dealt with the whole thing, the whole area of environment and the health of the whole planet.
Then in 1967, there was a seminal book by Rachel Carson called Silent Spring which started, it seeded something and if a book like that could have such an impact it was because we were there ready. Like when the atmosphere saturated the water takes one little snow crystal to precipitate the storm and the world was there and environmentalism came very quickly and that spread out very fast into our consciousness and I was struck by little things like when I was a kid maybe my mother said “Turn off the light to save money.” Today kids say to the mother, “Turn off the light to save the planet.” Big difference in way of thinking.
I think we are at a point in time where we need the same change in relation to learning, is the idea of, I don’t have a name for this yet. Already we were appealing as I spoke this morning for a name for something else but “learning environmentalism,” the “learning environment,” they’re all pretty good names but this is the idea of that, I think we need and I think it’s coming. I think we see it coming from all sides.
Right now there are people in the world who are experts in parenting and how babies learn, in preschool learning, in elementary school learning, in high school learning, in adult learning, in dealing with criminal mind, as they call it all over the place, different aspects of learning. There isn’t anybody who is concerned with learning as a whole in an unfragmented way. I think we are moving into a time where we need that other kind of more holistic thinking about learning.
Let me just take an example or as background example, we say, “Why is it that Rachel Carson could have that effect in 1967? Why didn’t it happen 20 years before, 20 years later?” Well, it happened about then because that was about the time when new forces and in fact forces of technology were overcoming, were becoming beyond what could be managed by the traditional ways of handling the different problems that have to do with environmentalism.
Technology was forcing it. It was making a crisis and it was also offering a solution, because we needed technology to say to … Technology made the problem of automobile emissions because they are technology but we needed a more advanced technology to make the control of gases being emitted by automobiles so it’s a complicated story.
Well, just an example of where I think we’re in relation to that, in relation to learning, again when I was a kid, I don’t think my parents, although my father was a scientist gave two thoughts to how to teach mathematics or how should a child learn mathematics. It wasn’t their business. They’d send me to school and a professional in the school would know how to handle the problem. It’s his job. It is Duke Albany’s, the commission of education. It’s his job to know how to teach mathematics because that happens in school, so it was but Duke’s territory is being invaded from many sides.
For example, you open up magazines, you turn your television set, you’re bombarded with advertising for, for example, software. Buy the software your kid will learn math without even knowing it. Well, leave that aside if you will or won’t. But you as a parent are being asked to make decisions that would be in the domain of somebody else before. That division of responsibility and labor between the parent and the teacher, the school and the … It’s disappearing. And this is one of many boundaries that’s disappearing.
The boundary between the division of labor and of response between adults and children, how many families now turn to the kid when the VCR won’t work or when the computer crashes? Once upon a time, it was the adults who knew and the kids who were taught. All of a sudden we’re being forced on us and very embarrassing for some people and delightful for others that this is changing. The kids know something we don’t know and I know the kids always knew some things we didn’t know but the things they used to know, we thought were childish things and here is something everybody knows is of the greatest importance, this stuff. The kids know and we don’t know and these are just examples.
You can go on multiplying them. What we are seeing is a breakdown of this compartmentalization, this division of responsibility. It’s not a matter of decision for us, whether it is happening. It is happening. It’s a matter of decision for us whether we do something about it, whether we face it and try and diagnose it and try to act, so let’s come back to computers for seventh graders.
I think one of the wonderful things about the presence of computers in the lives of people is that many kids are now having virtual learning experiences at home and at school and that should bother us. It should bother him especially. It does bother him. He’s doing something about it.
Speaker 3: Yeah.
Dr. Seymour Pap: This effect can, it can play itself out in two different ways. One way which we are seeing is that the kid who has this richer experience at home, comes into the school and is disaffected because the school is not acknowledging it and the disaffection becomes an epidemic in the school. The other way is to be imagined, in some schools it happens but unfortunately not in most, the kid comes into the school with this rich experience and shares it with the school and teaches the other kids and it’s part of the same learning experience and there’s an enrichment of school by home and home by school.
The kid becomes the driving force of change in the education. This is where the many reversals. This morning I was giving a talk under the title, “Turning Learning Upside Down,” and this is where the many reversals, the who’s the learner? Who’s the teacher? Who is the driving force? Who is pushing for education reform? Is it some philosopher like John Dewey or some psychologist like Piaget, or is it the kid? It’s increasingly the kid and this kid power is what’s flowing into our schools now and beginning to make the pressure, could be a pressure for change or for disruption. It’s up to us.
