Child Power: Keys to the New Learning of the Digital Century

Child Power: Keys to the New Learning of the Digital Century

By Seymour Papert

This speech was delivered at the eleventh Colin Cherry Memorial Lecture on Communication on June 2, 1998, at the Imperial College in London. The introduction is by Professor Bruce Sayers, professor emeritus, Imperial College.


Welcome to the Colin Cherry Memorial Lecture on Communication. This lecture this evening is the eleventh in the series. It’s sponsored by SBC Warburg Dillon Read, to whom we are grateful for this support.

Now I would like to add my own appreciation and yours to Robert Spence, the organizer of this lecture, [and] like me a former research student and later a member of staff of Colin Cherry. Professor Spence is, in Chaucer’s words, “the progenitor and only begetter” of this entire series.

Now before introducing this evening’s speaker, let me tell you a little about Colin Cherry and why these memorial lectures are named in his honor. Both Robert Spence and I worked quite closely and individually for a number of years with Colin Cherry in rather different fields. When I remark that this was a great privilege, this is not an empty comment.

Colin was an extraordinary, original thinker. He enlarged intellectual horizons. He managed to cast new light on almost anything that he studied. And because he was a scintillating lecturer, he managed to ensure that one always, and I mean always, came away from his lectures not only with a fresh understanding, but with a special delight in the way that the understanding had emerged.

Colin’s wartime and early postwar period was in the research laboratories of GEC as an electrical engineer. His first book emerged from that period. It was a highly innovative, original monograph on technological and mathematical issues concerned with electrical circuit analysis.

Now, he and Dennis Gabor both came to Imperial College in 1950, and the two of them laid much of the foundation of modern information theory. In 1958, Colin was appointed professor of telecommunication here at the college and held his chair until his death in 1979.

But in the early 1950s he started research on a broad range of issues in human communication. Having investigated the technicalities of communication, it was natural for him, though a revolution in thought for many others, to start thinking about the human beings at the ends of the communication chain. He started to consider how human beings communicate, not of course why they communicate, though he could have done that as well, because he had a natural interest in both historic and current philosophical and cultural thought.

Colin recognized that perception, a key element in communication, was not a passive process. It’s a variety of behaviors by which one orientates oneself mentally in relation to the outside world as part of the process of making sense of it. This led him to investigate, amongst many other lines of experimental inquiry, human behavioral activity in, for example, the communication process, in hearing, in speech perception and speech production, and in visual communication. In brief, Cherry explored and wrote about the totality of the concept of communication, its technology, its human dimension, its social significance, and its power to influence economic development.

Formal recognition came rather later to Colin Cherry than to Dennis Gabor. However, his books, particularly that on human communication, are classics, very well known and highly influential. In 1978 he was awarded the prestigious Marconi International Fellowship. Sadly, he died in 1979 before reaching retirement, but he left a great legacy of original thought and most certainly inspiration to all those who had the privilege of knowing this delightful man.

Now to the present task of introducing our speaker this evening, Dr. Seymour Papert. He is well known for a number of achievements, not least of which was as cofounder of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT and later the Media Lab. Like Colin Cherry, Seymour Papert seems to have been something of a Renaissance man, with many aspects to his background. He’s a mathematician. His studies took him to Cambridge and later to Paris. He has worked with the famous Jean Piaget in Geneva. That was the Piaget who had achieved a remarkable insight into the perceptual and cognitive development of the child. Papert’s collaboration with Piaget was presumably one of the catalysts that led him to apply mathematics to the task of understanding how children learn and think. Now, this approach has been spectacularly successful. He has also been recognized, as was Colin Cherry, with the award of the Marconi International Fellowship.

The writer Philip Oakes once penned a few lines about his own early years. He said, “I could see that childhood was an invention of grown-ups, a fiction we were required to take on trust, in case we demanded something better.” Well, now the something better has arrived, and I am delighted to invite Dr. Seymour Papert to tell us about it in his lecture entitled “Child Power: Keys to the New Learning of the Digital Century.”



