Bode Miller: World's Most Creative Skier

By Seymour Papert

What I love about the Olympics is that they can be seen in many different ways: an affirmation of peace and internationalism; the pure joy of superb human performance; the less pure, but very human, identification with "our" athletes. I'll be on the edge of my chair this week for Bode Miller. Besides being the fastest skier in the world he is the most creative: his style is so original that ski experts are amazed it works. I root for him as something of a Mainer because he developed his Olympic capacity while going to high school in our state and (which comes to the same thing) as an individualist who does things his way -- experts be damned.

Many aspects of Bode would serve well for practicing the art of seeing the world through a lens focused on learning. Let me select one: what he shows us about the need for balance between independent thinking and learning from others. His original, and largely self-taught, style is so fast that nobody can get to the finish line before him -- but it is also so accident-prone that he sometimes loses by not getting there. I see this as an extreme case of the major dilemma facing parents and teachers today.

Once upon a time it was possible for a young person to learn the skills that would last a lifetime. But a different approach is needed to prepare kids for a world in which most people are doing jobs that did not exist when they were born. When the world changed slowly schools could be proud to send out graduates who knew how to do what they were taught. Today we need graduates who know how to do what they were NOT taught. But how far should we go? The major problem is striking the balance between encouraging independence and transmitting the inherited wisdom of the past. We want our children to have Bode's kind of independence. But we don't want them to fall for lack of mastery of well-tried ways of doing things.

Opportunities for developing independence are creeping into our homes most often without being noticed. Consider a simple incident: a 3-year-old goes to a shelf, pulls off a cassette and loads it into the VCR. People are wrong to be amazed at the technological capacity of the child. Getting dressed and playing with many traditional toys are actually more complicated than working a VCR or even clicking a computer program into life. What is remarkable is that the child is able to make a decision to spend the next half hour immersed in a topic of choice. When I was 3, I was dependent on adults for any access to what lay beyond immediate reach. And this is only just the beginning. Soon children who can't yet read will be clicking their way into more kinds of knowledge than I could get from a traditional encyclopedia.

That children are learning to find independent ways into knowledge is wonderful and necessary. But it poses a challenge for parents and indeed for the way we think about school. In the past school had to provide knowledge. In the future schooling -- and parenting -- will have to be about developing the ability and the judgment necessary to use knowledge wisely and critically. Some parents and some schools are facing this new responsibility. But many are not and in my opinion most of the troubles we see in schools (including the epidemic of "learning disorders") come from the fact that the kids can see that school is out of touch with the needs of the modern world.

Bode benefited from an exceptional situation that few parents could create: Up to high school his education was done not only at home but on a farm where adults and children worked together in a spirit of being as self-sufficient as is possible in the modern world. What can parents and schools do under more ordinary circumstances?

Parents and schools that face the problem often find solutions that fit the interests and talents in their families. A little example that uses computer technologies: The Internet makes it meaningful for a 10-year-old (or even younger) to do research on big or small purchases. They feel more adult. They learn to sift good from bad information.

In many such ways the technology that creates the need for more creative learning also offers the ways to achieve it. But never forget both sides of Bode: Like his ski techniques the computer is a powerful thing that can lead to great results and also to great falls. In Bode's case all I can do is to sit on the edge of my seat hoping. In the computer case (which includes the seventh-grade laptops) we can put quality effort into influencing the way it works out.

Seymour Papert is professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Distinguished Computer Scientist at the University of Maine and a member of Maine Learning Technology Task Force.