Keynote address – New Jersey Educational Computing Conference 1990

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Seymour: It is just mind-boggling.  In a sense the conversation started too, since nobody predicted any of these things.  What do you say if you ask yourself or somebody asks you “What do you think is going to happen next?”  You didn’t know last time; [you weren’t 00:00:24] experts.  I would like to use these events as a metaphor, maybe more than a metaphor, for thinking through some of the big questions that face us in education, and particularly how to look at the role of technology and potential change in education.

First of all, I want to note a very small element that I think is important, and I don’t want to say much more about it except to note, and that is that we have seen regimes and systems crumble, which everybody thought to be immutable, at least for the foreseeable future.  I think that for anybody who has lingering doubts about how that can’t change, how school systems can never change, this or that will be like that for ever and ever, it’s always been like that, I think that we can draw some kind of confidence and a sense of encouragement by looking at these events.  Much bigger things did change or are changing.  I think there’s an element of invigoration feeding a more constructive note on that.  

I’d like to go a little deeper and I’d like to look at a very, very brief history of what happened in the Soviet Union in the evolution of the notion of perestroika.  I think it’s fairly clear that Gorbachev, when he came to power just five years ago, probably had no idea of how far this change was going to go and how quickly.  Maybe he did; maybe someone will discover his diaries and find that he was [predictive 00:02:34], but in terms of what was said at the time, what they had in mind was much less and much less in a way that’s very relevant to the analogy I’d like to make with the educational system.

What they were talking about at that time, I would describe as sort of jiggering over the administrative structure.  We would change the bureaucracy.  What has happened is typical of whenever you’ve got a system that’s in equilibrium and sort of balanced.  Every child knows if you build this great castle out of blocks, if you move it from the equilibrium, it doesn’t stay where you left it.  It goes precipitately into a process of change, which ends up usually with some other position of equilibrium; maybe the blocks are all scattered around the floor.  It doesn’t just stay there.  

I think we’ve seen this with the developments in the Soviet Union, the development from an idea of jiggering of bureaucracy to having to put in question the very fundamentals of the way of thinking and the concepts on which that society is benched.  In other words, an administrative perestroika gave way to a political, to an epistemological perestroika, or political perestroika gave way to an epistemological perestroika.  By “epistemological,” I mean simply that it’s our ideas about thinking that have to be shaped, and are being shaped [inaudible 00:04:19], and thereby they are [adapting 00:04:22].  This is where I want to make an analogy with the educational system.

It often strikes me, looking at what’s happening in these countries and listening to all the diagnoses of what went wrong with the Soviet economy?  Why didn’t it work?  That’s a complicated story, but I think everybody agrees that one reason why it didn’t work is that you cannot have a centralized plan that from the center will control such a vast system as a [inaudible 00:05:01] economy.  It just broke down for a lot of reasons.  Some of them were spiritual; that’s to do with movements in the depths of people’s souls, where we’re playing those down and emphasizing the idea about what they call “God’s plan,” where some Mitty decides about each factory, “You will make 75,000 thousand trucks and you will get your tires at this …” It just get so that it can’t work.  

What can’t work?  Centralization, trying to plan from the center, trying to have a sort of [inaudible 00:05:37] micro-accountability that is not letting people out there in the grassroots and all over the system make individual decisions.   I know another system that is just like that.  The system I know that’s most like that … I see you all do too.  

The curriculum is our [inaudible 00:06:01].  Our educational system has been created on the assumption that somebody in some centralized place; it doesn’t have to be the Ministry of Education, in some places that’s state departments, in some places it’s a big city school board … Somebody has decided decisions that are going to be implemented by people who have [plans 00:06:28].  I think that a lot of our problems in our educational system are due to exactly the same reason as many of the problems that have caused the crumbling of the [highly-mapped 00:06:45] economies of the Soviet Union.  For the same reason, I think that for the same reason that the Soviet economy is dead, I believe that we will see a crumbling, given how we’re built as well.

Of course, there are signs of it.  There’s constantly talk of decentralization.  I’m not the only person to see that that’s caused a problem, and we saw it with the creation of the community school boards in New York a while back, and we saw how that has gone.  We see it in Chicago now.  Maybe it’s a braver attempt there, and that’s some of their problem.  We see it in the concept of school-based management.  I think that what we see in all of these plans, our response to Gorbachev’s first [limited 00:07:34] announcement of administrative jiggering to fix the system by changing the administration, by changing the bureaucracy.  I think we have to go much further.  

I think that decentralizing schools cannot just be moving the responsibility for hiring the principal from a central board to a parents’ committee or whatever how that more significant local bureaucratic administrative changes, we have to move to the place of an epistemological perestroika.  As long as we’re dominated by the idea that there’s no private ownership of knowledge, that somehow knowledge is public ownership; the state owns it, the system owns it; Big Brother owns it and will decide how it is to be dispensed and to whom it is to be dispensed, and on what timetable … That’s called curriculum.  

As long as there is this idea, we will be faced with essentially the same system and attempts to fix it by bureaucratic jiggering will really flounder because they will run into contradictions because they haven’t fixed that total system [adequately 00:08:55].  I think that the big, big issue facing education, the big prism through which I can see it, is one issue that has two faces.  I will pick out these from the distinctive point of view that one of them is centralization and decentralization, and that’s got to mean of everything and all decision-making.  

The more the teacher is given this [basal 00:09:25] reader and said, “You’ve got to follow this and centralize it,” or this highly-programmed computer-based curriculum that takes responsibility for deciding what to do out of the hands of the teacher and puts it in the hands of the computer or the programmer at some distant part of the world, that’s centralization.  Decentralization is the trusting of people to make their own decisions and “people” means not just a country or parents.  Maybe it’s the teacher, it means the student, it means that through the system you are distributing and spreading out the decision making process.  

