Seymour Papert on ABC Radio – Sunday Profile

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Seymour Papert

Sunday, 11 July  2004

Presenter: Geraldine Doogue

Sunday profile
on ABC Local Radio

Seymour Papert, a mathematician and pioneer in artificial intelligence, has radical ideas about how the education system should be overhauled.

Geraldine Doogue: Good evening, it’s Geraldine Doogue here with Sunday Profile, and something a bit different this evening. My guest tonight, I think you’ll agree, is a man way ahead of his time. Since his radical days in South Africa, his work with sociologist Jean Piaget, and on developing artificial intelligence, Seymour Papert has always been out of kilter with conventional thinking. And now he’s turned his attention to the education system.

Seymour Papert is a mathematician, and a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was one of the founders of the famous Artificial Intelligence lab – which did the pioneering work on computers, way back in the sixties.

His interest in the brain led him to children, and how they learn. He worked with the Lego company, where he developed a line of robotic toys. But his most enduring passion is to give every child in his home state of Maine a personal computer.

In Australia the first wave of enthusiasm for computers in education has passed – why should technology should determine the curriculum, people say. But for Papert it is the old technologies of pencil and paper that are holding children back, and they should spend more time with computers not less.

Seymour Papert, welcome to Sunday Profile

Seymour Papert: Happy to be here.

Geraldine Doogue: You were involved in the cutting edge of artificial intelligence in the 1960s, what were your ideas then about how far computers could go in replicating human intelligence?

Seymour Papert: There’s a huge difference between the way people thought about artificial intelligence then and now. In those sixties, people in AI really thought in sort of galactic cosmic terms. We were interested in the possibility of some kind of artificial entity that would be as intelligent as a person and/or more intelligent. It was obvious, it still is obvious to me though, if you could make something as intelligent as a human it would be much more intelligent because there are many limitations that we have that a machine wouldn’t have. And if it could have all the things that we have it would have much more.

Geraldine Doogue: So this was very bold new world stuff?

Seymour Papert: It was very, very bold new world stuff. I mean, some people might say sort of crazy, arrogant…

Geraldine Doogue: Well, do you now think that as an elder of the tribe? Do you look back now and think ‘goodness that was the folly of youth’?

Seymour Papert: Oh, I don’t think it’s the folly of youth; I think it will come. What I think has become clearer is that we need some great new insights…

Geraldine Doogue: Into artificial intelligence?

Seymour Papert: John McCarthy, who is one of the other people involved in this, proposed a measure of greatness of idea, like one Einstein, is one of these ideas that happens once or twice a century. And the idea that you could use computers to do some things that the brain does – that the mind does – is maybe an Einstein’s worth of insight. And McCarthy guessed we need, at least, maybe one Einstein’s worth or maybe two Einstein’s. Something is needed that we don’t have. I’m not sure that it’s human. Because I think it’s quite possible that if we could make an artificial cat, we could make an artificial man. The things that we can do is we can make the thing play super chess or do things of that sort that only people can do and cats can’t do. Nobody has made a machine that can behave like a cat or any mammalian animal. And so there is something about the way ….. let’s call it information, is processed, because this concept of information came out of that same intellectual movement and…

Geraldine Doogue: It might be unknowable may it not be?

Seymour Papert: Unknowable in principle?

Geraldine Doogue: Yes

Seymour Papert: Of course it might be. But I don’t see any reason why it should be, everything else in the universe…well that’s not true of course, everything we know turns out to be knowable, but I don’t see any of the arguments that people have tried to advance that it has to be unknowable; I don’t see that they hold any water.

I think, really, what happened that’s a big factor isn’t so mystical as that, it’s that the sixties – this was almost a philosophical activity – it wasn’t a practical activity, it had practical fallout from the work that we were doing in the sixties. By the seventies, you could use it, you could make industrial robots you could make these expert systems that would solve little problems here and there so all of a sudden it became useable and then the funding and energy went into these small applications. The big question has really not been given a lot of attention by a lot of people.

Geraldine Doogue: What made you interested in working with children at that time?

Seymour Papert: An accident. I was studying mathematics, I was doing a PhD in mathematics, I was working in Paris – which in the fifties was the ultimate place for innovation in mathematics – but I was interested in philosophy of mind, partly coming out of my experience in South Africa…One of the most fascinating things for me, since I was a teenager, was how people could possibly think the things that I heard them thinking.

Geraldine Doogue: Racist attitudes?

