Seymour Papert’s American Prospect Speech

Papert American Prospect Speech – June 4, 1996

Introduction by Mitchel Resnick

[[0:20]] I’m Mitchel Resnick, I work here at the Media Lab and it’s my great pleasure to introduce the lunchtime speaker for today’s conference, Seymour Papert.  Actually, I was thinking about the first time I met Seymour. Actually, I don’t think Seymour necessarily knows this.  It was year’s ago when at the time it was before I went to graduate school.  I was working as a journalist and I was living in California.  I happen to see, I’d read some of Seymour’s work but I saw that he was talking at the West Coast Computer Faire.  Which, at the time, was when the Apple two-days and it was a bunch of hobbyists getting together talking about their exciting new machines.  I went and heard Seymour talk and he inspired me to such a degree that it really shifted the course that I ended up taking.  I ended up leaving journalism, coming to MIT, working here as a graduate student and then staying here, I guess for the last, more than ten years.  And I know I’m not alone in this and that a couple years ago Seymour and I were at a workshop, actually also back in California.  As it often happens at workshops people went around the table.


There must have been twenty of us or so talking about their background and how they got started doing things with computers in education.  And as we went around the table the first person said, well they got interested when they read Mindstorms in 1980, Seymour’s book.  And the next person well, they heard Seymour give a talk in 1982 and they got started.  It became almost a joke that every person was able to see a link to how Seymour had inspired them to get started in this field.  It was striking to me because it was an audience that included researchers, educators, classroom teachers, some business people from Silicon Valley companies. Yet all of them had been inspired by some of Seymour’s work to start making contributions to the topic that I see is at the core of what today’s conference is about.  So I think it’s particularly fitting that we have Seymour here as the lunchtime speaker.


Lunchtime Speaker: Seymour Papert


[2:21] Well, so it’s nice to know that talking actually does some good sometimes. Although maybe that I’m just making a presupposition that that was for the good.  Maybe those people were deviated from doing something really useful.  I don’t think so, I think they, Mitch particularly, and several of the people at that meeting that he mentioned have been doing great stuff.


Actually, it’s a little close to what I want to talk about today because I’d like to give a kind of overview of some direction of writing that I’ve been trying to develop and has made me engaged in a lot more talking than I usually like to.  A lot more listening too.  And that is, it’s about the kind of discourse, the kind of discussion that’s going on about technology in education.

That is it’s, sort of for me, a slightly different slant on it. I usually jump in and I know what I want to say and I know what will happen and I’ve got a particular thing to position in those debates.  I thought recently that it might be a very interesting thing to stand back and look at the nature of the debate.  What’s going on? What kind of positions are people taking?  And most important, what kind of positions are people not taking?


If this little talk has a title, it will probably be the title of the piece that might get into the American Prospect Magazine.  It’s something like, “Looking at Technology Through School-Colored Spectacles”.  Basically, this is my thesis.  That the idea of school and many of it’s features, which I’m going try and make to list, is so deeply engrained in peoples thinking that when they look at technology to discuss it in relation to computers they see it in a particular and very narrow way.


Dominated by the nature of school as they’ve known it. And so, it’s not surprising that the discussion, and not only the discussion, the serious research and the large amounts of money and peoples time being expended on technology in education really consists on taking sides about an enterprise that consists of injecting technology into an otherwise unchanged school system.  And then coming to the conclusion that it’s not going to change school very much.


Now some people of course think it’s a good thing that it’s not going to change school very much.  It’ll just make work better.


They think it’s a good thing and that’s okay, that’s one position.


But then there are the others who think that it’s a bad thing that school ought to be changed, but they don’t see technology as the potential agent for changing it.  And then, of course, those are really the two camps.