The advocates of accountability say, “But how can we trust all of those people?”  This is actually the issue that [inaudible 00:10:20] people are going to be at the depths about in Eastern Europe and other places.  We have to trust them, because that’s the kind of society we believe in.  I think we also have to trust them because that’s the only way it can work.  

It’s just a joke to think that you can turn the teacher into a kind of technician who carries out prescribed procedures.  You can’t, and nobody does that anyway.  Of course everybody finds their own way around the laid-down curriculum and the laid-down procedures.  Nobody really conforms to it and so we get a system that’s dishonest with itself and that breeds its own set of difficulties.  So far we’ve come back again into this centralization of decentralization and [decentralization of the decentralization 00:11:11] of the decision-making, of the thinking, right through to the whole system, [and thereby to 00:11:19] the children.  

The other issue is … With other places this issue, I have become fond recently of naming by this slogan:  Instructionism versus constructionism, as a view of educational [terms 00:11:41].  I think that there a place, of course, for instruction.  We have to give people instructions about how to use this watch, set the time, all sorts of things; turn on the computer, maybe even some algorithms.  In fact, there’s a lot of instruction in our relations with people and about this business we call teaching and education, but I do not believe that what’s wrong with the system is poor instruction.  

I certainly do not believe that the way to fix the system, the way to get improvement is through better instructions, finding out a better way to instruct that kid; the mother gets better ways of instructing her.  Don’t think that it’s there that you can get a better [view of the change 00:12:40], because we know a lot about how to instruct.  We don’t need to have such a [inaudible 00:12:47].  My old favorite examples are how well children, before they come to school, learn all of the wonderful things like [inaudible 00:12:56], reasoning, manipulating their parents, getting around.  The amount of stuff that children learn before they come to school is immense without any of the technical paraphernalia of the teaching curriculum or the rest.  

Somehow, our culture and our sense of human relations and communication creates … We know how to do it.  Now we talk to people and we know how to convey information and all.  When they get to school, something dramatic happens and it’s much more difficult.  I think the reason is when they come to school it stops being a human relationship and becomes something that’s decreed from up top somehow, from on high, and extended to a technical act where the teacher has to dispense the stuff in little, small doses that have been cut up in the form of curriculum.  

I think that what we need to see is activities where children can learn by well, I like to use the word “construction,” [inaudible 00:14:08] in some ways, but by “construction” I mean making something.  Whether the something is a castle, whether the something is a written text, whether the something is a computer program, a robot, whatever it is, the engagement in making something changes your relation to the knowledge, because the knowledge is now used for your own purpose.  It’s your knowledge and then the teacher’s role is to participate with you and help you, guide you, whatever it might be, to see it from the logical steps.  

I think the source of change is making better activities for children to do, and then through, and better ways to talk about them.  This is not in any way putting down the role of the adult participant in that.  On the contrary, it’s enhancing it.  Now I’d like to move on to discussing that enhancement of the [inaudible 00:15:30], etc., etc., and how do computers fit this?

I think we’ve said one way already, of course, is that computers do fit that, but one can never reiterate too often that when people ask “What is effect of the computer on the child,” it’s a silly question because the computer doesn’t have an effect on the child.  Many computers have many different effects on many different children.  It’s like saying, “What’s the effect of reading?”  If you read violence and pornography, it has one effect.  If you read poetry and spiritual writings, it has another effect.  It doesn’t make sense to ask for the effect of reading, which is computation is, it depends on what the medium is used for; what is written in that medium and what is done with it.  

The computer is a highly flexible medium and that’s what makes it so powerful.  The one property that it does have is power, and perhaps flexibility, and so it can be used.  If we go back to my two dichotomies, the computer can be the most powerful instrument of centralization that was ever invented, and they circulate this idea of the wired-up school where each kid’s sitting at a desk with a computer, which is connected to the teacher’s computer, which is connected to the administrator’s computer, which is connected somebody [who is in cyber space 00:17:11], who knows?

It was great for all of the structural affairs.  There is perfect control and somebody can be watching everything, and it’s totally centralized.  Without the computer, you couldn’t get a quarter of the way there; the computer can take us 20 times as far.  On the other hand, the computer can also be the instrument of decentralization, and why?  I think that this whole idea of curriculum and turning the act of bringing up young people, guiding them to [inaudible 00:17:46] to a technical act of dispensing little pieces of information; this wasn’t done viciously or stupidly.  It was done because they didn’t have any choice when they did it.  They couldn’t see any other way.  

I think you can’t see any other way because as long as you are dealing with information, dealing with knowledge, which is being dispensed for use in tenuous times, when you’ve grown up, and it’s not something you use now, you almost have to resort to one of two kinds of tricks, both equally bad.  One is this “program it, program it into the child,” [inaudible 00:18:27] the mother, or somehow trick the child, build it into a game.  Pretend this is great fun until the child is [inaudible 00:18:35].  It’s just as bad, in my view, [of course, it’s double 00:18:37].  Knowledge is only honestly acquired when you can see its relationship on personal purposes, your own personal goals.  

When we see children working with building robots on a mega-interface where they’re loading a computer and programming it to do all sorts of great things and the kid says, “How do you make this go with more force?  I have to make the truck go up the hill and it’s stalled.”  You get into the questions of gears and how to get more torque on the wheels; all sorts of questions of this sort, the knowledge that’s been given is in a totally different relationship with the individual.  The kid wants it; you don’t have to motivate the kid to [have it 00:19:39].

