In July 1990, Dr. Seymour Papert was the closing keynote speaker at a historic event, the World Conference on Computers in Education, held in Sydney, Australia. This conference also showcased the students and teachers from the first two schools in the world, one private and one public, with a personal laptop computer per child. The conference also marked my first of approximately 70 subsequent trips to work with educators across Australia.

The transcript of Dr. Papert’s speech (below) is a seminal work in thinking about school transformation read by too few educators. Hopefully, this blog post can remedy that oversight.

Perestroika and Epistemological Politics

By Seymour, Papert, Ph.D.
Sydney, Australia – July 1990

During the week of the conference you have been immersed in exciting and focused discussions about actual uses of computers in real educational settings. So it should be. But it is equally appropriate at the beginning and at the end of the week to look at larger issues that are further removed from the reality of everyday work. I am delighted to be joined with Alan Kay for this aspect of the conference. His opening and my closing remarks will come together to define one side of the front in a battle for the future of education, a battle that goes far beyond the use of computers and indeed far beyond what is usually called “education.”

My choice of political and militaristic metaphors was not made casually. I like to think of myself as a peaceful person, and come close to being a pacifist in international politics. I believe in consensus. But I have been driven to look at educational decisions with a confrontational eye. This does not mean giving up the ideal of consensual thinking, rather it means changing the community within which to seek the consensus. There is no chance that all educators will come together on the same side of the intellectual front I am trying to demarcate here. Many people in the education establishment are sincerely committed to positions with a firmness that is all the greater, because what is at stake is not simply a theory of education, but deeply rooted ways of thinking that touch on the relationship between individuals and society, cultures and subcultures, relativity and objectivity. What gives me confidence in the likelihood of significant educational change is the possibility of broad and unlikely seeming alliances between movements as diverse as progressive education, feminist, “Africanis” and other radical challenges to traditional epistemologies, and trends towards putting more emphasis on distributed, decentralized forms of computation. I believe that on a global scale, political winds of change are synergic with such alliances: Among these the political events from which I took my title.

I see the major theoretical challenge for thinking about the future of education as identifying the common element in these movements and the major issue for the World Community of Computer-literate Educators as deepening our understanding of the central role computers will play in translating them into educational reality. My goal today is to lead you to believe that there is such a common element and such a role for computers. I shall not do so by trying to give a precise definition of the Big Issue at stake. I don’t know how to do that and doubt whether it is susceptible to precision. It is more in accordance with the epistemology I want to suggest here to stimulate the emergence of an idea in your minds by circling around my own version of it, touching it a little redundantly from different angles, pointing to a number of its multiple manifestations,[1] arguing that a real stand-off is developing, speculating about the role of computers and computer-educators.

It would be cozier to think that the large issues of educational policy could be settled consensually throughout the education world by the persuasive power of normal science–by the accumulation of incremental scientific knowledge about the “best” conditions for learning. But I am now convinced that, at the very least, something more akin to a Kuhnian revolution is needed. New paradigms are emerging and one cannot expect the established order of the old paradigms to give up their positions. Moreover, such a revolution would have to be of much broader scope than what is usually counted as “education.” In particular, the emerging new paradigms require rethinking epistemological issues: while small changes in how to transmit knowledge do not call into question the nature of knowledge itself, the deep structure of our educational system is linked to our models of knowledge and cannot change unless they do. But perhaps even the concept of a Kuhnian revolution unduly limits the scope of what is necessary to bring about real change in education. For it is not only the established paradigms of knowledge that maintain the status quo in this field. In any science, the establishment holds its position in part through its control of institutions such as university departments, journals, and professional organizations. But in education there is a much vaster network of institutions–schools, universities, research labs, government departments, publishers–and the numerous people who work in them are more akin to a state bureaucracy than to the society of physicists. Exceptionally many people and institutions would be profoundly affected by any significant change and would defend their own interests by defending the status quo.

My title, “Perestroika and Epistemological Politics,” is chosen to focus on these larger Issues, on the seriousness of the topic at hand, and on the high stakes of the revolutionary confrontation that awaits us. The analogy expressed by its use here has become significant for me in a number of ways.

The simplest is mostly inspirational. We have seen change happen with unexpected rapidity. No experts predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall or the newly found freedom of speech and religion in Soviet Union. Institutions that seemed firmly anchored have fallen, giving heart to those of us who have hoped for significant change in education. The backdrop of recent political events (in South Africa, Chile, and other places as much as in Eastern Europe) discourages one from even thinking “it can’t change . . . it will never change!” And blocking this negative thought would remove one of the obstacles to change in school. But I also look at the events in these places as a source of insight into the nature of our own fight for change in education.

What is our fight really about? My reference to the Soviet Union comes from recognizing events there, not only as the most significant process of radical change in the world today, but also as one whose central issues are closely related to those that will dominate any deep change in education. What has happened in the Soviet Union is the collapse of a political and economic structure that invites descriptions like hierarchical, centralized, depersonalized. The confrontation I see in epistemology invites similar description as hierarchical – centralized-distanced vs. heterarchical decentralized-personal conceptions of knowledge. The confrontation in education reflects both the political/social and the epistemological confrontations in the battle between curriculum-centered, teacher-driven forms of instruction, and student-centered developmental approaches to intellectual growth.

My reference to Alan Kay is a first shot at concretely drawing the lines of this confrontation in an educational context by pinpointing two positions situated on one side of the line. Placing us on the same side of this line is not meant to imply that we agree about everything. Far from it. For example, a difference of aesthetic taste showed itself in the movies Alan showed us about how children could create the behaviors of fish that live on a computer screen. This constructionist approach to biology is at the center of what we share. The study of biology is usually confined to observing natural creatures. We want to extend it by creating “make-an-animal” construction kits so you can learn by designing your own creatures and making them work. Given the depth of this agreement, it feels churlish even to mention such a trivial-sounding point of difference as my feeling that the look of the fish in his movie was a little too flashy and reminiscent of Hollywood. I’d like to see children construct fish that look like the children I used to know might have constructed them. But I think that if you could listen in to discussion between Alan and me on this point you would see that the difference really emphasizes the deeper commonality by the very fact of bringing issues of aesthetic taste into intimate relationship with the scientific study of biology. For children engaged in constructing “artificial fish,” aesthetics and science merge more deeply than in the “gee, isn’t nature pretty” invited by the usual superficial classroom form of nature study. And this merging energizes and enriches the children’s work.

Besides our commitment to constructionism, another dimension on which I feel Alan to be closer than almost anyone else in the field of education is his deep understanding of real change–change that is more than incremental. One sees his openness to radical change in the content of what children would learn from the make-an-animal kit. This is not just a better way of transmitting the knowledge that is contained in a normal biology curriculum. Constructionism is not simply a better form of instructionism. Constructing the animals exercises a very different kind of knowledge and even leads to a very different placement of biology in the ensemble of intellectual disciplines. The model for biology projected by the traditional curriculum, and to some extent by the traditional practice of the science, is dominated by hierarchical notions of classification and description of structure. When you make your own animal your thinking is led naturally to focus on the emergence of functions and behaviors. Your role model is not Linnaeus the classifier but Tinbergen (1951) the ethologist or Wiener the cybernetician. One sees a biology affiliated as closely with what Herbert Simon (1989) has called “The Sciences of the Artificial” or “artificial science” as with “natural science.” One sees that understanding biology requires a different logic: the logic of heterarchical (or self-organizing or decentralized) systems and the logic of design. The mindset of a designer or an engineer is better suited to understanding why animals are as they are than the mindset of a physicist .

I see this shift as representing a very significant change in education. But since people will have different ideas about what changes are big changes, I’d like to share with you a metaphor, a parable that I find useful for calibrating change and distinguishing “real” change–let’s call it megachange–from incremental evolution.