Well, I think that putting out these laptops is a step in that direction. It’s acknowledging this change in the distribution of locus of learning and of responsibility for it between school and home and curriculum and non-curriculum and play and work and fun and games and, well, these artificial divisions.
I’ll just touch on some of the big objections I’ve heard to the scheme. And one of them is, “well, before you put those things out, you should teach the teachers how to use them.” What an insult to teachers. It’s an insult for teachers in lots of ways. I have a friend on Deer Isle who’s a lobster fisherman and his wife picks crabmeat. They bought a computer because they were dissatisfied with their kid being in school and decided to home school the kid, keep the kid at home.
The wife decided to master the computer and I’ve never seen anybody who was so persistent in using those horrible, really horrible technical support lines when you buy the software and it gives you an 800 number and you call the 800 number and it say, “If you want to … Press button three and if you want to …” and by the time you get up to about eight, you’ve forgotten you were calling for and then they put you on hold. And but she persisted and she called and she called and she called until she could use all these things better than many students in computer science departments. But she needed to be taught.
She read it and did it but she learned and she doesn’t have any college degrees, so why can’t the teacher do what she can do? Of course the teacher can do what she can do. They are six … I don’t know many … 60% of American homes have computers. Well, let’s say half of the people they don’t know how to use them. But that leaves another half and let’s say, but a lot of them are rarely using these computers very well but a minute fraction of them ever did anything like having a course being taught how to use, being trained how to use that computer.
They use it much better than if they’d been trained on how to use the computer. It’s good to train tigers in the circus because you want them all to do the same thing. It’s not good to train teachers because, anymore than you want to train teachers to train children. Point of learning is not, it’s different. And coming back to my Soviet analogy, I think the great thing about what could happen with these computers in every kid’s hand is that teachers would be able to use their own imagination to experiment with different ways of teaching and learning to break away from the centralized command economy, the centralized command system.
I do think we will see a flourishing and we’ve seen it in many places where some similar situation has been implemented on a smaller scale. I don’t know any place where it’s on a statewide scale but they are … I was told, I don’t know the numbers but maybe a 100,000 laptop computers that would be in projects where the whole school gives every one or insisted every kid has a laptop computer and we see wonderful things of this sort happening there.
I think that the subject that train the teachers first and then give the kids computers is standing things on its head and it’s a typical example of trying to look at the new through the tunnel vision of the old. It seeks to deny what’s most wonderful and valuable about the new situation being created where people can use their imagination, where they can learn to do new things using new tools that give them the opportunity to be highly creative.
So maybe that’s a good place to stop and let’s have some reactions and questions but I think that I’ve carefully monitored all the comments on this laptop scheme that I see in the newspapers and I see a bunch of … I’ll give a classification of kinds of objections.
They’re objections from people who simply don’t see that we are going to have to change our ways of thinking about learning and, of course, if you don’t see it, if you think the future’s going to be like the past, well, why should you do anything, except live in the past? Let’s hope that that view doesn’t prevail. Then there’s another kind of people who think something new’s going to happen but their way of making it happen is based on the way we did things in the past so that although they couch in terms of doing something new, they want to do the new thing in the old way.
The brilliance of their scheme is that it breaks out of there. It breaks out of the compartmentalization of learning into school and home and high school and junior school and this subject and that subject. We cut across the disciplinary boundaries, we cut across the eight levels, we cut across home and school and we cut across the command system by liberating individual enterprise and achievement. So if you don’t see those things it doesn’t make sense, why should we give children these expensive devices?
We want to see some very funny kinds of arguments, that’s the last kind, like for example, kids will lose them and I see a letter, quite a few letters to the press where mother says, “My kid loses her gloves everywhere, think what she’ll do with a computer.” Well, I would admit something. My wife gave me a beautiful set of leather gloves for Christmas, really lovely and she was quite hurt and I’m sorry because I lost them quite quickly. I lose gloves, I lose hats. I don’t lose my laptop, nor do kids.
