Diversity in Learning: A Vision for the New Millennium

By Seymour Papert

This speech was video taped in 1999 for the Diversity Task Force convened by Vice President Al Gore.

real video file

Iím going to start out by being pretty aggressive in my approach to this problem, because I think that there are some fundamental contradictions and ironies in the kind of approach to education that is being taken by the people with power, including our present administration.

Weíre here today to talk about diversity, and under the banner of our vice president, Al Gore, whom I admire immensely. On the other hand, I find it incredible that the same administration thatís encouraging us to talk about diversity--thatís encouraging us to see the digital presence as a new approach to learning--at the same time is trying to impose standards, standardized tests, which are not only antithetical to the very idea of diversity, but in fact are pushing us back to a concept of whatís the appropriate knowledge for a young person to have that was formulated in the 19th century. And it seems to me just patently absurd that as we move into the 21st century we should be attaching importance to tests whose content, let alone the very idea of these tests, is inherited from the 19th.

Of course, Iím not against standards, if standards means setting high standards and expecting young people to do difficult, bold, courageous, intellectually-challenging work. And this is what the computer would allow them to do. But it would only allow them to do it if we break away from the idea that the computer is there to serve an already antiquated curriculum.

Why are we doing this? Iíve got to say that I think the reason is that thereís a massive self-deception or deception of the public. We want to do something that looks like itís moving into the 21st century, so weíll connect up all the computers. Weíll connect up all the classrooms in the country to the Internet. Weíll put a computer, or even four computers, in every classroom.

Well, Iíd like to use the following analogy: Imagine a society in which there were schools, but writing had not yet been invented, so there are no books and there are no pencils. People teach verbally and they learn by listening. Itís possible.

One day somebody invents writing, and they invent the pencil. Somebody says, "Wow, this would be great for education, it could revolutionize learning. So, letís put a pencil in every classroom in the country and see what it does." Well, it wouldnít do anything, would it?

Because the essence of the pencil is not that--is not something that can be served by having access to it for a few hours a week or even a few hours a day. The essence of the pencil is that youíve got it all the time. I can pull it out of my pocket in a momentís notice; itís not a big deal. I donít have to go to a special place. If Iíve got to write something, if Iíve got to calculate something, if Iíve got to draw something to make a point, Iíve got it all the time. Itís a personal instrument, and this is what is going to happen with the digital technology. Itís going to be the pencil of the future. And I mean pencil in the sense that itís got to be with us all the time to be used when we need it, when we want it, for a vast diversity of purposes. And when we do this, we will find that people will use them in very, very different ways--if we let them.

Thatís to say if we donít also say, "You have to compete with the people of Europe, Africa, Latin America, Asia." If weíve got to program our kids to do well on the tests that those people are doing well on, we are saying theyíre in the lead, weíre the followers. Wrong!

If we want to make use of this new technology to encourage diversity, we have to take the lead. Let us make the tests that they will try to catch up on. These wonít be tests where everybodyís got to give the right answer. They will be tests where people do things, where they get results. Where knowledge is not for giving the right answer. Knowledge is for mobilizing for a purpose, to make something happen, to achieve a goal. The goal might be making a machine, it might be creating a work of art, it might be making a theory, but itís a personal goal that the individual believes in, and not something thatís written down in a curriculum.

School as weíve known it is based on an assembly-line model. And the assembly line was a great invention when Henry Ford made it. And the school might have been a great invention when it was made, but it is an assembly-line model. You come into school, youíre in the first grade, in the first period of the day. You do what the first chapter of the textbook says. You go to second period, third period, second grade, third grade. Itís an assembly line; at each point some new pieces of knowledge are put in.

Why we did this was because we had only such primitive knowledge management technology as chalk and blackboard--and even printing is inflexible, impersonal. With our new forms of knowledge technology, there is no reason why we should have the assembly-line model. There is no reason why we should segregate people by age, rather than bring together people who share an interest, who share a style of doing things, who can do things in common.

When we break away from our mental blinkers enough to be able to throw off the idea that math means adding fractions and this other stuff that we learned in elementary school--which nobody ever does--we spend all that expensive money, and time, and frustration, and psychological damage for the people who donít take to it, in order to program our children to do what a $2 calculator could do better.

We will break away from this one day. We will allow people to learn by following the things they believe in with passion and interest. Theyíll learn more deeply. No, they wonít all learn the same things, but we donít need them to learn all the same things. We want them to be diverse. We want them to be able to do different kinds of activities and bring different points of view.

But in order to do this, we have to break away from this idea that by a token presence of technology--which is all that a pencil in every classroom, or a computer in every classroom, or an Internet connection in every classroom, can be.

We have to break away from that, accept the fact that we have to give every child--not just one maybe, maybe several, but at least one--personal computer to be his or her own thing, to be used not to follow a curriculum, but to follow creative, personalized, diverse learning. That is possible. I think itís just obscene to suggest that the richest country in the world canít afford it.

I think it would be wonderful for the private sector to support computers in schools, but I think itís disgraceful that our government doesnít do that. And I think it will be a curious little puzzle, that professors of educational history will say to their students in the 21st century to look back on the last years of the 20th and explain why educators, administrators, politicians, and policy makers seem so intent on doing this peculiarly contradictory thing that we see around us.

Frankly, I think the real reason is, our education establishment is well-rooted, itís not going to give up without a struggle, and what weíre seeing is the last gasp, the last desperate clutching at straws, of a system that knows that itís about to come to an end. Itís time for inventing new forms of learning. Itís time for addressing the entire learning environment in new ways. This is the only way in which we can get true diversity in the work place and in life.

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