Things we learned from the “inventor of everything good in education”

Maker's Red Box 2020. 09. 24. 11:32

It’s been more than 50 years since Seymour Papert started challenging our beliefs about what schools should look like. His vision was for children to learn by constructing things they felt passionate about. This is how constructionist pedagogy came to be. As is often the case, Papert’s ideas were viewed as disruptive at the time and outraged traditional curriculum designers. And although they are widely accepted and even celebrated these days, we still have a long way to go in putting them into practice. Sadly, we continue “fiddling while Rome burns,” as his last unfinished book’s title suggested.

Learning to code by building a city's infrastructure with Maker's Red Box

Nobody knows what the future will be like, but we know what it won’t be like. We know it won’t be lots of children sitting in desks with pencil and paper, writing all day,

stated Seymour Papert, a professor of education at MIT and co-founder of its influential Media Lab and Artificial Intelligence Lab. As a mathematician and computer scientist, he spent most of his professional life researching how kids learn and understand the world. He’s probably best known as the creator of Logo, the first programming language for children, which he started working on in the early ‘60s, when the idea of accessible personal computers sounded like science fiction at best. His ideas have inspired the first personal computers as well as the maker movement.

The dawn of edtech: finding motivation in computers

As a young child (at the age of two!), Papert was fascinated by gears. As he later realized, this helped him a great deal to understand and appreciate maths at school. “A modern-day Montessori might propose, if convinced by my story, to create a gear set for children. Thus every child might have the experience I had,” he wrote in 1980 in his first book on education, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. “But to hope for this would be to miss the essence of the story. I fell in love with the gears. (…) Something very personal happened, and one cannot assume that it would be repeated for other children in exactly the same form.”

Instead, he proposed that computers could become the gears for everyone to fall in love with. They’re flexible enough so every child can create what they’re actually interested in. And this is what inspired him to come up with the Logo programming language. It was so much more than a coding platform: it could control a robotic turtle with a pen! Kids could write code to make the turtle move around and draw different shapes. In other words, they could turn whatever they were working on into something real.

Papert went on to work with LEGO to further experiment, and later the toy manufacturer named its robotic education kits Mindstorms in recognition of his influential book. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and one of Papert’s students and then associate at MIT, Mitch Resnick, created Scratch, a block-based programming language for kids that boasts nearly 60 million users today. In 2015, Micro:bit was born in the same vein: the microcontroller with sensors and a user-friendly, block-based programming language can be used in a million ways to interact with real-world objects.

These edtech inventions all serve the same purpose: to help kids learn by building on what they are interested in, instead of standardizing the learning process and making everyone focus on the exact same thing.

Children can work towards a goal they believe in, rather than just studying because someone said so.

Kids create and learn using 3D printers and following one of our curriculums

The advent of active learning

Papert was more than some geeky researcher infatuated with new technology and obsessed with computers. His ideas on education were based on a solid theoretical background. Early in his career he studied the cognitive development of children at the University of Geneva with the renowned Swiss philosopher and psychologist, Jean Piaget, and this collaboration ultimately led to the foundations of constructionist pedagogy.

Piaget is revered by generations of teachers inspired by the belief that children are not empty vessels to be filled with knowledge (as traditional pedagogical theory has it), but active builders of knowledge

—little scientists who are constantly creating and testing their own theories of the world,” Papert wrote about his mentor. “As digital technology gives children greater autonomy in exploring larger worlds, the ideas he pioneered become more urgently relevant to parents and educators.”

From constructing ideas to creating things

They both believed that children should play an active role in the learning process. As Piaget explained, “Children have real understanding only of that which they invent themselves, and each time that we try to teach them something too quickly, we keep them from reinventing it themselves.” In other words, they gain knowledge by interacting with the world and building knowledge structures based on their own experiences.

Papert took Piaget’s ideas on constructivist pedagogy one step further by saying that children should construct something so they can better grasp what we want to teach them. His constructionist pedagogy suggests that

learning should be an open-ended, creative process that results in a finished project that can be shared with others.

Although well aware of the limitations of Logo and the turtle, Papert envisaged creating tools that allow kids to learn more naturally, like when someone picks up French while living in France as opposed to learning the language at school.

A kid showing off his creations

Don’t teach maths and arts separately

“What is worst about school curriculum is the fragmentation of knowledge into little pieces,” Papert argued, before Ken Robinson popularized this idea in his TED-speeches watched by hundreds of millions. “This is supposed to make learning easy, but often ends up depriving knowledge of personal meaning and making it boring.

Ask a few kids: the reason most don’t like school is not that the work is too hard, but that it is utterly boring.

His school experiments revealed that children didn’t mind working hard at all if the curriculum was engaging. “Learning is essentially hard; it happens best when one is deeply engaged in hard and challenging activities. The game-designer community has understood (to its great profit) that this is not a cause for worry.

The fact is that kids prefer things that are hard, as long as they are also interesting.

Papert reimagined learning as a more organic process: “children learning to program are learning important ideas about motion, about feedback, they are learning principles of engineering design, above all, they are learning that knowledge is a unified thing, that scientific and formal and mathematical knowledge is not something separate from their passion for toys, from things they did since they were small children.“

Kids working hard on a joint project at our makerspace

Give more freedom to explore

It’s important to let children’s imagination run free so they can experience maths like a mathematician by exploring new ideas. Papert believed that we should combine the freedom students enjoy in an art class with computing to include maths and engineering.

He saw learning as a natural process that is often spoiled by coercion.

Schools instead should be a place where children are “allowed time to think, to dream, to gaze, to get a new idea and try it and drop it or persist, time to talk, to see other people’s work and their reaction to yours.”

Education should involve everyone

Papert, dubbed ‘the inventor of everything good in education’, was determined to share his findings as widely as possible. “Few academics of Papert’s stature have spent as much time as he did working in real schools. He delighted in the theories, ingenuity and playfulness of children. Tinkering or programming with them was the cause of many missed meetings,” recalls one of his colleagues. He might have started experimenting with Logo and the mechanic turtle at MIT, but then he took them to students who were left behind by society.

For so many of us, Seymour fundamentally changed the way we think about learning, the way we think about children, and the way we think about technology,

says Mick Resnick, who heads the Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten research group. Today, we have a wealth of edtech tools available to integrate constructionism into the 21st-century classroom. In fact, we’ve never been so close to making Papert’s ideas a reality. Just a word of caution: the purpose of investing in shiny new technology should go beyond improving old models of learning and introduce something new that benefits children and teachers – and society as a whole.

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