Diversity in Learning: A Vision for the New Millennium

Diversity in Learning: A Vision for the New Millennium

By Seymour Papert

This speech was video taped in 1999 for the Diversity Task Force convened by Vice President Al Gore.

real video file

I’m going to start out by being pretty aggressive in my approach to this problem, because I think that there are some fundamental contradictions and ironies in the kind of approach to education that is being taken by the people with power, including our present administration.

We’re here today to talk about diversity, and under the banner of our vice president, Al Gore, whom I admire immensely. On the other hand, I find it incredible that the same administration that’s encouraging us to talk about diversity–that’s encouraging us to see the digital presence as a new approach to learning–at the same time is trying to impose standards, standardized tests, which are not only antithetical to the very idea of diversity, but in fact are pushing us back to a concept of what’s the appropriate knowledge for a young person to have that was formulated in the 19thcentury. And it seems to me just patently absurd that as we move into the 21st century we should be attaching importance to tests whose content, let alone the very idea of these tests, is inherited from the 19th.

Of course, I’m not against standards, if standards means setting high standards and expecting young people to do difficult, bold, courageous, intellectually-challenging work. And this is what the computer would allow them to do. But it would only allow them to do it if we break away from the idea that the computer is there to serve an already antiquated curriculum.

Why are we doing this? I’ve got to say that I think the reason is that there’s a massive self-deception or deception of the public. We want to do something that looks like it’s moving into the 21st century, so we’ll connect up all the computers. We’ll connect up all the classrooms in the country to the Internet. We’ll put a computer, or even four computers, in every classroom.

Well, I’d like to use the following analogy: Imagine a society in which there were schools, but writing had not yet been invented, so there are no books and there are no pencils. People teach verbally and they learn by listening. It’s possible.

One day somebody invents writing, and they invent the pencil. Somebody says, “Wow, this would be great for education, it could revolutionize learning. So, let’s put a pencil in every classroom in the country and see what it does.” Well, it wouldn’t do anything, would it?

Because the essence of the pencil is not that–is not something that can be served by having access to it for a few hours a week or even a few hours a day. The essence of the pencil is that you’ve got it all the time. I can pull it out of my pocket in a moment’s notice; it’s not a big deal. I don’t have to go to a special place. If I’ve got to write something, if I’ve got to calculate something, if I’ve got to draw something to make a point, I’ve got it all the time. It’s a personal instrument, and this is what is going to happen with the digital technology. It’s going to be the pencil of the future. And I mean pencil in the sense that it’s got to be with us all the time to be used when we need it, when we want it, for a vast diversity of purposes. And when we do this, we will find that people will use them in very, very different ways–if we let them.

That’s to say if we don’t also say, “You have to compete with the people of Europe, Africa, Latin America, Asia.” If we’ve got to program our kids to do well on the tests that those people are doing well on, we are saying they’re in the lead, we’re the followers. Wrong!

If we want to make use of this new technology to encourage diversity, we have to take the lead. Let us make the tests that they will try to catch up on. These won’t be tests where everybody’s got to give the right answer. They will be tests where people do things, where they get results. Where knowledge is not for giving the right answer. Knowledge is for mobilizing for a purpose, to make something happen, to achieve a goal. The goal might be making a machine, it might be creating a work of art, it might be making a theory, but it’s a personal goal that the individual believes in, and not something that’s written down in a curriculum.

School as we’ve known it is based on an assembly-line model. And the assembly line was a great invention when Henry Ford made it. And the school might have been a great invention when it was made, but it is an assembly-line model. You come into school, you’re in the first grade, in the first period of the day. You do what the first chapter of the textbook says. You go to second period, third period, second grade, third grade. It’s an assembly line; at each point some new pieces of knowledge are put in.

Why we did this was because we had only such primitive knowledge management technology as chalk and blackboard–and even printing is inflexible, impersonal. With our new forms of knowledge technology, there is no reason why we should have the assembly-line model. There is no reason why we should segregate people by age, rather than bring together people who share an interest, who share a style of doing things, who can do things in common.

When we break away from our mental blinkers enough to be able to throw off the idea that math means adding fractions and this other stuff that we learned in elementary school–which nobody ever does–we spend all that expensive money, and time, and frustration, and psychological damage for the people who don’t take to it, in order to program our children to do what a $2 calculator could do better.