I like to imagine a party of time-travelers from, it doesn’t matter when, 1800 let’s say, who had the opportunity to travel in the time machine to 1990 to see how people nowadays do things. Among them is a surgeon, who finds himself suddenly projected into an operating room 1990 style. Imagine his bewilderment with what’s going on there. The flashing screens, beeping electronics. Even anesthesia is something totally new to him. So is the idea of antiseptics. Indeed, I think it’s reasonable to say that nothing that’s going on there makes any sense to him. Certainly, if the 1990 surgeon were to have to leave the room for a moment, the 1880 surgeon would not be in a position to take over.

Now imagine another member of the time-traveling party. A school teacher, who is projected into a classroom of 1990. Some things are puzzling, such as the funny little box with a window looking into another place, or maybe it’s a magic mirror. But most of what’s going on in that classroom is easily understood. And if the host teacher had to leave the room, the visitor wouldn’t have the slightest trouble taking over and teaching the multiplication tables or spelling–unusual ideas about a few words would not make a big difference.

In some departments of human activity, such as surgery, telecommunications, and transportation, megachange has come in the wake of scientific and technological progress. The change has been so radical that the fields have become unrecognizable. Satellite television is not an incremental improvement over smoke signals, carrier pigeons, and couriers on horseback. It’s a different ball game. But in other departments, such as education, there may have been change, but it does not qualify as megachange in this sense.

Some people would argue that this is not surprising–it’s simply not appropriate for megachange to happen in education. Not all activities are susceptible to megachange. Let’s take eating, for example. The basic act of eating might be changed a little, it might be supported by technologies, but its essence is the same–you open your mouth, you put in the food, you chew it. Hopefully, you enjoy the food (and the company) and you swallow it down. Whether the food was cooked in a microwave oven, on an open fire, or not at all does not seem to be such a deep and radical change in the nature of the act. Eating is a natural act, it’s not a technical act. It’s a natural act that can be supported and modified by the technology around, but doesn’t depend on it and doesn’t change radically through its influence. We don’t expect, and wouldn’t welcome, megachange in the act of eating. Asking whether education is (in this respect) in the same category as eating or as medicine will help us clarify the educational lines of cleavage to a much greater extent than simply dividing people who, like Alan Kay and myself, hope for megachange from those who would look only for smaller “normal” change. The question also focuses on key epistemological issues underlying possible megachange. In particular it leads us to pay special attention to the distinction between natural and technical acts.

Isn’t learning like eating? Isn’t it also a natural act’? And if so, should we expect megachange in learning? Well, I agree. Learning is a natural act, and it shouldn’t be subject to megachange. Or rather, I agree that, if the kind of learning we’re talking about is how a baby learns to talk, to walk, to love, to play–then learning is natural. And I don’t look for any radical change in how it might happen. But school is not a natural act. School has become a technical entity permeated with “technical” ways of thinking even in situations where no “technology” is used.

What kinds of megachange might one anticipate in school? How should one think about the possibility of such change and the circumstances under which it might happen? Well, first I want to elaborate on the sense in which I think school is a technical act by focusing on how the teacher is cast in the role of a technician carrying out procedures set by a syllabus or curriculum designed hierarchically (from on top), and dictated to the teacher. Of course this is a simplification of what actually happens. In each classroom there is tension and compromise, a dialectical struggle between the role of technician in which the system tries to cast as the teacher, and the fact that the teacher is really a natural human being who loves and relates to people and who knows what it is to learn and to encourage development in a nontechnical spirit. Very few teachers fall completely, purely into the technician mold. The technician-teacher is an abstraction. But this is the mold into which the system tries to force the teacher. The abstraction helps us define the nature of the system. As we’ve heard recently in Britain, somewhat in America, and I believe here in Australia, whenever politicians get excited about the fact that something is wrong with the education, they start shouting “accountability,” “tighten it up,” “more hierarchical control,” “let’s have national tests.” Why do they do it? You can say that this is what conservatives always do. But I think that it is helpful to have more theoretical, even if therefore more speculative, characterizations of an underlying process. I am suggesting that it is useful to think of what is happening as the system striving to define teaching as a technical act. This serves conservative purposes in many dimensions. It fits the conservatives’ preferred mode of social organization. It fits the conservatives’ preferred epistemological orientation. And, of course, in the most local sense, it suits the school bureaucracy to define the teachers’ job as carrying out a technically specified syllabus following a technically specified teaching method.

So, the aspect of change that is moving to center stage in this discussion is releasing education from its technical form and releasing the teacher from the role of technician. But why am I talking about this here? This is a conference on computers in education. It is not a conference on “humanistic education”– computers are technology. Well, it might seem paradoxical–indeed is paradoxical–that technology should be the instrument for the achievement of a less technical form of education. But this is my goal, and I believe that such a trend has begun. I believe (and again I mention Kay as one who understands this in real depth) that the only plausible route to a “humanistic” education in the near future involves extensive use of computers. Technology can undermine technocentrism.[2] Specifically, having a strong technical infrastructure (e.g., in the form of computers as media of expression and exploration) allows the system to be less technical in its methodology (e.g., in laying down a centralized curriculum).

Let’s go back to the time-traveling teacher to give ourselves a more concrete glimpse of what this might mean. There are a few classrooms where the teacher from 1800 would in fact fail to recognize most of the activities. Observing children designing fish in Alan Kay’s “playground is a case in point. And last weekend some of you might have seen children in this place working on building robots and other machines out of LEGO, connecting them to computers, and writing programs in Logo to control them. A teacher from 1800 who wandered into those workshops would be slightly closer to the situation of the surgeon from 1800 wandering into a modern operating room–though still only slightly.

In the LEGO/Logo workshop we see glimmers of what a different kind of learning environment would be like. Here the children are engaged in constructing things rather than (as Freire would say) “banking knowledge.” They are engaged in activity they experience as meaningful. And for this they don’t need to be directed by a technician-policeman-teacher but rather to be advised by an empathic, helpful consultant-colleague-teacher. They are learning a great deal with a great deal of passion even though there is no technician to keep track of exactly what they are learning. Yes, it is true that this does not solve the technical problem of deciding the optimal sequence of their learning, but then Shakespeare and Picasso and Einstein did okay without anyone having to decide in advance the optimal sequence for them to do whatever brought them to their enviable state of creativity. I want to see children more like Shakespeare, Picasso, and Einstein, who did what was personally meaningful rather than what was laid down in someone else’s program.

Does this threaten the jobs of teachers? In the sense of the bureaucracy’s job description it does. But it opens new jobs: to guide students, to act as consultants, to help when a child may be in trouble, to spot a child who is in a cul-de-sac or on a plateau and could be encouraged to take a leap forward, or to spot a child who is on the track of something really wonderful and give encouragement. There’s plenty of place for a teacher in this. In fact surely this image of the teacher, not as technician, not as policeman, not as an enforcer of curriculum, but as somebody who is part of a learning community, is an image of the teacher really being a teacher. The teacher would officially be given responsibility to exercise full individual judgment at each moment and to make individual decisions about where to go, what to do, and what action to take.

It is this freedom of the teacher to decide and, indeed, the freedom of the children to decide, that is most horrifying to the bureaucrats who stand at the head of current education systems. They are worried about how to verify that the teachers are really doing their job properly, how to enforce accountability and maintain quality control. They prefer the kind of curriculum that will lay down, from day to day, from hour to hour, what the teacher should be doing, so that they can keep tabs on it. Of course, every teacher knows this is an illusion. It’s not an effective method of insuring quality. It is only a way to cover ass. Everybody can say, “I did my bit, I did my lesson plan today, I wrote it down in the book.” Nobody can be accused of not doing the job. But this really doesn’t work. What the bureaucrat can verify and measure for quality has nothing to do with getting educational results–those teachers who do good work, who get good results, do it by exercising judgment and doing things in a personal way, often undercover, sometimes even without acknowledging to themselves that they are violating the rules of the system. Of course one must grant that some people employed as teachers do not do a good job. But forcing everyone to teach by the rules does not improve the “bad teachers”–it only hobbles the good ones.