Education’s Nineteenth-Century Thinking in a Twenty-First-Century World


Well, thank you, sir, for those remarks. I will be making some in a while about Colin Cherry from my own perspective later on in this talk.

I’d rather start by anticipating a certain air of paradox that will be striking to future historians looking back at the evolution of education policy in these last decades of the second millennium. These historians, I believe, will be struck and puzzled by the fact that in the decades immediately before the most momentous megachange ever to come to the practice of learning and education, we see major world governments seemingly attempting to undo those changes that prefigured the megachange to come.

The element of denial in much educational policy in this period is reflected in an advertisement that I recently saw in a Times educational supplement; it was placed there by a company called Research Machines, which I suppose most of you know as, I believe, the foremost purveyor of equipment for educational technology in this country.

This ad had two faces. On the one hand, by trying to sell computers and connecting services to schools, it was catering to their desire to belong to what is most modern, to belong to the digital age that everybody knows we’re entering. On the other hand, the ad took pains to reassure teachers that this would not disturb the essential elements of the status quo. The ad says, “You will not have to change how you teach; they (presumably meaning the students) will not have to change what they learn.”

This evening I’ll be presenting a diametrically different view of the significance for education of digital technology. The Research Machine ad sees the technology as a means to improve existing practice while changing it as little as possible. I see technology as tending to render obsolete almost all features that we would regularly associate with the structure of school.

Among these features, I mean to include such well-entrenched ones as the segregation of children by age. We all take for granted that in school, but only in school, we think it appropriate to put 7-year-olds in one room and 8-year-olds in another room. If I were to ask you to segregate yourselves by age, I am sure you would laugh at me or certainly wouldn’t do it. You’d think I’d gone even crazier than usual. Why is it that we do this in school?

I think there’s only one reason. That reason is that this is production-line organization of the product of school. It is like the production line in the [original] Ford factory: The car moved along and at each station an additional change was made, a piece was added, something was checked, an exam was given. This is a model of education that I think was appropriate in an earlier period. We didn’t know any other way to do it. And I am going to be elaborating on that by talking about ways in which we can do things very differently because we have another technology for gaining and using knowledge now.

In addition to segregation by age, I think the idea of the linear curriculum is itself another manifestation of a production-line mode of organization. As the child moves through on the seventh of May in his third year he will learn this, and on the ninth of April in his fifth year he will learn that. In the extreme, it is all spelled out. In practice, of course, it’s not quite as rigid as that. But in principle, the way that school organizes the dispensation of knowledge follows this production-line model. I am going to attribute this to the same causes. But I am also going to argue that in order to take advantage of the new avenues of learning opened by digital technology, we are going to be obliged to give up this linear curriculum mode of dissemination of knowledge. We will be obliged to do it because I think that the major difference that I see between the way education has taken place up to now and the way it will take place in the future is captured by my title of this lecture, “Child Power.” I am going to give a number of different meanings, a number of different aspects to the concept of power there.

First, I am going to be talking about giving the children power to control their own learning process. And if they’re controlling their own learning process, this is in radical contradiction with the idea of the set curriculum, the linear order and the arrangement of learning by age-segregated grades. I am also going to use the term child power to refer to another aspect, and that is to the political power of children as a major force in producing educational change.

I opened by referring to what looked like a pessimistic sense of what is happening in educational policy-making. I anticipate megachange in the way children learn. When we look around us we see not only an absence of megachange, we see a number of ways in which policy seems to be designed to prevent the megachange.

The attitude expressed in the Research Machines ad that I quoted shows this in a general way. You see it in many specific aspects of current educational discussion. I’ll mention two. In our country, as I believe in yours, there has recently been a mounting pressure for standardized tests to be applied to students. The reason given for wanting these tests is couched in terms like we need to impose standards; education is deteriorating; children are emerging from school illiterate, ignorant, bereft of moral values. And in many ways people look around and see that the school system, at least for many members of society, seems not to be working. What to do about this?