This idea, of course, is radically different.  It’s radically incompatible with the centralized curriculum.  If you’re specifying whatever it is that’s going to be [discharged 00:19:50] then by definition it’s not going to be the agenda of the learner, but the agenda of the subject, or the teacher.  That is, the teacher gets the agenda from some hierarchy, in some distant, abstract [inaudible 00:20:07] somewhere that’s already decided, probably [already dead 00:20:10].  These two things, instructionism and constructionism, centralization/decentralization, go very much together.  

To change gears, I’d like to look at these issues from another tack.  I’ve been talking about the big political [scene 00:20:42] and some of the [inaudible 00:20:46] philosophies of education.  Right now, we want to know what about what’s happening in our schools right now, and in terms of what we have kobserved [from them 00:20:55]?  I would like to give my [inaudible 00:20:58] history of the computer in schools in the United States of America.  [I don’t know if 00:21:00] this concept was grasped, but in some ways it’s something that we’re up and down [inaudible 00:21:16].

When I first saw … [I had been 00:21:20] messing around with computers and children since the late ’60s, but right through the ’70s … This was toward the very late ’70s, so it was not a very romantic time [inaudible 00:21:30], because we couldn’t really put computers in schools [inaudible 00:21:34] spontaneously.  There’d just been out of control experiments and at that time a lot of the real questions of computers [inaudible 00:21:45].  Around about the late ’70s, microcomputers got to be around.  The very first microcomputer I ever saw in a school had been built by a teacher over the summer out of a kit.  Here it was and they couldn’t do much with it, but there was tremendous excitement because it was a computer.  Think of a [red 00:22:08] box seen on television, here it was [inaudible 00:22:10].  There was quite a bit of excitement about this thing.

In the next few years, quite a lot of [growth 00:22:19]; quite a lot of [inaudible 00:22:20].  They began dribbling in.  In the early ’80s, I used to see a lot of the [inaudible 00:22:29] there in the classroom.  There’s one or two computers at the back of the room, and there’s a teacher had brought them there because she [inaudible 00:22:40] and was enthusiastic about computers and had persuaded the school or the PTA.  In some places, [inaudible 00:22:48] they were actually making the computer, although it was not very widespread, but somehow getting it on individual initiative of one sort or whatever it was.  There it was in the classroom and so quite wonderful things were being done with these computers.  

Wonderful things, I think, because it was part of a grassroots movement.  It didn’t come from up top; it came from [inaudible 00:23:10].  There was real [inaudible 00:23:12], there was real passion for the computers, because they believed in it.  It wasn’t work that somebody else told the teacher, “You’ve got to use the computer.”  It came up from the teacher, so it was constructionist from the teacher’s point of view also.  It was the personal teacher’s [inaudible 00:23:29] being spent and so that’s the condition we’re talking about, with most of them.

In the mid-80s, one saw a decline in the process and the decline, paradoxically, had to do with the cost, and now there were more computers.  Since there were a sufficient number of computers, the school administration, the same administration gets in to the act.  There’s nothing wrong with that in principle, because the technology [had been 00:24:01] attack, and the way forward now was inevitable.  I’m not criticizing this.  I think that what I’m describing was the inevitable, the way it had to be, but we can look it in the face and say, “Now, where’s it going?”

The way it had to be was that at some point that it shifted from a scattering of enthusiastic teachers having computers in their classrooms to the computer lab.  Now we concentrate the computers in the labs, we bring the kids in for an hour a week, maybe, we have a special computer teacher, and then we get all upset because computers were not having much influence on the learning process in the rest of the school.  I think you heard Jerry [Kosberg 00:24:52] yesterday talk about computers as, [no doubt 00:24:58] instruments of change, and they are [that exactly 00:25:03].

We know her very well, that you just have to [inaudible 00:25:05] of her approach, and I’m sure she gave you big insights into how you can bring the computers into a school, but set it up in a way where you maximize the chance of no transfer.  You maximize the chance of making the computer something separate from the rest of the day, from learning, from the rest of the learning environment.  You maximize the chance of most teachers being affected by the computer because if you’ve found a special person called a computer teacher.   That’s how you define the turf and other teachers, they’re not computer teachers, and they’re outside the computer culture.  You’ve done a lot of things that negate the possible excitement about how the computer can come into the learning process and be made an instrument of revolutionary change.  

Of course, it’s not all bad, and I think I’ve found two important aspects.  First of all, a profession, a professional community of computer users and teachers comes into effect.  That computer teacher is now a sociological fact [inaudible 00:26:18], just view the statistics and it teaches you that.  Apart from being you, whoever you are as an individual; you are also part of a sociological movement and what [inaudible 00:26:29] the way that movement is governed, that’s what I’d like to emphasize for the rest of my time.  

I think in many ways we used the computer, but degraded and disparaged them, and in many ways the computer teacher was degraded with it.  Often this computer teacher was somebody who had been enthusiastically using the computer in the classroom, then got demoted to this position where, in many cases, you were forced to be a technician worried about keeping the computers going, about how to buy, or software to buy on a limited budget, and committee meetings, and then teaching rather trivial stuff about the computer, a very watered-down [concept of 00:27:14] computer literacy and exposure to how to use a word processor, but how to use a word processor in a very artificial way, because the natural way is when you’re writing someone.  There’s an artificial way when you’re being taught how to use it in a computer lab.  

I think that the computer teachers in many ways are degraded by this.  What I want to focus on is now that something else is happening, and I think the future of the computer teacher is critical and changing, and maybe the most important issue for the coming period is for the computer user and teacher to acquire new consciousness of their role.  