We give teenagers bicycles, they lose their gloves, they don’t lose their bicycles. Even their Gameboys, they don’t lose their Gameboys and all the experience of this several hundred thousand computers in the hands of kids who’ve been given laptops and some of these and I think most of them are in private schools in relatively well off, we might say conditions are better for safeguarding property but some of them are in very poor and socially disrupted environments, the kids look after it and in fact we hear stories about how in some of the roughest, toughest kind of environments, the parents protect the kids protecting their computers.
So I don’t think, You’d think one after the other these objections are not serious, they come from a resistance to wanting to see this change and I can’t blame people. There’s no calculations worth doing that I did this morning and that’s that we all spent, I suppose most people in this room must have spent more than 20 years in school.
Well, say we started preschool at four or five or six and you went through K through 12 and college and maybe some sort of graduate thing and some professional school and that easily adds up to more than 20 years. That means you’re well into your 40s before the time you’ve spent out of school is equal to the time you spent in school, so that impression of school having to be what it is so strong that it’s hard for us to shake it off. That’s the effort we have to make.
Don’t talk about standards for learning and thinking. Let’s start by setting ourself that standard of that hard task of being ready to envision alternative futures that don’t look like what we had.
Jim: Questions, rebuttals, amendments? Yeah.
Speaker 4: Just one more objection. I’m wondering what you think of it. What do you think of the objection that people are scared kids will become addicted, obsessed with increasingly realistic computer games?
Dr. Seymour Pap: Well, I would say that is a danger. It’s happening anyway. This thing is not going to, I think it’s not going to change that, yeah. Kids are going to get computer games, get computer games. I think that being able to have this integrated approach so that the home computer is integrated with what they’re doing at school offers you the opportunity to give them more interesting and exciting things to do with a computer. At the moment, school is not able to offer kids any alternative to the computer games. And it’s another weakness of school that the kids prefer the computer games to doing serious creative things with the computer.
To give one example of serious creative things the computer, we have and you can see this even at the Maine Youth Center where there are kids who don’t succeed very well generally in schooling and they’re kids who are rising to the challenge of making their own games. Of course we have a rule there, if you make it you can play it and they learn enough programming and enough of the kind of mathematics you need to refer to positions on the screen and shapes and directions to be able to make a game and that is they are highly motivated to do that.
So I think that that, like many of the objections, it’s standing it on the head that in fact this addiction with games is a reflection of what we’re trying to change.
Speaker 5: The image I got that you’re talking about a vision was what came to me was like a post Gutenberg era. In other words, I think we’re still, as teachers, locked into a worship of the printed word and how that carries over into religion and I think some people misuse the interpretation to worship the Bible rather than the spirit or the word of what it was meant to the purpose underneath the objectification. And I think sort of teachers maybe are locked into how you say a control of the system by controlling the methodology of teaching.
Dr. Seymour Pap: Well, yes, and worse than that I think that our definition of knowledge is what can be written down in answer to a question.
Speaker 5: Yeah.
Dr. Seymour Pap: This is what we test after all and so can we be surprised if kids and teachers get the impression that this is what knowledge is. But that’s not the important kind of knowledge. It’s a very, relatively, very minor kind of knowledge that can be written down and taken as the answer to a question. Yet entirely that’s all we try to test, to see whether our schools are successful or not. I don’t think though, I mean I think the written word, writing and language are wonderful things but there’s a lot of knowledge that’s not only not written but isn’t even linguistics and even verbal.
Speaker 6: Help me understand, well, lots of things but help me understand how the child who goes across the street to seventh grade school is going to function and relate to other children and to teachers in different ways if the laptop does all that it can do to bring out this transformation? What’s it going to look like? What’s going to be going on there? What am I going to see if I pop in?
Dr. Seymour Pap: What with this kid? With …
Speaker 6: In that new seventh grade over there that’s going to be in significant ways altered by the introduction of this laptop.
Dr. Seymour Pap: Well, I’m afraid I think I was carried away by rhetoric was to give you more examples so going along. Let’s give one example.
Speaker 6: All right.
Dr. Seymour Pap: This is something fresh in my mind. At the Youth Center, maybe Gary can add something to this because he just came from there this morning. We give kids a lot of technology. I see this thing Meccanos serendipitously here, we don’t use Meccano although we thought of it. We give them a building material, we use Lego, supplemented by motors and gears and they’ll compute additional program to control it and using this you can make a little robot, they call it. You make a little, can be a vehicle and it has light sensors and if I guide it with a flashlight, it will follow the flashlight.