I think what we do about it depends on your answer to the question about whether the problem is that school is changing too much or school is changing too little. I think we live in a society in which a rapid and accelerating change in social life and the economy and the kind of work that people do is transforming the need for knowledge. And I think this is pretty widely accepted that knowledge in the twenty-first century is going to be very different. The need for knowledge is going to be very different. You can capture this by noting that even today a very substantial proportion of people are engaged in work in jobs that did not exist when they were born, and that number is increasing.

So the model that says learn while you’re at school, while you’re young, the skills that you will apply during your lifetime is no longer tenable. The skills that you can learn when you’re at school will not be applicable. They will be obsolete by the time you get into the workplace and need them, except for one skill. The one really competitive skill is the skill of being able to learn. It is the skill of being able not to give the right answer to questions about what you were taught in school, but to make the right response to situations that are outside the scope of what you were taught in school. We need to produce people who know how to act when they’re faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared.


The Irrelevancy of School


Now, given that picture of a rapid change of society, one would expect to see a rapid evolution of the institutions charged with preparing the young for it. We do not see this. We see a much slower rate of evolution of the school, and that means we’re seeing a bigger and bigger gap between school and society. This gap is what I believe is responsible for the deterioration of performance in our schools and our educational systems. Because children can see this; they can see that school is irrelevant. They feel that the pace of school and the mood of the school culture is out of sync with the society in which they live. And so it becomes harder and harder to get them to buy into the idea that school is satisfying their needs, that school is a bridge to the twenty-first century, as our political leaders keep reiterating.

Our political leaders and most members of our educational establishment, I believe, miss this point and make a mistake which is best understood, in fact, in the kind of systems theory that Colin Cherry played such an important role in teaching us the importance of. And that is this is an example of feedback gone wrong.

Feedback, which is such a crucial idea in control engineering and cybernetics, means that if the temperature in the room, for example, is too low, you turn on the means that will raise it; if it is too high, you turn on the means that will lower it. But if you reverse the wires so your thermostat is connected in such a way that it will turn on the heat when it is too hot and turn on the cold when it is too cold, you’ll get an explosive, runaway deterioration of the environmental conditions. And this is what’s happening to the educational system.

The tendency today is for people to interpret the failure of school “the problems in schools” to too much change. And so they push school backward. They try to revert to the state in which, at least in their version of history, it did work more successfully. But by doing that, they are aggravating the problem. They’re in a state of reverse negative feedback that will lead to an aggravation of the problem until the system breaks down, which is what I think will happen.

Putting it like that encourages a different way of thinking about how change and resistance to change in the education world happens. There is a standard model that we were taught at education school that goes something like, “Well, scientific research will determine that certain methods of education are valid. We will measure and see if this way of teaching or that way of teaching is the best. We will then design a reform of the system that will implement these new methods.”

I don’t think there’s any trace of evidence that that model actually applies. I think that the process of change is of a very different nature. And the example of the broken-down feedback mechanism is one aspect of a different sort of mechanism that is saying to us, “Let’s understand what’s happening in education, not in terms of which theories are right about how learning happens and which theories are wrong, but rather in terms of looking at the education system as a dynamic system.” It is a dynamic system that works like any engineering system that has stabilities where feedback operates, where it moves from disequilibriums to equilibriums and where the set of ideas to which we’re indebted to people like Colin Cherry are more relevant than the set of ideas to which we’re indebted to people like Piaget.

I want to give you another example, a slightly more detailed example, of looking at the system as a dynamic system. When I first saw microcomputers, that is, personal computers in schools, they were invariably brought in by a visionary teacher who somehow managed to get one. The first one that I saw, in fact, had been constructed with a kit by this teacher with the help of his son over the summer vacation. Others were brought in. They bought them, people contributed them, they got a grant somewhere. But it was a visionary teacher who brought the computer into the school.

The teacher brought that computer into school because she or he saw, in ways that maybe were only dimly understood, that this technology could provide a way of breaking out of the rigid structure of the school system and could allow that teacher to be more creative. This was different from the highly technical process that the curriculum established on the basis of scientific studies and implemented by lesson plans that cover the whole K through 12 period. Well, the computer would break out of this.