I think that a few examples might speak more than [inaudible 00:28:19] graphics, so maybe I’ll [just 00:28:22] make one point.  The material, the technological infrastructure of this whole business of computers … I think when there were very few computers there wasn’t the concept of computer labs.  The computer in the classroom was almost dictated by that.  When there were more computers, there was now a high pressure to have the lab, not always followed; many schools resisted it, but I think that, taken as a whole, the general trend was towards having the computer labs.  

What happens when there are yet more computers?  By the way, I’m talking about the number of computers as if it were a force of nature that sort of grows irrespective of … I think that that’s probably the right perspective, that computers then are going to be continually infiltrating the schools in great numbers forever.  Whether experience shows that they’re good or bad, whether they’re being used this way or that way, I think they’ve infiltrated them because they are a part of our society and the schools are in society.  The more the image of the office is a computer on every desk, the more there’s this pressure towards the image of the school also being …  

They’re coming for several reasons, or for diversity of different kinds of educational projects, such as [inaudible 00:29:49] that have been carried away by some computer software of some sort; it doesn’t matter, they’ve come.  Although there’s been little [inaudible 00:29:57], on the whole they’ve grown.

By the way, I [inaudible 00:30:03], where two things happen; I think that we’re going to get [up 00:30:10] … At the moment the number of computers in schools is such that in general they cannot have a very deep impact on the actual life of the school, but in some cases they can and do already.  I think the case of St. Paul’s is a striking example and there are many others [inaudible 00:30:33].  There are not quite a lot, but they’re the exception from the whole.  

As those ideas spread and as they numbers increase, we will see computers as reaching a critical level, where they will begin to have a more serious impact, and then [inaudible 00:30:51] move in and start taking over.  [Inaudible 00:30:55], I won’t say much more about that because it would be such a boring [business 00:31:01] of economics and technology; I want to come back to the position of the computer teacher.  

As these numbers increase, the computer lab is now hooked up to more computers that will constitute the computer lab.  There’s a new question.  What do you do with the next [lot of 00:31:22] computers?  The question of distributing them outside the learning environment of classrooms into science labs, into libraries, or other places, reopens.  Some schools decide they have to stick to computer labs, but when that grows up the question will reopen.  What I’m saying is I think we are at the point in time where if it’s on the agenda, what’s beyond the computer lab?  

Computer labs are not going to go away and will always have a function, but I think they’re at a point where what’s beyond it is a determined question for the next few years.  What’s beyond it is one way or another it’s going to spill out.  The question arises as it spills out into the rest of the school.  I think here the computer teacher begins to adopt and take on a very different role, if she or he is willing to do that.  As the computer spills out into the school, the computer teacher is the person who can; with the right approach and the right support, the computer teacher can be the person who would mediate the appropriation of this computer into the classrooms, into how the different subject matters are taught.  

This stops being a technical [act 00:32:49].  It starts being how to plug in the computer and turn it on, [inaudible 00:32:52], while thinking about the nature of those subject matters, the nature of those [dozen 00:33:00] activities.  In a certain sense, the computer teacher is called on to adopt a rather, a vocation which I want to call “meta-philosopher.”  Let me say why I think that.  

As long as we’re in the era of the curriculum, the centralized approach, the teachers are going to have to worry about many of the [inaudible 00:33:27].  Let’s take an example.  It is written down that this month the children will learn to add fractions and the way that you’re going to add fractions is to … Well, you’ve got to worry about how to do it, or about the discipline in your classroom.  You might worry about this kid who’s having a lot of trouble.  You do not have to worry about what is mathematics?  What is a fraction?  These questions safely can be left to the philosophers and their studies [inaudible 00:34:06] your attention.  

As soon as sufficiently radical change becomes possible, as soon as it’s no longer being laid down by somebody else what’s important and where, you do have to worry.  Is this a new thing?  Is it mathematics?  Is it logic?  Is it thinking?  Is it science?  Is it poetry?  What?  When your role is mediating this change to the other teachers you’ve grown out of the question about the nature of teaching or social relations.  Suddenly you find yourself having a responsibility to delegate to many domains that breaks down all these compartments of knowledge and starts becoming … The world is demanding of you to be a sort of renaissance person, capable of [inaudible 00:35:04] all of these things.

Let me give you a concrete example like I promised here.  Take a few examples of mathematics.  A simple example recently that’s become our favorite at MIT of constructionism in mathematics at the moment because we’ve really decided to make a big effort of really studying this particular situation and there are a few publications about it that will be coming out soon in the next [number 00:35:36] of the Journal of Children’s Mathematical Behavior.  Do you know that?  You should.  It’s now published in the states by Bob Jacobs, [inaudible 00:35:46].  There’s a new journal, whose first number will be out next month, called what?  The Journal of Constructional Technology; it doesn’t matter, because it’s [inaudible 00:36:01].  

This experiment was done in Boston in an elementary public school.  Kids had access to computers [inaudible 00:36:16] study.  In this project they used four days a week; access to computers.  The same thing can be done with [half of that 00:36:23].  I don’t know whether the same thing can be done with a quarter of that, [inaudible 00:36:30].  These children had had about three months of experience.  [Inaudible 00:36:36] and had some idea about writing programs, no [inaudible 00:36:43].  The project was this.  The assignment; they had an assignment.  The assignment was each kid, each member of the class, was to write a piece of software to explain something about fractions.  Anything you liked about fractions; just explain something.  They had a lot of freedom of choice and exercised it.  

During the period of the project … We’re talking about three months, so they were doing three hours a week four times, three-quarters of an hour a week for about three months.  They worked on this project on making software.  The teachers [inaudible 00:37:34] were to discuss with the children problems that came up.  They were encouraged to compare notes and copy one another’s notes and write down what they were doing, and they did this to their varying degrees.  I’d like to say at the same time they were getting regular school classes and [practicums 00:37:55].  This wasn’t to replace their school math with something else.  

