Tomorrow's Classrooms?

By Seymour Papert

This article appeared in the Times Educational Supplement March 5, 1982 (pp. 31-32,41)


In New York City there is a growing number of classrooms, I believe nearly fifty now, where future and past seem to meet. In the front a chalkboard: a teacher talking, perhaps about sentences, perhaps about ratios, in the middle desks: children sitting, some listening, some dreaming. Familiar. At the back something different. Two computers side by side against the wall: a child working at each keyboard. Sometimes a little group around them, sometimes excited talk, sometimes exaggerated by the clicks and the beeps of the machine.

On one of the two computer screens a spaceship flies through a star-filled sky. The eight year old programmer created it, designed its colours and defined its motions. A fantasy captured in a mixture of form, colour and mathematics. A lot of work went into getting the ratios of speeds right. Ratio: the same concept the teacher spoke of -- maybe. But certainly a different relationship between learner and concepts. For this child, ratio is a personal instrument. Something to think with, something to dream with. That's why I called my own dream book Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas.

In this written chat I use a series of encounters between children, computers and powerful ideas to build up a dream about how children might one day learn.

A caricatured Piaget says that children learn by making mudpies. Not so funny. You learn a lot that way. The consistencies of matter. The paradoxical emergence of mud's sticky impressionability from mixture of soft sand and fluid water.

The microworld of sand and water, of mud and beach castles, is a powerful learning environment. Taken as a whole the worlds that have been there for children must be good material to learn with, or else, you and I wouldn't be what we are. But for most children the learning environment is deficient in areas that have come to be critically important for life in the modem world.

In Mindstorms I argue that the remarkably orderly development of intellectual structure observed by Piaget reflects less their intrinsic properties than their varied degrees of rootedness in the learning environment.

Piaget's late developing so called formal stage, is filled with the stuff children can't make mudpies with, or rather couldn't. For this is exactly where the computer achieves its greatest power as a developmental factor: the young programmer of space ships is able to play quite concretely with logic, with laws of motion and with much more that could previously be mastered only with the aid of abstractly formal notions and concepts.

In the Lamplighter Scholl in Dallas, Texas, I was able to set up (thanks to Erik Jonsson) the first experiment in which a community of children had enough computer power for a social-cultural component of learning by appropriation to become clearly visible.

In this small school about three hundred primary aged children have access to nearly fifty LOGO computers. The sheer mass of computing means that the adults in the school are quite unable to keep track of what is happening. The children take over. And when they do the rules of curriculum quickly vanish.

An example: the version of LOGO in use allows the creation of large numbers of "screen objects". These are entities that can be given shapes, colours, positions, speeds and other properties at the will of the programmer. For example, they can be used as building blocks to make space ships, stars and the like. When the computers were introduced into the school the teachers in charge of each age level made a set of decisions about "what to teach their charges".

These decisions were made in teacherly style as a function of what adults imagine that children of each age can do and cannot do. Now we need a technical detail. To set objects in motion one specifies two quantities: a speed and a direction. The natural way to do this in LOGO is to assign two numbers: the speed and the heading. Thus speed could be 50 and heading 90. Following the usual navigators convention this makes the object move in an easterly direction. Speed 25, heading 270 makes the thing move westwards at half speed.

All of this is "obviously" beyond the capacity of six year old children. So the first grade was not shown how to put objects in motion, instead they were shown how to make still pictures with the objects. For the first two weeks this is what they did with enthusiasm, enjoyment and educational advantage. Then something much more exciting happened.

The third grade children down the corridor were allowed to know how to make objects move on the screen. And the effects they produced with this knowledge greatly impressed everyone including themselves (which is what really matters), their parents (some of whom went out and bought home computers), and the first grade children (who are the subject of my story). This was an unstable situation that lasted until a very well defined moment: the moment when someone in the first grade had acquired enough knowledge to ask someone in the third for an explanation and to understand the answer just enough to go back and do something powerful enough to impress the others.