We saw in those early days, around the early 1980s, some wonderful examples of teachers using very primitive computers to wonderful advantage. They were doing extremely creative things in which children were carrying out projects that cut across curriculum; that cut across the subdivision of mathematics, science, English, history; that combined all these things and produced a product that, like all the products of human effort, draws not on one discipline alone but on putting them all together.

That was a picture in the early eighties and it inspired a lot of optimism. By the mid-eighties, though, the situation had changed quite considerably. It changed in a way that I think one can best understand through a biological analogy. By the triggering of something like an immune system – and I am looking at the education system as kind of a living organism – this computer that came in was a foreign body that threatened the established order of the system and, like all systems, this triggered a defense mechanism.

The defense mechanism consisted of taking charge. The system, the administration, the ministries now began to take charge, so the computers were no longer in the hands of the visionary teacher but were in the hands of the administration. And, in principle, the bureaucratic administration has a deep, vested interest in maintaining the status quo. So very quickly we saw the computer converted from being a revolutionary instrument to instead, an instrument of reaction, a bulwark of conservatism. And we saw this in lots of ways.

One way is that instead of the computer cutting across the disciplines in the subjects, the computer is now confined to a computer room and it is a subject of its own, taken out of the mainstream of the learning environment. There’s now a specialized computer teacher. There’s a curriculum even for the study of the computer. It has been normalized by the system; it has been tamed. That’s not the only way in which it can be tamed.

Other ways are using it to put children through more effective drill and practice in the rote learning that is the goal of many parts of the curriculum. And the computer happens to lend itself, if you want to use it in that mode, to making the most objectionably rote aspects of the learning even more so. There are many other ways. I don’t have time to dwell on all of them.

The point I want to make is that I don’t see this movement of enthusiasm and change in attitude towards computers as the result of the numerous scientific papers that were being published. That was not the causal process. The causal process was the system behavior.

Well, now, an aspect of the system is that once it gained direction and momentum, and schools continued buying more and more computers, computers began to overflow outside of the boundaries of the computer lab. They began return to environments in which they could be used by visionary teachers again and used in a more visionary way. And so in the nineties, we began to see the beginnings of sparks here and there of the situation more like the early eighties.


Subversive Elements – Your Kids and Their Computers


However, in the meantime, a more powerful process had begun. This process was that computers overflowed the boundaries of the school and were now becoming available to children in their bedrooms, in the studies, and living rooms of their homes, in community centers, in all sorts of places where they’re outside the control of the school system and, so, outside the dynamic of its internal mechanisms.

In the United States today we are looking at a situation where something like 60 percent of households with school-age children have computers. In Britain you’re probably a year or two behind that, but it is moving there. What happens outside is a significant new element in the dynamic of the evolution of the education system. Because we are now beginning to see children who had computers at home from the beginning of their lives. Not all children in this situation used them very effectively or had very rich learning experiences with them, but some did. And those who at home had these richer learning experiences with the computer are beginning to appear in school as a kind of a nuisance, because they are demanding from school, “Why aren’t we doing here what we know how to do at home?” So these children are beginning to produce a pressure on the school from within, a kind of subversive force coming into the system, not only demanding change but, most important, offering to help in that change. They are offering to make available a degree of technical knowledge and mastery not only of the computer as a machine but of the use of the computer as a research instrument and in many other ways.

So we’re beginning to get a little foretaste of a greater situation to come at an almost precisely predictable time, because it’s only in the last three or four years that there has been a large number of children who have these computers at home and the opportunity to use them. The cohort of young people who grew up with a computer from the beginning has not yet reached school in full force. It will very soon and when that happens, I predict that we will see inside the classrooms an eventually irresistible pressure to change the structure and the content and the nature of schooling.

This is a new kind of power. And I’d like to reinforce the point by making a distinction that should be obvious by now, one between what I am saying now as a predictor of change in education and the situation that education reformers in the past found themselves in.

