November 1, 2011

“The supervaluation of abstract thinking vitiates discussion of educational issues. The reason is that educators who advocate imposing abstract ways of thinking on students almost always practice what they preach—as I tried to do in adopting a concrete style of writing—but with very different effects.

A simple example is seen in the formulation of research questions. In front of me is a stack of learned papers, filled with numbers, tables, and statistical formulas, with titles such as “An Assessment of the Effect of the Computer on Learning.” Their authors would be indignant at the suggestion that their work is “abstract.” They would surely say that the shoe is on the other foot: They have produced “concrete numerical data,” in marked contrast with my “abstract anecdotal philosophizing.” But however concrete their data, any statistical question about “the effect” of “the computer” is irretrievably abstract. This is because all such questions depend on the use of what is often called “scientific method,” in the form of experiments designed to study the effect of one factor which is varied while taking great pains to keep everything else the same. The method may be perfectly appropriate for determining the effect of a drug on a disease: When researchers try to compare patients who have had the drug with those who have not, they go to great pains to be sure that nothing else is different. But nothing could be more absurd than an experiment in which computers are placed in a classroom where nothing else is changed. The entire point of all the examples I have given is that the computers serve best when they allow everything to change.”

Papert, S. (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. NY: Basic Books. pp 148-149.

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