Careful control of the study was done throughout, comparing the children in this group with other children who had the same instruction in fractions by the same teacher in the regular classroom, but didn’t have this computer experience.  Some of them had a different computer, again [inaudible 00:38:19].  A lot of trouble was gone to, to try to make comparisons.

The two remarkable things about this project were, first of all it does give us what some people would think of as a [qualifying 00:38:37] first about this particular bottom line, and an important line.  Politically, it’s very important and I think it gives us a lot to think about.  These children could magically improve their scores in the standard tests on fraction writing.  Nobody, of course, has tried to give them any feedback, nobody ever said, “That’s not the right answer.”  Nevertheless, they got better at math and fractions [as normally 00:39:10] tested.

Most interesting, perhaps, was when we looked at them in this project we noticed that many of them during the first few weeks did “schoolish” stuff with fractions, but as time went on they started engaging with different kinds of problems and issues.  By “schoolish things,” I mean having a quarter and a third.  By “non-schoolish things,” I mean [inaudible 00:39:44], example of how many different ways can you find of showing fractions?  You can draw a circle, of course, and divide it up into however many different parts and almost everybody does that first.  It’s easy [to know, though, 00:39:59], because they saw it in the school.  That’s one way.

It took them [an amazing 00:40:07] amount of time before they had come to a host of [inaudible 00:40:09] in other ways; [inaudible 00:40:11] sale, 25% of this or that, a quarter of money, a half an hour.  On the half an hour, one of the dramatic moments in this project was this individual child who, looking for ways of doing fractions on the screen, did a clock-turning and announced in her notebook, they kept an notebook for them to write their notes every day … In her notebook she wrote with big letters and exclamation points, and they’re putting them on the screens afterwards, adopting it as something to explain to people … Her great discovery was “Half an hour is half of one hour.”

I think it’s worth reflecting [inaudible 00:41:10] that this was a real discovery made with a great sense of wonder by this, not [inaudible 00:41:13] child at all.  [Inaudible 00:41:18] learning [inaudible 00:41:20] at the core?  I think what it tells us is that for this kid there was the school stuff called fractions, where you did these things on paper and there was real-world, where there was half an hour, where was all this other stuff, and they were not connected.  You wouldn’t take that fraction stuff out of the classroom if someone paid you, [nor would the teacher have done 00:41:47].

The point is, I think, that through the experience of wondering about how, using the computer’s flexibility to represent fractions in many ways like, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, [next time 00:42:09] 2/3, or maybe it’s 1/3, maybe it’s both, whichever you’d like it to be.  You get into these issues.  You draw a rectangle and divide it into three parts and make two red and one green and say that’s 2/3.  If you did this in [inaudible 00:42:30], roughly it turns out [inaudible 00:42:31], it’s going to tell you to make the exactly equal sides.  You made that part and then you cut the next part [inaudible 00:42:40] the next part, so there you have three that were of equal size. 

A [inaudible 00:42:46], in this case the teacher, said, “That’s wrong.  Is that two-thirds?”  The teacher said, “That’s not right,” and the teacher … I’m contradicting myself.  The teacher did not strictly ever say, “You’re wrong.”  Maybe it was another kid, I’m not sure of that; I can’t remember.  The argument came up about “Is that two-thirds?”  The consensus was, “It’s not two-thirds, it’s only two-thirds if [inaudible 00:43:18].  Then, the next day, the kid came along and said, “Look here,” and pulled out two [inaudible 00:43:28].

The point was not was not whether [inaudible 00:43:36]; the point was to have them think about “What is a fraction, what is a number?”  The school knowledge and the outside knowledge had to be connected.  Is this mathematics?  Is it mathematics to be worrying about when a half an hour is half of one hour, or is something else like [inaudible 00:43:55], which is common sense, or just not serious?  Actually, I take this as an example.  I think that it’s an example of what’s really a philosophical [extension 00:44:08] about the nature of mathematics.  When does it become mathematics?  Is mathematics put in a black box [inaudible 00:44:13] piece of paper?  It is using representations to deal with another aspect of reality?  Is it coming to truths [inaudible 00:44:26] propositions [inaudible 00:44:27], are they true or false, or are they just [inaudible 00:44:30]?

All of these are issues about the nature of mathematics that have belonged … There is a great deal of literature on them in philosophical books and journals.  I’m not suggesting necessarily to read it, although you might be interested in poking into it sometime.  What I’m saying is, whether you read it or not is not the point.  I think you, working with your kids and facing these issues, can come to just as profound an approach to these things as those philosophers did and in some ways it’s more profound because it’s more [inaudible 00:45:09].

What I’m saying is, just as little kids, that little example of how this shift … Because there are more things you can do and it’s not obvious which of them … They aren’t predigested as mathematics [inaudible 00:45:26] might be; you are thrown by the nature of the activity into the role of philosopher.  You are forced to think about, as the kids thought about it, what are really the [substantive 00:45:39] questions.  This is just my little metaphor, maybe, for saying that as the computers flow out, as the computers are used in more and more varied personal ways, the computer teacher also becomes somebody with these more varied responsibilities, philosophy comes down to [inaudible 00:46:08], your responsibility is to deal with these.  

