Seymour Papert / Computers In the Lives of Our Children / An MIT mathematician and philosopher is exploring how technology can educate the next generation — and their parents.

Laura Evenson, Chronicle Staff Writer

San Francisco Chronicle – Feb. 2, 1997

Original article here

Seymour Papert expected to spend his life in his native South Africa, fighting apartheid while seeking shelter in academia as a mathematician and philosopher.

But he switched course in 1963, during a research stint at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. The accessibility and power of computers there inspired him to develop concepts and software to help children use the computer more effectively. His pioneering work is transforming the computer’s role in education from a tool for rote memorization into an instrument for creative thinking.

Papert now holds the Lego Chair for Learning Research at M.I.T. In his seventh and latest book, “The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap” (Longstreet Press, $22.95), he champions a path to learning that suits individual needs and interests, and that blurs the lines between work and play, teacher and student, society and self.

During a recent interview in San Francisco, Papert, 68, displayed both erudition and passion about kids, computers and the technology gap between the generations.

Q: You started out as a mathematician and philosopher in South Africa. How did you switch to focusing on computers and their role in educating children here in the United States?

A: I was really looking at computers as a way to understand the mind. But at M.I.T., my mind was blown by having a whole computer to yourself as long as you liked.

I felt a surge of intellectual power through access to this computer, and I started thinking about what this could mean for kids and the way they learn. That’s when we developed the computer programming language for kids, Logo.

Q: Why was it important to create a computer program for children?

A: We often treat children as if they’re not very competent to do anything on their own. So we make them stop learning in a natural way — by exploring. Logo allows them to find their way around the computer, as they would find their way around the house, uncontaminated by the bureaucracies of schools.

Adults have been brainwashed into thinking that they can’t really learn about computers without being taught, so it’s more difficult for them to feel comfortable with a computer. Deep down, I think they’re afraid of learning about computers.

Q: What can a parent do to get over his or her fear of computers?

A: You can sit down with your child and prompt him to show you something — perhaps how to play a game. By learning a game, you’re getting close to the kid and gaining insight into ways of learning. The kid can see this happening and feels respected, so it fosters the relationship between you and the kid.

You can also work on joint projects. One example I give in the book is about a multimedia scrap book about sea turtles that a girl made for her grandmother as a gift. To make such a scrapbook, you can either create bookmarks — through a Web browser that will take someone straight to the sites online — or you can make a self-standing multimedia show. I use MicroWorld, which is the latest version of Logo and very good for making this kind of show. Or you can use HyperStudio. Adults can provide guidance, but the kid does most of the work.

Q: What do you say to adults who fear that they’ll undermine their own authority if they allow a child to teach them something?

A: I tell them about the experiences of more than a hundred teachers I’ve interviewed. They tell me that allowing the child to help them learn helped them become better teachers. That’s because they no longer had to pretend they were the experts — not only about computers but about other things.

Parents can also learn that parental authority doesn’t depend on knowing everything. The more you pretend, the more risk that it’ll be traumatic and damaging to the kids and their relationship with you when they find out the truth.

Q: In your book, you suggest that there’s a difference between computer literacy and fluency. Could you explain the difference?

A: It’s not what you know about the computer that’s important, but your ability to do things with it. By studying French in an academic setting, you get to know a lot about it, but typically, you can’t express yourself well or have an interesting conversation with it.

Similarly, computer literacy courses tend to produce computer people who know a lot about computers or a piece of software but they don’t help people become fluent with the machine. Our goal in education should be to foster the ability to use the computer in everything you do, even if you don’t have a specific piece of software for the job. Often kids in a computer lab learn about word-processing, but if they want to write an essay, they write it by hand. This is exactly the opposite of what you want them to learn. They’re approaching the computer as just another abstract school subject.

Q: Is our definition of literacy going to change?

A: I think it’s inevitably going to change. But first, we should think about what we mean by literacy. If you say, “He’s a very literate person,” what you really mean is that he knows a lot, thinks a lot, has a certain frame of mind that comes through reading and knowing about various subjects.

The major route open to literacy has been through reading and writing text. But we’re seeing new media offer richer ways to explore knowledge and communicate, through sound and pictures.

Q: In your book, you wrote about young Jason, a brilliant storyteller who freezes up in the classroom when he has to write. You describe how he became very expressive through the multimedia capabilities of a computer as he learned to manipulate images and sound. Do you think Jason is typical of the MTV generation, a group that can more easily express itself through fast- paced electronic images and sound rather than text? Is that a good thing? Or is it a matter of bowing to an electronic media culture that has become dominant through the power of marketing?