[5:37] I used, way back in Mindstorms, I used a little parable I find useful for guiding thinking.  The parable’s about a brilliant engineer around 1800 who invented the jet engine.  And since he was dedicated to improving transportation he took his invention to the people most involved with transportation, namely, the makers of stagecoaches and said, “look, I’ve got this thing, find out how to use it.”  So the makers of stagecoaches looked at it and said “well, let’s tie it onto a stagecoach and see if it helps the horses.”  So they tied it on the stagecoach and, of course, it shattered the stagecoach to pieces.  So that wasn’t any good.  However, somebody had a brilliant idea, “we’ll make a tiny little jet engine and we’ll put that on the stagecoach and it won’t shatter it to pieces.  Besides, it’s price is affordable. And in fact, very careful statistics managed to show that this did have a minor effect on the performance of the horses. I hate to say it, but I do think that this is a very accurate portrayal of, not only what is being done with computers in schools, which wouldn’t be so bad. In fact, it’s not an accurate portrayal of what’s being done, because here and there there are scattered attempts to do… scattered people are doing much better with the computer than that would imply.  But overall, on the average, it’s what’s being done.


[7:12] But what i find very serious is that, in the talk about computers in schools the stagecoach model fits exactly.  Namely, what’s exact about the stagecoach model is that these people had a certain idea of transportation.  Namely, you have this wooden box and you put people in it and you have horses pull it and it runs on wheels and so on. Within that concept of transportation they did the best thing with the jet engine that anyone could do probably which was to get rid of it, I suppose.


And I think if your concept of school is what school is, as you’ve seen it in the past, well what else would you do with a computer except put it in there?  But why is there no discussion about whether school could be very different?  And how different could it be?  Now very different can very different things to everybody.


[8:16] So, I’d like to run through a few of the features of school which I think, very clearly, or at least plausibly enough to warrant serious discussion, are technologically determined, in particular, technology determined by the previous epoch of information technology.  That is, where print and standing up and writing on a chalkboard and all the rest of stuff we know.  When that was the only way had of disseminating knowledge.  And when the need in the society for knowledge was the way it is certain ways of doing quote “education” took form.  And I’d like to say that almost everything that you can think of about school is a product or reflection of that epoch.  And so it’s oxymoronic, not to mention just plain moronic, to think that the role of the computer is to get in there and improve. The way that a system, which only exists because the computer didn’t exist, because it comes from a previous epoch, was what it was.


[9:30] Well, let’s take some examples.  I’m going to pick on one little corner of school, namely mathematics.  Because I’m a mathematician, because it’s easier to talk about it, because it exemplifies to a higher degree all the crazy things about school.


But what I say applies to everything. Okay, now, in mathematics, the first dominating feature is the content of the mathematics. I did recently a little research on what discussion is there in the world about real change in the content of school mathematics. For example, should we teach fractions? Should we teach them at all? Well people say “yes, you need to know that a half is two quarters.” Okay, well this is stuff that I’ve noticed that my six-year old grandson knows. He likes playing in the kitchen and he’s learned a few things about halves and quarters and thirds. I’ve no doubt that that’s very good stuff. But that’s only a tiny sliver of what they do at school. There’s all this other stuff like knowing how to add seventeen eighteenths and whatever and knowing how to divide fractions. Well, what reason could there possibly be for teaching this?


[[10:50]] Ah, I don’t want to guess speculate. I’m not advocating the abolition of fractions. I’m drawing attention to the fact that here is a human activity on which billions of dollars are spent, countless hours and incredible psychological harm is done by people who don’t succeed in doing it and therefore classify themselves and are classified by others as, whatever they classify it as. And, there is no discussion whatsoever about why this is a good thing to do. There’s a little bit of discussion about what sometimes people have proposed abolishing it. There’s a little bit of discussion about the reasons that the people gave for abolishing it. For example, there was a movement in the late 30’s to abolish fractions on the grounds that people had done statistical studies of whether, how much people ever use this fractional, this stuff they learn in school. And they’ve come up with the obvious result, that you all know, nobody ever uses it.


Not even mathematicians, nobody ever uses things like dividing one fraction by another. So, it was said, let’s throw it out of school. So, the other people said, well, ah, actually people do use it occasionally and they could show you. Maybe, you can find an occasional use here and there. But, anyway, they said that’s not the basis on what should settle this. You can’t judge whether knowledge is good knowledge on the basis whether you actually use it, because knowledge can serve all sorts of other purposes. And this seems to have quelled that movement.


Obviously, because everyone wanted it quelled anyway. Because it’s just too hard to contemplate the idea of eliminating this thing.


