Reading Mindstorms

Introduction: Computers For Children

Seymour Papert’s introductory chapter sets out a visionary treatise that views the use of the computer in education as a ‘teaching machine’ (3).  This synopsis of the chapter focuses on Papert’s attempt to create a coherent educational process, informed by his idiosyncratic experience of playing with gears as a two-year-old. Viewed as a vital moment in his development as a mathematician,  many of Papert’s key arguments for a transformation in the way schools use computers in the introduction are, in fact, kicked off in the preface of his book. Consequently, the description of himself as a child possessed with the pleasure of learning through transitional objects is developed in the introduction as a way of describing computers in education as ‘objects-to-think-with’ (viii, 11).

Two more concepts outlined in the preface are vital for understanding key ideas in the introduction. The first idea relates to Papert presentation of ‘law of learning’ (vii), which, in turn, connects his work with Piaget and how ‘intellectual structures grow out of one another’ in logical and emotional forms. The concept is vital to Papert’s constructionist philosophy which has at its centre ‘a model of children as builders’ (7). The second concept is harder to pinpoint in the chapter, but it is just as vital to explaining how his vision of computers as ‘the Proteus of machines’ (viii) he sees as leading children through the pleasure of working with ‘puzzles, paradoxes and puns’(9). According to Papert,  this is a foundational way children learn ‘to exercise control over an exceptionally rich and sophisticated “micro-world.” (12)

Ironically, however, when Papert begins in earnest in his introduction to argue that his LOGO programming language and Turtle cyber animals give children a universally accessible language, the evidence is presented as counterintuitive. In fact, he likens his attempt as tantamount to readers entering the theatre and assuming ‘the suspension of disbelief’ (13). How exactly are computers a means for teachers and students to think-about-thinking as a reconciliation of mathematical and alphabetic communication systems (6)? Moreover, in what sense should the reader deal with the counterintuitive claim that computers for children value an imaginary Mathland as a location for bringing about a real transformation of education(6)? What can we expect to happen when imaginary, utopian worlds are offered as emblems for explaining the cultural change?   
Is Papert just trying to tease out in his introduction the seemingly eternal conundrum in education between ‘process’ and ‘product’ by suggesting a middle way, that computers for children are simultaneously and paradoxically both? It seems so, as he argues that computers are not the endgame, but a way in which technology-created objects radically transforms learning by enabling children access ‘very powerful computational technology’ and ‘computational ideas’, giving them new possibilities for learning, thinking and growing emotionally.’ (16)

Chapter 1 Computers and Computer Cultures

As a Piagetian-inspired ‘educational utopian’ (pp 17, 18 & 26), Papert’s first chapter outlines what he sees as the cultural ‘landscape’ in which computers might exist as ‘objects-to-think-with’.  Viewing himself as, not just ‘beyond’ contemporary beliefs and practices, but going in opposition to them, Papert depicts a computer culture that is neither ethnically or geographically based.  Rather, the difference between precomputer cultures (whether in American cities or African tribes) and ‘computer cultures’ is that may develop everywhere (20).

Papert’s interpretation of Piaget’s research through the metaphor of ‘children as builders’ also differentiates how his view of genetic epistemology more fully accounts for what this means for children building from nothing (19). Consequently, Papert spends the first half the chapter illustrating how ‘children as epistemologists’ (28) require support in appropriating the most salient models and metaphors from their surrounding culture to realise their full potential as learners. A similar interpretation of Piaget is evident when Papert deals with why ‘Piagetian learning’ as “teaching without curriculum” should not be seen as commensurate to spontaneous, free-form classrooms or “leaving the child alone.” (31)

A climactic moment in Papert’s depiction of ‘computer culture’ is, comes with characterising of his motives for and practice of the LOGO programming language with children through the MIT LOGO group initiative in the second half of the chapter.  To begin with, he differentiates LOGO language from contemporary trends that are either sceptical or critical about new technologies. He then argues how educators need to be anthropologists (32), who critically understand the importance of all programming languages in connection to a natural, human language (33).

