Summer 2010 marked the 20th anniversary of my work leading professional development in schools where every student has a personal laptop computer. One of the world’s first laptop schools was Methodist Ladies College (MLC) in Melbourne, Australia. The other was a long forgotten public school, the Coombabah State Primary School. The MLC story has been told in Bob Johnstone’s book, Never Mind the Laptops: Kids, Computers and the Transformation of Learning, as well as elsewhere.
Back in 1990, when I began working in 1:1 schools, we had Toshiba T1000 laptops with monochrome displays, no hard drive and 512K of RAM. Brilliant work was done by children fortunate enough to have their own personal laptop at a time few adults could claim likewise. Despite my misgivings about their limits in education, an iPad has a great deal more power than what we used 20 years ago.
I just returned to Melbourne Australia for the third time as a Visiting Scholar at Trinity College, The University of Melbourne.
I recently spent some time helping Foundation Studies educators explore how iPads may be used to challenge some of the conventional pedagogies of an educational approach based on teacher-centered practices and skill development. Foundation Studies prepares overseas students for university admissions. The ubiquity of an iPad per student affords opportunities to re-examine the nature of teaching and learning in more authentic, constructive and open ways.
The goal is always to create productive contexts for learning based on my mantra, “Less Us, More Them.”
While I typically do not recommend iPads as the only computer provided for K-12 students, Trinity College’s Foundation Studies Department has already decided to give them to young-adult students.
Here is the article that appeared on the Trinity College web site.
Thursday 16 September
Gary Stager loves technology. His work in the use of computers and education has led him to visit Trinity in 2009 and again in 2010. Currently he is one of Trinity’s visiting scholars and recently held a staff conference regarding the TCFS Step Forward iPad program.
“It’s really exciting to be working with my colleagues here at Trinity Foundation Studies department to look at how the iPad can not only help them teach what they’ve always wanted to teach with greater efficiency…but how it creates opportunities for teachers and students to learn together in ways that were impossible otherwise.” says Gary.
Gary spoke to various Foundation Studies teachers and other staff regarding technology in education and ways in which they could utilise the medium to it’s maximum capabilities.
I wrote the following discussion paper for Methodist Ladies’ College back in 1993. I recently found a copy and scanned it so that the ideas within might be shared with others.
From my perspective as a school-based educator, I view two horizons, yesterday and today.
Schools of the Future are most often corporate lemonade stands or warehouses of computers in which the objective is to get kids “on” as much technology as their nervous system can withstand. The school of the future believes that all technology is good technology, teachers are facilitators, and libraries are a thing of the past. Log the kids in at three, strap them to the chair, set the machine on stun, and hand them a diploma at eighteen. Classrooms, are wired with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of fibre-optic cable so that students may have round-the-clock access to a bad version of the Guinness Book on CD-ROM. The primary mission of a school of the future is publicity and seeing how much free stuff they can get from vendors.
So what sorts of characteristics describe a school for our times?
Last month I was interviewed by NPR (that R no longer stands for radio) about the India’s purported plans for a “$35 laptop” for education.
I was able to get in a few whacks against the visionless plan. Read my interview here
It now appears that “mine’s bigger” has been replaced with “mine’s cheaper.” The Indian announcement, like many of the “responses” to One Laptop per Child, appears to be more about a referendum on Nicholas Negroponte than improving the lives of children.
Like Negroponte or not, the entire high-tech industry swore that low-cost laptops were impossible until a handful of MIT visionaries and their friends proved them wrong.
The current line of attack seems to be, “Well that jerk wants to change the world with a $100 laptop, we will make it even cheaper.”
Nicholas Negroponte of One Laptop Per Child posted similar views here.
Incidentally, I recently celebrated my 20th anniversary of working in schools around the world where every child has a personal laptop computer.
