In Praise of Seymour Papert, the father of AI
A few years ago, something beyond magical happened to me, I read Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas, Seymour Papert’s seminal work on human cognition w.r.t. to computation. Until the announcement of his death this morning, I didn’t realize just how much he meant to me. Micheal Jackson died, I mourned but didn’t cry. Prince died, I mourned but didn’t cry. Seymour died and I broke down into a complete mess.
Something about his death made me feel an intellectual hopelessness. The only thing that kept coming to my mind was “who will carry on the work?” “Who will be true to the way Seymour saw the world?” “Who will continue the great experiment that Seymour started when he brought children and computers together?” “Who will be the custodian of powerful ideas?” “Who”. “Who.” “WHO.” And then I realized that Lorena Barba exists, she has continued on the same path that Seymour forged. And the biggest of all, I realized instead of looking for others to lead, to be the custodians, to carry the torch, I realized that I could be my own superman.
Seymour’s dream isn’t dead because he is, instead, he has left his work to his devotees to continue. It is now time for us to step up to the plate.
Papert in the 1980s created the LOGO programming environment to demonstrate how children’s computational thinking skills can be harnessed through the use of a computational object to think with, in his case, the “LOGO turtle.”
With LOGO, children could create figures on a screen by entering a few basic commands to the computer. These commands took the form of naturally occurring English words like “forward,” accompanied by a number that determined how many steps the artificial turtle of the LOGO environment would move. Through these commands, children were able to learn about computation, gain an intuitive understanding of geometry, and more importantly, learn how to reason like computer scientists.
Scratch was designed specifically to improve on the aspects of LOGO that researchers believed led to its eventual decline in education. In order to realize Papert’s dream of “computational fluency for all,” researchers at the MIT’s Media lab extended the LOGO programming language to make it more “tinkerable,” i.e., they moved the medium of writing instructions from text to visual blocks, and they also created an online social network around the language.
Even though LOGO was designed specifically to serve a pedagogical purpose, it was realized in the same visual substrate as the professional languages of its time. Furthermore, no parts of LOGO was dumbed down for the sake of children.
In 1967, before the children’s laboratory at MIT had been officially formed, I began thinking about designing a computer language that would be suitable for children. This did not mean that it should be a “toy” language. On the contrary, I wanted it to have the power of professional programming languages, but I also wanted it to have easy entry routes for nonmathematical beginners. — Seymour Papert
LOGO came built in to support procedures, children learned to write their own procedures and even did recursion. Research showed that students who were introduced to LOGO did not suffer from the foul misunderstanding that they were not engaged in real computer programming. Which brings me to the problem with Scratch and other graphical block-based languages.
While they are successful at introducing some aspects of computation to students, they have a negative effect on student’s self-reported perception of being programmers, coders, or devs.
Lewis found that “students that learned LOGO had on average higher confidence in their ability to program,” than their counterparts that learned Scratch. Seymour designed LOGO specifically to on-board children into the world of adults. These block-based languages have done the opposite. They’ve sort of boxed computation into the world of children. They almost managed to strip it of all its power. Some have gone as far as turning it into a toy. Look at this ad for a new “coding” toy where the cutesy little girl is “playing” coding.
Do you think the cutesy girl in the video is doing anything remotely close to what a professional developer does? How is she going to transfer that knowledge from playing around with blocks to a text-based-language like Python? Oh don’t get me started on the fact that her brother gets to do real coding in a professional language, on a professional text editor, but she has to go play coding.
Seeing all the effort that is going into computational thinking, and the President’s CSForAll initiative I can’t help but think, “but we have done this before, and nothing changed.” The same fervor surrounded us, Papertesque LOGO disciples. In the 80s LOGO was supposed to usher in a revolution in computer science education. Seymour gave us a vision of what computers could really mean in education. It was supposed to be a revolution!. And yet nothing happened. School was able to kill that which was birthed when children, computers and powerful ideas come together.
School as realized through the bureaucratic obstacle course that American public education has degenerated to, successfully adopted the idea of learning with computers but turned it into something that no longer resembled anything that could potentially empower and liberate students in their learning. Instead of learning how to explore complex computational ideas via programming, students were ushered into sterile computer labs and “taught” how to use modern software programs like word processors. Schools were able to get away with an intellectual perversion of transforming the student from the creator of software into the consumer of software.
What happened in the 1980s is a clear example of Toyama’s amplification theory, the theory states that technology is only an amplifier of human intent. As a result, it can have both negative and positive impacts. When computers were introduced into schools that had pre-existing human capacity in teacher and parent networks, it found a sure footing and was used as a tool to introduce computer science. In the case where computers were introduced to schools that were already stretched thin in terms of their human capacity, it turned into “typing” and learning to use “Microsoft Word.”
For those who would like to see change, the price of inaction will be to see the least desirable features of the status quo exaggerated and even more firmly entrenched. On the other hand, the fact that we will be in a period of rapid evolution will produce footholds for institutional changes that might have been impossible in a more stable period. — Seymour Papert
I am afraid we are going to redo the same failed experiment that happened in 1980s. I ask you to join me and help create what Seymour had in mind when he put children and computers together. I ask you to join me and make sure that we become good stewards of the legacy of Seymour Papert.