The change in education projected by the LEGO/Logo workshop can be seen from at least three different points of view. We’re talking about a very different content material. The children are building robots, something that overlaps with doing math, doing physics, doing shop, doing writing, and doing spelling but is essentially different from any of them. We’re talking about a different view of learning. And we’re talking about a different form of control and organization of the school system.

But are these really three different dimensions of the system? I want to suggest that they are not. They are really manifestations of a common deeper structure. I would suggest that one reason education reform has not worked is that it almost always treats these dimensions as separate and tries to reform one or another–the choice depending on who is doing the reforming. Curriculum reformers try to put new curriculum in an otherwise unchanged system but ignore the fact that the old curriculum really suits the system and reverts to type as soon as the reformers turn their backs. Similarly, when reformers introduce new forms of management of the old approach to knowledge and learning, the system quickly snaps back to its state of equilibrium. And, perhaps most dramatically from the point of view of people in this room, the same kind of process undermines any attempt to change education by putting a lot of computers into otherwise unchanged schools. But before talking about computers and schools, I shall take a closer look at how the study of Perestroika casts light on this kind of issue.

I have used the recent history of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in several ways as a powerful metaphor for thinking about change and resistance to change in education. First, there’s the most elemental way: the events in Eastern Europe remind us that change is possible in systems that just 5 or 6 years ago seemed impregnable and unchangeable. Hardly any expert, maybe none, predicted that, in such a short time, the Berlin Wall would have crumbled, just as most people, all of us from time to time, feel that our education system is simply impregnable, and cannot change significantly, not in our lifetimes. But seeing how rapidly the Iron Curtain crumbled is sobering as well as heady in relation to our sense of the possibility of change in education.

But this incitement to believe that what seemed unchangeable isn’t, is only one way to learn from the events in the Soviet world. These events can tell us a lot about the process, the pain, and the difficulty of changing a large, stable social structure.

When Gorbachev first began talking about Perestroika, he did not have any idea that there was going to be so much change so quickly. He didn’t seem to predict it any better than the rest of us. It’s more likely that he imagined a simple incremental restructuring. His intention seems to have been, not to induce megachange, but rather to jigger the bureaucratic organization in the hope of producing incremental improvements. But the system would not be jiggered.

Little by little in the Soviet Union and almost explosively elsewhere in Eastern Europe, it became clear that the problems of “Soviet” society could not be fixed by tinkering with details. By now it is painfully obvious that solving the urgent crisis of that society requires calling in question the fundamental ideas on which it is structured. Jiggering is not enough.

I believe that the same is true in our education system. Many reformers have tried to jigger the school system, to improve it by making small changes in the hope that it would eventually be transformed into a new modern, well functioning system. But I think these reforms are victims of the same illusion that beset Gorbachev in the early days of Perestroika Reforming School requires more than jiggering. Here too we have to call into question the underlying, structuring ideas. But what are the structuring ideas of school?

A relatively easy step towards an answer is to note that what is wrong with our schools is not very different from what is wrong with the soviet economy–both suffer from rampant centralism. In fact, if we ask what aspect of American life is most like the Soviet economic system, it might well turn out that education is the closest parallel.

But it is easy to criticize bureaucracy superficially. It’s harder to realize that, in both cases our schools and the Soviet economy–the bureaucratic organization reflects underlying “structuring” ideas. I believe that a critique of bureaucracy can only be effective if it proceeds on this basis. Otherwise it cannot intelligently guide reform that will be more than jiggering. Gorbachev’s Perestroika started as jiggering but was forced to move quickly toward calling in question the fundamental ideas of Soviet society, among them its deep commitment to a centrally planned economy.

Does the parallel between the central plan and our school’s concept of curriculum need more explanation? In one case, a central authority decides what products will be manufactured in 5-year plans; in the other, it decides what children will learn in a 12-year plan: two-digit addition this year, three-digit addition next year, and so on. It is in the nature of this centralized planning that teachers be cast in the role of technicians whose job is to implement the plan. The very nature of a curriculum requires subordinating individual initiative to the Great Plan. Schools can see no way to make it work other than by exactly the methods and principles that have now been discredited in the Soviet system. All over the world, more and more people are recognizing that these principles do not work in economics. I think that more and more people are also beginning to see that they will not work in education either. These principles fail in the two cases ultimately for exactly the same reason: They hamper individual initiative, and deprive the system of the flexibility to adapt to local situations.

Thus when I talk about Perestroika in education, I refer to the conceptual organization of education as much as to restructuring its administrative organization. Indeed, ultimately conceptual organization and administration are so intertwined that one might as well say that they are the same thing.

In the Soviet Union, creating conditions for initiative and enterprise is emerging as the prerequisite for Perestroika. In education, initiative and enterprise (of students and of teachers) are blocked by the administrative bureaucracy and by the curriculum. The thrust of constructionism is to create a learning environment in which rich learning will come about in activities driven by enterprise and initiative. New technologies provide the opportunity for such learning by opening new possibilities for people of all ages to imagine and realize complex projects in which they implement a large range of important knowledge. “Learning by doing” is an old enough idea, but until recently the narrowness of range of the possible doings severely restricted the implementation of the idea. The educational vocation of the new technology is to remove these restrictions.

But even this does not go far enough toward a fullness of educational Perestroika. Real restructuring of the administration and of the curriculum can only come with an epistemological restructuring, an epistemological perestroika . . . reshaping the structure of knowledge itself.

One step in this direction is to break away from the traditional educator’s role as someone who worries about transmitting knowledge but leaves the making of the knowledge to others. I illustrate this by recalling at least one of the lines of thinking that led to the development of the Logo Turtle. Instead of trying to “make children learn math” we tried to “make math that children will learn.” Turtle Geometry offered a way to do math in the course of writing programs that would achieve purposes other than getting the right answer and getting a grade. Children write programs to make graphics on the screen, to make a game, to simulate something. They also write programs just to test out their own abilities, or just to have fun.

To do this, you need a somewhat different math. But it’s mathematics nonetheless; it uses mathematical concepts, and above all it involves mathematical ways of thinking. It also leads children into thinking like mathematicians. Or rather, this is my opinion of it. But in order for this opinion to prevail, several layers of obstacles have to be overcome. These recapitulate the layers of Perestroika. First there is an administrative layer. The bureaucracy dislikes the change simply because it is change. A lot of money, effort and personal reputation has been invested in curriculum materials, definitions of job qualifications, textbooks, and so on There is reluctance to change. On a second, more substantive level, a shift in content raises questions of authority. Who has the right to decide that this stuff really is math? Once posed in this way, the question effectively blocks anything remotely like a megachange. The only acceptable answer for the hierarchy would require an impossible consensus. But I really want to focus on a third level, where opposition to this kind of mathematics is firmly rooted in prevailing epistemological ideology. A shift here challenges more than particular knowledge: it challenges the very idea of knowledge. Inevitably the resistance will be fierce.