So we can get involved in doing some quite sophisticated engineering and not only Youth Center, we can do this with six and seven year old children. So a first image is, here are kids who are making things and making much more sophisticated, complex things than children of their age could make without modern technologies.
It’s not only the computer, technologies of inexpensive motors and gearing and plastic materials to build with, this is also technology and as important as the computer. We shouldn’t distinguish and having sensors and … So, we will see kids working at building things that function. So we’ll see kids working, trying to make something, do something and it won’t do it. It never works first time. So they run into problems and obstacles and they have to overcome them. They have to overcome them by thinking, by trying, by asking someone else or looking in a book, by looking in the web, wherever, they have to find the knowledge they need to solve this problem when they need to solve it. So that goes very against the curriculum idea of you will learn this piece of knowledge because it’s May 7th and you’re eighth grade. You will learn this piece of knowledge because you want to know and you need to know.
So we’ll see a lot of this kind of making thing and it might be that mechanical things sounds very sort of male gendered but this morning, I gave the example of two girls who made this simulated kitten and cat. Or they might be making a movie with modern technology, we cannot only turn a video camera, we can edit it and we can make really high class professional looking movie. We’ll be doing things like that. In order to do that, you need a lot of knowhow of all sorts, including a kind of knowhow that our schools are very bad at giving, that is the knowhow of how to manage a project that continues over a period of time.
One other thing, building and understanding what happened. Interesting, when one of the projects we’ve been doing it’s still going on now at the Youth Center is challenge to make a vehicle in place where they will climb up the steepest possible slope. And it’s amazing, they’re really working at it and they climb up a slope steeper than any mechanical engineer. I’ve asked a lot of experts, “How steep a slope do you think you could make a Lego vehicle climb?” and they say “Forty-five degree, sixty-four,” is it that the best so far?
Gary: The four foot car does better than 90.
Dr. Seymour Pap: Well, we’ll talk about that too. That’s interest, but working up this very steep slope, so they’d have solved an auto-mechanical problems but the aspect I want to emphasize, two aspects about that: one is with the way we set this up is you make your vehicle, you increase the slope until it won’t work. When it doesn’t work, you say, “Well, why has it failed?” and write down on this white board next to the words failed and they are … Basically, there are four kinds of reasons why it might have failed. It failed because it fell off. It failed because it’s stalled, it just couldn’t go. It failed because it started slipping and skidding. It failed because it broke.
Each of these causes a failure, leads to contact with a different powerful idea for how to do something about it. If it fell off, there’s a question of equilibrium and balance and center of gravity and so kids whose vehicles fell off, we take them aside and do a little bit of a discussion with them about the idea of center of gravity. After the first week, nobody’s vehicle fell off because they all understood how to work the center of gravity well enough.
Then if it failed because it stalled, well, that’s because it didn’t have enough what’s called torque, force on the wheel. The kids say power. Now you get around that too and there’s an important concept, mechanical advantage and gearing and by using gearing, you go slower but you can go up, you always overcome that.
If it broke, the ideas about structural engineering, structural strength, if it slipped, that’s the fundamental one, the friction, you can’t … In the end and make them study friction but each of these scientific concepts is being studied in a deeper and very different way from the way we do it in schools but it’s this, in a sense the same basic powerful ideas but integrated not by their place in the curriculum linked to what’s appropriate for eighth grade and fifth grade but to what fits in to a project where the structure of the work they do is [inaudible 00:54:32] working on a challenge.
They’re working on this for many weeks. They’re working on it now for many more weeks than we thought they would stay with a project like this and they try to understand and they’re trying to understand in order to achieve a purpose, a very different kind of understanding and Gary was suggesting about, mentioning the one that went up a 90 degree slope. It’s impossible. It brings out another lovely, lovely point about …
One of these kids, one of these kids, one of these kids, in fact my prime example of somebody who I think is a brilliant mind trapped into special ed, he was one of the first to make one of these steep climbing things and straight up into what I’m going to tell next that he made one according to the rules. And one day, he sneakily came up to teacher and he said, “Could, we’d define exactly what is meant by climbing up the slope.”
So teacher took him literally, I think they had a discussion in the class. I wasn’t there that day and what they came up with was, “You draw this line and the front wheels have to cross that line and that’s what counts.” So He went away and started building some weird things. Then he built a vehicle half way across, four foot long and this thing, much longer than the ramp …
Gary: I’ll show you.
