‘Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas’ – Gerald Haigh reflects on the late Seymour Papert

The following is a guest post written by Gerald Haigh.

The world of technology has been rightly generous with tributes to the pioneering thinker, teacher, mathematician and computer scientist Seymour Papert who died on 31 July this year. A visionary writer, his key educational work is ‘Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas,’ which he introduced with the words;

‘This book is about how computers can be carriers of powerful ideas and of the seeds of cultural change, how they can help people form new relationships with knowledge that cut across the traditional lines separating humanities from sciences and knowledge of the self from both of these. It is about using computers to challenge current beliefs about who can understand what and at what age.’

That was in 1980. Then in 1993 he wrote, ‘The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer’, with the message that,

‘We are poised on the threshold of an advancement of learning even greater than that produced by the printing press.’

Over the years after that, he continued to fret at the slow rate of what he originally saw as a revolution. In a 1998 lecture he drew a telling comparison,

‘Now, given that picture of a rapid change of society, one would expect to see a rapid evolution of the institutions charged with preparing the young for it. We do not see this. We see a much slower rate of evolution of the school and that means we’re seeing a bigger and bigger gap between school and society. This gap is what I believe is responsible for the deterioration of performance in our schools and our educational systems.’

He was particularly critical of schools that saw computers only as tools to support traditional instruction, an approach which he described as,

‘…analogous to trying to improve nineteenth-century transportation by attaching jet engines to wooden wagons.’

(A statement, incidentally, that was directly echoed some fifteen years later at BETT, by Microsoft Global Vice-President for Education Anthony Salcito when he spoke of school leaders whose approach is: ‘Let’s get the stuff and then use the stuff to do what we’re doing already.’)

Today’s ‘stuff’ well lives up to Papert’s vision of what he called ‘space age objects, in the form of small computers’. He foresaw an educational world in which these small computers would become ubiquitous, empowering learners and freeing them from an environment where learning is dictated by teachers.

Well, we certainly have the small computers now. But are schools really using portable technology as a means of empowering learners? Or are tablets still often seen as little more than a convenient replacement for the unwieldy business of textbooks, folders and assessment records?

I think of it like this. A student with a Windows 10 device, with on-demand access to Cloud services such as Office 365, and the infinitely creative possibilities of a suite of Microsoft applications including OneNote, Office Mix and Sway, is faced with an exciting and enticing landscape that he or she should be encouraged to explore. The reality, though I guess, is that schools are deeply committed to a way of working which puts the teacher in charge, disbursing whatever content and method is deemed appropriate for each cohort of learners. As a result, we tend to let the student glimpse the beckoning landscape, but then say,

‘Never mind all that. Here’s what I want you to do. It’ll help you with your exams.’

So it’s back to Papert’s vision of fitting a jet engine to a haycart, when he, and others who followed, wanted so much more.

One way of trying to break this top-down grip is to turn the child into the programmer, hence Papert’s groundbreaking work with ‘Logo’ and, ultimately, to the current drive to introduce every child to coding and the language of computer science.

In an earlier post, which in turn was inspired by work I had seen at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, I reflected on the concept of ‘computational thinking’ – the way teachers and students approach problem solving in the classroom, and the importance of digging down to fundamentals. The more I think about this the more convinced I become that problem-solving lies at the heart of all learning.  By solving problems, children learn, and apply, a whole raft of knowledge and skills. In many ways, contrary to some fears. The role of the teacher is strengthened as he or she is called upon to deploy a whole range of pedagogic skills — instruction to unravel knots, coaching to nudge the direction of travel, making the firm judgment that says ‘No. It will not work. Start again.’

At the recent Redefining Learning Conference run in Northampton by Microsoft Showcase School Simon de Senlis, Ewan McIntosh, CEO of consultancy ‘NoTosh’ spoke passionately about problem-solving, but made the crucial point that the approach is most effective when it’s the students who identify the problems.

‘The big question is “Why?” and it’s not just for the teachers; the teachers job is to provoke learning and curate wonder.’

I cannot presume to do other than touch on the fringes of the rich garden of ideas that flourished in the mind of Seymour Papert. What I can do, though, is simply ask whether his vision, legacy, call it what you will is being upheld in 21st Century schools. In many cases it certainly is. Microsoft Showcase Schools and MIEE teachers are increasingly breaking new ground in ways of which Seymour Papert would surely approve.

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