It’s almost 100 years since John Dewey, whom I think of as probably the intellectually deepest critic of the structure of school as I defined it in the beginning: curriculum, classes, etc., began to formulate his criticisms of the school and to put in its place a concept of learning through experience, the concept of learning by engaging in activities that mean something to you, that you care about or identify with personal and social goals, in which you will collaborate with other learners.

That’s what Dewey was saying 100 years ago. But if we look at the events of the intervening time, we see that, although Dewey’s writing and that of others who are proponents of what’s come to be known as progressive education, open education, or child-centered education have generated a lot of writing and talk, they have generated very little change in the education system. And why?

I think the two most salient reasons are the following: First, Dewey came to this problem with a philosophical argument, and I’m afraid that human society has never achieved that level of rationality at which philosophical arguments will shift a social institution as deeply rooted as our school system is. We are now in a situation where we have something other than philosophical arguments. We have an army. It’s this army of children, of kids coming into the school with a better image of learning and with the technical knowledge to implement that better image of learning that provides bite, force, to the arguments that for Dewey were soft, without teeth, and, in the end, ineffectual.

So that’s one difference and this is one aspect of child power, children as an intellectual power, as a political power exerting a force for ideas about education, that existed long before there were computers, long before there was technology. But the technology has put these children in a position where they’re able to each be a Dewey, to multiply Dewey by millions and so become a major force where Dewey alone was a weak read from this point of view, however strong he might have been intellectually.

The second reason for the failure to bring about change is the lack of a technological infrastructure. I’m fond of making little parables that illustrate points like this, and I think I learned this habit from reading the Bible. One of these parables is a comparison, which you mustn’t take very literally, with the history of aviation.

Leonardo da Vinci tried to invent an airplane. If you look at his drawings, you see that he had some really good ideas, not that they would have worked. But I think that by looking at his drawings, you can see that if he had been able to experiment with those ideas, he would have seen the ways in which they didn’t work and very likely would have made a successful airplane or participated in the making of the airplane in his time. However, he could not even begin that process because in order to do it, you needed a lot of technological infrastructure. You needed machine tools. You needed fuels. You needed some source of power. You needed materials. You needed a knowledge of physics. It was just vastly more than any one person could produce, and so Dewey’s idea, well, a slip of the tongue, but I am identifying Dewey and Leonardo. Leonardo’s airplane remained a dream on paper, just as Dewey’s education reform remained a dream in the philosophy seminar.

I think that Dewey lacked a technological infrastructure in a way that I would like to illustrate by giving some examples of how information technology, how digital technology, can provide a kind of infrastructure for Dewey’s ideas that was not available until now.


The Constructive Power of Digital Media


And that’s the point at which I’d like to go back to what might have been more appropriately said at the beginning, some remarks about Colin Cherry, in whose honor this meeting is being held. Well, we all owe a great debt to Colin Cherry. Everybody in any of the digital fields recognizes that he was one of the first to see the scope of this field, to write books, like his book on human communication, to hold meetings to bring together people to gain a sense of community in this new discipline.

For all that I think we all thank him, but I particularly have a special gift from him. He was especially responsible for my being here, for it was at the 1960 London Symposium on Information Theory organized by Colin Cherry that an event happened that changed my career path and made me follow the course that brought me here. I came to that meeting as a mathematician interested in computational ideas and information theory. I came there with a paper in which I had a little theorem. And what happened was the worst nightmare of somebody coming to a meeting with a theorem.

The speaker before me announced exactly the same theorem and proved it at least as well as I did, not quite the same, but you can’t get much credit for just having a slightly different proof. Now that could have been a nightmare; in fact, it turned into a great gift. That person was Marvin Minsky. Marvin and I came to that meeting with essentially the same paper and this led to a collaboration that continued for many years and is responsible for almost everything we did in the next decade and has certainly colored everything I have done since then.

However, in addition to the theoretical aspect of our collaboration on the ideas that started from that paper, an event that played a very significant part in my life came about because of somebody being wrong about a date. That meeting led to an invitation to come to MIT. I turned up at MIT; I came to Marvin’s office at what I still think was the prearranged time, but there was no Marvin. He thought it was the next day. So I looked around and there was a computer.

