"Now I Know Why We Have Nouns and Verbs"

By Seymour Papert

This learning story was excerpted from The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap (Longstreet Press, 1996).

A group of "average" seventh-grade students were at work on what they called "computer poetry" by making computer programs generate sentences like:
One student, Jenny (13), had deeply touched the project's staff by asking on the first day of computer work, "why were we chosen for this? We're not the brains."

Now, several weeks later, she came in very excited about a discovery. "Now I know why we have nouns and verbs," she said.

For many years Jenny had been drilled in grammatical categories, but she had never understood the difference between nouns and verbs and adverbs.

Jenny was not unable to work with logical categories, she simply did not understand what grammar was FOR.

As a result, the activity of learning grammar seemed pointless to her.

When Jenny had asked her teachers what grammar was for, the answer seemed dishonest: "Grammar helps you talk better." Jenny didn't see how learning rules would help her to talk, nor did she feel that she needed any help talking. Therefore, she approached grammar with resentment.

As it does for most of us, resentment guaranteed failure.

But on the computer, things were different for Jenny. As she "taught" the computer to generate poetry, she found herself dividing words into categories, not because she had been told to, but because she needed to.

In order for the computer to generate strings of words that looked like English, Jenny had to "teach" it to choose words from the appropriate classes.

What Jenny learned about grammar from this experience with a machine was anything but mechanical. She not only "understood" grammar, she made it "her own," taking it over as a tool.

After this experience, Jenny's overall performance changed. As a result of her new sense of empowerment and improved self-esteem, her low average grades became "straight As" for the rest of her years in school.

Jenny learned that she could be "a brain" after all.

(This story is told in Chapter Two of The Connected Family)