Scholars from different disciplines and with different purposes have criticized the role assigned by current epistemology to the hegemony of certain ways of thinking frequently described by terms like formal, objective, abstract.[3] Feminist scholars have argued that these categories express a male-centered approach. African scholars have associated these same ways of thinking with colonial domination. Such politically directed commentators on epistemology argue that the ways of thinking in question do not have an intrinsic superiority. Cases are cited of great intellectual works that proceed by other ways of thinking. And in this they are supported by recent work by ethnographers who go into laboratories to see what scientists actually do and how they actually think. A body of evidence is building up that puts in question, not only whether traditional scientific method is the only way to do good science, but even whether it is even practiced to any large extent. One can argue that it is nothing more than a shibboleth. But even if one takes a less extreme position, one has adequate grounds for several serious epistemological conflicts in the education system. An epistemological look at the turtle shows how these debates are close kin to issues in education.[4]

The most visible of Turtle Geometry’s epistemological transgressions is bringing the body into mathematics. The turtle was chosen as a metaphor because it is so easy for a person to identify with it: You anthropomorphize the turtle: you solve a problem by putting yourself in its place and seeing what you would do. Of course, you can do Turtle Geometry in a formal way without any of this subjectivity. If this were not possible, I am not sure that I would accept it as “mathematics” (though this reluctance may be just residual conservatism that comes from being a white male of my generation who grew up in a series of elitist academic institutions Cambridge University, Sorbonne, MIT, and so on). But if one were to refrain from doing “body math,” most of the point of Turtle Geometry would be lost. Its intuitive attraction reflects epistemological preferences that would make Euclid wince–at least if we accept the image of him in the standard geometry curriculum.

The feminist and African critics of the traditional, canonical epistemology should understand the Turtle as a direct challenge to the ideology they wish to criticize. They have shown how the reduction of knowledge to precise formal rules in the name of “objectivity” is often male genderized and colored with colonialism. In the present context I can add another way in which it appears clearly as the ideological expression of an oppressive system. Control over teachers and students is simply easier when knowledge is reduced to rules stated so formally that the bureaucrat is always able to “know” unambiguously what is right and what is wrong. Technician-teachers and bureaucrats both like the true/ false binary epistemology that insists on a right answer to every question, a right way to solve every problem. Constructionist mathematics has a different epistemology, whose criterion of success lies in the results rather than the method.

Different methods can be used in a spirit of try, explore, test, debug, rethink. It becomes possible for the student to say, “Maybe the book says that, but this works. Just look and see.”

Students working with LEGO/Logo show the beginnings of another area of new knowledge for children which is currently being actively developed by my colleagues and students at the MIT: an area we call cybernetics for children– using Norbert Wiener’s name in a sense somewhat broader than its current American usage.[5] We are struggling to develop elementary forms of knowledge from control theory, theory of systems, and parts of Al that emphasize “emergence” and “society models.” Doing so brings out in particularly sharp relief several aspects of my present theme. First, as I already noted, it is an area where the teacher from 1800 would be lost; thus it qualifies as an example for thinking about megachange. Second, it is highly constructionist. Children can exercise sophisticated ideas in pursuit of personal projects and fantasies (of which creating imaginary creatures is just the most obvious example,) Third, it shows us developing new knowledge rather than simply figuring out how to deliver existing knowledge. Each of these aspects has epistemological overtones, as I have already hinted. But cybernetics also brings out an epistemological issue I have not yet mentioned here.

Critics (such as the feminist and Africanist scholars already mentioned) of dominant epistemologies set up a line of demarcation that places formal, abstract kinds of thinking on one side, and intuitive, contextualized, concrete thinking on the other. In general, mathematics and computer science tend to be placed on the “dominant” rather than on the “alternative” side of this demarcation. I have already noted that Turtle geometry brings some of the personal into mathematics for children. Cybernetics, with an emphasis on self-organizing, decentralized, and distributed processes, provides more strong support for the alternative epistemologies. Through it children and teachers experience working in a precise way with heterarchical-decentralized forms of knowledge. This means they can “do science” without doing violence to their natural ways of thinking. Moreover, this kind of cybernetics represents a current of growing influence in the contemporary scientific world, including the culture of computer science. These two sides of cybernetics make it a powerful ally for an anti-hierarchical epistemological perestroika.

This is as far as I can go here in the direction of developing the idea of an epistemological perestroika. I move towards closure by recapitulating. I have used Perestroika in the Russian political sense as a metaphor to talk about change and resistance to change in education. I use it to situate educators in a continuum: are you open to megachange, or is your approach one of seeking Band-Aids to fix the minor ills of the education system? The dominant paradigm is the Band-Aid–most reform tries to jigger the curriculum, the management of schools, the psychological context of learning. Looking at the Soviet experience gives us a metaphor to talk about why this doesn’t work. For stable change a deeper restructuring is needed–or else the large parts of the system you didn’t change will just bring the little parts you did change back into line. We have to seek out the deeper structures on which the system is based. On this level, too, the Soviet case provides an analogy: for the same categorization–hierarchical-centralized depersonalized vs. heterarchical-decentralized-personal–applies to the organization of education, to the structure of the curriculum, and to a deeper underlying epistemology. It offers a handle to grasp the conditions for change. Moreover, it suggests a close tie between educational change and the winds of change that seem to be blowing in many other domains in many parts of the globe. In short here is my conjecture and my call to arms: There is a powerful force in the world which could in principle–perhaps will inevitably–carry education in a certain direction. Moreover this is a direction which I and Alan Kay and all the people I love and admire most consider to be a good one. Let’s go with it! It’s our responsibility .

But why us? First, because we are, I hope, good and right-thinking people, who want to see education change for the better. And second, more specifically, because we have an instrument for such a change. But in recognizing this I must state a qualification. I do not see the computer as a “cause” of change– certainly not of this change: much thinking about the computer goes in the opposite direction, strengthening the idea of teaching as technical act, supporting centralization in organization of institutions and of ideas. I’ve seen models of a school of the future in which there’s a computer on every desk wired up to the teacher’s computer, so that the teacher can see what every child is doing. And then the teacher’s computers are wired up to the principals computer, so the principal can see what every teacher is doing. And all the principals are wired up to well, you know where. Nothing could be more hierarchical.

The computer is not an agent that will determine the direction of change. It is a medium through which different forces for change can express themselves with special clarify. One might describe its role as sharpening the choices. In traditional school there is a mixture of centralized and decentralized. If you contrast the LEGO/Logo workshop with the image of the wired-up school, you see a purer form of each than can easily be found in traditional schools. It is for us to choose.

The response of schools to computers brings other issues as well into sharp relief–for example, the issue of megachange vs. Band-Aid. The first microcomputers I saw in classrooms were brought there by visionary teachers who saw the computer as a way to improve the general learning environment of the classroom. This was a small step . . . but a step in the direction of megachange. In the last 10 years there has gradually been a process of “normalization”–like a living creature, the education system has known how to make the foreign body part of itself. As the school administration took control from the individual teacher conservatism set in. “Computer Rooms” were set up that isolated the computer from the learning environment of the classroom. In many places a curriculum was to set up replete with tests on precisely defined fragments of knowledge about computers. In other places the computer was used to deliver the most technical and rote parts of the traditional curriculum. The computer accentuates the choice. It is for us to make it. Which image will guide the long-run growth of educational computing.

But what about the short run? I said that schools recuperate the computer from being an instrument of revolutionary change and make it a Band-Aid. But that doesn’t always happen. There’s room for insertion of individual acts to subvert the normalization. I have found useful the metaphor of the Trojan horse. LEGO/ Logo is a very good Trojan horse. It looks acceptable to people who just want to do “technology studies,” so these kids will be “computer literate” and “technology literate.” This way the bureaucracy will accept it, because it seems to be innocuous. But, in fact, within it is a seed you can nurture, a seed of real deep restructuring of relationships and ways thinking about education. The system has an inherent tendency to use you for its ends. But you don’t have to be used.

There’s another way in which the computer lab normalization is breaking down. We’re beginning to see in the United States that there are now too many computers to put into a computer lab. And so they’re overflowing back again, so that the question arises of what to do with the computers. Will they go back in the mainstream of learning? Or will you make another computer lab with another specialized computer teacher? You can be influential in the decision whether to let them spill them over into the main stream of learning.

