Seymour Papert dreamed of a learning revolution — why hasn’t it happened?

The legacy of AI’s founding founder hangs in the balance

EdTech stands on the shoulders of giants. We lost one of those giants last week with the passing of Seymour Papert. The ‘father of Artificial Intelligence’ transformed the way we think about the role of computers — and technology in general — in advancing our educational goals.

Papert’s seminal work, Mindstorms, is both a manifesto and a blueprint for EdTech. Few books explain so lucidly the transformative potential of computers in promoting student-centred learning. Fewer still provide practical steps for realising this potential.

A central focus of Mindstorms is how computers are primed to support mathematical thinking. Using clear language and practical tools, Papert lays out a compelling case for putting computers at the heart of school mathematics.

Yet the fundamental experiences of school maths have barely changed since Mindstorms was published over thirty years ago. So did Papert get it wrong?

Hardly. He was just ahead of its time.

Seymour Papert, 1928–2016

Mindstorms in a nutshell

The core premise of Mindstorms is that children learn best when they are in charge. Papert was a champion of Piaget’s constructivist pedagogy, which encourages students to discover ideas and create their own representations of knowledge (“to understand is to invent”). Papert regarded the computer as the perfect stage for Piaget’s ideas to flourish. After all, computers can assume thousands of forms and functions, allowing for rich and varied representations.

Papert railed against Computer Aided Instruction, in which the computer force-feeds knowledge to the child — he saw this as nothing more than a shift of traditional pedagogy to a different medium. Papert wanted to flip this dynamic on his head so that “the child programs the computer”.

Papert saw two important benefits of this approach: the child develops programming skills and, more crucially, can leverage those skills to advance their understanding of other subjects such as mathematics.

But Papert was not just a man of ideas. He was also one of the creators of Logo Turtle, where students can create line graphics by inputting commands. Papert looked to the Logo environment as the ideal setting for children to explore concepts and form ideas. In Papert’s mind, the computer was “an object to think with”, putting choices in the hands of students as they take charge of learning.

Logo Turtle in action

In Mindstorms, Papert linked students’ interactions with Logo turtle to their mathematical development — the following themes will resonate with mathematicians and should inspire educators:

  • Maths as exploration

Logo is an exploratory learning environment where students’ mistakes — or bugs — become the focus of study. Students are encouraged to self-correct rather than forget about the error. They internalise their own obstacles and figure out workarounds rather than having fix dictated to them. Contrast this to the prescriptive model of traditional curricula.

Whereas formal schooling guides students from right answer to the next, Logo embraces the uncertain nature of learning, and promotes continuous self-correcting.
  • Making maths real

Papert was a strong advocate of making learning concrete. Papert criticised formal approaches to teaching that betrayed the concrete nature of mathematics (for example, the needless abstraction of manipulating fractions through syntactic representations). He believed computers can provide real-world links to maths and blur the lines between mathematical concepts and students’ everyday experiences.

  • Conceptual development

Papert saw mathematics as an interconnected body of knowledge and believed the focus of teaching should be on fostering the connections rather than just the knowledge itself. Computers can support students in developing procedural skills in a joyful way while relating those skills to conceptual ideas. Papert believed that students should be forced to confront their intuitions, and that computers provide a powerful way of altering those intuitions.

  • A mathematical identity

Papert had a deep personal connection with mathematics, and wanted the same for all children. Mathematical understanding is not a function of one’s knowledge, but their relationship with it.

For Papert, the beauty of mathematics trumped its utility, and he saw computers as a way of creating mathematical objects that children could play and fall in love with.

Papert expressed bold hope that computers would drive a learning revolution. He anticipated a social movement around computers in education, which would give rise to sub-cultures in much the same way that motion pictures did a century earlier. But history had other ideas.

A legacy in the balance

Since Mindstorms was published over thirty years ago, classrooms have been packed to the brim with computers (now in all their various forms), but with precious little to show for all the investment. What went wrong?

In his later writings, Papert lamented the difficulties of bringing his ideas to the mainstream. Whereas he saw computers as cutting across subject boundaries, they became a subject in their own right that reinforced the familiar ways of schooling.

The computer lab was born as the symbol of this artificial separation. Computers were kept apart from maths and other subject areas; precisely where their potential was greatest.

Schools adopted a selective interpretation of computers that fitted with their existing structures and practices. As a result, even where EdTech has penetrated individual subjects, it has often assumed the form of the Computer Aided Instruction that Papert warned against. What’s more, the impact of computers has been defined in terms of traditional learning outcomes — mostly test scores — rather than the broad and holistic traits of intuition, empathy and a love of learning that computers are well placed to support.

Papert was clear on who is to blame for the misuse of technology. In The Children’s Machine, he wrote: “Progressive teachers knew very well how to use the computer for their own ends as an instrument of change; School knew very well how to nip this subversion in the bud.”

It was a damning indictment of how resistant the education establishment is to change. But Papert was equally critical of progressive educators who supposedly championed new innovations. In his view, progressive education has thus far failed because it does not go far enough in transitioning students from the subject of learning to the object. Papert’s warning are pertinent to today’s EdTech proponents.

There’s no doubt that digital learning technologies have the potential to fulfil Papert’s vision. Mindstorms hinted at augmented realities, maker movements and adaptive tutoring, all of which are showing much promise.

Papert’s lament carries important lessons for the champions of digital EdTech, who may end up reinforcing traditional pedagogies unless they resist system pressures to conform to old practices.

Somewhat poignantly, Papert warned that innovations are often ahead of their time. But he was adamant on not judging the future potential of new innovations by current standards — “tomorrow must not be the prisoner of today.” Now, at his passing, the fate of Papert’s legacy is entwined with the fate of EdTech itself.

Are the proponents of EdTech prepared to rescue Papert’s legacy and fight for the future he dared to dream of?

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