A: Well, I think it’s a trend that is certainly influenced by bad things. I don’t like MTV, and I don’t like the culture that goes with it. It’s OK in very small doses, maybe. Nevertheless, it’s a social reality and has influenced how kids perceive things around them, the pace of life and the way people do things.

Educators who have said, “We don’t like that, so we’ll continue to teach as if it’s not happening,” are just aggravating the gap between what happens in schools and what happens in the real world. Because of their personalities, or for cultural reasons, some kids might better express themselves through moving images and sound.

Q: Do you think that CD-ROMs and “edutainment” or educational software titles encourage creativity and interactivity?

A: Most of them don’t. Software that asks a question and prompts the kid to give an answer and then responds that the answer given is right or wrong is sometimes called interactive, but I call it interpassive.

I prefer software where kids build something and run into problems they have to solve. I like the Maxis line of SimCity titles and their Widget Workshop program. I like Broderbund’s KidPix, because it’s completely open-ended, and you can do anything with it. We’re also beginning to see more music titles, and one I like is Theatrix’s “Juilliard Music Adventure.”

Q: Can you provide examples of how computers can help children connect their real-world interests to learning about mathematics and grammar?

A: Even with the most stupid video games, kids learn more about learning than they ever did before, because they want to learn codes and moves before other kids figure them out. They’re motivated to seek out someone or search the Net for help. A student who makes a video game has to solve mathematical problems to make special effects happen on the screen.

In another example, a girl tried to make a program that would translate from French to English or English to French. But she had to learn about the structure of language in a formal way to create even a very simple program.

Q: How can computers help children with special needs, those who are slow learners or have other neurological or physiological problems?

A: Undoubtedly, there are kids with intellectual deficiencies or neurological problems. But a lot of kids shunted into special education classes are deficient only in a willingness to conform to the school pattern.

They are just honest, brave kids who say, “I just won’t take that, and I don’t believe in what you’re doing.” If you give them an alternative to the usual classroom, they break free of a lot of inhibitions and bad associations, and they begin to learn.

If a kid really is retarded and can only come up to a certain level, he will still have more success if what he learns is connected with something important to him.

Until very recently, most knowledge was inaccessible to people who couldn’t read text. But this is changing. The computer opens up other channels of gaining knowledge. If someone is blind, we now have very good machines that will read to him. If someone can’t recognize letters, he also will have access to knowledge through sound and images.

Q: Do you fear that kids will become so entranced by their computer that they won’t learn how to relate to people? 

A: Well, that does happen. I’ve seen kids become so engrossed with a computer that they don’t want to have anything to do with other kids. But if you look more closely, those kids typically were anti-social before the computer came along.

Q: How do you handle such anti- social behavior?

A: It depends upon the kid. My ex-student, Idit Harel, who wrote a book, “Children Designs,” has a documented story of a kid who was very shy, isolated and didn’t talk much to other kids. She was a little overweight, and the other kids looked down on her for that reason.

But then she made a discovery about how to do something on the computer. The discovery was picked up by other kids, and within a few weeks there was a total transformation. This kid was now in demand. And that changed her feeling about herself.

Working with the computer gives rise to many opportunities to transcend asocial behavior, because it produces exciting and visually interesting things to share, whether it’s by creating video games, computer art or sharing exciting Web sites.

Q: There’s been a lot of discussion in the media about the threat of cyberporn, and about abductions resulting from online communications between children and adults. How significant are these threats? What can parents do to protect their children?

A: The first thing to note is that pornography and many abductions occur apart from the use of computers, and that most child abuse happens within the family. So I think the extra degree of danger that computers pose doesn’t justify the frenzy.

This frenzy about cyberporn indicates some deeper fear of adults as they see kids become more independent and learn things they never learned. I think those fears also reflect a failure to communicate. Parents should be able to say to their kids: “There is stuff out there that we don’t look at, and if you find yourself looking at it or someone approaching you about it, then let’s talk about it.”

Q: There’s also been a lot of discussion in the media about our faltering educational system. If you were to reinvent the system, what three key changes would you make?

A: Do away with curriculum. Do away with segregation by age. And do away with the idea that there should be uniformity of all schools and of what people learn.

Q: What would you put in its place?

A: I think we should allow for schools within schools, where 100 out of 500 kids may be organized by the way they work and what they do, and what they do often is more progressive. I would like to see a lot of kids of different ages, maybe even some adults, work together on a project.

It might be something that has real-world significance, such as the ecology of local plants. Or it might be just for fun, like making a simulation of the Roman Conquest or making a new robot. It might take months and involve many challenges. Professionals would watch and intervene when they saw people get really stuck and need help, or they might raise the challenge level if it was too easy.