Dr. Seymour Pap: So the front wheels, back wheels are still on the ground but the front wheels weren’t. So everybody said, “Cheating,” but then it gave an opportunity for a really broad discussion what kind of cheating is cheating and this was an interesting kind of cheating. He was doing a very important kind of thing. He was really playing with this idea of what’s meant by climbing the slope.
Now I don’t know, if he had started that in day one, I might have said, “No, you can’t do it that way,” but he didn’t. He first did it by the rules and then he broke out of the box and did this wonderful out of the box thinking and I have to be … I thought it was great and how can this show up on the MEA? That’s the kind of thing you would see and excitement you would see, but, see excitement about ideas and you see people not only excited from time … but in between the moments of excitement, learning that it’s a long strong, a long hard struggle in between your moments of excitement to make it work.
Speaker 6: I can just follow up. What I see in that example is much more a radical transformation of what it means to teach and what it means to learn and I would argue that that could go on without a laptop.
Speaker 7: Right.
Speaker 6: In lots of different classes.
Dr. Seymour Pap: Well, there wasn’t any laptop in that class.
Speaker 6: Right.
Dr. Seymour Pap: I think that couldn’t go on with the kind of technology that you had when you were at school.
Speaker 6: Oh, that’s for sure, yeah.
Dr. Seymour Pap: The point is, it’s, of course, the technology doesn’t do anything by itself, that is the … I think I’ve written a paper called “Technocentrism” and when the idea that the computer will do this or that or the other is a thoroughly bad idea. And I think that both critics and utopians are much to blame for asking questions like does the computer do this or does it do that. A computer doesn’t do anything but it makes it possible for people to do anything.
For that matter, we don’t ask does printing, is it … does it … What does it do? And if you read, you can read pornography and you can read fascist propaganda and it does one thing or you can read lyrical poetry and romantic idealist visions of society and it does another thing to your mind and … Yes.
Speaker 8: I guess, that segues actually into a concern that I have and that’s just what you were saying, is a computer is only a tool, I mean you can do wonderful things with it but you can only do as much as the person who’s using it wants to put into it and my question is what’s the use of giving computers to students if the students aren’t going to find motivation in themselves? If they don’t have the motivation to do creative, wonderful things in them with it on their own initiative and if the teachers don’t have the right attitude or don’t have the right … I mean you gave the example of the home school parents who learned how to use computer very well but I know from my personal experience with public school systems that there are a lot of teachers who are very reluctant to use technology who wouldn’t be interested in doing that kind of thing.
I mean, how do you deal with people who don’t have the motivation to learn how to use these things well? I mean, isn’t what we need more change in attitude than a change in technology?
Dr. Seymour Pap: Okay, well, that’s a complicated and many aspect question. But first let’s start, how to you deal with people who are unmotivated? Do you know anybody who is not motivated to do something? I don’t. Everybody is motivated to do what that person is what they’re worth, and what she’s interested in doing. We don’t know. I mean there aren’t any little children who aren’t motivated to learn what they wouldn’t. They come into the world highly motivated learners.
We teach them to be unmotivated. We teach them to be unmotivated by trying to force them into a constraint or mold that might not fit their and if it happens to fit what they like, they do wonderfully well. If it doesn’t happen to fit, they do very badly. It’s the fault of the mold, not the … but I don’t believe that when we see … I mean these kids we see at this Youth Center, for school there was a, couldn’t be a group of kids who were less motivated as school students.
There isn’t one of them who isn’t motivated to do some of these things and we … We give them a sufficiently wide range of different things they can do and different way they can get involved in it and one might be motivated to build these vehicles and others motivated to photograph it and make a record and analyze it. They’re all motivated and our problem, is that, what we looking for is how the technology can open the range of connections it can make with [inaudible 01:01:26].
Now we don’t know how to connect with everybody and there might be some teachers, there might even be some kids who just will stay unmotivated, even though we’ve brought this in. But I don’t see that that can be taken as an objection. If those teachers were not motivated to put themselves out to encourage kids to learn now, some of them might still not be motivated and we aren’t any worse off in relation to them and we’re much better off in relation to the rest. If we can improve, increase the proportion of motivated learners and teachers from X% to 2X% or even to X + 1%, it’s pure gain. I haven’t lost anything so the fact we don’t get up to 100% can’t be taken as a reason for not doing it.