Now, this was 1960 and it was not a time when one would find computers just sitting there, but there was one and so I began poking at it. After a while a student came by and helped me a little. This was no Windows95 with those fat manuals. It took only 10 or 15 minutes before I’d actually written a program. And writing that program, just thinking of something I could playfully do at this computer, I suddenly found myself with a line on a problem that had bothered me for many years and that seemed just too messy for me to tackle. All of a sudden at this computer I was working on this problem and pretty close to a solution. A few days later I had actually had it. I had a paper off to Nature. It was on stereoscopic vision.

Well, that was an amazing experience! There I was euphoric with this sense of empowerment that this intellectual tool had given me. And since at the time my regular job was at the University of Geneva teaching and researching with Piaget, children were close to my mind and an obsession was born. The obsession was that children should get that intellectual power and that sense of thrill that I got, that children are the people who most need an amplification of their intellectual capacities. And that started me on this track that brings me here today. Unfortunately, I can’t trace it. It wouldn’t be appropriate to bore you with tracing details.

But there’s one point that I want to make, and this point leads to a slight, very slight, shadow: recognizing a mistake that I think Colin Cherry contributed to. The mistake was this use of the word information. As a matter of fact, if you read carefully his book on human communication, he actually warns you that the technical new meaning of the word information, which people like he and Claude Shannon had been developing, could not really be popularized. There’s a warning there against what I think has happened: For the general public, information means information and so the role of information technology becomes more like, let’s say, listening, hearing the news than making it. It’s more like getting information somewhat passively more than what happened to me with that computer in Minsky’s office. I don’t think what I did there had much to do with information in the popular sense of this word, although it had a lot to do with information in the technical sense.

So to the extent that my little incident, my empowering euphoric moment, was going to inspire a sense of what children might do with this technology, it was something that didn’t fit the popular image of what information technology was about. The popular image of what technology is about is far too much about information and not nearly as much as you see in that incident, about using it as an instrument, as a tool to do something.

In the real world if you think of what computers do, most of it is not about information in the ordinary sense. If you think of making a spaceship, designing that space shuttle, setting up the control mechanisms to control it, this would be of a complexity that would be completely impossible without computers. And not only because you couldn’t get at sufficient information to design it, but because you wouldn’t be able to control complex processes that would allow you to design or sketch your circuits on a screen.

So I’d like to recognize oversimplifying a complex issue, two, let’s say, wings to digital technology. One is the technology as an informational medium and the other is the technology as a constructional medium, as more like wood and bricks and steel than like words and printer’s type. Now I think that the existence of these two wings and the fact that the popular perception is that the informational wing is highly dominant. because that’s the one people can see and that’s the one that really affects their lives-have deeply distorted how people think about this technology in relation to education. And I think this is best seen by noting, again oversimplifying a complicated issue, that in education, also, one can recognize these same two wings.

Part of learning is getting information. Somebody stands in front of the classroom and preaches, and information is somehow flowing into people’s heads, or so it is said. But that’s only one part of education. The other part, which Dewey would have emphasized, is about doing things, making things, constructing things. However, in our school systems, as in the popular image of education, the informational side is again dominating.

There is a parallel between an unrecognized dichotomy in digital technology and a generally unrecognized dichotomy in the education system. In both cases the informational side is best known to the general public. So the image of computers in school supports the traditional role of the teachers in their part of education-providing information.

And so we get people talking about finding the best teacher in the world, putting this person on the World Wide Web so every student can have the best teacher. Well, maybe, but that’s not the way I think technology will change the learning environment. I think it will be more like what happened to me with Minsky’s computer, that I could suddenly solve a problem that I hadn’t been able to solve. It was too complex, too messy for me, but suddenly I could. My goal in life, which has been my major activity over the last 10 years, has been to find ways children can use this technology as a constructive medium to do things that no child could do before, to do things at a level of complexity that was not previously accessible to children.