I realise that this is late notice, but I will be leading a seminar, The Best Educational Ideas in the World: Adventures on the Frontiers of Learning, 13 September 2010 in the Lecture Theatre at The University of Melbourne’s Trinity College. The seminar will be from 4:00 PM to 7:00 PM and costs just $50 (US) ($58 AU). Regrettably, my registration system won’t handle Australian currency.
The seminar is intended for all P-12 teachers, tech directors, computing teachers, university students, parents and administrators.
You may register online here. Please pass this information along to colleagues & friends!!
Maps and location information may be found here.
The Best Educational Ideas in the World: Adventures on the Frontiers of Learning
Contemporary discussions of school improvement focus on the creation of obedience schools for poor children or utopian governance schemes. Neither approach does much to amplify the natural curiosity, expertise, creativity, passion, competence or capacity for intensity found in each child. A leading educator serves as your tour guide for a global exploration of powerful ideas and exemplary teaching practices.
The artificial boundaries between art and science are blurred as children engage in authentic activities with real materials, create sophisticated artifacts of personal and aesthetic value and become connected to ideas larger than themselves. Collegiality, purpose, apprenticeship, complexity, serendipity and “sharaeability” are a few of the common values. Each approach either requires digital technology or may be dramatically enhanced by it. Lessons learned en-route our tour create productive contexts for learning in which students construct the knowledge required for a rewarding life. An ample Q&A session will follow the presentation.
Stops along our tour may include:
- Personal fabrication
- Reggio Emilia
- El Sistema
- 826 Valencia
- Generation YES
- One Laptop Per Child
- and even reality television!
About Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Since 1982, Gary Stager, an internationally recognized educator, speaker and consultant, has helped learners of all ages on six continents embrace the power of computers as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression. He led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools (1990), has designed online graduate school programs since the mid-90s, is a collaborator in the MIT Media Lab’s Future of Learning Group and a member of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation’s Learning Team. Mr. Stager’s doctoral research involved the creation a high-tech alternative learning environment for incarcerated at-risk teens. Recent work includes teaching and mentoring some of Australia’s “most troubled” public schools. Gary was Senior Editor of District Administration Magazine and Founding Editor of The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate. He is currently Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University, an Associate of the Thornburg Center for Professional Development and the Executive Director of The Constructivist Consortium. In 1999, Converge Magazine named Gary a “shaper of our future and inventor of our destiny.” The National School Boards Association recognized Dr. Stager with the distinction of “20 Leaders to Watch” in 2007. The June 2010 issue of Tech & Learning Magazine named Gary Stager as “one of today’s leaders who are changing the landscape of edtech through innovation and leadership.”
Dr. Stager was a keynote speaker at the 2009 National Educational Computing Conference before an audience of more than 4,000 educators. He was also a Visiting Scholar at The University of Melbourne’s Trinity College during the summer of 2009.
Recently, Gary was the new media producer for The Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Project – Simpatíco, 2007 Grammy Award Winner for Best Latin Jazz Album of the Year. Dr. Stager is also a contributor to The Huffington Post.
A few nights ago, I led a webinar for old friends in the State of Victoria (Australia) as part of an online course/seminar/learning community focused on issues surrounding effective 1:1 computing. The course is called 1 to 1 Next Steps. My webinar was entitled, “Creative Computing and the Case for Project-based Learning.”
The digital handout I created to accompany the webinar and stimulate further discussion may be found here. It is hardly exhaustive. I wanted to provide educators with just enough information to inspire their imaginations and generate discussion.
For those of you who have heard me speak before, there are indeed some familiar themes in this webinar. However, there are some new ideas expressed as well. Many of these ideas frame my work as a teacher educator, speaker, teacher and consultant.
As always, your comments are always welcome.
Earlier today, I enjoyed the great privilege of sharing the stage at the Australian Conference on Computers in Education with two of my favorite educators, Geoff Powell of St. Hilda’s School on the Gold Coast of Queensland and Steve Costa of Methodist Ladies’ College, Kew. The following is a tribute to Steve Costa, a truly gentle man with a wicked jump shot and the gratitude of the countless young people he has inspired for decades.
