Papert's Mindstorms

Alan Kay cites Seymour Papert’s 1980 thesis Mindstorms so frequently that I figured would eventually have to read it. A few weeks ago, I picked up the revised 1993 edition. Today, educators and technologists tend to emphasize marketplaces and apps, the what, as solutions to educational issues. Few argue for radical changes both in medium and pedagogy, the what and the how. Papert believed this was key. In predicting the rise of the personal computer, he developed a cohesive vision of children teaching computers as the basis for a new digital pedagogy, based on his novel theory of constructionism.

Papert studied with Jean Piaget for over 6 years, and was famously precocious. Piaget once said, “no one understands my ideas as well as Papert”. His most important insight was in how people, and especially children, accumulate knowledge experientially. Piaget concluded that children were capable of abstractions at an early age. The difference between adult reasoning was that these were primitive models, learned through experimentation, and were constantly changing with new experiences. Genetic epistemology described this process of accumulated learning. Recently, this has been linked as the probable function of own neurons.

Papert strongly believed in using experiential learning as a foundation for further, more traditional abstract learning. A mathematician by training, he believed that children using the right object-to-do-with, along with appropriate teacher-as-peer guidance, could help develop mental models of mathematical concepts at a very early age. This informed his theory of constructionism. Papert summarizes experimentation-as-learning as syntonic. This is to be contrasted with more traditional disassociated learning, which emphasizes learning abstractions, then its applications.

Math education in the US is still largely taught using the disassociated model. This tends to disengage students, as they can neither empathize nor apply it to their own lives. He believed this caused our national mathphobia, as generations of parents traumatized by New Math instilled this same learned helplessness in their children.

He stressed teachers act as cultural anthropologists, keeping abreast of cultural trends to ensure using relevant mediums in children’s lives. He believed that the keys to successful teaching was in making material meaningful and relevant to students. In practice, this could be accomplished by finding relationships to previous experiences in their lives, and building on that knowledge as a model. He gives a personal anecdote to demonstrate this idea: as a child, he loved gears, and the differential axle in particular. He saw how the two axles could move independent of each other while the drivetrain distributed power accordingly. After awhile, he was able to visualize their motions in his mind’s eye. When it finally came time to learn symbolic algebra in grade school, he had little difficulty in intuiting the relationship between variables in an equation, as he already had a working model of these gears in his head. For instance, given:

ax + by = 0

a and b could represent constant ratios of our wheel gears, and x and y the rotational velocities of a given wheel’s axle.

Papert later became a professor at MIT, and spoke with the likes of Marvin Minsky regularly. As such, he was able to accurately predict the age of the personal computer. He was an optimist, and believed that this could also radically change education:

[…] the computer presence will enable us to so modify the learning environment outside the classroom that much if not all the knowledge schools presently try to teach with such pain and expense and such limited success will be learned, as the child learns to talk, painlessly, successfully, and without organized instruction.

Important to note is that Papert thought of the computer as disruptive rather than complementary to our educational system. Thirty years later, we haven’t seen the incorporation of a pervasively digital pedagogy. (This could be partially explained by the scarcity of engineers and scientists in administrative and educational leadership positions.) Rather, the focus has been on adapting existing curriculum to digital forms. For example, the Khan Academy promotes blended learning classroom models, where short-form video lessons are supplemented by teacher intervention.

(1) significant change in patterns of intellectual development will come about through cultural change, and (2) the most likely bearer of potentially relevant cultural change in the near future is the increasingly pervasive computer presence.

Perhaps Papert overestimated the speed of cultural change, thinking it could keep pace with technology. His knowledge of cultural change came from his wife, Sherry Turkle, who spent time researching the French’s adoption of psychoanalysis. Cultural choices tend not to change once a path has been taken, no matter how suboptimal it becomes as time goes on. Change tends to occur over generations, rather than decades. In turn, disruptive ideas are discarded in favor of incremental progress. Many examples of this occur in life: Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions describes this phenomenon as it pertains science research. Papert cites the “QWERTY phenomenon,” where the arrangement of letters on a keyboard is more due to historical artifact more than critical reasoning. Alan Kay describes computer science today as an incremental pop culture in “Programming and Scaling”, and offers guidance on how to avoid this default mode of thinking.

Other roadblocks abound. Experiential learning is realized differently for every individual, and this is at odds with an idealized curriculum. Papert argues objective curriculums are a panacea, as best practices are always relative to a given culture and technology. For example, analytical geometry, typically taught in high school, is done so for historical reasons: only at that point in school can fine motor skills be assumed enough to draw graphs using pen and paper. Today, the merits of cursive is questioned in a world of keyboards and touch screens.

Today’s emphasis on summative assessments, coupled with an incentive to teach to the test, point towards an even more idealized curriculum than before. This poses significant problems in more fully realizing Papert’s ideas in US classrooms. On the other hand, his vision has seen acceptance in other forms. The One Laptop Per Child project’s motivational theory was based on constructionism, and is in millions of classrooms worldwide. LEGO Mindstorms, named after the book, along with its corresponding robotics competitions, emphasizes experiential learning by programming LEGO bricks. The MIT Media Lab was originally created as a center of epistemological research, initially focused on exploring Papert’s own principles. Of course, Papert also developed LOGO, an “exploratory mathematical sandbox” and object-to-do-with to help children intuit mathematical concepts. In an upcoming essay, I’ll dive into LOGO’s programming model, and look to use it as a lens into educational software as a whole today.