[[12:46]] Now, what this other thing that learning fractions is supposed to do to you is not very clear. It’s never been spelled out. It’s rather like the old argument that learning Latin was good for developing the mind. You might say that learning fractions is good for developing the mind. Some people say that learning fractions is good for, that you need it to do the more advanced mathematics. Well, why do you need it to do the advance mathematics? Okay, you can prove that to me, because you can find an advanced mathematics book that would use an example that presupposes that the reader knows about fractions. And of course, why shouldn’t the writer of the book use that since everybody does, has been through that experience. But that doesn’t prove that you needed that experience.


[[13:35]] Well, if you take it all together, I think that, my personal view is that this is just harmful stuff to teach. But in any case, there’s rational discussion about why it should be taught. So there’s room for making theories about why it’s taught and there are a couple of theories. One was, that, it was actually closer to what people needed back before there were calculators. So a lot of school math was actually more useful once upon a time, but we’ve now got calculators and so, we don’t need it. Then people say surely you don’t want to be dependent upon the calculator, to which I say, look at this thing. These eyeglasses. They make a dramatic difference to my life and the life of everybody who reads or looks at any fine detail. Once upon a time we would have been crippled, severely handicapped. Now we’ve got these and we don’t need to go through all that suffering. So we are dependent on this little thing. Well, so what? There’s nothing wrong with being dependent on a little thing that everybody can have lots of. It doesn’t even cost much. So, that’s no argument.

I think that historically, that was a factor.


[[14:56]] I think the other important factor was that for various reasons we ought to teach something called mathematics because since the days of the Greeks, mathematics was ensconced there as one of the major areas of knowledge. In fact, I don’t know how many of you know this, but if you want to know where the word mathematics comes from, the stem math comes from Greek mathine, which is the word “to learn.” In fact, all the words in math in ancient Greek didn’t mean what we mean by them, they meant learning. Somehow in the course of intervening centuries, my sort of intellectual ancestors, talking now as a mathematician, managed to con the world into thinking that the only good learning was this kind of learning. And so the word slipped over without any trace of it’s original meaning.

Well, there are some, the word polymath is one of them.


Polymath is not a person who knows a lot of maths. It’s a person who’s learned a lot of different things. But that words been thoroughly appropriated by the mathematics. And so this is ensconced there as a piece of, by definition, the grammar of what knowledge is includes doing some mathematics. Well, actually, I would agree, except that I don’t think that fractions is really mathematics. And I do think that if we think about what mathematics means to me, as a mathematician, it’s got nothing to do with things like those formal operations of, that you do in fractions and nothing to do with, especially, with they way you do it in school.


[[16:42]] And, and so if we are going to do mathematics with children we need to something very different from that. Now this something different isn’t very hard to imagine. Although it will need a lot of work to develop and that’s one reason why it isn’t done. It’s not hard to imagine in the context of having modern technology. We’ve developed lots of examples to show how, with computers, there can be a radically different relationship between children and learning all sorts of things, but including mathematics.


[[17:20]] My favorite example recently has been having kids learn enough programming so that they can make their own video games. Almost all kids find this an exciting thing because video games are important things in the world. Besides it is very challenging to make a video game. Besides it leads you to reflect about yourself, interact with others, it’s got all sorts of wonderful advantages that kids are sensitive to. But, now if you’re going to make a serious video game, you run into, you’re very likely to run into mathematical problems. Like if you take a jump. What’s a jump? How do you describe this trajectory? Well, uh, how do you describe it? You need a mathematical concept to describe it. Actually, it’s a parabola. How do you find that out? Well, these same computers that give children the occasion to want to find it out also offer the means. Like, we can have all sorts of search procedures. You can get at all sorts of kinds of knowledge embedded in the computer system somewhere. You can also get at people. Michelle Evert (sp?) here, one of our graduate students here, is working on a project in which children making video games use a kind of mail system to, a kind of newsgroup system, to ask questions and pose problems to others who have had other similar experiences before.  An so all those children that’ve done something like that get mobilized as consultants and teachers from which they learn as much or more than they learned from doing it in the first place.