Seymour Papert: Racist attitudes. That good, kind people could also be these racists. So this was a big thing for me to try and understand how the mind could possibly work and so I was in Paris officially doing mathematics, but frequenting circles with people interested in the questions of the mind. And there these circles overlapped with people interested in Piaget

Geraldine Doogue: Jean Piaget, a French developmental psychiatrist.

Seymour Papert: Piaget was looking for a mathematician to work with him for a year because he wanted to review what he had done about understanding how children develop the ideal number. And what’s very special about Piaget is somebody else would have looked for a psychologist to try to understand four, five, six year old children. Piaget thought – and that’s his greatness – that you really need a mathematician because it’s really the same issues that underlie real mathematics and children’s mathematics. So they brought me together with Piaget and we hit it off and then I spent some time working with Piaget and that spun out into a longer time than I meant to partly because I was offered a job in the United States at MIT and had a lot of trouble getting a visa because of my political background in South Africa.

Geraldine Doogue: What I’m curious about then is out of this fascinating time working with Jean Piaget – who developed that whole notion of the stages of development for children – how would digital technology fit in to what you learned then? Because you’re a great advocate for digital technology being used to help children make leaps in their own intelligence. How does it?

Seymour Papert: There are two connections and one, I think, is maybe less relevant but it was historically more important and that was digital models lead to a possibility of making a theoretical model of what goes on in children’s thinking. Now, the other side that’s related but in practice really quite different, has to do with the flexibility of digital intelligence in providing kids with things to do and I think that…Piaget, among others, had always criticised our education system because it’s more telling kids things and less learning by doing. The real learning happens by doing and so…

Geraldine Doogue: It’s hands on in a way

Seymour Papert: Hands on. The idea had been around – Montessori and John Dewy and all sorts of people had said you’ll learn better by making things, doing things, hands on. But, for something like mathematics, there really wasn’t very much that you could do if you’re a little kid that contacts a lot of the deep ideas we’d like them to learn. So, mathematics grew out of building the pyramids and sailing the oceans and predicting the stars and you can’t give kids pyramids to build or oceans [to sail] so we could only give them very trivial things to do. You know measuring the schoolyard is ridiculous mathematically, it’s trivial and nobody’s interested in it. Comes the computer and it’s now possible to let kids free in a big world where they can create and they can make things and do things and that are really rich in concepts.

So it’s possible to learn mathematics in a way, closer to the way mathematics developed that is. Starting with a way to understand the world and get things to happen and do things. So this leads to a real big turnaround in the way we think about learning and I think we’ve stood things upside down in our education system that we start teaching pure mathematics and hope later on that one day they’ll apply it to physics and engineering. I think we can reverse that completely – teach engineering in first grade or in kindergarten and then build up to pure mathematics.

Geraldine Doogue: So that if you had your druthers and you were designing a curriculum, I know you have been involved in particularly leading edge work with young children who we have to equip in a certain period of time where they sit at school rooms for the world they’re about to enter. How would you change what you see in most schoolrooms, in say the US at the moment?

Seymour Papert: Well I think that about 90 per cent of what we teach in mathematics in schoolrooms I’d throw out, it’s not really of any use in the modern world. Some of it was useful in an ancient world, like the 19th century or maybe the early 20th century and some of it was only useful as the way you could get kids to adopt a certain mathematical way of thinking when all you had to work with was pencil and paper. Think about the stuff that kids learn, knowing that a third is less than a half yeah that’s important, but everybody who’s worked in a kitchen knows that.

Knowing how to add fractions by taking the common denominator and all that manipulation – nobody in the world does that. It’s not a practical thing that you need to do. Nobody need to know the formula for solving a quadratic equation – B +…

Geraldine Doogue: (laughs) sorry, this is coming very home to roost

Seymour Papert: But 90 per cent of what we teach in school math is irrelevant today. A lot of it is about how numbers are written. It’s the influence of a paper based learning. Yeah you think of all that stuff you spent hours and hours, you write the numbers…. It’s about how you write numbers, it’s not about understanding numbers. It’s not about using numbers.

Geraldine Doogue: Is there, because men will argue, and I’ve had this argument with them, that maths that you’re talking about, that’s what I’d call arcane application of maths, teaches a form of logic that is not available anywhere else.

