Blue Hill Man Inspired King's Laptop Proposal

By Gregory Williams

The following piece was published in The Ellsworth American on Thursday, March 16, 2000.


BLUE HILL -- When Seymour Papert, a Downeast da Vinci, envisions the future of education, he foresees every student packing a personal computer.

He is not alone.

Papert has been an influential voice -- the influential voice -- behind Governor Angus King's proposal to equip every seventh-grader with a laptop. On Tuesday, King referred to Papert as a Ted Williams or Ken Griffey of his field, a leading voice on technology in education.

Though he is the man making the proposal, King credits Papert with hatching the idea two years go over lunch and helping him finalize the proposal just a few weeks ago.

Papert said during an interview last week at his home on Route 15 that personal computers can provide students with more than information by giving them an alternative way of learning, thinking and exploring. In short, they could allow students to think "outside the box".

A pioneer in artificial intelligence and a leading advocate of computers changing the way we learn, Papert said personal computers eventually will be an everyday tool for writing, drawing, calculating, designing . . . whatever.

Born and educated in South Africa, Papert has dedicated much of his life to studying how children think and learn, collaborating with Jean Piaget at the University of Geneva. What began as a hobby has since become a preoccupation, if not an obsession.

Among his many involvements, Papert is a professor of media technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a founder of the school's Media Lab, the inventor of the LOGO computer language, the author of six books and often is called upon to testify before presidential commissions and congressional committees.

Though he is a man of international renown, Papert is dedicated to sharing his vision with the students of Maine, the state he calls home. He is working directly with elementary students at the Bridge School on Deer Isle, with middle school students in Brunswick and with troubled youths at the Maine Youth Center in Portland using high-tech Lego toys and specialized computer programs to solve problems.

A Renaissance man, he spends his time piloting planes, cooking, reading poetry and history and simply learning about things around him, such as wildflowers.

Papert says less emphasis should be put on learning how to use computers and more on how computers can be used to learn everything else.

Governor King said that if Mainers are to be major players in the ever-increasing high-tech world, they will have to be adept with personal computers.

Both Papert and King think incorporating technology into the school system will mean greater prosperity down the road for Maine by luring better-paying, high-tech jobs. Papert said he already has seen this occur in Third World countries, such as Costa Rica, that have made a commitment to technology in school curriculum.

King said this is the "biggest opportunity to leapfrog and make a significant gain [in the job market], instead of an incremental gain."

The additional cost to equip every student in America with a personal computer, Papert said, is miniscule when compared to the potential rewards.

King said his role as a leader involves providing a vision for the citizens he represents, which often means listening to and understanding what the thinkers and philosophers are saying and turning it into public policy. Papert is one of these marvelous minds, he said.

King said he agrees with Papert that computers can serve as everyday tools and not just as a means of gathering information. A laptop, he said, is a combination of a book and a calculator, a source of information and a mathematical tool.

King likened having laptops all the time to a young hockey player wanting some day to be in the NHL. If he is going to succeed, he will need more than one hour of ice time each week. Getting good at something takes lots of practice.

Governor King calls his proposal "the most powerful public policy" he has come across in the past 30 years. But at the same time, the Governor sympathizes with those resisting change. After all, he did not use a computer until he was 45, and even then it was limited, he said.

Papert thinks the Governor "did a great thing by opening the debate," calling it an "important step."

"It is the intellectual tool of our time," Papert said. "It's unconscionable if we don't give this to teachers and students."