The Future of School

The following discussion between Seymour Papert and the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paolo Freire took place in Brazil during the late 1980s. It was sponsored by Pontifícia Universidade Católica, the Catholic University of São Paulo; and the Afternoon Journal TV show. It was broadcast in Brazil by TV PUC São Paulo and KTV Solucoes.

The following text is an adaptation of a transcript of the discussion, which was conducted in simultaneously translated English and Portuguese.


  Part 1   real video file

Seymour Papert: Somebody is going to ask me a question like, "What did you learn from Paulo Freire?" So I was wondering, then . . . the answer is, well, everything . . . a lot. But this question made me think about what I learned from Paulo Freire.

I used to have cut out on my wall -- a cartoon, a joke from Punch Magazine, which showed a little girl who came to the teacher after class and said to the teacher, "What did I learn today?" And the teacher said, "That's a funny question. Why do you ask me that?" The little girl said, "When I get home, Daddy will ask me, 'What did you learn today?' and I never know what to say."

And I think maybe the serious thing that I learned from Paulo Freire is that the cartoon is not just a joke, that it sort of says what's so wrong with the whole school idea. This girl . . . the teacher's doing something to the girl. The girl is not conscious, doesn't have a consciousness of what it's all about. And that what we're really trying to do in education in small children is to…you can say it all sorts of ways: give them more consciousness of the process, more control, or allow them to throw themselves into it. But however you describe it, it's the opposite of them wanting to ask …having to ask … the teacher, "What did I learn today?"

Paulo Freire: I think that what Papert has just said with a sense of humor is indeed much more humor than irony in the profound meaning and distinction between humor and irony. Joking is good; mocking is not.

The story emphasizes the mechanically quantitative comprehension of knowledge, which is absurd. The girl could have asked, "Teacher, how many envelopes of knowledge have you deposited in me today?" This is an understanding of the act of teaching, and that's why Seymour Papert says with humor that what somebody can learn with Paulo Freire is exactly the opposite of traditional "learning".

I am the antagonist of pedagogy. I am the antagonist of epistemology. I am the opposite ethic. I am nothing of that, because I am the antagonist of that. And I insist, I don't like discourses. I am not a "good boy." I try to be a good person, but "good boy" -- God forbid! If you want to hurt me, call me a "good boy."

I am an educated person, very educated, polite, disciplined, and courteous. That I am, indeed, and more. I try to be respectful, but "good boy," for God's sake, no! So I am antagonistic to all this. I am contrary, the opposite of all this. I believe in the pedagogy of curiosity. That's why I defend, along with the Chilean philosopher Fagundes, the pedagogy of the question and not of the answer. The pedagogy of the question is the one that is based on curiosity. Without that pedagogy there would not be a pedagogy that augments that curiosity.

Once again I ask you to forgive me because I took advantage of your question in order to make a speech, like the Babainos, the Brazilians from Bahia, who love the microphone.

Seymour Papert: So I'll take advantage of your speech to make another speech. Let's see. Let's be very provocative. I'm going to say something oversimplified. Paulo said you can't understand how anybody could say there's learning without teaching.

Now of course, fundamentally, that's absolutely true…. However, in the world as it is, there's a certain balance between learning and teaching in which teaching is so overemphasized, compared with the importance of learning, that it might become true to say that our task is to valuate learning at the expense of teaching. So I'd like to say something about how I see the role of technology, in one aspect, in how the construction of learning and teaching has taken place.

Of course I'm oversimplifying, but within this context I'm going to recognize three stages of learning. Now, these are not stages like those Piaget might talk about, stages of development of the nature of the brain or the mind. They are stages in the relationship between the individual and knowledge.

Stage one happens when a baby is born. And from that time there starts a process of learning by exploration, by touching. Everything is put in the mouth. Of course it's not only in relation to things. It's people as well. But there's a learning going on that is driven by the individual, that the baby is determining. Parents might … think that they are determining what the baby has learned, but it's only a minor factor. Probably the baby is learning in a self-directed way.

