Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right but Three Rights Do Make a Left

By Seymour Papert

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


When I started learning to fly (now my most consuming hobby) I became aware that I had always gotten confused by maps in a particular situation.

As I describe the situation I am sure that some readers will recognize it as having confused them. Others won't. In fact some will find it amazing that anyone could be confused by something so simple. And some will recall being amazed at how strange it was that a friend or wife seemed to find the situation confusing. Here's the situation. Imagine yourself travelling south along Highway 95 looking for the turnoff to Gloucester, which is to the east of the highway. In order to read the writing on the map you are holding it "the right way up—with north at the top. You see Gloucester, which is on the right side of the page. Of course—if you are facing north, east is on your right. So when you come to the intersection you turn right. But you should have turned left—you are facing south and so east is on your left.

If you are one of those who can’t even imagine making this mistake, the value of this story might be to remind you that some people just don't see things that are quite obvious to others. If you are one of those who have made the mistake join the club! There are lots of us like you.

The next question is: If you are susceptible to this confusion what do you do about it? Most people turn the map around to line it up with the way they are going. This makes the way the world looks on the map the same as the way it looks to them. In many situations that's not a bad solution. But you might still be interested in another. Sometimes turning the map is just not convenient—and of course it makes the writing hard to read. Anyway, it's always fun to know about other ways to do things.

My favorite other way for this situation is to give up thinking "right" and "left" when you consider which way to turn. Instead think "clockwise" and "counterclockwise." Draw a map and try it. You'll see that this description of the way to turn is not affected by the way the map is held.

This shift in thinking gives the story another kind of moral. Hard can become easy if you just represent things differently.