I’ll tell you another good example that came back to me just the other day [inaudible 00:46:20] some interesting [work 00:46:22] with comparison to another project [inaudible 00:46:36].  This was ‘way back when there used to be a [inaudible 00:46:49] on my computer.  The nicest thing about that was that [inaudible 00:46:52].  Anyway, this was a kid, six years, a first-grader; he’s sitting there and there are things on the screen and he’s had instructions [inaudible 00:47:12].  The instructions were in slightly different colors, but they were equivalent to “Set screen 100,” [inaudible 00:47:21]; you would have a sea of color.  “Set screen 10,” [inaudible 00:47:26], “Set screen 1,” [inaudible 00:47:29]; “Set screen 0.”  No, I don’t think she mentioned having 0; I think it was a [toggle 00:47:36].  I think she [inaudible 00:47:38].  She mentioned having 10, [inaudible 00:47:42], Set screen 0 [and stop 00:47:46].  Set screen 10 was greater than Set screen 0 to start.  

The kid jumped up and tried to get [inaudible 00:47:54] of what was happening.  People couldn’t see why she was so excited until, actually, some other teacher from the school came in and [inaudible 00:48:11], but she saw the point.  What the kid was excited about was the discovery that 0 is a number.  That speed 10 is moving at speed 10, and speed 100 is moving faster, what about speed 0?  Is that moving?  The point is, from a certain point of view it is moving.  It’s moving at speed 0.  I am now walking at speed 0.  

I remember being told or reading about how 0 was discovered by a Hindu mathematician; I remember as a kid reading that 0 was discovered by somebody.  I remember wondering what did they really discover, and coming to the conclusion that they probably discovered that by drawing a circle to represent nothing they thought clearly about why would they make a circle to represent nothing, because there’s nothing in it, and it’s empty inside.  That’s the natural thing for a 0, and so I really thought I understood why this was a great discovery, because they’d thought of [inaudible 00:49:23] and put the two things together.  

I think that now … When I read this story about this kid discovering speed 0, I looked back, of remembering this business about the discovery of 0.  She really did discover 0 the way that these ancient mathematicians did.  She discovered that 0 is a number, just like any other number.  

Now I’ll tell you this other story, and it’s a test of … The same thing that happens to you if you’re reading something and see a word and you say, “What does that mean?”  You look it up in the dictionary.  Then, in the next week, you meet the same word three times; one day, somebody sends this word out to you.  Why is it coming here, just because you looked it up.  The point is it always was there, but you [inaudible 00:50:23].  It happens like this with a lot of things I see with kids.  You see something, it looks like it’s incredibly exceptional, but then when you start opening your [eyes 00:50:32] and looking, it comes up all over the place.  This is [inaudible 00:50:37] with 0.  

[Inaudible 00:50:40] has been working with kids with [Inaudible 00:50:48] Boxer, but doing the same sorts of stuff.  He’s been getting the kids into these sessions about strategies for working with fractions.  I’m sorry, [inaudible 00:51:00].  He has been doing that, but whatever the case, they’ve been making things move and then talking about ways of making pictures of movement.  How do you show something moving?  They start off with comic book-like figures and end up with something like a graph in some sense. 

A lot of these kids, one group of these kids had drawn a [inaudible 00:51:29] in this book.  They had tried to draw it [inaudible 00:51:34].  “Make a picture of that movement.”  Well, skipping all the details, they worked towards [showing 00:51:46] where is starts fast and slows down.  They drew something like a graph at that point; it was something a graph, it sped up, and then a gap.  It had the movement of speed [inaudible 00:52:01], then there’s a gap where there was no movement, and then it gets bigger again.  They got [inaudible 00:52:10] of this gap.

It took a while before the kids came back with, “Why is there a gap and there’s no movement there?”  Then somebody said, “Zero is also a number.”  That remark, that “Zero is also a number,” precipitated a whole set of new excitement, so they connected the graph and they worked with that.  My point about this is that this computer drawing of these graphs, making these things move, creates a situation that’s discovery-rich in a sense.  

Someone will want to [inaudible 00:52:49] these interesting problems and [study them 00:52:52].  Somebody around can amplify them.  To really amplify them, you need to be sensitive, have your mind open to see it, what’s really going on, to interpreting [what the kids see 00:53:04].  There’s excitement about what’s happening and its historic importance [for many 00:53:11].  It’s not just a little [oddly-set 00:53:12] graphically; they’re into something bigger.  

If the kids get a sense that they’re into something big, if they begin with big ideas, [inaudible 00:53:23] that are big, [inaudible 00:53:26] our predecessors in science and philosophy and poetry, and the teacher too.  Instead of this phrase, “just a teacher,” where you say, “Well, I’m just a teacher.”  I think we have to have a shift to the teacher not being something that is what we call “just,” but a teacher being seen as not only having a great deal of responsibility for these young kids growing up, and being somebody who can exercise that responsibility without being checked up on every second.  Also, as somebody who feels herself or himself to be working with what’s most important in the ideas that are [inaudible 00:54:24].  We’re not trivially transmitting little fragments of knowledge, we are rethinking, constantly recreating, constantly rethinking the major concepts of our culture and our science and civilization.  

I was told today that Jerry Kosberg may have been [managing 00:54:52] yesterday with Tom Koons [inaudible 00:54:55] on what the important revolutions in science were, the shift of paradigm, different ways of perceiving things.  I’d like to conclude by attaching on an aspect of thinking about teaching, thinking about science and knowledge that is in the same spirit.  If you go and look in books about philosophy and the scientific method, you’ll often see in the introductory section of a text on science it will say, “This is the scientific method.”  

The scientific method is you make precise measurements, you confirm theories, you prove them or disprove them, but the idea is science is something that is separate from the ways in fractions for this child are really separate from talking about half an hour and what [it means 00:55:57] in everyday life.  Science is seen as dealing with very precisely defined, highly technical, exact information.  Many people don’t like that.  Many people, including many elementary school teachers, think that’s for somebody else, because they’re taught the kind of thinking that l like to do … It’s not the thinking I like to do either, or I want to do. 