Seymour Papert: I’m introducing a word for that, when I was at school they made us learn Latin, why? Not because we were going to speak Latin but because by learning Latin you would learn to think in a rigorous way. We’d laugh at that. I’d think we’d laugh much too soon. Because the justification for most of what we’ve put into the curriculum is exactly the same. Not that it’s useful but that it causes something else to happen. But there is still the question, couldn’t you get that same effect on some other means…

Geraldine Doogue: That’s more relevant?

Seymour Papert: That’s more relevant, that’s more powerful, and this is my critique of the education establishment that they give zero time to considering whether there’s another way of getting that same goal. Have you really considered what alternatives there are? This huge new range of activities and ways of thinking that have opened to us through the digital world. Have you given serious consideration to whether some of those other things might not serve that purpose better?

Geraldine Doogue: More boys than girls, and there’s a lot of very good educational research about the boys drifting away, particularly around year 8 when they start to think it’s useless much more than girls. So might we be talking about a very difficult transition to a world where communication is more prized? The capacity to verbalise, to be interpretive a lot of those things – the great argument is – tend to favour a girl’s approach, rather than a boy’s approach. So are we into even bigger social changes that you’re talking about?

Seymour Papert: Here’s a little curious thing that I’ve recently become intrigued by. I worked during the 80s developing a way of children doing robotics using LEGO and eventually LEGO made this thing that they marketed under the name of my book Mindstorms which is build LEGO but instead of LEGO just being an architectural passive thing you make things it can do that can act to have behaviour. So you’ve got motors and gears and sensors and a little computer in it, so you can program it to do things.

LEGO marketed this for a pre-teen boys which annoyed me a lot. I’ve been trying to work on using this kind of building of robot like things in a wider context. Working with very young children like some preschool children or first or second grade children. Interesting thing that we stumbled on was whenever we get a group of these kids working with this technology, there’s always some, a kid or two who drifts up as the expert. The one that everybody looks to for more knowledge – it’s always a girl. Now why is it always a girl? And you look more closely you see the boys are obsessed with making one kind of thing: they want to make something that goes fast and far and it’ll run across the room, preferably smash what everyone else made and this obsession means that they’re looking at a narrow range of things to do with this technology.

The girls…even just because they don’t have this obsession – do a bigger variety of things with it and so they develop a richer knowledge, but even more than that they’d like to make something that they can interact with or that they can use to interact with other people. One girl said she’s dancing with it and that sort of led me off into a whole branch of research that I’m working on now. She wanted to make something that she or several of their friends could dance with, move around and they could dance with it and that was much more sophisticated technologically so it’s an interesting little twist where because of the kind of fact that you’re mentioning that the girls more interested in social and interaction actually led her to master this technology much more deeply than the boys did.

Geraldine Doogue: Very interesting, Seymour Papert is my guest Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a man fascinated by education and the possibilities of it in the future.

Let me ask you about bright children vs. disadvantaged children, I know that you’re working quite a lot with troubled children in Maine where you live in the US. Is there a gulf between the haves and the have-nots in terms of how we ought to think through the way we apply digital technology?

Seymour Papert: Yes. Of course there are many, many gulfs between haves and have nots in many different sorts of ways and…I’ll tell you… it’s a kind of experience that’s moved me more deeply than anything else in my life has been working in the last few years with children in a Juvenile prison and, there’s a profile that applies to maybe three kids that I met, but if I met three kids there must be three thousand like them or three hundred thousand in the world. This is the profile. This was a really bright child, mind active, interested in ideas, comes from a family where there isn’t any support for that, doesn’t necessarily mean a poor family, although often it’s more correlated…and the family doesn’t support this, comes to a school, coming to school is always a little traumatic. You’ve got to give up learning and you’ve got to be ‘teached’ and so we put the kid in the seat and say do this.

Well, depending on the school it’s done more or less sensitively and so this kid who’s a particularly free spirit of mind and it happens to be done particularly brutally in the school and doesn’t have the support at home and these three conditions added together the kid totally rejects school, totally. And so, goes from bad to worse – classified as the lowest of the low in terms of performance. Eventually runs away, eventually gets arrested for stealing food to live on and lands up in the juvenile prison after having gone through various other forms of institution …….In our little group there, where we try to make a context where kids like that could find stuff to do, interesting things, the kid turns out to be a genius. I don’t use that word lightly – we’ve got this kid building robotic devices for example, I work with these things and I see kids working with them, I often try to think ahead what trouble he’s going to get into – difficulties. So that when the kid gets there it’s not that…you want to give them the answer, but I can give them guidance. With this kid, every time that this happened. Yes I anticipated the child’s difficulty, he got over that difficulty and found a better answer than I had.