Understand me clearly: this first grader understood enough (and scarcely enough) to produce an action, an action interesting enough to start a movement among the first graders. He did not understand what 270 means. I am not sure that the number 270 in itself meant very much to him, let alone 270 degrees, but this is how real learning happens. You understand just enough to get going, to do something and to learn by doing and by discovery.

A week later I visited the school. A first grader explained to me how the curriculum had been "blown". The sense of subversion, of appropriating forbidden knowledge, contributed to the feelings with which he went on to explain the theory of headings and navigation then current in the little society of first graders at Lamplighter. "It's a code. Numbers are codes for directions". The problem had been reduced by the children to something they knew well. They hadn't yet cracked the code, they told me in their language. But they were working on it.

I lost track of this situation but have since seen others like it and know that given time such codes are cracked. And when the concepts of degrees, directions, and compass points are acquired in this way by personal appropriation, the knowledge has forever a special personal power, a special rootedness in the sense of oneself. What a contrast with how hard it is to teach children at a much later age the concept of degrees, and what a contrast with the alienated form.

Another dramatic example of appropriation happened among the four year old children at Lamplighter and has since been observed and extended elsewhere. The education world has a pretty firm idea of many of the things children of this age can't do. In particular they are not ready for reading and writing. Error: they are not ready for learning to read and write in the traditional manner. They are perfectly ready to master the alphabet if conditions are right.

The Lamplighter children were given access to a set of games using the computer. They loved playing games. But once more the most important events were not what was intended but what the children decided for themselves. After a few weeks a member of the nursery class called over a teacher to set up a new game. The teacher did this by typing at the computer's keyboard. The child said "I want to do that". Another teacher might have said "Next year." But, instead she said "Sure. I will write on this piece of cardboard all the stuff I type… if you want to type it go ahead." The little girl did very much want to type it. It was grueling work. At a typing speed of several minutes a word she kept at it for many weeks. Slowly, the speed went up. Slowly she learned to type without copying. She was building up a vocabulary of spelled words.

I think she was a pioneer embarking on a new route to mastery of the alphabet radically different from the traditional modes of teaching reading. She was learning it because she could use it in a very personal way to make the computer do things for her and because at the same time she was affirming herself as a learner: a person capable of appropriating adult knowledge.

She was also affirming her membership of a social group. It was quite visible to her that the children depended on one "mother" in this learning process.

The girl who said to her teacher "I want to do that" and the first grader who said to the third grader "show me how to do that" are just two out of hundreds of documented examples of children refusing the "infantalization" inherent in most contemporary schooling. These children refused to do what children are supposed to do. Nothing enrages me more than when people criticize my criticism of school by telling me that schools are not just places to learn maths and spelling, they are places where children learn a vaguely defined thing called socialization.

I know. I think schools generally do an effective and terribly damaging job of teaching children to be infantile, dependant, intellectually dishonest, passive and disrespectful to their own developmental capacities. I think that the examples I have given of learning in a computational environment provide a glimpse of a context for learning in which socialization would be based on a potentiation of the individual, an empowering sense of one's own ability to learn anything one wants to know, conditioned by deep understanding of how these abilities are amplified by belonging to cultures and communities.

Precisely these criticisms have often been made by humanists. If they have failed to put schools right what can a "technologist" do? This: take away the cause of the problem. The anti-social nature of school undoubtedly has roots in the class structure of society and in the nature of the Freudian unconscious. As long as important bodies of knowledge (such as school mathematics and the written language) are not rooted in the desires and life experience of children, schools will have to teach them artificially and by force.

If the kinds of computer experience we have seen at Lamplighter and in New York penetrate into everyday life, children will learn the kernel of these bodies of knowledge in the same natural way as they now learn the spoken language (in its colloquial dialects). Then school, defined as a place where the three R's are imposed by force (or by the kind of subterfuge called "motivation" which is just bad), will no longer be necessary. Society will be able to face the task of inventing environments in which the children can develop as social, loving, honest human beings without distorting this goal by the crudely technical one of stuffing the multiplication tables into their heads.