The Gears of My Childhood

The Gears of My Childhood

This essay was published as the Foreword to Seymour Papert’s book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas (Basic Books, New York, 1980). (PDF of the chapter here)

Before I was two years old I had developed an intense involvement with automobiles. The names of car parts made up a very substantial portion of my vocabulary: I was particularly proud of knowing about the parts of the transmission system, the gearbox, and most especially the differential. It was, of course, many years later before I understood how gears work; but once I did, playing with gears became a favorite pastime. I loved rotating circular objects against one another in gearlike motions and, naturally, my first “erector set” project was a crude gear system.

I became adept at turning wheels in my head and at making chains of cause and effect: “This one turns this way so that must turn that way so…” I found particular pleasure in such systems as the differential gear, which does not follow a simple linear chain of causality since the motion in the transmission shaft can be distributed in many different ways to the two wheels depending on what resistance they encounter. I remember quite vividly my excitement at discovering that a system could be lawful and completely comprehensible without being rigidly deterministic.

I believe that working with differentials did more for my mathematical development than anything I was taught in elementary school. Gears, serving as models, carried many otherwise abstract ideas into my head. I clearly remember two examples from school math. I saw multiplication tables as gears, and my first brush with equations in two variables (e.g., 3x + 4y = 10) immediately evoked the differential. By the time I had made a mental gear model of the relation between x and y, figuring how many teeth each gear needed, the equation had become a comfortable friend.

Many years later when I read Piaget this incident served me as a model for his notion of assimilation, except I was immediately struck by the fact that his discussion does not do full justice to his own idea. He talks almost entirely about cognitive aspects of assimilation. But there is also an affective component. Assimilating equations to gears certainly is a powerful way to bring old knowledge to bear on a new object. But it does more as well. I am sure that such assimilations helped to endow mathematics, for me, with a positive affective tone that can be traced back to my infantile experiences with cars. I believe Piaget really agrees. As I came to know him personally I understood that his neglect of the affective comes more from a modest sense that little is known about it than from an arrogant sense of its irrelevance. But let me return to my childhood.

One day I was surprised to discover that some adults–even most adults–did not understand or even care about the magic of the gears. I no longer think much about gears, but I have never turned away from the questions that started with that discovery: How could what was so simple for me be incomprehensible to other people? My proud father suggested “being clever” as an explanation.

But I was painfully aware that some people who could not understand the differential could easily do things I found much more difficult. Slowly I began to formulate what I still consider the fundamental fact about learning: Anything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models. If you can’t, anything can be painfully difficult. Here too I was developing a way of thinking that would be resonant with Piaget’s. The understanding of learning must be genetic. It must refer to the genesis of knowledge.

What an individual can learn, and how he learns it, depends on what models he has available. This raises, recursively, the question of how he learned these models. Thus the “laws of learning” must be about how intellectual structures grow out of one another and about how, in the process, they acquire both logical and emotional form.

This book is an exercise in an applied genetic epistemology expanded beyond Piaget’s cognitive emphasis to include a concern with the affective. It develops a new perspective for education research focused on creating the conditions under which intellectual models will take root. For the last two decades this is what I have been trying to do. And in doing so I find myself frequently reminded of several aspects of my encounter with the differential gear.

First, I remember that no one told me to learn about differential gears. Second, I remember that there was feeling, love, as well as understanding in my relationship with gears. Third, I remember that my first encounter with them was in my second year. If any “scientific” educational psychologist had tried to “measure” the effects of this encounter, he would probably have failed. It had profound consequences but, I conjecture, only very many years later. A “preand post-” test at age two would have missed them.

Piaget’s work gave me a new framework for looking at the gears of my childhood. The gear can be used to illustrate many powerful “advanced” mathematical ideas, such as groups or relative motion. But it does more than this. As well as connecting with the formal knowledge of mathematics, it also connects with the “body knowledge,” the sensorimotor schemata of a child. You can be the gear, you can understand how it turns by projecting yourself into its place and turning with it. It is this double relationship–both abstract and sensory–that gives the gear the power to carry powerful mathematics into the mind. In a terminology I shall develop in later chapters, the gear acts here as a transitional object.

A modern-day Montessori might propose, if convinced by my story, to create a gear set for children. Thus, every child might have the experience I had. But to hope for this would be to miss the essence of the story. I fell in love with the gears. This is something that cannot be reduced to purely “cognitive” terms. Something very personal happened, and one cannot assume that it would be repeated for other children in exactly the same form.

My thesis could be summarized as: What the gears cannot do the computer might. The computer is the Proteus of machines. Its essence is its universality, its power to simulate. Because it can take on a thousand forms and can serve a thousand functions, it can appeal to a thousand tastes. This book is the result of my own attempts over the past decade to turn computers into instruments flexible enough so that many children can each create for themselves something like what the gears were for me.

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