Stephen Costa, Deputy Head of the Methodist Ladies’ College Junior School may be the most important and overlooked educator in the world today. Steve emigrated to Australia from the United Stated in 1974 during a period in which the nation was recruiting young teachers. He fell in love with the woman he would marry and with Australia – in those days requiring him to surrender his U.S. citizenship. By 1981, Steve was teaching primary school girls at MLC to use computers. Around that time he read Seymour Papert’s, Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas, and became inspired to teach his students to program in Logo.
A little known milestone in the history of educational computing is that Steve Costa began teaching an entire class of year five girls each with a personal laptop computer in 1989. He is Patient Zero when it comes to the use of laptops in education. If you are an educator anywhere in the world – from Manhattan to Melbourne to Mumbai teaching in a 1:1 setting or contemplating the eventuality of truly personal computing, you owe a debt of gratitude to Melbourne’s own, Mr. Costa.
It is not often that you have the privilege of knowing “the person who started it all,” but Steve Costa is not an artifact found in a museum, he continues to teach kids and his colleagues every day of the school year TWENTY-ONE YEARS after he embraced laptops as an integral part of the learning process. Steve Costa has been teaching with a laptop per child for more than a generation.
When I first met Steve in 1990, I was impressed by his energy, curiosity, dazzling teaching skills, calm demeanor and love of children. He was always willing to “have a go” and try any crazy idea I might throw at him and “his girls.” He has been invaluable to me as a colleague who could inject a dose of classroom reality into a scenario without ever using such current “reality” as an excuse for not trying to do better – to push the envelope. Steve is unafraid to learn alongside students allowing them to lean about learning by his example. Anytime you want someone smart for a panel discussion or extremely competent in a workshop setting, Steve tops my list.
Countless, perhaps thousands of educators have visited Steve’s classroom over the past twenty years, become inspired and gone back to make their schools better. Steve Costa should be famous. He should be traveling the world hailed as the father of 1:1 computing. He should be running the national education system, but instead Steve Costa does the hardest, most important work of all. He teaches children every day.
David Loader gets much of the deserved credit for pioneering 1:1 computing in schools, but that effort at MLC would be a long-forgotten experiment if it were not part of the daily excellence displayed by Steve Costa. Steve Costa’s contribution to modern education and computers in education puts him on a par with Seymour Papert, Alan Kay and David Loader.
At an edtech conference such as ACEC, it is worth noting that unlike so many ICT professionals whose curriculum is technocentrically focused on the hot new toy or latest fad, Steve Costa still teaches children to program in Logo (MicroWorlds). He does so because it affords learners countless opportunities for self-expression, problem solving, debugging and to think about thinking. Too many educators succumb to peer pressure and abandon “hard fun” or sound educational practices as the spotlight shifts. Steve is not one of them. He continues to learn, grow and develop his own personal computing fluency while embracing new technologies that increase learning opportunities for young people. He is not only a master teacher, but a master learner as well – unafraid of technological advances that amplify human potential.
There is no honor sufficient for my friend Steve. One would think that a grateful nation engaged in a “digital education revolution” would put its original revolutionary, Steve Costa, on a postage stamp. They would do so if they loved their children (and their children’s teachers) half as much as Steve cares for the children in his care.
Steve Costa led a silent revolution that changed the world the year Milli Vanilli topped the charts and continues to lead every day. Since the education community tends to be short on memory, we need to learn from Steve Costa today and honor his contributions for many years to come.
Memo to ISTE: I realize that Steve’s proposal to share wisdom gained over 20 years of teaching in 1:1 environments was rejected for the NECC 2009 program. Perhaps that was an oversight. Isn’t it about time you featured Mr. Costa at your annual conference and in your publications?
Note: As time permits, I’m republishing articles I’ve written in the past so they may reach a fresh new audience via my blog. I’m particularly proud of this paper about teacher professional development, originally published in 1992. I wrote this after spending more than two years working in “1:1 schools.” You may just find it timely today!
