The Road to Seymour Papert: Vygotsky, Piaget, Montessori and Freire

I’m going to narrate a personal account of great significance to me: an ecstatic and epiphanic moment in my life that unveiled the work of a genius and his theoretical framework apt for my dream of designing a revolutionary system of learning— the moment I ‘connected the dots’, or a moment of equilibration.

In 2005, when I was a 10 year old boy living in the city of Dubai, I remember my dad taking me for a walk in the park. He was doing a presentation on a particular topic the next day, and he said he wanted to tell me about it. My parents always made me believe that they trusted me to be capable of understanding any idea under the Sun if I was willing to put in the effort, and being the naive kid I was, this instilled in me a slightly disproportionate amount of belief in my own abilities. Fortunately, this was very healthy — because they focused on effort rather than results. Mom’s reply to most admissions of defeat was always: “I know you tried your best, that’s all that’s important.”

So that day, my dad went on to explain to me Lev Vygotsky’s concept of the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’. In simple words, this is the zone just beyond your ‘comfort zone’ (a term that has gained great popularity in recent times). The Zone of Proximal Development is the zone where you grow and develop the most. I listened intently to it, and he explained very simply these concepts. I would later relate this to the idea of the balance between skill and challenge to attain the ‘state of flow’ that Mihaly Cziksentmihaly talked about in the 1980s and 1990s. However, there was another link that took me more years to see than I would have thought.

During my high school years in St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, I spent a lot of time on a campaign to change the way learning took place. We managed to create a lot of buzz around ideas like self-directed learning, learning by trial and error (‘mistakes are just another word for practice’) and many other constructivist and constructionist ideas that are alien and even unwelcome in the Indian education system. I was covered by newspapers, appeared on national television with a few eminent personalities in a short-lived show and so on. However, I have to admit that I was only able to create buzz and not much else. That’s the trouble with trying to get the masses to think — they like to be inspired and will even stand for what you proclaim very adamantly, but they will end up acting only if they see an immediate, compelling (and often unrelated) benefit to an action. This is why I later picked ‘startups’ and business as my medium to impact change and educational reform.

Right after my high school years, I developed a strong affinity for Physics and Mathematics, thanks to the legendary Richard Feynman and his various books. I took a gap year, spending 8–10 hours day learning and working on math and physics problems, sometimes trying to even synthesize my own theories. I shot a letter out to Dr. Abhay Ashtekar (father of Loop Quantum Gravity) at Penn State, and was lucky enough to hear back from him.

Dr. Ashtekar’s email. I’ve removed the name and website of the organization, as they like being off the popularity radar.

I ended up in Bangalore looking for this place, and the few months I spent there were an absolute tour de force in the world of mathematical physics, theoretical physics and philosophy. I was amazed at the pace at which I understood various original works. The focus was primarily on Lev Landau’s Course of Theoretical Physics, and the environment helped me realize that it was possible for anyone to learn at a pace that was unimaginable to most people.

However, the folks at the Center had no intentions to scale. They liked to remain small, and true to their values at all times.

And that’s how I decided to startup. If people could learn so fast and so well, and if businesses were using ‘persuasive technology’ to affect human behaviour, wouldn’t it be possible to scale up this learning methodology to let millions of people reap the benefits?

Along with a friend of mine who had worked hard in the campaigning of my earlier buzz-creating endeavour, we formed an NGO for designing learning experiences and found ourselves in the trending waters of education technology. We had very little clue about how things worked in the world of product and sales for the low-price large-volume markets of India, but we learned really quick. And we learned lots.

However, that ended on a bad note almost two years later, due to fundamental differences in the way the two of us worked as founders. It became clear to us that both of us had slightly different interests in the future of the product. Me doing my undergraduate studies in an autocratic college that prided itself on being an Olympic-standard rat-race track didn’t help much either.

At the end of my first year in college, my family moved in to Bangalore for a year. My Mom signed up for a teaching course — a Montessori teaching course. I was extremely fascinated by the methods she learned — a classroom of students seated freely on the floor in a class, allowed to direct their own learning experiences by interacting with objects around the classroom. And the method seemed to be so effective, the kids were learning much better on the average and the excellent ones were allowed to progress in an accelerated manner owing to the lack of grade barriers. Above all, it emphasized freedom of the individual and consequently ensured excellent mental health for its students.

