It Takes a Whole State to Raise its Schools

By Seymour Papert
(Bangor Daily News, Sunday Edition, December 8, 2001)


The question I hear most often about the state's plan to provide students with personal computers sounds sensible enough: "What will they do to make sure that the computers are well used?" But my answer is: You are asking the wrong question. They, presumably meaning the Governor and the Department of Education and the personnel of your local school, will do what they can. As a start our Commissioner, Duke Albanese, has taken the inspired step of hiring one of the state's most distinguished school administrators to be in charge of bringing the teachers on board. But whatever they do cannot be enough. The real question is "what will we -- the people of the state, all of us -- do to make this project work?"

We must stop thinking "The Governor's Laptop Initiative." Angus King deserves great credit and is in line for prestigious awards for leadership in Education. But the project will achieve its full potential only if it is appropriated by the people of the state. It must become our initiative ... Maine's initiative. Even those who thought that the money could have served better by being used otherwise can now best serve their state and their children by helping the action succeed.

Appropriation starts with pride of ownership. If the youngsters are proud of their state and proud of their schools they will be off to a good start in making good use of their new learning tools. They should know that the eyes of the education world far beyond the boundaries of Maine or of the USA on them. They should know that how well they do could influence whether their younger siblings and millions of others all over the world get to have computers.

Then there is the sharing of knowledge. Many education reforms failed because parents did not understand or could not accept what their children were doing. Remember the New Math? This time there will be many who have not had the personal experience necessary to appreciate fully the multiple ways in which digital media can augment intellectual productivity. The people who do can make a major contribution to the success of the new initiative by helping others in their communities understand the potential. And being helpful will do much more than improve the uses of the computers. The computers could be a catalyst for turning our communities into "learning communities."

Teachers, too, will need encouragement and in some cases technical help. As a step in this direction I am participating through the University of Maine in a plan to set up a "buddy system" to offer any teacher who wants it a computer-savvy online volunteer helper. But the spirit of the Internet world is not to wait for academic gurus or state bureaucrats to set up this kind of thing: just do it in your community and do it better. Maybe just a friendly visit to a school could give encouragement.

Helping works best as a two way street. My colleague Jim Moulton is working on mobilizing kids with computers and the skill to use them in the service of research on lobsters. The kids will improve their computer skills, their research skills and their sense of service to their state even as they contribute to the progress of the research. I know of dozens and there must be hundreds or thousands of activities in the state that could enter into this kind of mutually beneficial relationship with our youth, whether through schools or through community organizations or by individual contact. This is the true magic of the computers: kids will be able to do more than we wrongly thought kids were capable of doing.

Some people in fields related to education are already making plans to shift direction in ways that will help and benefit from the initiative. Researchers in the University system who have been engaged in developing new educational materials are putting a new slant into their work by focusing them on the specific situation that will be created by the presence of the laptops. At least one software company in the state is considering the opportunity of partnering with Maine's schools to produce a new wave of educational materials for a national and even international market. Maine can take a position of leadership in all sectors of the evolution of twenty-first century education. In the academic sector it could attract talent to the state. Our Universities could become the place of choice for students who want to prepare for the schools of the future. In the economic sphere we could see the spawning of new businesses. And, of course, our schools could become the sites of world-class innovations in the new area of adapting learning to the conditions provided by the new knowledge technologies.

The idea of giving every student a laptop was not invented in Maine. Many more individual schools have adopted this policy elsewhere than there are schools in Maine. But Maine is the first to adopt the "laptop option" on a statewide basis. If we can mobilize the intellectual resources and the patriotic pride of a whole state -- and we are not talking about just any state -- the policy stands to achieve hugely better results than it has elsewhere. If so it will be emulated and once more confirm the old maxim. As goes Maine, so goes the nation. But this time it will be: so goes the world.