Geraldine Doogue: Really?

Seymour Papert: Yes. And the kid’s really brilliant. You can see this brilliant mind got into trouble because he’s so bright and so the whole system is sort of filtering out and breeding brilliant criminals it’s scary, apart from the waste of the individual person…

Geraldine Doogue: It’s possible that that always happens if he’s so unorthodox that he’s eccentric that…systems always have had that type of difficulties with that person haven’t they?

Seymour Papert: Well, he could be more flexible. But you see if he’d come from a slightly different family and if he’d been from a slightly different school or had the kind of environment that we try to create from the first place, it’s not intrinsic that you couldn’t have handled somebody like that.

Geraldine Doogue: Before I let you go, what’s going to happen to that boy?

Seymour Papert: I think he’s going to be okay, this particular one. What happened with this kid, the good thing that gives me confidence is that he got into a when he got out he got into a school where there was a teacher who took him under his wing and really understands and is giving him mentoring and I have a lot of confidence in.

Geraldine Doogue: So look I mean this is a very difficult question because I’m asking you to distil something but what would an education system look like that suited a child like that? In other words, is it possible, you must have considered this, that in tailoring a system to suit an extraordinary child like that, you might actually disadvantage that broad church of middlebrow kids who basically have got to come through, who might not be even vaguely brilliant?

Seymour Papert: Well actually, I don’t know how many kids are not even vaguely brilliant but I think that there isn’t going to be any single pattern that everybody’s gotta go through and that’s the source of the ultimate problem. I’ve often made this analogy between why the Soviet system broke down because it tried to be uniform, make decisions for everybody and why our economy was much more successful because it allowed people to take different routes and be innovative and I think that’s gotta be true of the learning environment. Society has to find ways and will, in which different people can learn in different patterns. And ultimately the source of the problems is this idea that you’re going to push everybody through the same pattern. However the pattern is it’s going to be a disaster for most kids and it’s not gonna be good for any but some will escape it. I think people like us…

Geraldine Doogue: But that’s the trouble the bright ones might escape it.

Seymour Papert: …to succeed we’re the ones which school failed I mean the nature of school is to homogenise people but nothing’s perfect so some people are not dumbed down by school and we come out relatively intelligent and innovative people…

Geraldine Doogue: Oh, this is deeply challenging!

Seymour Papert: But I think that’s the answer. Nothing is gonna be right for everybody, we’ve got to allow the same kind of diversity…

Geraldine Doogue: It’s just that you have, to really round it off, you have promoted, for instance, a lap-top for every child in a primary school. I wonder why you think that is an important device?

Seymour Papert: It’s only an important device because it’s disruptive. You put a lap-top, give people this…the bad things about school is that it’s a paper based system in a digital society. You put in the alternative medium and it’s still the same system. However, you’ve knocked away the underpinning that makes it get its character. So given time, with these computers everywhere, new ways of thinking and learning will inevitably be developed. The computer itself is, yeah it’s good everything’s a bit better if you’ve got the laptop …..

Geraldine Doogue: It’s not merely a tool?

Seymour Papert: Not it’s not merely a tool, it’s much more than a tool. It’s a medium of thinking like writing isn’t just a tool. Writing is a way of thinking. And when you say somebody’s a literate person it’s not that that person has mastered a tool…

Geraldine Doogue: But they’ve got to still write even under your system, haven’t they? They’ve got to be able to write, like they’ve got to write exams haven’t they?

Seymour Papert: Well, I don’t know about that…I don’t want to prophesise the future. I don’t – if you ask what I believe in my heart of hearts…I’m not crusading against writing, but I’d be very surprised if in a hundred years time, anybody writes exams. I’d be only slightly surprised if people write. You know it’s amazing that writing…that was the first means that humanity ever developed for, lets say, putting knowledge down in a recordable, lasting form and like spoken…speaking that speech just is evanescent and that’s the first system we ever developed in body, thought and language. I think it’ll be an amazing coincidence if they got it so correctly right in the first time that for all the millennia of the future, nobody’s going to invent any better way of doing it.

Geraldine Doogue: Alright Seymour, look that’s about enough shocks for one day program. Enough challenge for a little dumbed down person like me. Thank you very much Seymour Papert, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you.

Seymour Papert: It’s been a pleasure be in Australia.

Geraldine Doogue: Seymour Papert, a wise passionate old soul, I think you’ll agree and a guest in Australia recently of a group called Education Communities, their web site is

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