Debugging a Critique of Seymour Papert

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An old colleague, Dr. Warren Buckleitner, has been reviewing children’s media products and toys for decades. He organizes industry events about the design of products for kids while maintaining a romantic optimism that the next great app is just around the corner. However, he often feels compelled to use Dr. Seymour Papert as a negative example to support a corporate community that Papert held in great repute. It’s a neat rhetorical trick, but Warren and I have discussed what I find to be a disrespectful view of Papert in the past. This morning, I awoke to find the Children’s Technology Exchange newsletter in my inbox. The latest issue dedicates a page to something Dr. Buckleitner calls “Seymour Syndrome.”

So, I decided to set the record straight by clearing up some confusion about issues raised in his essay. (I deleted the table of content links and all of the non-relevant content in the newsletter email below in order to respect the paywall and intellectual property rights. For more information, or to subscribe to his fine publications, go to http://reviews.childrenstech.com/)

Dear Warren,

Your latest discussion caught my eye. Aside from a persistent Papert animus and fondness for negative alliteration, your critique, “Seymour Syndrome” has some bugs in it.

  1. Papert’s lifework can hardly be reduced to the foreword in Mindstorms.
  2. Dr. Papert would dislike most of the crappy “products” you feel compelled to share with the world as much, if not more so than you do. (see Does Easy Do It? Children, Games and Learning)
  3. There is not a millimeter of daylight between Piaget and Papert. (see Papert on Piaget)
  4. Piaget’s work wasn’t about hands-on, it was focused on learning through concrete experiences. That’s not the same thing. (See The Conservation of Piaget: The Computer as Grist to the Constructivist Mill or even Ian’s Truck.)
  5. Papert was not Piaget’s student. Papert had earned two mathematics Ph.D.s by the time Piaget hired him as a collaborator.
  6. What is considered “getting kids to code” today is a denatured view of Papert’s vision about democratizing agency over computers.
  7. I’m not sure what a direction variable is, but 1) kids play games and sing songs using syntonic body geometry (like the turtle) from a very early age and 2) lots and lots of kids can use RIGHT and LEFT to learn directionality long before they’re eight or nine years-old.
  8. Papert’s “gear” story is a metaphor. His life’s work was dedicated to creating the conditions in which children could fall in love with powerful ideas naturally and with lots of materials, technologies, and experiences. His book, The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer, discusses the importance of sharing learning stories.
  9. Papert wasn’t “led to Logo.” He, along with Wally Feurzig and Cynthia Solomon invented Logo. The fact that you’re still talking about it 50 years later points to at least its durability as an “object to think with.” (Here is a video conversation about Logo’s origins with two of its inventors.)
  10. Scratch can be considered Papert’s grandchild. I’m glad you like it.
  11. Most of the products you review make “exaggerated” claims about their educational properties. Why should this one be any different? Why blame Papert? (Dr. Papert wrote an entire book of advice for parents on avoiding such products and substituting creative activities instead. See The Connected Family – Bridging the Digital Generation Gap)
  12. The current CS4All, CSEdWeek, Hour-of-Code efforts are almost entirely “idea averse” (a great Papert term) and could really stand to learn a few things from Dr. Papert.

BTW: Thanks for your review of the CUE robot. It was helpful. Imagine if these toys had the extended play value of a programming language, like Logo? I’ve been using and learning with Logo for close to 40 years and have yet to tire of it. I sure wish you could have seen me teach Logo programming to 150 K-12 educators last week in Virginia. It was magnificent.

Happy holidays!

Gary

PS: I wonder why so many people feel so comfortable calling Dr./Professor Seymour Papert by his first name? Nobody calls Dewey, “John,” or Piaget, “Jean.”

On December 7, 2017 at 8:31 AM Children’s Technology Review wrote:

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RECOGNIZING SEYMOUR SYNDROME
See page 4 Recognizing “Seymour Syndrome”  Seymour Papert was a gifted individual. I mean no disrespect to his legacy by this article. I’ve seen how his ideas about children and coding have misled well-intentioned adults in the past.  Fast forward 40 years, and history is repeating itself. From reading Seymour Papert’s 1980 book, Mindstorms, we learn that he was fascinated by gears as a child. “Playing with gears became a favorite pastime. I loved rotating circular objects against one another in gearlike motions and, naturally, my first ‘erector set’ project was a crude gear system.” Papert wanted every child to have such mindstorms, which led him to Logo; an early programming language. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, many educators suffered from “Seymour Syndrome” — meaning an idealistic optimism that coding was the key to a better future. There was a rush to enroll children in coding camps. I know this because I was one of the teachers. I started calling all the hype “Seymour Syndrome” people trying to get young children to code, before they can understand what is going on. Today’s market has once again flooded with commercial coding-related apps, robots and games being sold with the promise that they can promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Cubetto is one of these. The symptoms are in the marketing materials that name-drop Montessori, and claim that time with this rolling cube will  “teach a child to code before they can read.” Cubetto’s coding means finding six AA batteries and plotting out the course of a slow moving rolling cube on a grid. You do this by laying direction tiles on a progress line and pressing a transmit button.  I shudder to think that teachers are spending time attempting to “teach” children how to “code” thinking that this actually as something to do with “teaching” children how to “code” to fulfill a STEM objective. Students of child development know that preschool and early elementary age children learn best when they are actively involved with hands on, concrete materials. Papert’s teacher — Jean Piaget called the years from 3 to 7 “concrete operations” for a reason. The motions of the cube should be directly linked to the command, or better yet, the child should be in the maze, for a first-person point of view. ‘ Good pedagogy in the early years should be filled with building with blocks, playing at the water table filling and emptying containers, moving around (a lot) and testing language abilities on peers. If you want to use technology, get them an iPad and let them explore some responsive Sago Mini apps. Spend your $220 (the cost of a Cubetto) on several a low cost, durable RC vehicles that deliver a responsive, cause and effect challenge. Let the direction variables wait until the child is eight- or nine-years of age, when they can use a program like Scratch to build an entire program out of clusters of commands. As far as the “coding” part, save your pedagogical ammo for materials that match a child’s developmental level.

LITTLECLICKERS: PROJECTION MAPPING
Do you like to play with shadows? If so, you’ll love projection mapping. That’s when you use a computer projector to create a cool effect on a ceiling or building. Let’s learn some more.   1. What is projection mapping? According to http://projection-mapping.org/whatis/ you learn that it’s simply pointing a computer projector at something, to paint it with light. You can play a scary video on your house a Halloween, or make Santa’s sled move across your ceiling during a concert. The possibilities are endless. Visit the site, at www.littleclickers.com/projectionmapping


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About the author

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. He is also the curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, The Daily Papert. Learn more about Gary here.


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