[Inaudible 00:56:33] noting that in recent times, the last 10 years particularly, partly under the influence of Tom Cruise and people like him, anthropologists and [inaudible 00:56:44] have spent much more time going into scientific laboratories and actually watching what scientists actually do as they work.  What they do as they work bears no resemblance to what [they say 00:57:02].  It bears no resemblance to this kind of highly technical quantitative thinking that many of us don’t like.  What they do is they’re messing around; they’re playing.  They get back there and they play with this and they see what it means.  They [inaudible 00:57:19] have a discussion with who knows who about who knows what.  All of this is part of … 

They’re messing around, and out of this messing around insights grow and they begin to see [inaudible 00:57:38] one another, and have the same ideas, and language grows up.  I wanted to emphasize this because I was struck by … I was reading some of this discussion of science and I was struck by some of the discussion that there has been in the educational literature about this sort of hands-on … Even the phrase “Messing About with Science” was used [inaudible 00:58:04] else and accepted by David Hawkins, talking about how to introduce kids to science.  

Most of this discussion is good because it’s good to learn about messing around, but it’s limited in a very important way [inaudible 00:58:25].  If you read what a lot of this description [inaudible 00:58:34] book, which I think has one of the best [inaudible 00:58:37].  Nevertheless, there is this limitation.  He says the way you do it is you first mess around; then you do the real thing.  Don’t learn about any of [inaudible 00:58:49].  Don’t tell the children, “Here’s the law of the pendulum, now go do an experiment to verify it,” [which you rarely get 00:58:58].  Rather, give them string and weights and [inaudible 00:59:04] and play with it for a while, and then, after this, we’ll give you the [inaudible 00:59:08].

Now, that’s [inaudible 00:59:09] I’m sure, but still the messing around is not seen as the real thing.  The messing around is still seen as something educational and the shift that we see is that it is more involving [inaudible 00:59:24].  I mean it is the real thing; it’s what the real scientists do.  It’s not just educational and it’s not separated.  Some of these ideas like learning by messing around in a playful way, which you might think of as presented in the education literature as “These ideas are for children, how to teach children how to take their first steps into science,” but this is a big put-down of the role of the teacher and the role of this kind of thinking.

I’m saying in essence it takes a step further, that when you do that you’re not just using a technique that belongs in the methods course about how to teach science.  You are, in effect, exercising the real thing, the way real science works.  In experimenting with those ideas, you are in the mainstream of contemporary thinking about the nature of science.  That was my next to last example.  

These examples of fractions and this messing around, these have had something to do with a methods course, which is really what the philosophy of science is about.  The examples are meant to illustrate this idea that teachers, and particularly computer teachers, are [inaudible 01:00:49] to enter into our major [inaudible 01:00:53] take this responsibility, and are fully capable of doing it.  Our society has to give them that acknowledgement and that responsibility, and give them the opportunity to learn, to read, to think.  This shift in how we perceive the teachers, like the shift in how we perceive mathematics, the shift in how we perceive science; this is the epistemological perestroika that can really make for a decentralized education.  

It can really carry out in our schools the turning away from a failed system parallel to what we saw at the beginning of my talk in, say, the Eastern European countries where they are finding themselves forced to turn away from another system that failed, but not such another system.  I think they did it on a more grandiose scale, but failed for the same reason.  It has to be cured by being replaced in the same sort of [inaudible 01:02:08], so there is time left to talk.

We have 10 minutes for questions, I’m sad to say.  Who would like to [inaudible 01:02:44]?  

Male: [Inaudible 01:02:50] … Yet they want you to give direction or instruction.

Seymour: Okay.  The question is, when you have students coming to your class after years of being exposed to authoritarian means and you want to adopt a freer kind of social structure in your class, what about the transition?  Isn’t it hard for them?  The answer is yes, it is very hard for them and there’s no simple formula around it, as the people in Eastern Europe are finding.  There’s a transition there too and for the same reasons, from an authoritarian to a freer society, it’s going to be difficult.  I think it’s an extraordinarily difficult problem.

I just have to say two or three things.  I think that if more teachers were doing this, you would have less of a problem.  Although it’s harder to bite the bullet and do it, because you can be sent the model for other people to do it also, it will become easier.  I think there are political issues.  There are issues of restructuring the schools even on an administrative level.  In Denmark, I was amazed to learn when I visited there, that children had the same teacher all of the way through from first grade to 12th grade.  I think that might be an exaggerated approach.  I don’t know what happens if you hate your teacher; I suppose you can transfer.

I think the point is, the point that struck me very much there is if you had your kids for three years you would have much less problems with this.  You’d have the time to get them into a different … I think that a lot of that problem is produced by things that really ought to … I think this idea of having your kids for one year and then move on to someone else, to someone else, is just … It’s one of those defense mechanisms of the bureaucratic system that builds itself to resist change.  That’s how you make systems to resist change, you [tighten down 01:05:10] the knot so that if anybody ever tries to change a piece of it, it doesn’t really work because this piece is out of sync with the rest.  

I think there are practical issues that you can, ways we can address it, such as getting kids for more time, such as coordinating with other teachers, such as [inaudible 01:05:34].  I think the transition from the authoritarian to the free is a major problem facing the world today.  Maybe it is the major problem facing the world today, and it’s one more example of what you’re facing in your situation as teacher in a school is not just [inaudible 01:05:22] teacher’s problem to be dealt with [inaudible 01:05:55]; it’s one of the biggest pieces of our time.

Maybe I’m only saying it’s harder even than you say.  I think the point is we have to face it squarely.