The fact that educators do not understand their critical use of programming languages, and are, as a result, captured by ‘the QWERTY phenomenon’, gives Papert a way of depicting the existence of computer sub-cultures. These too, in their way, block learning. Together, uncritical teachers and self-interested computer sub-cultures, give rise, to a’ conservatism in the world of education has become a self-perpetuating social phenomenon’ (37). There is much to consider in the chapter, as a result of this damning view. Not the least Papert’s depiction of how LOGO and ‘Turtle Talk’ are positioned to further exploit Piaget’s observation of children’s ‘concrete’ and ‘formal’ cognitive operations.

Papert’s ends the chapter on a prophetic note by envisioning a computer culture that bypasses the conservatism of educational systems through the privatising of education through the uptake of personal ownership of computers. From his viewpoint, this is nothing less than returning to ‘the individual the power to determine patterns of education’ (37).  The implications, however, of his vision are stunning, given the erosion of confidence in public institutions in the last forty years and the presence of private businesses such as ‘Google Education’, ‘Apple iPads in Education’, and the multi-billion dollar software industry has in schools today. All these companies claim, in their way, bringing about a transformational change to education as Papert had hoped to affect through LOGO and Turtle in 1980.  

Chapter 2 Mathophobia: The Fear of Learning

“Mathophobia” is the term Papert uses to demonstrate that there exists a serious dissociation within and between learning mathematics and learning in general. In fact, the status of learning mathematics is symptomatic of the construction of education systems to be harbingers of fear, both intentionally or unintentionally, directly or indirectly, limiting,  blocking, discouraging and diverting children from what they do best of all, learn (39).  Papert also holds the corollary as true. When given a chance to ‘conserve’ their naturally coherent theories of the world, children spontaneously “learn” and express both ‘items’ of knowledge and the epistemological suppositions underlying ideas (41). In Papert’s view, children learn to have trouble with learning in general and mathematics in particular (40).

Interestingly, Papert’s distinction of what we ‘see’ and don’t see children do when they are learning, resonates with the current approaches in John Hattie’s use of meta-analyses to make learning ‘visible’ (Hattie, 2009).  Given the investment of time and effort currently underway in STEM education, perhaps those working on current initiatives should dwell on Papert’s understanding of the relational nature of systematic and personal complexities, as a way of resolving if primary schools should be filled with more sciences and maths specialists.

At the heart of the matter is the importance of ‘bugs’ and ‘debugging’ Papert gives in learning.  His example of comparing growing a child’s working vocabulary and the mathematical/ scientific concept of volume is exciting in its implications for reconciling the fragmentation of learning that typically takes place in traditional learning classroom contexts.  Through his discussion of ‘Johnny’ and ‘Jim’ and their respective relationship with verbal competence, we get a rare glimpse into what dissociation means when the teacher cannot ‘see’ the need to harness building vocabulary together with mathematically operations.  

The figurative existence of ‘Mathland’ comes into its own for Papert in the service of Johnny and Jim as an imagined space for them to build learning on their ‘multiple strengths to serve all domains of intellectual activity’.  It foreshadows the type counter arguments to ‘multiple intelligence’ (Gartner, 1993) vociferously mounted by cognitive scientists like Paul Howard Jones. Papert’s satirical depiction of brains endowed with MAD (‘math acquisition device’) or afflicted with ‘dyscalculia’ (46), highlights how the meaningless bundling of abilities ultimately gives rise to the idea that there are ‘smart’ and ‘dumb’ people (43).

Notwithstanding its prophetic nature, however, Papert finds it awkward to show the smooth transition between the humanities-based learning of vocabulary and ‘mathetic’ concepts such as volume.  As a result, he seems to be ‘grasping at straws’ when he looks at Jenny’s use of the computer to write her concrete poetry through enhancing her understanding of grammar (49). The problem of Jenny ‘teaching her computer to make strings of words that look like English’ is too complex to be categorised as ‘Turtle talk’.  It also shows nothing of the ‘debugging’ process which he alludes to in the creation of a poetic phrase. At best, the example only signals the ‘beginning of the beginning’ of relating Jenny’s poetic and mathetic knowledge building.
Put simply, Papert fails in his challenge to show how ‘mathetics’ does not erase the ‘sovereignty of the intellectual territories’ but overturns ‘the restrictions imposed on easy movement among them’ (39). As he shows in the next chapter, “Turtle Geometry: A Mathematics For Learning”, requires more than ‘just’ words to show the multiple dimensions on which children’s cognitive operations operate. Only then, can a visit to Mathland put in place an example of ‘fitting’ children’s learning (53).