THE CHILDREN'S MACHINE
Rethinking School in the
Age of the Computer
By Seymour Papert
Basic Books. 241 pp. $22.50
IMAGINE AN 1893 doctor set down in a 1993 hospital. Computer-based devices have so revolutionized the hospital environment that, according to Seymour Papert, the poor man would almost literally be lost. An 1893 teacher, on the other hand, would feel right at home in a 1993 classroom. How come? How come computers have produced "megachange" in hospitals and other settings while they have barely touched schools? This is one of the questions Papert asks in The Children's Machine. While providing an answer, Papert -- who helped develop the computer language LOGO -- outlines the roles computers could and should play in producing the radical transformation of education he feels is needed.
Books about coming revolutions and information technology tend to cast their expositions in breathless, whiz-bang prose. In spite of a few neologisms like "megachange," The Children's Machine does not. Its arguments arrive via stories and anecdotes about particular people. It attempts to teach us great generalities about learning through the particularities of concrete experience much as a fabulist might teach great moral principles through his fables. It is a pleasant change of style and pace. Unfortunately, many of the stories turn on the pronoun "I" and its variants, me, my and mine. This self-absorption eventually erects a barrier between the reader and the tale.
Papert's egocentrism aside, The Children's Machine by turns tantalizes, maddens, occasionally enlightens and edifies, and ultimately puzzles: Who is this book for? The cover declares it "at once a 'how-to' book for parents and teachers; a 'self-help' book for those who are frustrated . . . mastering a skill . . . a provocative think piece on the nature of knowledge and learning; and a treatise on the future of schools and of technology." No one tome could satisfy all of these various constituencies and The Children's Machine frustrates them all in one chapter or another.
Parents and perhaps some teachers might find amusement in the first chapter's lampoon of Schoolers (a group to be contrasted with Yearners; Papert is the head Yearner), but those actually involved in school and, especially, school reform will be properly put off by his straw constructions. And parents and teachers alike will find much of the prose impenetrable. As readers skip along a simple storyline about Maria, or Brian or some other child playing with a computer, Papert suddenly whacks them with mindbending passages: "The most powerful use made of computers in changing the epistemological structure of children's learning to date has been the construction of microworlds, in which children pursue mathematical activity because the world into which they are drawn requires that they develop particular mathematical skills."
People familiar with Papert's 1980 book, Mindstorms, will know enough to duck these syntactical knockout punches, but the ordinary reader is likely to get decked. Papert does nothing to help the reader off the canvas: he neither explains "epistemological structure," nor describes a "microworld" nor presents evidence to support his claim that microworlds are the most powerful use of computers in changing the aforementioned epistemological structures.
Cognitive psychologists, computer-assisted instruction developers and educational researchers are sure to feel slighted by Papert's rash dismissals. And school reformers and critics will wonder at the gaps. Papert, for instance, ignores the large body of school-change literature, a literature within which his critique is largely redundant. His questions about schools are often on target, but they are scarcely new. For example, he asks, "In trying to teach children what adults want them to know, does School utilize the way human beings most naturally learn in nonschool settings?" This question has already been addressed elsewhere, of course, and the answer is mostly "No, but things are changing." Papert seems to feel that his is an original query.
Papert asserts that he talks about his own innovations only to stimulate people to invent other alternatives, but he creates the impression that School's suffocating grasp can be broken only by children equipped with computer and LOGO, the programming language he helped promote (contrary to the book's cover and popular impressions, he did not "invent" LOGO; it was under development when he arrived at MIT).
No doubt computers -- with and without LOGO -- can help teachers make radical changes in the way they teach. Several large studies have, in fact, demonstrated this conclusively. But the kinds of experiences Papert wants children to have, while often facilitated by computers, do not absolutely require them. Indeed, some of his illustrative stories take place long before computers were invented.
IN ADDITION, contrary to Papert's pronouncement in the opening quote, the educational value of LOGO has not been established. Some kids love it, some don't and what they're actually learning from it is at times unclear. Papert provides only anecdotes, in which he often indulges in considerable amounts of mind reading about what is going on in the heads of children. Some years ago he rejected the traditional scientific apprach to evaluating LOGO, offering instead "computer criticism," a new technique he felt comparable to literary criticism. This proposed methodological change has not made inroads among those he calls the Rigorous Researchers.
Given that Papert opens with talk of revolution, one expects the last chapter, "What Can Be Done," to close with a technology-based call to arms, perhaps a cry to replace schools similar to Lewis J. Perelman's roar in School's Out. Instead, Papert proposes that the United States follow the "little school" model -- a name that comes from the Danish practice of providing government funds to groups of citizens who show themselves to be serious about setting up what in the United States we would call an "alternative school." Little schools do not in themselves represent megachange, but they are a way to start evolutionary change moving in that direction. Papert does not explain how. Despite the recent, rancorous debate over who should be eligible for public school funds, Papert does not deign to discuss this issue or what kinds of groups he would define as "serious."
Thoughout the book, Papert comes perilously close to establishing a closed system: People who don't agree with him do not understand. If they did, Q.E.D., they would jump on the bandwagon. It is not an approach that fosters dialogue. Ultimately, The Children's Machine will appeal mostly to those who are already committed to the philosophy -- some have said ideology -- of LOGO and its chief promoter. It is too far removed and too uneven for most of us.
Gerald W. Bracey is a research psychologist, consultant and education writer living in Alexandria. A member of the Mecklenburger Group of technology-oriented consultants, he writes regularly for Electronic Learning and Phi Delta Kappan