COMBATTING THE OSMOSIS MYTH – A REALISTIC APPROACH TO STAFF DEVELOPMENT AND EDUCATIONAL CHANGE
© 1992 Gary S. Stager*
Many educational leaders and policy makers have grand visions of how computer technology will lead to educational innovation and restructuring. Unfortunately, in 1993 far too many of these people believe that the technology will do the job alone.
If staff development is provided, it is too often superficial and unsuccessful. Teachers and their students may be “using computers” but to what end? What has the computer’s impact been on the learning culture of a school? Is the school any closer to their goal of improving education and institutional change or has the introduction of technology created a foggy detour on the road to innovation? The hard part of this process is not the learning the technology, but thinking about thinking and learning; reflecting on the nature of the curricula; and clearly articulating a collegial strategy for implementing change. Computer-based staff development efforts often assume that teachers need to be only computer literate enough to unjam the printer or to use one piece of “canned software” with their students. This line of reasoning deprives teachers of the types of intellectual empowerment, which their students experience when using the computer as a vehicle for constructing knowledge.
School districts often believe that teachers will begin making computers important well-integrated tools in their classrooms if they attend a two-hour workshop or stand in the computer lab while the computer teacher instructs their class. This is part of what I call “the osmosis effect” Just touch a computer and education will improve. Educational reform is too often equated with plugging students into anything that happens to plug in.
Even in more thoughtful school districts, staff development efforts too often go for the “quick fix.” Speakers and authors like Tom Snyder argue that no significant innovation will succeed in a school without directly benefiting the central group of adults first. I was always troubled by this view and have recently become convinced of how profoundly misguided this view is.
The conventional wisdom is too often, “If I teach the teacher to put the students’ arithmetic problems into Math Blaster, then they will learn to assist their students in creating collaborative inter-disciplinary multimedia reports in LogoWriter…” If the teacher can write parental letters using a word processor, then they will fall in love with the writing process and change their language arts curriculum to a whole language process…” “If I teach a math teacher to use a gradebook program, he/she will begin to use manipulatives and symbol manipulators as an integral part of the math curriculum…”
There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that this all too prevalent strategy of pandering has any positive impact on the growth process of teachers or schools. In fact, I have seen this approach to staff development degrade teachers by assuming that they were not capable of learning new skills or sharing powerful ideas. It is incredibly insulting to believe that teachers are so selfish that the only way in which to get them to appropriate new technologies and methodologies is to “train” them to do trivial administrative tasks. The implication is that teachers are too “burnt-out” or detached to care about the exciting educational potential of new technologies. Too often elementary school teachers are sentenced to a lifetime of . word processing and word processing only because of a lack of respect for teachers and a subtle gender bias towards female teachers.
The way in which you directly benefit teachers is by helping them directly benefit kids. You improve the lives of teachers by helping them become better teachers.
Even the “bad” teachers our society is so fond of discussing will be inspired by seeing students engaged in exciting new ways – with no materials, ideas, processes, and content. After all, is that not the reason for ongoing staff development? It seems ridiculous to suggest that teachers are the only group of professionals incapable of using computers in meaningful ways. This view is a result of the way in which schools often approach the use of computers by students.
Over the past decade schools sought to make computers, which are transparent in the world and the life of the child, into a discipline – hard and worthy of study. Terms such as computer literacy, computer lab, computer coordinator, and courses in information technology have become commonplace in primary and secondary schools. These ideas, at best, are rooted in the educational bureaucracy’s deeply-held paranoia about only teaching what is testable and at worst is designed to create an artificial range (bell curve) of good computer users and bad computer users.
Neither case respects what students already know. It seems as ridiculous to think that a sixteen year-old student in an information technology class needs to be taught what a mouse is as it is to assume that a professional educator is incapable of using technology used routinely by Burger King employees.
