Viewpoint

What We Learned from Seymour Papert

Learning To Code Is So Much More Than A Job Skill!

Seymour Papert passed away on July 31. He was 88.

For those of you who say: Who is Seymour Papert? We urge you in the strongest terms: Run, don’t walk, and buy a copy of "Mindstorms," a slim volume by today’s standards. Find a cozy chair to sit in, read it — devour it, and be changed. Your thinking about children, about learning, about computers and about children programming computers, will never be the same. "Mindstorms" demonstrates most vividly how ideas can be transformative; how ideas can change thought and behavior. The ideas in "Mindstorms" have been transformative for untold numbers and, for as long as it is read, it will continue to be transformative.

OK, so you want to read a Papert article right now? No problem - download: "Twenty Things to Do With a Computer" by Seymour Papert and Cynthia Soloman, an article that appeared in the April, 1972 issue of Educational Technology. (Thank you, Larry Lipsitz, founder and editor of one of the first serious, educational technology publications, for making that article available for free download.)

Rest assured: that 40-plus year old article is still very relevant today. Papert and Solomon, at the outset of that article identify the educational technology conundrum: Computers have changed the fundamental practices of virtually everything we as humans do, but "How strange, then, that 'computers in education' should so often reduce to 'using bright new gadgets to teach the same old stuff in thinly disguised versions of the same old way.' " Hmm. (Now, run, don’t walk, and get "Mindstorms"!)

In that 1972 article — and expanded upon in "Mindstorms" — Papert focuses on the importance of having children program computers.

Fast forward to 2016: Coding is all the rage in K–12. From an Hour of Code to courses in computer science, educators have come to believe that children need to learn to code — program computers. Why is coding all the rage now? Well, coding is an important job skill.

Yes, of course, of course… but no, no, no!  

Please, we are not dissing the need to prepare our youth to find good jobs; but learning to code is so much more than a job skill!

We learn coding so we can construct dynamic artifacts — 3D objects, animations, music, poetry, etc. — and in so doing, we learn. Papert (1991) comments:  "learning … happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity." Indeed, in using the medium of coding to construct artifacts we make our ideas visible — and in so doing, better enable others — and ourselves — to comment on those ideas. Through the construction process we come to understand what we don’t understand. In constructing collaboratively, we engage with each other, feeding off of each other, making each other’s artifacts and ideas better.  

The New York Times gives a chronology of Papert’s life. But, look to what Papert’s students are doing to get a better idea of his contributions:

  • Uri Wilensky, Inventor of NetLogo, an extension of Logo (co-invented by Papert) that enables learners to explore systems and network effects.
  • Mitch Resnick: Inventor of Scratch, a visual programming language accessible to virtually anyone and everyone.
  • Idit Harel:  founder and CEO of MamaMedia, the first Internet-based, interactive, programmable, learning games’ platform and Globaloria, an organization/platform that supports learning programming in a game-based manner.

Construction, not instruction. That’s at the heart of Papert’s educational legacy. Now, children need all manner of tools to do just such constructing — thank you Uri, Mitch, and Idit! Papert’s legacy continues; nay, his legacy expands!

We end with a few more pithy Papert observations:

  • "The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge."   Papert, 1996
  • "Our goal in education should be to foster the ability to use the computer in everything you do …" Papert, 1997

And two quotes — new favorites —from that 1972 article:

  • The 20th thing to do with a computer: "20. Recursion Line: Think up twenty more things to do."
  • "If every child were to be given access to a computer, computers would be cheap enough for every child to be given access to a computer." 

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