My last words are about what this implies for the status of computer teachers, of whom there are many here present at WCCE. Some of things I’ve said might be felt uncomfortable for a computer teacher cast in the role of agent of the reaction. I don’t mean to do that. Although it’s true that the system might be using the teacher in that role, the teacher doesn’t have to follow the script. As the computers spill out of those labs back into the mainstream, the person who knows about the computer will have the opportunity to take on a new role and a much more exciting exalted role within that school. Now there is an opportunity to become the person whose job is to facilitate rethinking the whole learning environment of the school, the whole structure of education. We are entering a period in which the person who was “the computer teacher” has the chance to become the educational philosopher and the intellectual leader of the school, of the education world.

It was said at one of the reflection sessions this morning that, compared with the previous World Conference on Computers and Education, this one was much less about computers and much more about education. I’d like to push this trend by asking: Well, how many more WCCEs should we have? Isn’t it time for us to grow up? And as we grow up, we should stop seeing ourselves as specialists of computers in education, because that casts us in the role of a kind of service profession. Accepting the role allows that other people are the ones to decide the big goals of education, what the curriculum is, how learning happens, what’s a school. And at our conferences we talk about how their decisions can be served by the computers. Well, fine, up to a point. This certainly allows revolutionary actions as long as we are at the stage of crafting Trojan horses to throw into the system. But at some point we have a responsibility to break out of that marginal role and take on our true vocation, which is not one of service but one of leadership. At some point it will be as ridiculous to have a world conference in computers and education as to have a world conference on pencils and education. And with that I’ll stop. And thank you for listening to me.


Abelson, H.. & Andy diSessa. Turtle Geometry. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983 Papert, Seymour. Mindstorms. New York: Basic Books, 1980.

Simon, H. The Science of the Artificial. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989.

Tinbergen, N. The Study of Instinct. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951.

Wiener N. (SE.) Cybernetics: Communications & Control in Animal and Machines. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Seymour Papert[*] MIT Media Laboratory 20 Ames Street, E15-313 Cambridge, MA 02139

Check out the transcript chronicling a debate between Alfie Kohn and Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. The subject of the debate was national curriculum, I mean “common core standards.”

Alfie Kohn: “There’s a strong political interest in representing national standards as being merely “core” standards and to emphasize that the feds aren’t driving it (just funding it!)…

I’m troubled by the P.R. campaign I see: We’ll satisfy the politicians and corporations that want “rigorous, specific, enforceable, clear, defined standards” — but we’ll also reassure teachers that we won’t tell you how to teach. This doesn’t add up.”

Alfie eats his opponents lunch. Note how mr. Wilhoit refuses to answer even the most basic of questions Mr. Kohn asks of him.

I am delighted to have Alfie Kohn on the team for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2010, July 12-15, 2010 in Manchester, NH. Educators across the United States and in countries emulating our race-to-the-bottom owe Alfie a great debt of gratitutde for his wisdom and courage.

CMK 2010

corporatesce200 This weekend, January 29-31, I will be in America’s winter vacationland, Philadelphia, to participate in a timeless tradition, the annual running of the bull at Educon.

Here are the two “conversations” I’ll be leading at this year’s Educon:

20x20pixelStager Certified Educators Executive Programgirlsce200

Play your cards right and you can leave this intensive, immersive, engaging and transformative session a Stager Certified Educator, complete with I.D. card, certificate of awesomeness (suitable for framing) and web badge for use on your blog or web site. Some educators don’t achieve this much over a lifetime, but you may in less than 90 minutes! You will also gain a greater sense of the issues, ideas and expertise a 21st Century educator needs in order to create more productive contexts for learning. Resources for post-certification learning will be shared.

Session One– Room 204  (10:00 – 11:30 AM)20x20pixel


Papert Matters: Thinking About Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas

Seymour Papert’s work has defined the frontiers of education for 40+ years. Gary will share what Papert’s ideas mean for the future of learning through personal anecdotes, Papert’s words and video clips.

Session Four – Room 204 (10:30 AM – 12:00 PM)

20x20pixelCheck the Educon web site to find out how you can participate in these sessions virtually from your parent’s basement via Eluminate.


In 1963, Stanley Milgram, a Yale psychologist began a series of studies “intended to measure the willingness of a participant to obey an authority who instructs the participant to do something that may conflict with the participant’s personal conscience.”[i] Milgram began his experiments a few months after the start of the Adolph Eichman trial in Nuremberg. Milgram was fascinated by the possibility that the heinous crimes committed by Eichman his fellow Nazis were actually the result of just following orders.

Several web sites refer to the Milgram Experiments as a study of depravity. It certainly tests a person’s obedience and compliance to authority, if not their level of sadism.

These experiments and others like them requiring potential harm to human subjects have been deemed unethical for the past forty years. That must have sounded like a perfect invitation for the ABC news primetime magazine television show, Primetime Live. On January 3rd, 2007, Primetime Live, dedicated an hour to the Milgram and other related experiments. Video clips from The Science of Evil may be seen here.

The Experiment
A pair of subjects are hired for $50 and told they will be part of an experiment. They can keep the money whether they complete the experiment or not.

One person is the teacher and the other, the learner. The two participants are given the illusion that the roles were assigned randomly. Each participant is placed in separate rooms with a solid wall between them. In some versions of the experiment the learner tells the teacher and researcher that he or she has a heart problem (this version was featured on ABC). The learner then has electrodes attached to his or her hand while the teacher and researcher go into the other room.

The learner is in on the ruse and will act like he or she is being shocked or a tape recording of a person screaming will be played on cue. The teacher is told that he or she must administer a word memory test to the learner on the other side of the wall. Each time the learner gives an incorrect answer the teacher must throw a switch labeled with an increasing voltage. Throwing that switch will electrocute the learner and the learner will undoubtedly scream. The range of voltage delivered by the machine was from 45 to 450 volts. In some experiments the teacher was given a blast of 45 volts to demonstrate that the machine was not dangerous albeit unpleasant.



The researcher wears a lab coat and sits behind the teacher administering the test and the punishment. If the teacher’s conscience or sense of morality caused them to question the experiment or worry about the learner, the researcher would offer a series of verbal prods in the following order:

    1. Please continue.
    2. The experiment requires that you continue.
    3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
    4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

No other threats or acts of coercion are employed.

If the teacher refused to continue, the experiment would be halted. The experiment would also end after the learner had received shocks of the maximum 450-volts three times in succession.

In Milgram’s original Yale Study 65% of subjects administered the maximum shock, regardless of their discomfort or misgivings. None of his subjects quit before 300 volts – more than twice-household AC voltage. Primetime Live, for ethical purposes, terminated the experiment at 150 volts, but found similar results to the 1963 study.

There mere presence of an unknown authority figure in a lab coat caused a majority of men and women (on the ABC program more women complied) to electrocute a complete stranger. The producers of Primetime Live made the timely and inevitable comparisons to the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.


Why is this Being Discussed in an Education Publication?
While watching the television show I began thinking about how the Milgram Experiments relate to educator conduct during the No Child Left Behind and the growing obsession with student accountability as manifest in testing. Surely educators know that teaching to the test robs the curriculum of its relevance and richness. They must know that recess, art, music, science, electives and extra-curricular activities are good for children. The absence of these opportunities is harmful. Teachers know about student anxiety, vomiting and pants wetting invoked by the tests. Heck, products are sold to help students manage their test-induced anxiety and teachers are provided instructions for handling vomit soaked answer sheets. Reports of cheating and physical abuse of students linked to test scores are becoming more common.

Could such irrational behavior harmful to innocent victims be related to the Milgram Experiments? Did I really want to connect standardized testing to the Nazis and electrocuting strangers?

I did not have to! Primetime Live did it for me!
One of the subjects in the television program was a 7th grade teacher who explained that she didn’t stop shocking the learner because as a teacher she had learned when a student’s complaints were phony. I thought to myself, “Has she electrocuted many students?”

The teacher asked the researcher, “There isn’t going to be any lawsuit from this medical facility, right?” When told that the teacher was not liable, she replied, “That’s what I needed to know.” It is however worth noting that this was after she induced the maximum shock and the learner demanded that the experiment be terminated.