[[18:56]] So there are other ways, through this computer system that have opened up, that enable somebody to get knowledge when you need it. Now this leads to, not only to a radically different idea of what kind of knowledge it is, because there’s nothing numerical and nothing about fractions in the description of the parabola that we give them.


But it is also radically opposite to the idea of the curriculum where you learn a piece of mathematics because it’s the 17th of May in your third grade year and so it’s inscribed somewhere that on this day you going to learn this. That’s no way to learn.


Not if there’s an alternative. And the alternative is, you get into situations where you need it. The problem of the educational innovator is to create those situations where you need it. And then to create the means so that you can find the knowledge when you need it for your purpose. But this is going a long way, we’ve thrown out the content, we’ve thrown out the curriculum and we might as well throw out the idea of grade level. Because the very idea of having first grade, second grade, third grade has no sense, except that we’re going to chop up knowledge into little pieces and dish them out in some sort of systematic order for which we need to organize people in a way that we can know that your getting this piece this year, and this piece this year and this piece this year and so on.


[[20:23]] If knowledge is going to come by other roots, there’s no sense in dividing people up by ages. Of course, we’ve developed a whole discourse about why there are advantages, why it’s terrible to have people mixed with people of other ages.  Well you are, I mean if I insisted here that people separate into tables according to your age, well, you’re grown ups, you’re not children. But what about children? Before they come to school, at home in the family, where excellent learning and psychological development happens, people are in all sorts of mixtures of all sorts of ages and it worked better when it was an extended family with great grandparents and little siblings all living together and learning from one another. In fact, it is quite absurd to think that there is any social or psychological advantage in segregating children by these ages. All that is merely the consequence of a technological epoch that has gone by. But, by now, it is there, it is dug in, it is hard to change. And that’s the only reason why it’s there.


[[21:28]] So, standing back then. If we want to discuss what computers mean for education, we might come to the conclusion that all these things are so hard to change that we’ll never change them. It’s just impossible. Well, okay, so be it if that’s the truth. But let there be talk. Let there be discussion. Let this be what the debate is about. About whether there are ways which we can envisage different ways, different kinds of learning environments that are not colored by the school spectacles that make you see things in terms of curriculum, fractions, grammar, periods, “the classroom.” Now, if you pick up the books that are about how can computers be used in “the classroom” to teach “the curriculum” for “the subjects,” you’re presupposing the answer before you even start, the answer, namely school is going to be like it is. And so it’s not going to change. I think that, I do think that there are serious difficulties. And I do think that we have learned that you can’t just come along and design a new social system like school and impose it. It won’t work. That kind of social engineering doesn’t work. But I think we can draw from the things the experience about how things have happened and how things haven’t happened. A number of lessons that we could at least digest and at least talk about. Which is all I’m appealing for.  Talk about them.  I’d just like to make a few of those.


First of all, something that’s very clear from the outset is that the pedigree of the subject matters have become deeply engrained. I see Howard Gardner here and I’d like to express a little admiration and also a little quarrel. I think he is heroically against the idea of a single intelligence that all people are the same. For this, there’s nothing but applause totally in the line of the enterprise that I’m suggesting. I think there’s something, not intended perhaps, but essentially mischievous in the idea that there are several kinds of intelligence, maybe seven, of which one is mathematical. Because I don’t believe that. Now of course there’s empirical evidence that some kids can and some kids can’t do that stuff that you call math at school.  But that’s not math in any sense that I understand it as a mathematician.


[[24:25]] And to call the ability to do that, even if this is innate in some people which I doubt. But even if it is, to call that mathematics and to recognize it as a kind of intelligence as if people who don’t like to or don’t want to do that sort of stuff are missing something. Even if they’ve got something else that’s very great, I think is something we need to throw radically out of our minds. It’s a very hard job to throw out of our culture the idea that there’s a thing called mathematics and it consists of the stuff we did at school and that some people are good at it and the rest of us aren’t and al the rest. So, there are a lot of deeply engrained cultural assumptions that need to be faced at least. I don’t know how to get rid of them, but I think they need to be recognized. And somebody who wants to at least to probe the possibility of change has to feel the resistance of trying to change these things.  So we need to recognize the need for quite deep reconceptualizations of how people think about themselves, about learning, about their children. I’m not trying to minimize, I’m trying to say it’s hard. But let’s recognize it as hard.