Speaker 8: But, what about the fact that there are a large number of people in this world for whom their motivation lies completely away from computers? I mean, they’re motivation lies in doing things that aren’t, don’t involve laptops.
Dr. Seymour Pap: I’m sorry, we heard this. This is not about computers. I have a little story, a little experiment I did. One of the first times we put a lot of computers in the school, this was way back, in the early ‘80s, after computers were there, one of my graduate students did this sort of survey of opinion, asked the kids, “What are you doing?” and these kids written and in the first time this was done, that was in the first week, they all said computer. We did computer, let’s say that.
About two months later, did another one and most of them said, “Logo,” because Logo is the computer language they were using so they’d gotten little way for the technology. Six months later we did a survey, none of them said computer or Logo, they all said things like “I’m making a game,” or “I’m making a this or that.” The computer had become transparent. It was just the extension of self and I like to make this riff on that, if you go to a poet and say, “What are you doing?” The poet is very unlikely to say, “I’m using a pencil,” although he might be. He’ll say, “I’m writing poetry.”
That computer is a universal instrument. Musicians use it, writers use it, poets use it. Scientists use it. Mathematicians use it. Geographers use it. Criminals use it. Managers use it, CEOs, everyone uses it. It’s an instrument that can serve all these purposes and I think that’s one of the ways that what’s called computer literacy, I think, falls far short of really being, mastering the computer because you are taught certain specific uses of the computer.
The wonder of the computer is that it’s this very universal, highly flexible thing, what we’d like kids to learn with it is that whatever you are interested in, this thing can serve that, enrich it, you can do it better in a way that makes more connections with other knowledge, that allows you to draw on sharing knowledge and how to do that with more people and so generally does it better and contributes more to turning it into a learning experience as well as the specific achievement that you have. Answer your question?
Speaker 8: Somewhat.
Dr. Seymour Pap: Sort of, yeah.
Dr. Seymour Pap: Yes.
Speaker 9: My question’s a little bit different. Given the description that you’ve just [inaudible 01:05:09] to articulate about resistance, with all the reasons for resistance and the way that you’ve analyzed for instance the reaction of people have given, that we heard today about this, what would your advice be to help people think about learning based on the future and not the past? How do you solve it?
Dr. Seymour Pap: We don’t solve it. We can’t solve it. We have to give up this attitude that we can do it. Putting into the hands of everybody means for them to do it. And this is what I see, why I see there’s this brilliant effect on putting these laptops in the hands of all the kids and all the teachers because first 10%, then next year 20%, and we’ll get, instead of an epidemic of learning disabilities, we’ll get an epidemic of people creating and inventing ways of using it. What we have to do is to liberate the spirit of enterprise and initiative and imagination and creativity in using these things and they’ll come and all our experience I’ve never known, I must have in the last … I think I’ve been around in this business of computers and kids for longer than anyone else since the 1960s when I was being accused of being a horrible elitist because of trying to use public money, this is what I heard when I first tried to get a government grant for the word using public money on something that can only benefit the children of a few millionaires but despite all that, I go into a place … Every time I go into a place with kids using computers, and I say I’m going to do this, this is for beauty. I’ve seen it all. I’m taken by surprise. There’s something I’ve never seen before. It’s honestly true. Isn’t it true, Gary? It’s impossible to go into a place with a lot of kids dealing with the computers or have the tools to use them and it has a lot of time and freedom to learn to use them … Without their doing something that takes you by surprise, you never thought of that.
That’s why I believe in the future because kids are so wonderfully inventive and not only kids, teachers and adults, too, everybody. We just have to give them the instruments and take over the constraints. See I think that’s something that the, again taking some notice of …
If they found it very hard to understand it, because their first reaction to the breakdown here is that their system, their center, was to create another centralized system that would be better and very hard and they still haven’t quite have got it, all of this resistance to the idea that said “Let free enterprise flourish. Let people do things without trying to have some smart committee decide what’s the right thing to do,” and that’s the way that this country has prospered.
Incidentally, I was in Denmark a few weeks ago with the Lego people who are … The owner of Lego, Kirk Kjeld Kristiansen, he’s a really wonderful guy who really believes in kids and creativity and we were talking about making, he’s about to make a series of movies about the idea of learning, and to give people a sense of the huge variety of different ways you could learn and we’re thinking about what are the ideas and what are the ideas people don’t usually associate with learning and I would say what is it about Lego, they said Meccano stuff there. It’s wonderful stuff too. I grew up with that.