Now there comes a time when the infant is seeing a wider world than can be touched and felt. So the questions in the child's mind aren't only about this and this and this that I can see, but about something I heard, saw a picture of, or imagined. And I think here the child enters into a precarious and dangerous situation because not necessarily, but, I think, in point of fact in our societies, there is now a shift from experiential learning -- learning by exploring -- to another kind of learning, which is learning by being told: you have to find adults who will tell you things. And this stage reaches its climax in school.

And I think it's an exaggeration, but that there's a lot of truth in saying that when you go to school, the trauma is that you must stop learning and you must now accept being taught. That is stage two: it's school, it's learning by being taught, it's receiving deposits of knowledge.… I think many children are destroyed by that, strangled. Some, of course, survive it, and all of us survived it, and that's one reason it's often dangerous discussing these questions among intellectual people. In spite of the school what happened to us was that in the course of this stage two we learned certain skills. We learned to read, for example; we learned to use libraries; we learned how to explore directly a much wider world.

Now I think that there's an important sense in which stage three is going back to stage one for those who've survived stage two -- creative people in any field, whether in a laboratory or in philosophy … whether artists, businessmen, journalists … all the people in the world who are able, despite all the restrictions, to find a way of living creatively. We are very much like the baby again. We explore; it's driven from inside; it's experiential; it's not so verbal; it's not about being told.

So now I want to tell a story about my grandson that shows, I think, how new technologies might change the three-stage pattern. When this grandson was three years old, I saw him go and take from a shelf a videotape, put it in a VCR and press the buttons, and he said he forgot to rewind it and he pressed the button and he rewound it, and then he played the videotape.

Now what is interesting is that this child spent the next 30 minutes immersed in a piece of the world that was beyond his reach. And this particular tape was about road-making machines. You know, all those big machines on the side of the road. They are very fascinating for children, and he loves this tape, and he's gotten to know much more about these machines than I ever will. And I notice the difference when we're in the car and he sees one of the machines: he asks more intelligent questions than I can because he's thought about it more.

Now we're going to see what's remarkable about this.… The first thing that amazed me was this little child working this machine. It's amazing, here's this little child working this VCR machine, and many adults don't know how to do that. But we really shouldn't be amazed at that, because it's not more complex than putting his toys away or getting his clothes out of the drawer. Working with these machines is not more complex in any way than the things that 3-year-old children all do. That's not what's amazing.

What's really amazing is the comparison between what he could do at 3 and what I could do at 3. Because if I was interested in road-making machines, it was quite a few years later than 3 when I would know enough to be able to learn something about them except by asking somebody and being told. So here I see the big break. What we're seeing is that stage two is becoming unraveled as a necessary stage. That this child is beginning to short-circuit stage two. And with what I saw there with this grandson who's got a few videotapes, it's only scratching the surface. It's just the beginning.

And already just a few years later -- this happened two years ago -- he could be using an interactive CD-ROM, or he could use the Internet and have that whole range, not just the few videotapes or CDs that he has in his house, but the whole range of human knowledge that, in principle, is accessible to him.

So that's the end of my speech. I think that the key point about this technology and education is that it short-circuits stage two. It enables us to not put children through that traumatic and dangerous and precarious process of schooling.…

Now of course I said this in a non political way, and I don't mean at all to imply that it is only that… I don't think that school and the banking model of knowledge and so on is just politically neutral. It's been used by social structures as a basis for all sorts of conservatism and oppressive kinds of policies.

However, I think I see in these little situations the possibility that 3-, 4-, 5-year-olds, very small children … have a new instrument with which to refuse the oppression, to refuse to be placed in this position and to maintain their curiosity and a sense of their own intellectual power that they had when they were born.

You see, nothing is more ridiculous than the idea that this technology can be used to improve school. It's going to displace school and the way we have understood school. Of course, there will always be, we hope, places where children will come together with other people and will learn. But I think that the very nature, the fundamental nature, of school that we see in this process, is coming to an end. And I think that in 10, 20 years.… We don't want to be prophets, but in this area things have usually happened much faster than in other areas.

So the goal of educators has to be to think about new ways of relating to children and relating in the triangle between the adult and the child and knowledge. I think we just need thoroughly different relationships, and that's not going to come easily or automatically. And that's the test.

See, the other thing I learned from Paulo Freire is to make a long speech. I'm sorry.

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