We will break away from this one day. We will allow people to learn by following the things they believe in with passion and interest. They’ll learn more deeply. No, they won’t all learn the same things, but we don’t need them to learn all the same things. We want them to be diverse. We want them to be able to do different kinds of activities and bring different points of view.

But in order to do this, we have to break away from this idea that by a token presence of technology–which is all that a pencil in every classroom, or a computer in every classroom, or an Internet connection in every classroom, can be.

We have to break away from that, accept the fact that we have to give every child–not just one maybe, maybe several, but at least one–personal computer to be his or her own thing, to be used not to follow a curriculum, but to follow creative, personalized, diverse learning. That is possible. I think it’s just obscene to suggest that the richest country in the world can’t afford it.

I think it would be wonderful for the private sector to support computers in schools, but I think it’s disgraceful that our government doesn’t do that. And I think it will be a curious little puzzle, that professors of educational history will say to their students in the 21st century to look back on the last years of the 20th and explain why educators, administrators, politicians, and policy makers seem so intent on doing this peculiarly contradictory thing that we see around us.

Frankly, I think the real reason is, our education establishment is well-rooted, it’s not going to give up without a struggle, and what we’re seeing is the last gasp, the last desperate clutching at straws, of a system that knows that it’s about to come to an end. It’s time for inventing new forms of learning. It’s time for addressing the entire learning environment in new ways. This is the only way in which we can get true diversity in the workplace and in life.

real video file

Let’s look at it from a slightly different angle: I think every baby comes into the world as a unique individual. If you’ve had several children, or, like me, recently gone through the experience of being grandparent–it’s wonderful how each one of them is different, does things in different ways, thinks differently. And then we’re going to channel them into a school that homogenizes them? And then we’re going to worry afterwards about how to free them from that homogenization and make them diverse again? It’s backwards. It’s the wrong approach.

Let’s look critically and seriously at the conditions that make it necessary for us to think about how to create diversity. Because the only reason why we have to think about that is because we took individuals who came into the world as individuals and as diverse. We uniformized them, and now we have to worry about how to diversify them again, how to liberate their diversity. It’s all backwards. But I think we can look hopefully at the coming period.

I’ll just end by saying why I think that education–educational change–is really going to happen this time. After all, there is a puzzle. In the past there have been many, many reformers who’ve wanted to change education. Not much ever happened, there have been many predictions that technology–the movie strip, television, the language lab, many technologies–have been vaunted as the carriers of the educational revolution. Why should this time be different?

Well, I’ll tell you why: because this technology, the personal computer, is not a teacher’s technology, it’s a learner’s technology. And it’s a technology that can be appropriated, taken over by young people, who can use it to feel the power of their own individual intellectual personalities.

And we’re beginning to see, coming into school, more and more kids who have had computers from the day of their birth, who’ve gotten used to using them, many of them not very well. But some of them have used them to have very, very rich learning experiences–beginning to get a peppering of these kids in our classrooms. And that is a real army to bring about change.

I call it “Kid Power.” Kids coming into school and saying, “We want something better than this, and not only do we want it’”– they are not only demanding, they’ve got a supply also, they’ve got a supply of the know how–“We’ll show you how to do it. We’ll help you.”

And I think that force is what will make the difference between this coming revolutionary change in education and all previous reform movements, which were attempts to impose from above: somebody in Washington deciding, “Here’s a new curriculum, and let’s teach the teachers how to do it, and train them to go into their classrooms and hope that it will trickle down to the students.”

This is the other way around. It’s from the bottom up, it’s a grass-roots phenomenon, and I think it’s irreversible. And I think it is going to solve this wave of educational demand, this wave of new learning is going to solve the problem of diversity.

Thank you. If you would like to enter into conversation with me about this, I’d love it. Get onto my website and let me know what you think. www.papert.org will find me, and I’d love fighting with anyone who wants to challenge these ideas.


Important Notice: You may copy these tapes onto your computer for your personal educational use only. You are not permitted to further copy, distribute or display these tapes, or the images contained within these tapes, beyond your computer for personal use. © Seymour Papert 2000. All rights reserved.

Scroll to Top