A Glimpse of the School of Tomorrow?

By Lygeia Ricciardi


Two teenagers sit on the floor, surrounded by a pile of LEGO bricks with which they are constructing robotic cars. Across the room, students upload digital photos for a newsletter for their community. In another small cluster, students play video games they have programmed themselves.

These appear to be average teenagers, yet their projects -- and the pride they take in them -- are unusual. Their school is indeed atypical in many ways; to start, the students here are all convicted by courts of what would be considered criminal offenses if they were adults.

The setting is the Maine Youth Center in South Portland, where two hundred twelve to twenty-year-olds are incarcerated for offenses including theft, vandalism, and even murder. But in one classroom, a group of students seem to momentarily forget their troubled pasts as they learn with, and about, the technologies of the future.

The students are participants in a pilot program spearheaded by Dr. Seymour Papert of MIT, a pioneer in the use of computers for learning. The program grew out of an interest on the part of Governor Angus King Jr. to find innovative ways to improve education in the state of Maine. If deemed successful, it may serve as a model for new technology-based programs throughout the Maine public school system.

Papert has assembled a team of project leaders including David Cavallo of the MIT Media Lab, Gary Stager of Pepperdine University, and Fred Taylor, who has taught at the Maine Youth Center for more than a decade. Under the teamís direction, groups of ten students work for periods of several weeks in a one-room schoolhouse equipped with PCs, a scanner, a digital camera, and computerized LEGO blocks that can be programmed to move and to react to stimuli such as light and temperature.

The pilot program does away with the usual school curricula, boundaries, and divisions. Here, learning flows smoothly from one traditional subject area to another; blocks of time span several hours; and students of all ages work together. Students are encouraged to develop their own projects related to their individual interests. For example, one boy is building a website about skateboarding which features elaborately animated spins and jumps.

The motivation that drives students to reach goals they have personally defined, according to Papert, pushes them to master difficult concepts usually reserved for the most advanced classes in traditional schools. Papert is fond of citing Albert Einsteinís maxim, "Love is a better teacher than duty."

What do Papert and his team hope students will learn? Much more than a set of technical skills: "We want students to come out of the experience with a positive vision of themselves and of the world they want to live in. They should see themselves as contributors to creating that world," says Papert.

To gain that vision and translate it into action, students must learn to concentrate for long periods of time, to solve problems as they arise, and to be self-motivated and self-confident.

The students show signs of developing these abilities. As one boy describes his experience in the program, "I did a lot of trial and error, and I found a lot of new ideas. And I keep going at it, and did not give up." Another explains, "My computer game was having some trouble at first, but I killed the bugs, and I am feeling a lot less anger, and more happy, because I accomplished something positive."

Similar lessons have been learned for centuries without the help of modern technology. So why is the pilot classroom brimming with the latest digital tools? Papert combines high-tech tools with low-tech materials, such as books, building blocks, and paper and pens. He believes that computers can greatly facilitate learning, in part because they adapt easily to a wide variety of learning styles.

Computers also lend themselves to the acquisition of certain "powerful ideas" in science and math, such as those connected with geometric shapes and figures, variables, formulas, functions and graphs. Through writing computer code, designing simulations, and building robots, students gain a concrete sense of abstract concepts such as speed and torque. At the same time, they hone their communication skills.

Despite numerous evident successes, Papertís pilot program has had its share of glitches to "debug". Students sometimes become discouraged by the high expectations the project leaders set for them, but most agree that the returns are well worth their efforts. In addition to those presented by students, the staff team faces other challenges, such as integrating a program based on exploration and intellectual freedom into an environment defined by the enforcement of control and confinement.

Facilitating meaningful change, whether in a learnerís mind or in an organizationís methods, is not easy. Students and project leaders alike are grappling with the difficulties of, and learning much from, the pilot program at the Maine Youth Center. It remains to be seen whether policy-makers and schools on the other side of the barbed wire fence will rise to their challenge.