When we were thinking of what building material to give kids, we considered the erector set, the American version of that and that’s a British thing actually … Anyway, the … I was assuming Lego versus that and an interesting thing about Lego, that made us chose Lego was that even improvising, if you’re building out of that stuff, the electric planet and screwing the screws and you make what you decided to make, with Lego it’s kind of like molding out clay. You can build, you can change, you can put a little piece, you can improvise. At Lego, they improvise, that’s the great maybe …
I was carried away, maybe over carried away by this but maybe improvise is the great American idea. Like Jazz music, when Jazz first came up, people were very angry that this music should be there. It’s not just they didn’t like it, because it wasn’t music, it was improvised because the musician doesn’t do something that’s laid down in advance and I think maybe that’s improvisation, it’s American music.
It’s Silicon Valley, which was improvising a new industry and a new economy based on thousands of people, that’s sum that has never existed before, starting all these little … Even the start up companies and if it fails you don’t take this as devastating and you go into bankruptcy and into the poor house, you start another one.
Dr. Seymour Pap: This is improvising and this is what we see in the schools with kids and how we see little babies learn and maybe that’s the secret of what makes America great, so your question was what do we do? We don’t we let them do it and give them the conditions. Yes.
Speaker 10: I just think that … about the question, I think I’m seeing this come off as sort of another method to help children learn just like some kids don’t learn from oral note taking, is … I’m just like to clarify …
Dr. Seymour Pap: No, no, no, no, it’s not … Well, yes, it’s not a method but that’s not the essence. First of all, when you look in schools and the education, of a public education student?
Speaker 10: No.
Dr. Seymour Pap: No, in the tradition of education here, there have been debates like should you learn by phonics or by whole language? Should you learn science by discovery or by lecturing and so one. One big difference between all of those and what I’m saying can happen here, is that all of those are say, you’re going to teach a specific piece of knowledge.
Today we want the kids to know this and there are different methods to get them to that. I’m saying now I want them to follow their own interests and my role as an educator is to show how to deepen their interest that they’ve made connections with important ideas and even knowledge and greater wisdom so that’s one way of returning it upside down. It’s not a matter of teaching the same thing by a different method.
It’s a different dynamic of it’s a choice of what you want to learn so what you learn is what you’re interested in and if you’re passionately into music, I’ll teach you mathematic. I’m going to teach you to use this computer to make music and turn mathematics into an instrument to serve your own interest in music and where you can call it a different method if you like but it’s a very, very different method but more than that, I think it’s a change of what we think kids should learn.
I was telling this example of building a little device, a machine, very sophisticated machine that will follow lights or move around do complicated things for little kids, six or seven, that kind of knowledge that they’re learning, includes stuff is only taught nowadays at college, for engineering students. Oh, we have a kind of sequence, to go and establish that. First you learn, you learn to add numbers, then you learn to do Algebra, then you learn something called Calculus.
Then you use those to learn Physics and then you learn engineering, right, you’ve heard about that? Turning it upside down completely, start with engineering, making things and the Physics and the mathematics comes out of that, they are means to doing this and after you’ve used them, you then stand back and look at them and analyze and formalize them and [inaudible 01:14:31] … Crazy idea, invented in my head, not at all, this is the way it happened in history.
Mathematics didn’t start by people first learning to add, to do fractions and then finding a way of using it. It started there were those Egyptians who had to predict the Nile and built the pyramids and do their trading, they were doing things and mathematics emerged as a particularly powerful way of doing those things and then it became more and more abstracted from that until it became this beautiful gem of pure human thought.
I’m saying that how because of the limitations of teaching methods, we’ve been forced in school to use our natural orders of things and to make several pedagogical order out of step with the historical order and the natural conceptual order, we’re just going back to, we say this technology allows us to go back to do it in the natural way. And why?
Because kids can do things without pedagogy. In a typical classroom, you can’t do anything with the ideas you’re supposed to learn, except answer questions. We can with this technology put kids in a position where they can use powerful modern sophisticated knowledge and that’s a huge difference. I wouldn’t call it a difference in method of teaching. It’s a different approach to knowledge, a different sense of what knowledge is really important, about moving on [crosstalk 01:16:09] and they’ll probably learn. Okay?
Speaker 10: Thank you.