Other subjects said that they inflicted the pain because they were not responsible for what occurred. The researcher was responsible since he told them to do it, even if he never left his desk or raised his voice.

But then ABC News and the teacher herself gave me a perfectly wrapped gift suitable for sharing with you.

When informed of the experimental ruse and asked why she was so willing to inflict pain on a stranger, the teacher looked straight into the camera and participated in the following exchange with ABC News reporter Chris Cuomo.

Cuomo: “You heard the man say, ‘my heart hurts’.”

Teacher: “I did.”

Cuomo: “Just having the guy in the lab coat say, ‘keep going; it’s fine; I’m telling you it’s fine;’ somewhat divorced you from your own decision-making power?”

Teacher: “Oh sure, It’s just like when I’m told to administer the state tests for hours on end.”

Cuomo: “You’re doing your job?”

Teacher: “I’m doing my job.”

If that exchange does not send a chill down your spine, nothing will.

Many of my colleagues and I have heard an increasing number of educators justify a variety of bizarre or unsavory pedagogical practices based on a need for compliance or obedience to authority. What would Milgram say about this trend?

In his 2001 book, American Psychology and Schools – A Critique, Seymour Sarason asks why the American psychological community has been so silent on the explosion of high-stakes testing and other school-related issues pertaining to children. If the APA has banned human experiments such as those performed by Milgram shouldn’t they raise their collective voices against high-stakes testing? How about going on Primetime Live or Good Morning America and at least sharing some concern?

“The social psychology of this century reveals a major lesson: often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act.” (Stanley Milgram, 1974)[v]







This article was originally published in The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate on Thursday, January 04, 2007 8:26 AM

Author’s note – Monday, January 21, 2008.

I originally published this in The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate in January 2007, but alas it is even more appropriate this years when Senators Obama and Clinton are dissing each other over Dr. King’s legacy. Each candidate is part of Dr. King’s “dream,” but the divisiveness of the issue proves how poorly educated most Americans are about modern history. Just today, an African American Huffington Post columnist carelessly reduced Dr. King’s life, work and sacrifice to the few paltry sentences fed to us by the textbook industry.

This epidemic of ignorance can only be cured by educators!

This Monday is Dr. Martin Luther King’s Birthday and February is African American History Month. Both occasions were Dr. Kingcreated as a way of honoring the sacrifice of Dr. King and the contributions of millions of African Americans before him. It is a somber occasion in which to confront the hideous crimes of institutionalized racism and to celebrate the achievements of people who overcame insurmountable odds to enjoy the unfulfilled promises of the United States Constitution.

Schools are the natural setting to inform students of our history, warts and all. Yet we tell so few historical stories and most of those narratives are watered down until they become fairy tales and meaningless happy talk. Face it, ______ (Black, Women’s, Latino…) History Months are necessary because the information presented to students is so biased, simplistic, incomplete and often times just plain wrong.

Please take a moment to answer the following questions:

What do you know about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr?

What do your school social studies texts say about his life and work?

How much class time is dedicated to the life and times of Dr. King?

Have you done any independent reading or research into the life of Dr. King?

Why did Dr. King speak in Washington that day in August 1963?

What was the event called?*

Was Dr. King the only speaker?

Why wasn’t’ President Kennedy at the speech? Wasn’t he Dr. King’s friend?

Who was A. Phillip Randolph?

Who is John Lewis?

Who was Bayard Rustin?

Where was Malcolm X that day?

Many teachers use the King holiday as an opportunity to tell students “all about” Dr. King. “He had a dream…” They use resources like these fabulous materials recommended for teachers on the web.

Note: I highly recommend you click the links to see the garbage used to honor one of the greatest men who ever lived.

You can’t teach about Dr. King without the “I Have a Dream Speech,” right? Textbooks and various multimedia products have sliced, diced and filleted a 30-second perky excerpt from Dr. King’s speech.

Since students will be unlikely to be introduced to any of Dr. King’s other rhetorical output, might I suggest that you play the entire speech for your students. Of course you should listen to it yourself beforehand. The entire speech runs approximately 17 minutes.

You may find a COMPLETE video clip of the ENTIRE “Dream” speech, alongside the unabridged transcription of the speech at the following sites:

So, what do you think? Do the content, intent and emotion of the whole speech feel differently from the one-paragraph textbook version?

In an age when educators profess profound concern about information literacy why not discuss why the entire message of the speech has been hidden by curricular omission. That and the substance of Dr. King’s actual speech should generate a few year’s worth of curriculum alone.

Schools are the natural setting to inform students of our history, warts and all. Yet we tell so few historical stories and most of those narratives are watered down until they become fairy tales and meaningless happy talk.

On this Martin Luther King Birthday National Holiday, I give thanks to the World Wide Web and YouTube for ensuring that future generations of children will be free to learn history aside from the standardized content being currently delivered to them.

Supplemental Resources:

*The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place in Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963.

Why do you suppose “jobs” gets left out of the classroom discussion?

Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.

Read this incendiary article I wrote for circulation among my friends back in 1992. I didn’t write as well then and lacked a filter for moderation. However, this remains one of my favorite “blog posts” – even if it was written in more than a quarter century ago. Regrettably, the issues addressed in this article apply today to nonsense such as “personalized” learning, interactive white boards, clickers, and classroom cartoon watching.

Be sure to dig the email address listed at the end of the piece!

One educator’s opinion…

Integrated Learning Systems – The New Slavery

©1992 Gary S. Stager

These are curious times for public education in the United States. While millions of children suffer in our nation’s schools, hordes of educators and corporate pitchmen are declaring themselves futurists – the person with the perfect solution for all of our educational ills. Too often the message of these emerging leaders is accompanied by a package of services or product to be purchased by schools in search of the miracle cure. For many of these “experts” technology is the key to educational reform. While I agree that new technologies will play a vital role in creating future learning cultures, the uses of technology often prescribed by the pundits are predicated upon misguided notions of behaviorism, drill, and expensive teaching machines. Unfortunately, many of our educational leaders equate educational restructuring with plugging kids into anything that plugs in. The ultimate result being “the injection of more misery into a school day which is already far too miserable for far too many students.”1 There may be no better example of insensitive educational policy, unnecessary spending, or inappropriate use of technology than the proliferation of integrated learning systems.

Broward County should be ashamed of themselves for their obscenely reckless and irresponsible expenditure of $13.5 million on integrated learning systems. In an age of scarce financial resources, troubled students, deteriorating school facilities, and outdated curricula, county bureaucrats decided to invest in Orwellian technology rather than kids. One might ask how school libraries, music, and art programs are faring in Broward County. How many disenfranchised students will stay in school because of the ILSes? How many others will drop out because of the lowered expectations and reduced human contact? In my opinion, the money would have been better spent buying the students lots of crack cocaine and passing out job applications for a lifetime career in local fast food restaurants.

The harsh metaphor between ILS installations and the drug trade is deliberate due to several similarities in the process of selling drugs and selling ILSes. First of all, the claims of educational euphoria made by ELS manufacturers are at best exaggerated. All of society’s ills and educational shortcomings can be erased by hard-wiring students to integrated learning systems. You can buy thousands of prepared lessons, for all grade levels, interests, subject areas, and levels of difficulty in one package. The absurdity of this claim may be revealed by asking a group of teachers, “How long does it take you to perfect a lesson? How long would it take you to perfect thousands of lessons? How long would it take to communicate the subtleties of those thousands of lessons to a team of software designers?” Other claims along these lines suggest that “kids will like it” and test scores (the very same ones that every educator of conscience – even ETS themselves argue against) will rise. Henry Jay Becker’s recent research on the research claims of the major ILSes provides convincing evidence of how shabby the DLS research actually is. Other research demonstrates that any gains in basic skills are short-lived, lacking in context, and are likely to widen the gap between the average and the remedial students because the remedial student spends his/her time drilling disjointed facts while their peers are more likely to be engaged in more creative and intellectually stimulating activities.

