When personal computers first entered the scene in the 70s, there was a lot of excitement about the ways in which computers would dramatically change the way people live. While that has undoubtedly happened, there are still some unfulfilled promises. One of these unfulfilled promises–the promise that computers would radically change how learning works is wonderfully captured by Seyour Papert’s 1980 Mindstorms.
Now, clearly computers have made it into the classrooms, and when I was going to school at least, definitely played a big role in my education.
However, what Papert was observing at the time that he wrote the book was that most of “using a computer in the classroom” was a simple porting of pre-computer educational concepts to the computer. As an example, submitting physics homework online and getting immediate feedback, rather than have to wait for a grader.
The analogy that Papert uses for this is the QWERTY keyboard. The keyboard that is standard on all computers today is not the most efficient or easiest on the hands. In fact, the reason it is laid out the way it is because it was originally developed for typewriters, where there was a constraint where if keys next to each other were too frequently used, the keys would jam. That isn’t a constraint for modern keyboards, yet, the layout has stayed.
In Mindstorms, Papert digs into what constraints from the analogue world we are still stuck. I think his ideas are interesting not just because of their potential to change how childhood education works, but also because he asks a lot of deeper questions about what concepts we really want people to come away with when they learn a subject.
Here are a few of my takeaways:
Learning By Building
Before writing the book, Papert had spent a bunch of time teaching children how to program.
He specifically taught the programming language Logo, a simple language in which the programmer
writes out instructions for how a cursor (called a Turtle) ought to move on a screen. Instructions
FORWARD 100 or
RIGHT 120, and the lanugage allows for writing subroutines (functions).
Having students write programs in Logo taught problem solving skills in a way that many students failed to pick up doing traditional math. Examples Papert brings up illuminate this–one student, after solving a math problem and getting it wrong, crossed out their solution and started again from scratch, thinking that this solution was wrong and that they needed to start over. When programming in Logo, however, things are different. When you write a program, it’s rarely ever “just correct” when you write it. The process of writing a computer program is an iterative process of writing code and then debugging that code until it is working.
The problem with the way math is traditionally set up, where there are right/wrong answers, less naturally sets up the iterative problem-solving approach that is more applicable to real world problems.
Inverting the teacher-student relationship
Another exciting potential that using Logo in the classroom poses is the potential to invert the way student-teacher relationships work. In the traditional classroom, teachers are “authorities” who know the right answers, and while students might often work with one another, genuine intellectual collaborations between student and teacher are rare. It’s hard for an adult to genuinely collaborate with on a student on elementary school-level math.
But in a world where students are learning Logo, things are a little bit different. An example that he uses is that there was an instance where a student couldn’t figure out why the Logo program wasn’t drawing the shape that they had intended. The teacher started helping the student debug, and the student asked at one point “wait, so you don’t know the answer??” and when the teacher told them that they didn’t, their mind was blown. The idea that a teacher could be genuinely collaborating with them was so novel.
Where are we 40 years later?
40 years on from when Mindstorms was written, it’s clear that we’re pretty far away from the “learning society” Papert was describing. Computers have largely gone in the direction of devices used for passive consumption, evidenced by the amount of “computing” that happens on smartphones and tablets. Programming computers is perceived as an inaccessible skill by most of the public.
However, there is still experimentation happening with making computing more accessible (Bret Victor’s Dynamicland is one of my favorite examples), and it’s exciting to think about the broader cultural changes that could happen if that were to be achieved.