So, what should we do? I would argue that computer-based staff development activities should focus on the change process and immerse teachers in meaningful, educationally relevant activities, in which he/she will be encouraged to reflect on powerful ideas and share their educational visions in order to create a culture of learners for their students.
SUGGESTIONS FOR SUCCESS
• Work With the Living
Schools have limited technological and teacher development resources and they should be allocated prudently. Good teachers who have yet to recognize how computer technology may enhance their teaching are not evil. If a school focuses its energy and resources on creating a few successful models of classroom computing each year, then the enthusiasm among the teaching staff will be infectious. When fifteen teachers in a school or district joyfully use technology more teachers are likely to have found a comfortable path towards implementation. Within a few years the most recalcitrant of teachers will recognize that they are in the minority and may seek other employment. It is important that a variety of models be created for teachers of differing backgrounds and subject areas to choose from. The school should be cautious not to create negative models of computing use.
• Work On Teachers’ Turf
Educators responsible for staff development should be skilled in classroom implementation and should work along-side the teacher in his/her classroom to create models of constructive computer use. It is important for teachers to see what students are capable of and this is difficult to do in brief workshop at the end of a long workday.
• Off-site Institutes
Schools must ensure that teachers not only understand the concepts of collaborative problem solving, cooperative learning, and constructionism – they must be given the opportunity to leave behind the pressures of family and school for several days in order to actually re-experience the art of learning with their colleagues. Off-site residential “whole learning” workshops can have a profoundly positive effect on a large number of teachers in a short period of time.
• Provide Adequate Support
Nothing dooms the use of technology in the classroom quicker than not supporting the teacher who worked hard to develop new skills. Be sure that the school does eveiything humanly possible to support the teacher’s efforts by providing the technology requested, maintaining it, and by having access to a working printer and a supply of blank disks.
• Practice What You Preach
Staff development experiences should be engaging, interdisciplinary, collaborative, heterogeneous, and models of constructionist learning.
• Share Learning Stories
Teachers should be encouraged to reflect on personal significant learning experiences from their lives and the staff development experience. They should share these experiences with their colleagues and discuss the relationship between their profound learning experiences and their classroom practices.
• Celebrate Initiative
Teachers who have made a demonstrative commitment to educational computing should be recognized by being freed of some duties in order to assist colleagues in their classrooms, encouraged to lead workshops, and given access to additional hardware.
• In-School Sabbaticals
Innovative teachers should be provided with the school time and resources necessary to develop curricula and conduct action research in her/his school.
• Assist Teacher Purchases of Technology
Schools should help fund 50- 80% of a teacher’s purchase of a personal computer for use in school and home. This act demonstrates to teachers that you value computers as an important aspect of the school and that they should share this commitment. Partial funding also provides teachers with the flexibility to purchase the right personal computer configuration. The school may offer an annual stipend for upgrades and peripherals.
• Have Abundant Technology Available
A teacher in a school with hundreds of computers quickly recognizes that the school values classroom computing.
• Cast a Wide Net
No one method of staff development works for all teachers. A combination of traditional workshops, in-classroom collaborations, mentoring, conference participation, and whole learning residential workshops must be available for teachers to choose from at their own pace. Teachers should be made to feel comfortable growing at their own rate. Therefore, a variety of staff development options may need to be offered regularly.
• Avoid Software Dujour
The people responsible for paying for school computing are made to feel guilty by the media and other administrators if they do not constantly do something “new” with their computers. Unfortunately newness is equated with lots of software. It is reckless and expensive to jump on every software bandwagon. Using narrow skill-specific software has little benefit to students and undermines staff comfort with computing. Choose an open-ended environment, such as LogoWriter, [now MicroWorlds] in which students express themselves in many ways that may also converge with the curriculum.
• Never Satisfied – Only Gratified
Staff development must always be dedicated to continuing educational excellence. If we desire to restructure schools then we must recognize that the only constant we can depend on is teachers. Our schools will only be as good as the least professional teacher. Staff development must enhance that professionalism and empower teachers to improve the lives of their students. Our children deserve no less.