Integrated Learning System companies disproportionately choose states with large populations of rural and urban socioeconomically disadvantaged students for their marketing. Many of these states have centralized decision-making where purchasing decisions are made by detached bureaucrat and politicians. It should come as no surprise that states like New Jersey with 600+ independent school districts have a much lower number of ILSes than more centralized states (or counties). Monetarily and/or educationally disadvantaged district administrators are made to feel intimidated and guilty for “denying their students access to cutting-edge technology and thereby reducing their students prospects for a successful life” if they don’t install an ILS. Are academically successful, well-financed, pedagogically secure school districts or poor, disadvantaged, desperate school districts likely to embrace the ILS message?

Integrated Learning Systems often cause an unwelcome cycle of financial dependency. The painful expense of installing an ELS is disguised by the ELS representatives through a myriad of deferred payment strategies designed to give the impression of “something-for-noting.” Sales are closed with small downpayment/high interest lease-purchasing plans, wining and dining of administrators and politicians, “free” trials, and by interfering with the process of local educational decision- making. How many teachers are approached by the ELS proponents for their input? There are legions of horror stories in which the counsel of school principals, teacher unions, and computer coordinators is ignored by politicians or state department officials enticed by the purveyors of ILSes.

While a generation of children log-in at three and out at eighteen, future generations of illiterate Americans will be paying the debt incurred by the purchase of integrated learning systems. Buy the cool multimedia encyclopedia set-up for $1-2,000 and then the truck backs up with an ELS lab to be paid for into perpetuity.

Sure, the claims continue, “our system teaches problem solving.” As if problem solving could or should be taught as a separate body of facts. Ask a scientist or artist about the problem solving process and you will learn that one of the key elements of true problem solving is the ability to decide which problems are relevant and worth solving. A kid using an ILS is never afforded this opportunity. The “problems” offered by an ELS are often the equivalent of “brain teasers” or “bar tricks” – little challenges outside of any meaningful context for learning.

Another disingenuous claim of the ILS proponents is that they aren’t just for remediation or well- funded Chapter I programs. Why you can “do” whole language or the NCTM Standards on your ILS. In fact, we’ll even load LogoWriter onto your system. If schools actually cared about students telecommunicating internationally, solving problems collaboratively, or sharing information, they would urge the hardware manufacturers to produce low-cost durable notebook computers and FM networks so that the computing experience can be truly personal and learning may occur anywhere.

The notion that the spirit or intellectual empowerment inherent in constructivist/learner-centered innovations, such as whole language or the NCTM Standards, can be achieved in a top-down instructionist ILS environment is absurd. The chances that an DLS will help a student fall in love with learning, express themselves creatively, or enjoy the type of educational culture envisioned by Seymour Papert is less than the the likelihood that West Point will graduate a generation of great jazz musicians.

These systems will influence schools to become less democratic, less exploratory, less risky, and less personal. An ILS has its own set of rules for behavior, interpersonal interaction, [and] pedagogy. The content has been predetermined and is “closed” regardless of the number of “If…then” statements built into the management system. The idea that a computer can teach a student is only slightly more absurd than the misguided notion that the computer will identify student interests and aptitudes and steer that leaner towards a world of intellectual stimulation. Dr. Seymour Papert said in an address at NECC ’91 that, “at best these systems possess marginal intelligence and another word for marginal inteUigence is stupidity. We don’t want stupid systems teaching kids.”

This “tabula rasa” view of education stands in stark contrast to the educational directions endorsed by educators and people of conscience, such as the before mentioned NCTM Standards, whole language movement, or even Headstart The idea that learners of all ages construct their own knowledge through experience and being immersed in a culture of powerful ideas has been ignored by the ELS developers. The model of drill and practice and behaviorism on which the ILS industry is based (the industry will deny this claim) will do little to enhance America’s economic viability or leadership in democracy, science, or the arts. The nation of Jefferson, Dewey and Papert must do better for its children.

There is nothing empowering or humanizing in the philosophy behind the ILS. Teachers are especially at-risk in a world of “managed instruction”, “delivery systems”, “CMI”, “CAI”, “intelligent tutors”, “turn-key and teacher-proof systems.” Any teacher who believes that they can be replaced by a machine, probably should be. Teachers must stop referring to themselves as “facilitators” and proclaim their important role as teachers. In the age of the ELS, a facilitator is barely distinguishable from the minimum-wage earning clerk who tears off the student printouts at the end of day. Today’s teachers have an important role to play as social activists and protectors of children.

Robert Pearlman’s question about whether the Mac is up to the task of being part of an ILS borders on the ridiculous.2 Of course it is. Technologically, the Mac hardware and human interface surpasses the hardware requirements of an DLS. After all, the role of the ILS has changed marginally since 1963. That is unless we want the addition of spiffy sound effects and hypnotic QuickTime graphics to manipulate the learner like a consumer watching a Pepsi commercial. These new multimedia technologies are only exciting and empowering if used by students in open-ended environments like LogoWriter and HyperCard as vehicles for self-expression.

The real question regarding the Macintosh and ILSes is why has Apple Computer sold it’s soul to the devil. Two years ago at NECC, I asked Bernie Gifford (Apple’s V.P. for Education), how Apple reconciled its view of individual empowerment with their growing relationship with ILS manufacturers. Dr. Gifford told me that he shared my concerns and that Apple was working with the D-S manufacturers to make their systems “less dogmatic.” This is quite oxymoronic. By their very nature ELSes are dogmatic. Dr. Gifford’s concerns have obviously been neglected. Since my brief conversation with him, Apple has announced the “Apple Event Education Suite,” an innovation that will make ELS systems less cosily to develop and more pervasive. –

I recently saw a poster in an Apple office containing a quote by John Sculley (Apple’s CEO), stating (paraphrase) “at the heart and soul of Apple is the belief that every person should have a personal computer.” If Mr. Sculley actually believes this, why doesn’t Apple produce a low-cost notebook computer for education in the price-range of the Toshiba lOOOSE? Would it not be educationally sound and profitable to sell a school hundreds of personal notebook computers than twenty-five Macs bolted to counters in a computer lab? How can the company so closely associated with tiie work of Seymour Papert and Alan Kay endorse technological uses so abhorrent to the extraordinary vision of these men and their contemporaries?

The new person responsible for education marketing at Apple Computer, Bert Cummings, recently repudiated Apple’s long-standing support of individual empowerment and child-centered learning in an interview with The Computing Teacher. If this article has not yet convinced you of the ELS threat, read the following quote.

…Within the next five years, we’re going to see another generation of Instructional Learning Systems-something that I’ve called Mediated Learning Systems* Mediated Learning Systems will be much smarter and incorporate far more sophisticated management systems than we have currently. They’ II be a lot richer in video content, and easier to customize for individual students, And they’ll be used in mainstream education-not just for remediation. All students need feedback and reinforcement, but the timing has to be right. You* have to seize the teachable moment. Mediated Learning Systems will enable us* to do this on an hour-by-hour, or even minute-by-minute basis fi

2 Electronic Learning Magazine’s Special Edition, ILS Vendors Embrace the Mac. March,1992 4  I’ve underlined the word, You, to emphasize that a human is uniquely capable of seizing the teachable moment. The thought of a computer intervening in a sympathetic and effective manner is foolish. 5 Who is US? Is it corporate America? Is it a politician in the state capital?

Picture this: a student sitting at a work-station tries to solve a quadratic equation gets it wrong. Within seconds, she is shown a three-minute video that takes her though the process of solving that equation-or a similar one. Then she tries again.7 The reason Vm emphasizing instruction is that Apple has traditionally been a vigorous champion of computers as tools-as bicycles for the mind. We’re certainly not backing away from that. The computer-as-a-tool metaphor is with us and I don’t see it changing. However, along with tools, you have to have architectural plans.* And that’s the role I see for Mediated Learning. (The Computing Teacher, April 1992)

Wake up! Your suspicions have been realized. Apple Computer Corporation is a computer company – not a partner in education. This actualization will benefit schools in the long run. Schools should buy the most appropriate technology at the best price and not depend on computer manufacturers for educational solutions. General Electric ovens don’t come with pot roast workshops and curriculum materials. If it seems as if I’m unfairly picking on Apple it is because D3M has always supported the tyranny of a few computers imposing on the will of the many. A wise educator is wary of corporate altruism

Why is it that the parent groups, legislatures, teacher unions, and journalists who found the prospect of Whittle’s Channel One and two Snickers ads a day so offensive are not alarmed by curriculum being determined by the manufacturers of school rings? Several recent developments point to the genesis of an unholy alliance of large corporations, politicians, and defense contractors. The following stories are plucked from recent news stories and personal interviews.

Gifford Leaves Apple Computer. Dr. Bernard Gifford resigned as Apple’s Vice President of Education and will be forming a corporate partnership with Jostens Learning Corp. to develop higher education software. Jostens is the nation’s largest ELS manufacturer. Remember that this is the man who found ILSes to be dogmatic. (Electronic Learning May/June 1992)

Jostens Learning Corp. to Merge with Wicat Jostens recently purchased one of their chief competitors in the ILS market Jostens has spent the past several years buying up educational talent and pieces of software companies, including a large share of Optical Data Corp. (Electronic Learning May/June 1992)

Felix Rothyn Finds Money for New York City Schools This well respected economist and Chair of the Municipal Assistance Corporation, know as Big Mac, has released $40 million dollars for competitive grants. New York City Schools are being forced to compete for these funds which may only be used to purchase integrated learning systems. Why would a school district with a written policy against workbooks want a million dollar workbook? How can a school administrator say no?

Whittle Announces the Edison Project Advertising czar Chris Whittle announced his plans to build 1,000 for-profit schools. These schools promise to be technology-rich and Whittle hopes to see their technological innovations to unsuspecting (and under-funded) public schools. Want to guess the model of technology use likely to be implemented? One guess, a room full of kids with headsets on, in front of colorful screens makes great photo-ops.

George Bush Announces America 2000 President Bush’s cynical plan to fund handsomely one “community-based” model school in each congressional district while the remainder of the nation’s schools rot has major defense contractors salivating over their grant proposals.

There is a misguided notion in the world of the ILS that school must compete with MTV. Every good teacher, and there are tens of thousands of good teachers in America, knows that a student would much rather spend time interacting with a teacher who nurtures and respects the student’s ideas, dreams, and skills than in front of a TV set In fact, most people agree that to alleviate the currently shameful condition of America’s children is rooted in the lack of personal interaction between children and sensitive adults. No computer is going to replace the artistry of the teacher or alleviate the devastating effects of our society’s shameful neglect of children.

So what are teachers-of-conscience to do? We must be vigilant in our desire to affect educational progress and improve the lives of our students while avoiding the temptation to go for the “quick fix.” We must share our successes and reflect on our challenges at every opportunity. Publish and exhibit your students’ work, speak at public hearings, write articles, vote! There are a multitude of examples of educational innovation we can all learn from and replicate – but not if we allow ourselves to be distracted by the seductiveness of inappropriate technology and thoughtless centralized decision-making.

Trust your instincts; unite with colleagues, parents and kids to improve your school. Take responsibility for educational decisions. Integrated Learning Systems are degrading and oppressive to both the student who is victimized by them and the teacher who is trivialized by them. Our children deserve much better, our teachers can be much better if given a stake in the process, and our society demands much better than we can expect from cybernetic teaching systems. Just say no to integrated learning systems.

The author welcomes comments…

Gary S. Stager – Cherry Hill, NJ
AppleLink: K0331


1Jonathan Kozol

2 Electronic Learning Magazine’s Special Edition, ILS Vendors Embrace the Mac. March,1992

3 The euphemism “du jour”

4  I’ve underlined the word, You, to emphasize that a human is uniquely capable of seizing the teachable moment. The thought of a computer intervening in a sympathetic and effective manner is foolish.

5 Who is US? Is it corporate America? Is it a politician in the state capital?

6 You can’t make this stuff up!

7 Note the paradigm of right and wrong answer-based learning being used to support this argument.

8 Huh?

Come hear me speak or lead a workshop at the following events:

  • January 14 – Orlando Florida Speaker A Vision of 1:1 Computing Worth Sustaining at Florida Educational Technology Conference
  • January 29 – Atlantic City, FL Keynote speaker Ten Things to Do with a Laptop: Learning and Powerful Ideas at NJ Techspo (superintendents), along with Alan November

Educon 2.2

I can’t wait to join you at ACEC 2010 this April 6-9 in Melbourne as a keynote speaker. 2010 marks my 20th anniversary of working in Australia and Keynote debate at NECC 2009ACEC ’92 was the first conference I ever keynoted – in Melbourne coincidentally! I’ve been the keynote for at least one other biennial ACEC Conference (perhaps 2), since.

I know how many of my Aussie, Kiwi and other non-American friends had wished they could have voted in US presidential elections – the world might be a better place. However, there is one US election where your vote counts.

I am a finalist to be a keynote speaker at this June’s International Society for Technology in Education Conference (ISTE) in Denver. A keynote speaker will be selected by you, the voter!

This is quite the honor!

The other finalists are Peter Reynolds, Chris Lehmann, Alan November and Jeff Piontek.

Please vote  here (

Voting ends on Friday January 15th (US time). Don’t miss out! Help put the “I” into ISTE!


I am a finalist to be a keynote speaker at this June’s International Society for Keynote debate at NECC 2009Technology in Education Conference (ISTE) in Denver.

This is quite the honor!

aThe other finalists are Peter Reynolds, Chris Lehmann, Alan November and Jeff Piontek.

Please vote  here (

Voting ends on Friday January 15th. Don’t miss out!

Twenty Lessons from Twenty Years of 1:1 Computing

The presenter has led 1:1 implementations around the world since working with the first two “laptop schools” back in 1990. This presentation distills this unrivaled experience into a quick exposition of the lessons learned for professional development, planning and infrastructure, defining a vision, raising expectations, best teaching practices and bold imaginative classroom applications.

The presenter will share strategies that succeeded in schools across the globe and those that failed. He will also challenge some of the conventional wisdom regarding the rationale, expectations and implementation of 1:1 in schools today.

During challenging times when school districts face challenges involving finances and educational progress, it is critical that investments are prudent, aspirations high and leadership enabled to implement and sustain new approaches to teaching and learning in the 21st Century. This presentation is designed to help attendees achieve those objectives.

This will be done with wit, candor and examples from diverse school contexts. All of this “free advice” is offered to help educators create the richest possible learning opportunities for students today and into the foreseeable future.

The presentation will feature video-based case studies of students using personal laptop computers in imaginative ways. Tips for planning a successful 1:1 implementation, funding strategies, answers to frequently asked questions strategies for sustaining innovation and student achievement will be shared. Links to resources, information sources and research will be provided.

early 1990s laptop use in schools

Creativity 2.0 – The Quest for Meaning, Beauty and Excellence

Authors and pundits stress the importance of creativity, but what does that mean or look like in classrooms? This session will address questions, such as: How do we get there? What do we need to change? Is creativity reserved for specific subject areas? Which hardware and software support creativity? What are the essential elements of effective project-based learning?

Technical ease is no substitute for artistic or scientific rigor. It’s about time that more students produce evidence of greater technological fluency. This session will propose how learners might use technology in imaginative ways to create expressions of value; to develop habits of mind, such as discipline; and contribute to a timeless cultural continuum and world of ideas.

Other keynote and workshop topics may be found here.

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