Male: [Inaudible 01:05:13].

Seymour: Yes?

Male: Thinking about your metaphor of changing God’s plan to a marketing system, the bottom line there is still going to be … Let’s say [you’ve got this national plan 01:06:25], switching over to education, if we change the method are we going to keep the same criteria for how it’s working?  If so, then [the change is made 01:06:43] in difficulty.

Seymour: Okay, I would like to tell you about an experiment that I saw done at a conference at [inaudible 01:06:53].  This was done by [Carol Staid 01:06:56], who is a teacher.  She got a group together, a discussion group, by announcing a meeting of [inaudible 01:07:04].  In this discussion the following day, every person there, they were mostly [inaudible 01:07:17] teachers, every person there felt that the criteria we were using in testing is meaningless.  Not one of them had ever said this to a parent or to students [inaudible 01:07:33].  All of them thought that the parents would have trouble believing that, but as there was, [in the end 01:07:46] anybody could see that different kinds of criteria would be the right ones.  

What I’m trying to say is this is, this criterion of the current testing we’re doing, it’s again one of those … Every organism develops defense mechanism to protect itself, and this is one of them.  It’s not just the testing itself; it’s the way that teachers, for example, are brought into it.  When you have a conference with the parents, you talk about the scores on the test, so you become a collaborator in the process.  We see again it’s a political issue; an authoritarian system works as long as the people who are being oppressed by it are prepared to do nothing.  I think this is the case [inaudible 01:08:25] too.  

I’m not against there being tests and I’m not against there being some attempts to clarify what kind of knowledge you need.  Everybody knows that these criteria, these tests are absurd, and yet we continue doing them, and that’s a paradox.  I think we have to break out of it.  It’s the same paradox as, here’s an authoritarian society.  How is it this dictator, who is one person, can keep 200 million people [inaudible 01:09:04]?  Only by [inaudible 01:09:06], and I think that’s the major [inaudible 01:09:09].  If the world of educators didn’t want collaborate in this, the [inaudible 01:09:14] would be different. The trouble is that [inaudible 01:09:17].  

Male: I have a question.

Seymour: Yes.  

Male: I’ve been messing around for about three years and I have this reaction that I get terrible guilt feelings because I’m not doing it the way I should be doing it.  If the students get frustrated, then I start to abandon the messing around, because I want to get in there and help them.  Do you have any comments on that?

Seymour: You said that you want to get in there and help them?

Male: Yeah, I want to help them, you know?  

Seymour: Okay, I’ve got a way to do that.  I think that it’s just human to want to help them, [inaudible 01:10:03].  We have to find the kind of activities in which we can genuinely help, without taking away the pleasure and the [battle 01:10:12] of discovery.  I think the idea of joint projects with adults and children, where you’re doing something sufficiently new so that their ideas are also good, and it’s not you imposing your ideas.  I guess what I’m saying is what we have to develop is more expertise and many more examples of kinds of activity where you can genuinely jump in there to help without feeling that you’re taking …

There’s something wrong with this artificial situation where you know the answers and you have to restrain yourself from telling them, and you have to try to calculate in a manipulative way how much of it I can feed out to them so as to help them without giving it away.  I think, by definition, those are just the wrong kinds of activities and we have to work harder to find ones that are genuine.

I had the experience the other day … I’m not suggesting that Nintendo is the example, [it’s the case 01:11:18].  For various reasons, I was interested in buying Nintendo games and I had worked with some kids, six, eight, 10, 12, in how do you do these games?  What sort of strategy?  How do you learn a new one?  All of these kids were much better than I was.  Now, I learned something from them that was [an example 01:11:43].  I think that explaining it to me and the kind of questions I asked, which were not in an educational intent; I wasn’t trying to teach them something about strategy, but because I felt this intention on how do you do it, what are the strategies, because I had a different perspective, I think I could them catching on and using this perspective and getting to be more articulate.  

I’m only [inaudible 01:12:06] as an example that just came to my mind as something where the kids knew a lot that I didn’t know, and it wasn’t a situation of “I have to carefully hold back, because I know [and I don’t want them to find out 01:12:19].”    

I see somebody here who I’ve [inaudible 01:12:23] before, having stuck up a poster in a classroom that said, “Ask three before you ask me,” and [inaudible 01:12:35] to this.  Before you ask me for help, ask three other people and those three other people are going to be kindergarten and first grade kids.  By the time they’ve asked one another and nine-tenths of the time gotten an answer and don’t need to ask you, there comes a point where it’s okay to ask you, and you can [inaudible 01:12:56].  That’s another example of facing the issue and saying, “How can we deal with this?”

I’m going to summarize it.  There’s no simple answer, but there’s a lot of things that can be done to deal with that.  Once more, I think many of these questions really are putting fingers on the fundamental issues facing us, to which nobody has instant answers.  I think the point is not to see them as reasons for discouragement and pulling back and saying, “Well, things will never change.  I hope, of course, I know you’ve [inaudible 01:13:34], but maybe [inaudible 01:13:36].”

Instead, we have to recognize that we need to do better techniques and ideas and kinds of activities, and ideas like putting up this kind of a slogan, all sorts of stuff, and get this out to more teachers.  Share it with more people.  I really think that the know-how to make the change is resident in … The amount of knowledge resident in all of the heads in this room is mind-boggling.  If only we can get it out and get it shared we would have revolution on our hands right now.  Male: Thank you, Dr. Seymour.  The first lunch session is beginning in about two minutes and [inaudible 01:14:29].  Dr. Patrick [Inaudible 01:14:32].  Enjoy the rest of the day.  [Crosstalk 01:14:46].

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