• A version of this article will appear in the Proceedings of the 1993 International Conference on
Technology and Education at MIT
Maine’s great laptop experiment should not be picked at, but applauded
In September, every seventh grader in Maine–and their teachers–will be given their own iBook and free 24/7 Internet access. The following year, every eighth grader will get an iBook. Two years ago, Maine Governor. Angus King caused an eruption of debate when he proposed this laptop plan. At the time there was little if any legislative support. Today, it’s the law of the land. King hopes this initiative will serve as a catalyst for reinventing public education and as a means for maintaining his state’s quality of life.
The majority of children, teachers and taxpayers support the idea.
While a bit of nervous anticipation is expected on the part of Maine teachers, the American education computing community seems to be in a state of panic. At every education computing conference one can overhear gossip about Maine. Some of the buzz is supportive, but a great deal of discussion suggests that the laptop rollout is a bad idea. There hasn’t been this much hysteria since kids were given their own floppy disks.
An autoimmune response triggers the instant some members of the ed-tech intelligensia hears of Maine’s plans. “I hope they get the professional development right!” I respond by asking, “Do you mean the two-hour afterschool workshop or the three-hour workshop?” Are the P.D. addicts suggesting the imposition of one-size-fits-all training statewide? Educators should be focused on making the learning environment richer for kids. Professional well-educated adults should figure out what to do with their laptop. To many, the primary goal of professional development is to produce the elusive “buy-in” among teachers who have yet to notice the presence of computers in everyday life. The great thing about Maine is that the “buy-in” battle has been won. If you teach seventh graders, every one of your students will be wired … in the good way. The laptops will be falling from the sky.
I suggest the “failure” of computers to “deliver” in schools is based on there being too few computers rather than too many. Maine offers the chance to finally test this hypothesis.
Ed-Tech’s Dirty Little Secret
The dirty little secret is that despite a substantial investment in hardware and software, many kids never use a computer at school and many more never enjoy the experience of doing something powerful with a school computer. Few American “laptop schools” have embraced personal computing as a vehicle for radical learner-centered school reform nor have they embraced ubiquitous computing as a vehicle for social justice as advocated by King. In far too many schools, laptops are a marketing tool, like a mascot or high standardized test scores.
We pay a lot of lip service to concerns about the digital divide. Yet, when Maine eradicates that divide by entrusting every kid with a personal laptop to use at home and school, we shake our heads. Some suggest using laptop funds to reduce class-size. Even if that were a priority in rural Maine, lowering class size does little to produce models of new classroom practice.
Why would computer-using educators be opposed to democratizing computer use? How could it be bad for all kids to have access to a world of ideas and a computer for creating a few of their own?
One answer may be economic. We don’t employ pencil coordinators and may not need tech coordinators when the schools have professionally installed wireless networks, laptops with great repair contracts and high expectations for staff. You won’t need computer literacy workbooks when kids have actual computers. National standards for technology use become irrelevant in one fell swoop.
Another cause for alarm could be more Freudian in nature. You may no longer be the district’s one and only computer expert. The focus of schools can shift away from developing teachers to developing children.
Peers suggest that Maine’s laptop investment will be a disaster. I just don’t see it. How could dosing the digital divide and treating children like responsible members of a learning community be a bad idea? Experience through–out the world teaches us that teachers with laptops see themselves as more professional. It would be a disaster indeed if we as professional educators did not learn all we can from Maine’s bold leadership. We might even wish to help them invent a better future for us all.
Originally published in the July 2002 issue of District Administration Magazine
Since 1990, I have worked in schools where every child has a personal laptop computer. In fact, I led professional development in the world’s first two “laptop schools.” Ever since, I’ve worked from Melbourne to Mumbai to Maine trying to help educators enjoy the transformational learning experiences made possible by personal computing.
