Computers in the Classroom: Agents of Change

By Seymour Papert

This article appeared in The Washington Post Education Review Sunday, October 27, 1996


Imagine that writing has just been invented in Foobar, a country that has managed to develop a highly sophisticated culture of poetry, philosophy and science using entirely oral means of expression. It occurs to imaginative educators that the new technology of pencils, paper and printing could have a beneficial effect on the schools of the country. Many suggestions are made. The most radical is to provide all teachers and children with pencils, paper and books and suspend regular classes for six months while everyone learns the new art of reading and writing. The more cautious plans propose starting slowly and seeing how "pencil-learning" works on a small scale before doing anything really drastic. In the end, Foobarian politicians being what they are, a cautious plan is announced with radical fanfare: Within four years a pencil and a pad of paper will be placed in every single classroom of the country so that every child, rich or poor, will have access to the new knowledge technology. Meantime the educational psychologists stand by to measure the impact of pencils on learning.

I first used this parable in the early days of computers to warn against basing negative conclusions about computers on observations about what happens when computers are used in a manner analogous to that pencil experiment. At that time I ended the story with something like "And not surprisingly, the Foobarians concluded that pencils do not contribute to better learning." Subsequent events have indeed shown my fears to be well-founded: Conclusions of a Foobarian kind have in fact slipped into the accepted wisdom of American educators. For example, educational experiments in which children's access to computers and to computer culture was far short of what mould be needed to learn programming have been accepted as proof that programming computers is not an educationally valuable experience for children. But in telling the Foobar story today I would give it another, even more insidious, ending.

In fact what I now understand that the Foobarian educators would actually do is not reject the pencil but appropriate it by finding trivial uses of the pencil that could be carried out within their meager resources and that would require minimal change in their old ways of doing things. For example they might continue their oral methods of doing chemistry but use the pencils to keep grade sheets. Or they might develop a course in "pencil literacy" which would include learning what pencils are made of, how to sharpen them and perhaps how to sign one's name.

I qualify this kind of appropriation as "more insidious" than merely drawing misleading conclusions because its retarding effect on future developments is cast in the concrete of a culture, including a profession of specialists who see their (often tenured!) jobs as implementing schools' construct of "penciling" or, to come back to the literal plane, of "computing." And I have devoted a third of this little essay to leading up to the point because I see it as the critical issue that must be understood if one wants to make sense of the situation of computers in schools and to participate in steering its future in a constructive direction. To make the point concrete I devote the next third to the story of the intellectual turnaround of "Bill," a high school-aged youth in a summer work-study program for "youth at risk" in an economically depressed area of rural Maine.

Bill resented school and had virtually given up on learning if not on society itself. He had joined the project only because he would receive a small stipend, and during the first days made it quite clear that he would do only what was necessary to avoid being thrown out. But within two weeks he had become an enthusiastic participant, intellectually engaged and on his way to a level of technical expertise that astonished visiting experts on youth programs.

The simplest description of what happened is that Bill became hooked on computers. But what this lad was really "hooked on" was not the machine. It was something inside of himself: the excitement he had never known before of working on an intellectually challenging project that was truly his. And this was no one-night stand: The project was his for long enough for him to build a relationship with it; over six summer weeks he had time to feel ideas germinate in his head, to grow through persistence in the face of many setbacks and to enter the miniculture of a group of people with related interests.

The project he had chosen involved designing, building and testing computer controlled, motorized LEGO vehicles. Doing so led him to seek out and use knowledge from a variety of domains: programming, physics, engineering design and -- most unexpected for him -- mathematics. But what a difference between this encounter and those he'd known in school. Here he was acquiring knowledge for use, like learning a language by growing up in its country -- an experience quite unlike learning a language in order to pass a test. Those high-tech computerized model cars are so rich in principles of mathematics (and the same goes for other domains of knowledge) that one could well think of the experience of their builders as learning math by living in mathland -- a place that is to mathematics as France is to French. And the success of students like Bill in these environments shows that just as all children -- and not only those who "have a head for French" -- learn French if they live to France, so, too, all children learn mathematics if they meet it in a context that is more alive than the ordinary curriculum.

The differences between Bill's learning experience and what schools offer in the form of a few hours a week in a "computer lab" could fill many pages. Here I focus on just one: The computer lab fits into the structure of school by making "computer literacy" one more subject with its curriculum and its time slots while Bill's learning cut across all these structures. He had access to computers and other technologies all the time, whenever he needed them. He acquired knowledge at the time he needed it for a purpose ("just-in-time learning") and not because it happened to be 10 o'clock on the 7th of May in his fifth grade year -- or whenever the curriculum says to learn that fragment of knowledge. He worked with a community of people with diverse knowledge rather than with the homogenized, age-segregated community called a "class."

It is not surprising that people rooted in schools' concept of how learning should take place resist such restructuring. What is surprising is the logical distortion they resort to in order to persuade themselves that there are powerful objective reasons that make the transformation impossible. I conclude by showing how three of the fallacies encountered in attempting to argue with them are manufactured by schools themselves.

In my new book, The Connected Family, I develop the idea that the computers that will be the pivotal force for change will be those outside the control of schools and outside the schools' tendency to force new ideas into old ways. We are already beginning to hear stories about the influence in classrooms of children whose access to home computers and to a home learning culture has given them a high level not only of computer expertise but also of sophistication in seeking knowledge and standards in what constitutes a serious intellectual project. The number of these children will grow exponentially in the next few years. Their pressure on schools will become irresistible.

It is 100 years since John Dewey began arguing for the kind of change that would move schools away from authoritarian classrooms with abstract notions to environments in which learning is achieved through experimentation, practice and exposure to the real world. I, for one, believe the computer makes Dewey's vision far more accessible epistemologically. It also makes it politically more likely to happen, for where Dewey had nothing but philosophical arguments, the present day movement for change has an army of agents. The ultimate pressure for the change will be child power.