Students would benefit by having little formal mini-courses that helped them with these projects.

Q: You talk about changes you’d like to see in the educational system. Do you think we should scrap the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., and start all over?

A: I do think that we’d do better if we just offered all the bureaucrats in the Department of Education very attractive early retirements. But whether you want to abolish the department is another matter. Maybe there’s room for recruiting a lot of visionary people who would do very good things: develop new techniques, new ideas, foster innovative models, disseminate those ideas.

What reform means in an organization like the Department of Education is that someone decides on a “right” way to make changes that are then imposed top down on the educational system. People resist that.

A minority of kids with home computers use them well. But that small group is bringing knowledge that allows them to serve as change agents. They’re setting higher standards that will help kids who don’t have computers at home.

Q: What about those kids who come from homes that simply can’t afford a computer?

A: That’s a very complicated, sociopolitical problem. First, there is a small group of kids coming into school with learning experiences on home computers who are creating pressure for changes that will affect kids who don’t have computers at home. But every kid should have a computer. It’s just obscene that in the richest country in the world, we think it’s too expensive to give our kids computers.

What’s even more obscene is the kind of poor logic used to support this. At a congressional hearing on technology and education last fall, I argued that giving every kid a computer would increase the cost of technology by at most 2 percent, and that we probably could do it for 0.5 percent if we did it in a sensible way.

In the United States, we spend between $7,000 and $8,000 a year of tax money to educate each kid. For slightly older computers in quantities of a million, you could probably get machines for $500 each, or even less.

Q: In your book, you write about how corporate America always plays a powerful role in education, whether through publishing houses like Scholastic or through computer companies donating and selling their equipment. What role should corporate America play?

A: As technology has advanced, computer companies continue to provide more computing power for the same amount of money. I think it is scandalous that there has been so little focus on offering the same computing power at much lower prices, or on how to make an inexpensive computer.

Corporate America also needs to get its act together to see that the education system is changed so it produces what it needs. The educational system that teaches kids to be passive recipients of knowledge worked when most workers were sitting in assembly lines.

But now more people are doing work that requires individual decision-making and problem-solving, and we need an educational system that will help develop those skills.

Q: You write in your book that you see a danger in concentrating the dissemination of information in the hands of any organization that is not publicly accountable, such as private corporations that develop curriculum. Couldn’t the same criticism be applied to private schools?

A: A few big corporations and publishers are having an enormous effect on what children learn, and I think this is worrisome, if only because it cuts out diversity. I think Disney is a very interesting company, and it does have an extremely powerful means for projecting a certain way of thinking. Now you might like that way of thinking, but I think it’s dangerous. Not because it’s a bad way of thinking, but because it’s just one particular way of thinking.

Q: Do you really think the media industry is moving into education and bringing its big-budget standards with it?

A: I think so, and I don’t know whether it’s necessarily a good thing. There’s a tendency to make jazzy educational software that’s very uniform and therefore just like school. I’d like to see a company develop software for rebellious kids who don’t want to go to school.

Q: What kinds of technologies do you think could be used to foster education in the future?

A: I think there will be more things that allow children to develop in ways congruent with their own personalities, to learn in a more individual way. I think computers will be little things you can put in your pocket or build into a Lego model or other toy to make it intelligent, so you can program it to clean your house, feed your pet when you’re not there, or amuse your biological cat or dog.


— 1928: Born March 1 in Pretoria.

— 1949: BA mathematics and philosophy, University of Witwatersrand.

— 1952: Ph.D. in mathematics, University of Witwatersrand, and Ph.D. in mathematics, Cambridge University.

— 1954-56: Research scholar at the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851; held at St. John’s College, Cambridge, England.

— 1958-63: Member of the International Center of Genetic Epistemology at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.

— 1963: Marries Androula Christofides, psychologist.

— 1964: Daughter Artemis is born.

— 1963-67: Research associate, Electrical Engineering Dept., MIT.

1968-80: Professor of applied mathematics, MIT. — 1971: Divorced from Androula Christofides.

— 1977: Marries Sherry Turkle, professor of sociology, MIT.

— 1980-81: Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellow.

— 1981: Marconi International Fellowship Award.

— 1982-83: Scientific director, World Center for Computer Studies and Human Resources, Paris, France.

— 1983-85: Professor of mathematics and education, Dept. of Arts and Media Technology, MIT.

— 1985: Divorced from Sherry Turkle.

— 1985-present: LEGO Professor of Learning Research, Epistemology and Learning, MIT.

— 1992: Marries Suzanne Massie, fellow at the Davis Center for Russian Studies, Harvard.

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