In some school districts the notion of a laptop per child remains a sci-fi fantasy from a utopian future. For others, laptops are viewed as typewriters, encyclopedias or testing systems in support of traditional school practices. Schools struggle to find the courage, imagination and financing to make 1:1 computing a reality. Despite the seemingly high cost of investing in a laptop per child, I know of schools that have urged manufacturers to keep prices high in order to reserve the laptop as the tool of rich children.
MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte formed the non-profit One Laptop Per Child Foundation (OLPC) a few years ago to meet the challenge of providing every child in the world with a robust, powerful, personal, environmentally responsible and rugged affordable mobile computer. If that weren’t ambitious enough, Negroponte recognized what many have known for years – current operating systems make no sense for children, particularly children in the developing world. If you’re a kid in Rwanda, what do desktops, trashcans or file folders mean to you? OLPC also believed that software should be free, open-source and collaborative. Sounds like a tall order.
With the release of the XO, often referred to as the $100 computer, Negroponte and a few dozen colleagues did what Silicon Valley could not or would not do. They made a low-cost energy-efficient laptop for children complete with a new graphical user interface and collaborative software applications. And boy was the high-tech industry mad! The Times of London and 60 Minute have documented Intel’s wide scale attempt to discredit OLPC across the globe while Bill Gates says snarky things about it at every opportunity. OLPC is like kryptonite to Business Week, a magazine that cannot resist writing about the failure of the XO as if it were oil prices or tax policy.
It is easy to understand why OLPC has earned the ire of the corporate community. They made a computer with a superior screen, energy management and ground-breaking mesh networking for less than the cost of marketing a bloated retail laptop. To make matters worse, they challenged the hegemony of Intel and Microsoft.
Looking at the world through school colored glasses
It is a lot harder to understand why many in our edtech community have been so hostile to the XO. The same educators whose students use the computer lab for little more than web surfing and word processing mock the XO, a device capable of a lot more for more children at a lower price. They complain that it’s not powerful enough, yet continue to use their existing computers in trivial ways.
I hear lots of “yeah, buts from the American edtech community.” What about professional development?” is a favorite mantra chanted as if American schools have succeeded in computer integration after more than 25 years of effort.
Why would anyone copy us?
Another favorite question is, “What about tech support?” That question is easily answered; local kids and adults will repair their own XOs. All you need is screwdriver and some parts. Remember when Americans used to repair things themselves? It wasn’t that long ago!
When the XO is the first computer, “book,” or even light source in a community there is a different sense of urgency. A few stories stand out. The President of Uruguay was on hand to distribute the first XO computers to students and the computer has been featured on an Uruguayan postage stamp. Poor slum dwelling Pakistani students had their school closed down and are required to work agricultural jobs. These kids have formed an XO Club and hold meetings during work breaks and nearly every night in order to keep learning.
During a recent OLPC workshop I met two Columbian women who exemplified the commitment to progress shared across the developing world. The educators wanted to provide XOs to a Columbian school without electricity. Due to its remote location where students arrive via individual boats, a petroleum-based generator is impossible. The women considered solar power, but they would need to hoist the panels above the rainforest canopy. Without missing a beat, the women looked at each other, shrugged and said, “We have a river.” That’s right. They’ll figure out a way to turn water into electricity in order to charge student laptops.
To countries where Internet access may be a four-day walk away and per pupil spending is $40/year, computers represent so much more than a way to practice multiplication tables.
SIDEBAR: This Fall, you will once again have the opportunity to change the world for a deserving child and get yourself a wicked cool XO laptop. At the end of the year, OLPC is likely to once again offer its Give One, Get One program. For $400 (price not yet set), you get an XO and a kid in the developing world gets one as well. This has the effect of reducing the cost of a laptop to less than $100 each since your donation is matched by a local purchase. Student clubs might get involved in this worthy endeavor as well. Go to www.laptop.org to learn more about G1G1 and to keep up with XO developments around the world.
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.
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, 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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Seymour Papert[*] MIT Media Laboratory 20 Ames Street, E15-313 Cambridge, MA 02139