To those of you who need a bit of name-dropping to appreciate things, many great personalities learned under the Montessori method. The Google founders, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, writer Anne Frank, Nobel Prize Winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez who even talked about it in his acceptance speech, to name a few. The Google founders even ascribe the design of the popular Google work environment to their Montessori background.

Maria Montessori’s method is probably the only entirely scientific method for learning based on various psychological theories. She conducted many experiments verifying, testing and redesigning her methods. It was clear to me that the Montessori method would have a significant role in the future of education.

The same year my mother joined Montessori teacher training, my younger brother who was 9 years old at the time joined an alternative school. With a lovely 5000 sq.ft. house for a school building, a teacher:student ratio close to 1:1 (~45 teachers for 60 students), and an extremely hands-on and personalized approach to learning, the school was a fascinating experience for my brother. We watched him transform, picking up the English language and even ethical values that most people consider beyond the grasp of a 9-year old. Interestingly, most of the teachers were retired professionals (and in some cases, even working professionals teaching on a part-time basis, like the CEO of a software consultancy who taught value education). They conducted activities, organized projects, encouraged students to organize fairs and festivals (giving them a taste of taking initiative and entrepreneurial experience) and even used board games to teach.

However, once again, they weren’t interested in scaling. A guiding philosophy seemed to be a major component of any such institution, and they were concerned the essence of this philosophy would be diluted with scale. Fair enough.

This was just about the time my dad wrote a paper on Oppression of Women in the Indian state of Kerala. A line from the paper, paraphrasing Pierre Bourdieu, still remains in my head like a fresh memory:

The oppressed cannot free themselves of oppression using the cognitive structures of the oppressors.

This paper contained a lot of ideas from a Brazilian philosopher named Paulo Freire, famous for his work “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. I’m guessing many of you already know where this is going.

My final year in college was ridden with hardships. Depression, failures, losses. One such event was the brutal death of a friend in a bike accident. He was entwined in the axle of a public-transport bus, his brains all over the road. I saw his dead body that day in the morgue — head open like a bowl, with a steely expression on his face. It was a shocking experience, and I called up my parents to calm myself.

My dad went on to tell me that day about how unaccommodated facts in life cause trauma, and how I had not had time to accommodate many of the shocking things I had seen and experienced in life. He described Jean Piaget’s theory of equilibration — people’s minds weren’t empty vessels that could be filled, but complex schema or mental maps which accommodated information. People learn through assimilation (fitting in new information into the schema) and accommodation (altering the schema to fit in new information). But it didn’t strike me how this was important to learning in the classroom.

The first time I came across the work of Seymour Papert was during the time I worked at Shared Electric, a Swiss energy startup founded by two students at ETH Zurich, later working from Bangalore, India. We were quite interested in machine learning at the time, and I remember discussion with my colleague on the topic of perceptrons, a certain learning algorithm. At this time, I was quite unaware of Seymour Papert’s book of the same name (Perceptrons) and his contribution to the domain of computer science.

So, the works of Vygotsky, Piaget, Montessori, Paulo Freire and Seymour Papert made it into my life in different ways. So what? Different learning experience, initiatives that I started — all had a major influence on my life. But what connection do these various seemingly unrelated personal anecdotes have?

Now that is a very interesting connection.

I was doing an online course series on Education Technology, when I first discovered constructionism. I got carried away reading about it, and discovered how constructionism was the connected to many other theories that made appearances in my life. Here’s how the connection unfolded:

  1. Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget were two of the most important figures in developmental psychology, whose works on learning and other domains influenced each other heavily. Vygotsky died early due to tuberculosis, but his legacy was strong in Soviet Russia.
  2. As I would read later in an article by Seymour Papert, Maria Montessori, Paulo Freire and John Dewey (whose works again I had picked up in the context of art) were educators who wanted immediate reform on the basis of the works of Jean Piaget.
  3. Papert’s constructionism, is considered the logical extension of Piaget’s constructivism. Papert worked with Piaget, and Piaget is known to have said that “Papert understands my work best”.
  4. I have been extremely fascinated by the works of the MIT Media Lab ever since my high school days, following their work closely. But imagine my surprise when I found out that Media Lab started out as the Epistemology and Learning Research Center at MIT, founded by none other than Seymour Papert.

All these connections/links came to light on one single day: July 30th, 2016.

So imagine my surprise when two days later, I find out that that’s the day Seymour Papert died.

The author is an education enthusiast, an apprentice flaneur and works as a Software Engineer at Nilenso Software, a boutique software consultancy and employee-owned software cooperative. His other publications include: