Dr. Gary Stager was invited to write a profile of his friend, colleague, and mentor Dr. Seymour Papert for the premiere issue of Hello World!, an impressive new magazine for educators from The Raspberry Pi Foundation. This new print magazine is also available online under a Creative Commons license.
I suggest you explore the entire new magazine for inspiration and practical classroom ideas around the Raspberry Pi platform, “coding,” problem solving, physical computing, and computational thinking.
Gary’s article was cut due to space limitations. However, the good news, for anyone interested, is that the full text of the article appears below (with its original title).
Seymour Papert Would have Loved the Raspberry Pi!
When Dr. Seymour Papert died in July 2016, the world lost one of the great philosophers and change-agents of the past half-century. Papert was not only a recognized mathematician, artificial intelligence pioneer, computer scientist, and the person Jean Piaget hired to help him understand how children construct mathematical knowledge; he was also the father of educational computing and the maker movement.
By the late 1960s, Papert was advocating for every child to have its own computer. At a time when few people had ever seen a computer, Papert wasn’t just dreaming of children using computers to play games or be asked quiz questions. He believed that children should program the computer. They should be in charge of the system; learning while programming and debugging. He posed a fundamental question still relevant today, “Does the child program the computer or does the computer program the child?” Along with colleagues Cynthia Solomon and Wally Feurzig, Papert created Logo, the first programming language designed specifically for children and learning. MicroWorlds, Scratch, and SNAP! are but a few of the Logo dialects in use fifty years later.
Papert’s legacy extends beyond children programming, despite how rare and radical that practice remains today. In 1968, Alan Kay was so impressed by the mathematics he witnessed children doing in Logo that he sketched the Dynabook, the prototype for the modern personal computer on his flight home from visiting Papert at MIT. In the mid-1980s, Papert designed the first programmable robotics construction kit for children, LEGO TC Logo. LEGO’s current line of robotics gear is named for Papert’s seminal book, Mindstorms. In 1993, Papert conjured up images of a knowledge machine that children could use to answer their questions, just like the new Amazon Echo or Google Home. littleBits and MaKey Makey are modern descendants of Papert’s vision.
Prior to the availability of CRTs (video displays), the Logo turtle was a cybernetic creature tethered to a timeshare terminal. As students expressed formal mathematical ideas for how they wished the turtle to move about in space, it would drag a pen (or lift it up) and move about in space as a surrogate for the child’s body, all the while learning not only powerful ideas from computer science, but constructing mathematical knowledge by “teaching” the turtle. From the beginning, Papert’s vision included physical computing and using the computer to make things that lived on the screen and in the real world. This vision is clear in a paper Cynthia Solomon and Seymour Papert co-authored in 1970-71, “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer.”
“In our image of a school computation laboratory, an important role is played by numerous “controller ports” which allow any student to plug any device into the computer… The laboratory will have a supply of motors, solenoids, relays, sense devices of various kids, etc. Using them, the students will be able to invent and build an endless variety of cybernetic systems. “ (Papert & Solomon, 1971)
This document made the case for the maker movement more than forty-five years ago. Two decades later, Papert spoke of the computer as mudpie or material with which one could not only create ideas, art, or theories, but also build intelligent machines and control their world.
From his early days as an anti-apartheid dissident in 1940s South Africa to his work with children in underserved communities and neglected settings around the world, social justice and equity was a current running through all of Papert’s activities. If children were to engage with powerful ideas and construct knowledge, then they would require agency over the learning process and ownership of the technology used to construct knowledge.
“If you can make things with technology, then you can make a lot more interesting things. And learn a lot more by making them.” – Seymour Papert (Stager, 2006)
Programming computers and building robots are a couple examples of how critical student agency was to Papert. He inspired 1:1 computing, Maine becoming the first state on earth to give a laptop to every 7th & 8th grader, and the One Laptop Per Child initiative.
“…Only inertia and prejudice, not economics or lack of good educational ideas stand in the way of providing every child in the world with the kinds of experience of which we have tried to give you some glimpses. If every child were to be given access to a computer, computers would be cheap enough for every child to be given access to a computer.” (Papert & Solomon, 1971)
It made Papert crazy that kids could not build their own computers. When we worked together (1999-2002) to create an alternative project-based learning environment inside a troubled teen prison, we bought PCs hoping that the kids could not only maintain them, but also eventually build their own. Despite kids building guitars, gliders, robots, films, computer programs, cameras, telescopes, and countless other personally meaningful projects uninterrupted for five hours per day – a “makerspace” as school. Back then, it was too much trouble to source parts and build “personal” computers.
In 1995, Papert caused a commotion in a US Congressional hearing on the future of education when an infuriated venture capitalist scolded him while saying that it was irresponsible to assert that computers could cost $100, have a lifespan of a decade, and be maintained by children themselves. (CSPAN, 1995) Later Papert would be fond of demonstrating how any child anywhere in the world could repair the $100 OLPC laptop with a single screwdriver. Before Congress, he asserted that computers only seem expensive when accounting tricks compare them to the price of pencils. If used in the expansive ways his projects demonstrated, Papert predicted that “kid power” could change the world.
The Raspberry Pi finally offers children a low-cost programmable computer that they may build, maintain, expand, and use to control cyberspace and the world around them. Its functionality, flexibility, and affordability hold the promise of leveraging kid power to put the last piece in the Papert puzzle.
CSPAN (Producer). (1995, 12/1/16). Technology In Education [Video] Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?67583-1/technology-education&whence=
Papert, S., & Solomon, C. (1971). Twenty things to do with a computer. Retrieved from Cambridge, MA:
Stager, G. S. (2006). An Investigation of Constructionism in the Maine Youth Center. (Ph.D.), The University of Melbourne, Melbourne.
Bungling the World’s Easiest Sale
And yet in 2005, the notion of a laptop for every student appears to be more controversial than ever. In fact, the proverbial laptop has hit the fan across the country. Shame on us!
The Cobb County, Georgia schools were well on their way to purchasing 63,000 iBooks for teachers and students when a cranky politician sued and got a judge to order an end to the initiative. The cause of the judicial intervention was an accusation of fraud. Voters approved a tax levy designed to “upgrade obsolete computer workstations,” yet the judge seems to think that purchasing laptops does not represent an upgrade. This is a distinction without difference.
My experience suggests that parents eagerly embrace sincere efforts to revolutionize education.
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution and Marietta Daily Journal have featured hysterical reports on the laptop initiative for months. They smell blood and are going after district personnel for among other crimes, having been involved in the planning process and funding teacher professional development. The local press was outraged that Cobb County decided to purchase Apple iBooks instead of the Dell laptops that Henrico County, Virginia just bought for $50 less per unit.
If your educational goals consist of students making four slide PowerPoint slides about frogs to disinterested audiences or using the web to find five interesting facts about Spiro Agnew, then sure, go to Wal-Mart and buy the cheapest laptops. You might even ask kids to bring their PSPs to class and use those instead.
Fiscal prudence with the public purse is noble, but it is irresponsible to make computer purchases based solely on price. Not all computers are created equally. A public agency should be able to make the case that the bundled iLife creativity suite and operating system that Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal says, “leaves Windows XP in the dust,” is worth a few extra dollars per unit. A legitimate educational rationale should be able to be made for purchasing Macs if a district so chooses.
Henrico County, VA made a great contribution to educational computing five years ago when they found a way to purchase more than 20,000 iBooks without raising taxes. Since then their missteps and public pronouncements have made it more difficult for other schools to embrace 1:1 computing. As the Governor of Maine fought for his laptop legislation, Henrico was in the news for inappropriate web use and an overreaction to isolated student mischief. This led Maine and other jurisdictions to accept crippled operating systems that calm the public’s fears, but create unintended consequences down the road. Disabling iTunes means no Tupac, but it also means no Martin Luther King, no Garageband music composition, no podcasting and no videoconferences with NASA scientists.
Just as Cobb County’s laptop plans were hitting their stride, Henrico struck again. Their school board loudly “dumped” Apple and signed a contract with Dell for their next round of laptops. Henrico officials explained that iBooks don’t have Microsoft Office on them. That’s funny. Lots of other schools run Office on their iBooks? Why are school districts issuing press releases announcing their purchases? Why does anyone care? I have no idea which brand of school bus or tater-tots Henrico purchases, why are laptops different?
To complete the Apple exorcism, Henrico decided to sell the dreaded iBooks to the public for $50 each. This led to what is now known as the “iRiot” in which 17 people were trampled and four were hospitalized. CNN reported a woman soiled herself and a guy used a folding chair to beat off other shoppers. Rather than apologize, a district official suggested that the event had “entertainment value.”
Whatever it says on your business card, you’re in sales.
When the legislature opposed his laptop plan, Maine Governor King traveled the state leading creative laptop-based history lessons and generating popular support. He spoke of the democratization of knowledge and opportunity. When the Governor proposed that Maine become “the learning state” with a reenergized economy, he demanded that politicians support the initiative.
Whatever level of public support Cobb County’s plans enjoyed, it was insufficient to ward off the opposition. The public was offered incremental gains in teacher use of computers, a modest gain in students looking up stuff on the Internet at least once a day from 20-50% and a promise that 60% of students will occasionally use brainstorming software. Textbook content would be delivered via the laptop. Woo hoo! I’ve got goose bumps! Where do I send my check?
Worst of all, the district lacked the courage to say that every student would be expected to use the laptop. How can someone opt-out of using the principal instrument for intellectual work, knowledge acquisition and creative expression? Can a student opt-out of using books? Express a moral objection to lectures?
Amidst the unambitious benchmarks and narrow vision, the district’s FAQ just makes stuff up, such as in the case of literature instruction, “software and Internet access can provide access to nearly every published title.”
I’ve worked with many 1:1 schools over the past fifteen years and have found it remarkably easy to justify the investment to auditoriums full of parents. It’s an easy sale when you offer a vision of children learning in unprecedented ways. I share examples of at-risk students increasing attendance and engaging in sophisticated projects, sophisticated concepts being learned in ways impossible just a few years ago, enhanced creativity, more work-related social interactions and learning 24/7, not just between the bells. Images of children participating in the construction of modern knowledge as mathematicians, composers, artists, engineers, poets and scientists appeal to the hopes and dreams of parents.
We need to do a much better job of selling the dream of what computers can bring to the learning process, but first we need to create some compelling models for citizens to embrace. We’ll have plenty of time to do so while we clean up the public relations mess created by the recent ham-fisted laptop implementations.
Do your teachers need a computing IEP?
At the recent Consortium for School Networking conference educational computing pioneer Seymour Papert was asked to explain why there has been so little transformation. Papert told the crowd that their practice of verbal inflation was the major obstacle to educational innovation in the digital age. He meant the breathless rhetoric about the magical ways technology is used in classrooms, when most of those tales could not pass the “So what?” test. Conventional notions of curriculum, assessment and practice are seldom questioned, he said, and yet we have the temerity to declare, “Transformation!”
Computer-generated mind maps are presented to the community as justification for the technology investment while they represent little more than high-tech napkin scribbles or a book report outline. Wiring is mistakenly confused with innovation while we hold on with all our might to the ridiculous mythology of drill-and-practice. The only transformation in the software industry is the ever-changing collection of ways it disguises that you’ll be gonged if you get a long division problem incorrect. Integrated learning systems, classroom performance systems and adaptive instruction are clever euphemisms for turning classrooms into high-stakes game shows. This is just 1980s Math Blaster without that pesky patina of fun.
Teachers who don’t use computers aren’t digital immigrants; they’re digital ninnies.
Conference programs are filled with presentations on how to use computers to reinforce a trivial aspect of the traditional curriculum without ever calling into question that content. Our attention should be paid to how the computer might allow children to not only learn what the textbooks prescribe in a deeper, more efficient fashion, but to develop what Papert called, “modern knowledge.”
All sorts of excuses are made for why the most powerful intellectual instrument ever invented, the computer, has had so little impact on schooling. We blame a shortage of professional development, funding or quality software. Publishers, politicians and principals are also accused of impeding educational progress with their hierarchical mandates. Yet, the simple fact remains that a quarter century after microcomputers entered your schools a minority of teachers use them and an even smaller percentage do so in a way that increases opportunities for all learners.
Lurking in the teacher’s room
Fifteen years ago I had the good fortune to lead professional development at the first two schools where every child had a laptop. Wondrous student work emerged and a good number of educators even “transformed” their teaching practice. Yet, it seemed impossible to reach the “tipping point” when the vast majority of teachers used computers in constructive ways. It turns out there was a staff member, ironically an IT teacher, who would take colleagues aside and tell them not to worry about the laptops or the silly talk of innovation. “This too shall pass,” he suggested. This one teacher caused inestimable damage before moving to several other schools and repeating the pattern.
Many schools harbor such low-tech insurgents and pay too little attention to their potential for destruction.
Dear Mr. & Ms. Crabtree:
You are not noble defenders of childhood innocence or pedagogical excellence. You have managed to block student access to critical learning opportunities and intellectual tools for more than 25 years. There is no acceptable excuse for cheating a generation of children.
We love cute little cliches referring to children as digital natives and adults are mere digital immigrants. Not only is this simplistic aphorism insulting to the millions of grown-ups capable of using a computer, but it also provides cover for the teachers who have refused to enter the last quarter of the 20th century. After all, they’re special.
Why not call such teachers digital ninnies? How about non-learners? Students should not be entrusted to adults so oppositionally defiant as learners. An IEP would be created for a child who displayed such an unwillingness to grow.
School leaders need to expand their vision, raise expectations and use precise language they are indeed going to transform education for the next generation of learners. Let’s cut the baloney, increase access and share compelling models of what children can learn and do with computers.
Blocked Web sites, IT staff that exist to hinder staff, and restrictive policies make integrating technology too hard to overcome
By Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Originally published in District Administration Magazine – December 2002
I recently spent a week teaching in a wonderful school. The school sits on a gorgeous sprawling campus. The principal is well read and charming. The students were delightful and the teachers generous with their hospitality. Every student has his or her own laptop. I was engaging the children in activities I love, and yet I found the overall experience excruciating. Why? Because of an information technology staff run amok.
The unchecked policies, practices and prior restraint exercised by the school’s information technology team made it impossible for me to teach effectively. It seemed as if a surprise lurked behind every mouse click and URL. Despite the school’s enormous investment in computers and networking, very little of it actually worked in the ways one would expect
Non-educators implemented policies prohibiting teachers from-downloading and uploading files, regardless of their content. IP settings needed to be changed when a user switched from an Ethernet to wireless connection. The streaming of QuickTime or RealMedia ties was prohibited regardless of their educational value. Student work could not be published online because the school’s “extranet” has yet to go live. I think extranet is some meglamaniac’s synonym for the Internet
I face similar frustrations at every school I visit–anywhere in the world. I need to beg a network technician for the magical network password, secret IP settings or request an act of Congress to make a presentation. Teachers enrolled in Pepperdine University’s prestigious Online Masters in Educational Technology are routinely denied access to their own coursework by ridicolous filters that ban .edu domains.
It is worth noting that none of these obstacles protect children from the real or imagined threat of pedophiles from Turkmenistan or inappropriate Web content. These obstructions are the creation of control freaks eager to maintain authority they neither earn or deserve. The payroll and morale costs are inestimable.
The Looming Crisis
Computer coordinators used to say, “If I do my job, I won’t have a job in two years.” A decade later there seems to be a dozen non-instructional tech coordinators, directors or managers for each of their predecessors.
Haven’t computers become easier to use and more reliable? Shouldn’t professional educators be competent computer users after a generation of bribing, begging, cajoling, tricking, threatening, inservicing and coercing? If so, then why do we have so many support personnel employed by schools? How much do they cost? When will they be unnecessary?
Reasonable people may disagree over the role of Web filtering and schools have a finite budget for bandwidth. However, IT personnel are making insane, expensive and miseducative decisions. There is no greater threat to successful classroom computer use than the actions of the staff employed to support that very use.
The Web is not static. Plug-ins are not a cancer, they add functionality. I am grateful that Web browsers were built with an open architecture allowing them to be extensible. This has accelerated the power of the Web in ways unanticipated by its creators.
The power of the Web is in its ability to democratize publishing and offer students the potential for unlimited audience. This is a critical educational rationale derailed by non-educators. Such policies insult professional educators.
Administrators who give unprecedented budgetary discretion and policy-making control to IT staff are abdicating their responsibilities. School leaders need to summon the courage to face things that plug-in and become conversant in networking issues. They must supervise non-instructional personnel and determine their actual staffing needs. Failure to do so results in an enormous waste of money, teacher dissatisfaction and underutilized technology.
I have been using computers for more than 25 years. I use and maintain a cross-platform wireless network at home. I write computer manuals, program in several languages and yet needed to call for help every few minutes during my recent teaching stint. The average teacher juggling all of her responsibilities with a desire to use computers in the classroom does not have a prayer.