If we’re going to do that, we’ve got to see that making little steps is a dangerous sort of thing. And here another metaphor is useful, my jet engine inventor. I think an incredibly mischievous thing is being done by Al Gore and Clinton, but especially by everybody who propagating the idea that these Net Days and putting one computer in every classroom connected to the Internet that this is a good thing. Now, of course, it’s a good thing. There’s no question that it’s a good thing. But if this is allowed to get confused with the idea of using technology to change education and to open new vistas for children, it is a very bad thing. And it’s a bad thing for a number of reasons. One of them being that incremental change, if you’ve looked at any system or looked at the schools, incremental change has a particular way of breeding immune reactions and resisting further change. That is, if you bring in a little bit of change, people adapt to it. And then it gets professionalized. So for example, in the early eighties it was terribly exciting, the only times you saw microcomputers in schools was when visionary teachers had brought them there.


But when schools started having computer labs and putting computers in them and giving them an hour a day and having a computer literacy curriculum. Although some wonderful things continued to be done, at the same time, there came about a professionalization of people who were teachers of this little itty bitty piece of computer knowledge. And that’s their thing now, they have their professional organizations and their journals and their masters degrees in how to do that. Once it’s built into there, you’ve got a devil of a job ever changing it to take the next step. So, the incremental change can be self-defeating. It’s not a step on the way to the big change.


[[27:40]] A silly example, suppose the inventor of the refrigerator found that the only way they could get people to buy them was to drop the temperature just one degree. Now, that thing would be no use as a refrigerator, it wouldn’t be a kinda step towards a real refrigerator. And if you distributed these around, people would find develop ways of using them. They’d use them as storage boxes. They’d use them for all sorts of things, because people are ingenious beings and they try to use what they’ve got. So, there’d come about a refrigerator culture of how to use refrigerators for purposes that have nothing to do with what we know refrigerators are good for and this is what’s happened with computers in schools. They’re being used for ways that have nothing to do with the potential of the computer to allow the possibility of a radically different way of learning. So when you do these they get built in.


[[28:37]] Since times running out, I just want to mention one more, which I’ve mentioned over and over and over again, but it’s amazing. You can write it down. You can try to get it around, but there’s a proof about the artificial nature of the way that people have learned arithmetic in school that keeps on popping up again that people who’ve gone through school, in fact, the people that are running schools think that computers are expensive. Now, okay, in some sense they are expensive. I can feel it in my budget when I go and buy one. If you really went out and bought 50 million computers you’d be in debt for the rest of your life or worse. On the other hand, we shouldn’t ask questions like is it expensive or not? We should quantify it and relate it to other amounts.


Now the piece of arithmetic I want to do is the following.


Suppose we want to give every child, about 50 million of them, give every child a computer. So we say how much will that computer cost. Well I say, five hundred dollars or less. Actually, you can probably go and buy a pretty good computer for a thousand, but if you really went out buying 50 million of them, that industry could beat the price down to $500 or less. Let’s say it’s $500. That computer would be good for ten years. I know lots of schools that are using Apple II’s from the eighties. So that’s $50 a year. Now $50 a year, well, how much are we spending per child? Five, six, seven thousand and going up. So it’s like 1%. It would increase by 1% the cost of education if we gave every child a computer. Now why do people think it’s expensive? Because they don’t know enough, they’re not comfortable enough dealing with numbers to realize that this is such just an accountants trick. If the computer has to be bought out of the same budget that’s there for buying pencils, well of course it’s outrageously expensive. But if it’s going to be bought out of the same budget that used for building buildings, it’s a different story all together. So, it’s amazing that it’s so hard to break down this wall. And it’s because they’re looking at the whole problem through all sorts of school colored glasses.


School colored glasses by the way they learned to think about numbers when they were kids. Hopelessly abstract and inflexible, but also in terms of how schools make decisions and what’s expensive for schools and what can change and what can’t change. If you take a more flexible approach, at least you see whatever the difficulties might be in putting together that money. It’s not that it’s too expensive that we can’t afford it.


