Perestroika and Epistemological Politics


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 nearly 40 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


10 Responses to “Perestroika and Epistemological Politics”
  1. Thanks again for the article post.Much thanks again. Really Cool.


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