To take one simple example: I worked with the Lego Company, making a little computer this size that you could put in a Lego construct and have it connected to sensors and motor, and you could make a little device that will follow a light. You could take the same thing and you could put sensors on it and you could program it to make a sound. You could, and I have seen children do this, make a musical instrument in which moving a slider up and down controls a sound. Then you could face issues like, should it produce sound continuously or only discreet notes? and on and on. As you make this little musical instrument, making it raises a new problem and that raises a new problem, and you get deeper and deeper into issues of physics and mathematics and music appreciation and musical history and, above all, into the management of what’s becoming a complex project. And when I say “you” I mean you might be 7-years old or 8-years old, because I see children of that age who are able to carry out this kind of project.


The End of the Education Empire


I want to end by saying that this is a true megachange in the nature of learning and in the possibilities of learning that are open to children. Dewey would have liked us to believe that the child will learn only that which is rooted in that child’s interests. But there’s a fundamental contradiction there between this and the idea that certain subjects like mathematics should be learned by children, because what if the child doesn’t have any interest that is related to mathematics? Well, in a sense that can’t be; everything is related to mathematics. But it can be and it was the case until recently that most children who were interested in music could not get any access to a mathematical activity that significantly related to their musical instrument.

But these children who are building this new musical instrument, this is just meant as one way, just an example of one way in which a child whose passion is music could be drawn into a situation with deep mathematical and physical and other ideas closely related to his or her passion. And I think that that couldn’t have happened in the same way before computers. With technology we have the infrastructure to enable us to realize dreams like Leonardo da Vinci’s. At last, Dewey’s idea that you can learn everything through curiosity and passion for a particular subject area can be fulfilled.

Let’s note as we close that this vision is radically incompatible with the structure of school. Because although you need mathematics and mathematical ideas to build your musical instrument, if you are a 7- or 8-year-old child, these mathematical ideas are very unlikely to have occurred in the curriculum of your school up to that point or maybe in any other situation. You need that mathematical knowledge now, not on the seventh of May in your eighth year of school or whenever it might be. This is, I think, a fundamental, radical incompatibility.

Of course, it raises a problem, the problem that the motivation of learning mathematics has been replaced by the problem of access. Where can a child get that knowledge? Well, the other side of digital technology gives us the answer, the information side. And as the information available and the communicational possibilities of contacting people somewhere in the world who might share your interests and be willing to share knowledge with you increase through the informational side of digital technology, the implementation of the constructional side as the driving force, as the main guiding metaphor for the learning environment for schooling, becomes possible.

And so, I see megachange as happening; But this megachange requires us to think more clearly about the nature of school; to recognize the informational and constructional sides; to think more clearly about the technology; to recognize its two sides; to think about how they’re related; to think in system terms about the way learning as an activity, as an environment is going to evolve; and to have the courage to realize that we are living in an education system that is inconsistent. There are schools in educational systems that are inconsistent with the technological, intellectual, social milieu of this twenty-first century. You’re not going to answer this by taking tests, where the children take tests of nineteenth century knowledge. Doing that is building a bridge to the nineteenth century; It’s not opening a gate to the twenty-first.

I think that a good image to close with on this change is one that I have used before and I’ll use again. I think that it might be useful to think of the collapse of the Soviet Union. I think that seemed to be a system that was as unchangeable as our education system seems to be. It’s a system, I think, that was becoming increasingly incompatible with the modern world for reasons not very different from those that operate in the education system. It tried to run a country as a production line, as a top-down command economy in which what people made would be determined by a committee somewhere. We try in our school systems to decide what people will learn in this top-down, centralized way, and, for the same reason, it is not compatible with the complexities and dynamic possibilities of the modern world.

I think the subject is increasing strain. The decision to be made is not whether we will continue with school or change it. It will collapse. Our question is whether we’ll wait until we’re driven to the wall and the system collapses from within from its own internal contradictions before we decide that we’re going to create conditions that will allow a new system in which there’ll be diversity of learning paths, diversity of teaching methods, diversity of subjects to be learned.

If we believe in our free enterprise economies, I think that a blossoming of a Darwinian evolution in the learning sphere is going to take place. Thank you very much.

Copyright © 2000 by Seymour Papert

Scroll to Top