[[31:43]] I just want to end on just a few examples of the kind of discourse we get about that. Last year, I attended, for the same sort of reason I am here. During the last past year I’ve reversed a long standing policy of not taking part in policy discussions because they don’t get anywhere. But I thought I’d better find out how people are talking so for awhile I accepted all invitations.


Wow, wasn’t it dizzying? Well, one of them was for congressional hearings. They had congressional hearings about technology in education. So, I did this arithmetic, and at that meeting a certain gentleman, who is the chairman, I couldn’t believe this, of a committee created at the White House to study technology in education. And he said, you can go these congressional hearings, he said the following reasons why what I was saying was, not only absurd, but irresponsible to give Congress the idea that inexpensively they could give kids computers:


First of all, industry practice says that computers have to be changed not every 10 years, but on average they last 30 months before we replace them.


What kind of argument is that? Why does industry replace them after 30 months?


Well, we don’t know, we don’t think about why. It’s not the custom in this kind of discussion.


That’s a fact. Well, the reason they change them is that there’s this crazy dance going on between the computer makers and the software makers. The computer makers make a powerful computer, the software makers make a thing that needs that more power and so it goes. But, ultimately the argument that we have to abolish this computer, that we retire this computer after 30 months because it’s no longer the latest thing sounds like taking an awful attitude to children. They deserve the latest thing, but what it boils down to is that unless we can give them a Cadillac, they should walk barefoot.


So, that was just one of the arguments. The next argument was maintenance was expensive. He said it costs $70 an hour to pay a maintenance guy to fix a computer. Actually, last time I had one I got a bill for $160 per hour. I can’t believe it, but I should use this as my last example because it really points to something about assuming school is always going to be what it is. Because, I would imagine, with computers are what they are, I would imagine that if we really are having a sensible policy of a computer for every kid that also every kid should become so proficient and competent and deeply understanding of computers that if they break, you don’t pay $70 an hour to get some come in. The kids fix them. There’s nothing that those people getting paid $70 or $160 an hour are doing that a 5th grader couldn’t be doing after a few years of experience or a third grader. Maybe very impatiently you need have to have a 12 year old.



[[34:59]] The fact is that this could be a self-sufficient enterprise of the kids in the school repairing their computers, making their software even, developing the uses for it. But this is outrageous, because we’re exploiting kids, I suppose. It’s making kids work. I’ll just end on that. It’s one of those other hangovers that we have laws against kids working, because once upon a time kids in sweatshops and other places were made to do destructive work that was bad for them.


[[35:53]] Today, with this exciting new technology, a lot the stuff that you can call technological and vocational and technical is the work with the deepest intellectual content of anything in our culture and our society. Making kids do that is so far from exploiting them that, it’s almost the opposite, not allowing them to do that is, I suppose, exploiting them in the name of our conservatism of maintaining a system that is only there because it’s always been there. There’s no justification for it. Maybe things that are sufficiently deeply rooted can’t change. I doubt that’s true, but if it’s true, let’s face it and acknowledge that’s the reason.


[[36:22]] Personally, I think that if we adopt a different way of thinking and say ‘what interventions can we make that would create fertile ground for an evolution of change?’ I think giving everyone a computer is an example. Don’t tell them what to do with, give everyone a computer. Then here and there and there and there more and more people will find interesting things to do with those computers. The new ideas grow and spontaneously grow and if we want to spend more money on it, we should have forces of people who are watching what’s growing and diving in and amplifying and improving and nurturing.


[[37:03]] Maybe a horticultural model is the best one that these things will grow, we’ll nurture the growth. We’ll favor certain mutations and adaptations and I think thats saying that you could conceive of social policies that are very different from the ones that admittedly have not worked where you have tried to super-imposed from topdown a pre-digested, pre-planned, pre-structured solution to an important social problem.


[[37:36]] I think this image of planting the seeds for it to grow everywhere is already happening. In fact, of the more interesting educational acts that I’ve seen recently, many more have been in homes where kids have computers, than in schools. In fact, I think that the locus of innovation and thinking about learning, is moving rapidly out of the school into the home. Maybe the force for change that will really be effective in the end, is that the kids that have had something better at home won’t stand it anymore. Kid power will force school to change or go out of existence.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top