You cannot think about thinking without thinking about what Seymour Papert would think
(Transcript of the introduction to the Seymour Papert Tribute at the Interaction Design for Children conference, June 27th 2013, New York City)
I would like to speak about what we might call the Papert Paradox. It’s about a strange inverse relation between his legacy and recognition. The closer the world comes to realizing his vision, the less is his work cited. In a sense, this is perhaps the best outcome possible for a visionary — when what used to be radical becomes a household idea. But I’m jumping ahead of myself. I will say more about this later this evening. For now, let’s get back to some basic facts.
If a historian were to draw a line connecting Piaget’s work on developmental psychology to today’s trends in educational technology, the line would simply be labeled “Papert.” Seymour Papert has been at the center of three seismic events in research: child development, artificial intelligence, and technologies for education.
He was born on February 29, 1928 in Pretoria, South Africa. He was a philosophy student at South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand, where he received a PhD in mathematics in 1952. He proceeded to St. John’s College at Cambridge, where he earned a second PhD in 1958. As part of his doctoral work, he had spent time at the Henri Poincaré Institute in Paris, where he would meet Jean Piaget.
He would spend four years working under Piaget at the University of Geneva, and was profoundly influenced by Piaget’s work on how children make sense of the world — not as “miniature adults” but as active theory builders. Papert wrote in 1991: “Constructionism shares constructivism’s connotation of learning as ‘building knowledge structures’ […]. It then adds the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is engaged in constructing a public entity.” When people ask me about what and how people learn by making, I just send them this quote written almost 20 years ago.
During his time in Geneva, Papert had made another serendipitous connection: In 1960 he met Marvin Minsky. Later with Minsky, Papert became co-founder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab, and the MIT Media Lab.
If one were to, a bit unfairly, measure Papert’s career by the sheer number of people a project touched, Logo would eclipse all other achievements. In 1968, Papert, Cynthia Solomon, Daniel Bobrow, and Wally Feurzeig crafted Logo, a revolutionary programming language, the first designed for children. His vision, almost 50 years ago, was that children should be programming the computer rather than being programmed by it.
Papert’s work entered mainstream consciousness in 1980, with the publication of the seminal “Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas.” His Epistemology and Learning Group at MIT, attracted a legion of bright students and researchers (many of whom are here today) who over the next decades, would bring to millions of children programming, robotics, multi-agent modeling, cybernetics, system dynamics, and digital fabrication. The Lego company would eventually transform many of these ideas into products under the title “Mindstorms.”
His awareness that children’s cognitive evolution requires designing rich toolkits and environments rather than force-feeding knowledge, has set the tone for decades of research. The combination of developmental psychology, AI, and technology proved to be extremely powerful. Maybe it was a historical accident that a disciple of Piaget would bump into Marvin Minsky and end up at MIT, giving us Logo and Mindstorms.
Gary Stager writes: “While Papert’s scholarship is widely recognized, his half century of contributions is largely invisible. It is not that educators disagree with him, they just ignore him entirely, and he is absent from teacher education texts, and school reform literature.”
If you want to do work on computational literacy, programming for kids, or the maker movement, and claim that you invented any of this, the only way is to ignore Papert. His extended team laid out the theoretical and technological foundations for the popularity of these ideas today. It is academic self-destruction for us, as researchers, to allow this story to be rewritten. We should, instead, establish a culture in which we don’t reinvent the wheel every 10 years, but instead stand on the shoulders of our giant Logo turtles.
I wonder what he would say to today’s advocates of online videos and what they call personalized learning. Seymour and Piaget would first point out that obviously learning is always personal, because knowledge is constructed by each of us. Unfortunately, the online video plus quiz version of personalized learning is like telling an inmate in a prison: “you can walk around your cell at your own pace.” Today’s “learning at your own pace” is a caricature and not what Seymour advocates, which is about intellectual self-determination, agency, personal expression, and falling in love with learning. Seymour also hated the culture of 30-minute little trivial projects with technology, hands-on without heads-in. I think one of his big lessons sis that there can’t be making without sense-making.
Constructionism has, at its heart, a desire not to revise, but to invert the world of curriculum-driven instruction. But although this might sound radical, the first step is to acknowledge that constructionism has won the battle for the minds. Everyday we see people, children and parents getting excited about the things they can see, program, make, and do together. The Maker faire is a worldwide exhibition of constructionism. There are literally hundreds of school starting FabLabs and Makerspaces. Scratch and NetLogo are used by millions of children and adults, in 50 languages. Thousands of school have robotics program. We won. But now we have to claim victory, and tell the world, for academic and historic justice, that many of these ideas came from this man. But we also have to announce what’s next, and our new visions. And what is next? We shouldn’t take Seymour’s ideas as a finished and unquestionable canon but just as the start of a much larger project. Maybe we should now listen to our panelists to see what they have to say about Seymour, the past, and the future.
In the famous Gears of My Childhood preface to Mindstorms, Papert states what he has always considered “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.”
Education needs a collection of models demonstrating the impact of implementing Seymour’s ideas in school. Maybe then they will not anymore be painfully hard to implement, but a lot easier. And it is our job to build those models.
So go forth and construct.