Seymour Papert has long been an observer of society's uneasy relationship with computers, though certainly not as a mere bystander. He is a mathematician and professor of media technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the originator of Logo, the premier computer language for children, and author of Mindstorms, a ground-breaking 1980 book detailing the benefits children might derive from working with computers.
We talked recently about his latest venture, working with children and computers in Boston-area schools.
VS: Given that personal computers have been in schools since the early 1980s, why haven't we seen some revolutionary changes in education? A lot of parents still think Johnny can't read or do math even though he's computer- literate -- if you define that as being a whiz with a joystick.
SP: Computers aren't in schools. That is, the number is still so small that it can't have a significant effect on education as a whole. There are approximately 1 1/2 million computers in schools, which means every child has access to a 30th of a computer on average. That's like putting one pencil in each classroom and saying that pencils are in schools.
VS: It sounds as if computers and education have a long way to go.
SP: Yes, but I think something very important has occurred. We've seen the beginnings of interactions with computers in schools, and we've seen a few schools with enough computer presence for some significant things to happen. Most important, teachers have gotten used to the idea of working with computers. In the next decade, I think we're going to see a new wave of computers in schools where the numbers will be sufficient to have a serious impact on the educational process.
VS: What about the effect on children of having PCs at home?
SP: Children tend to think of computers as belonging to them as opposed to the adults, which has contributed to making them feel absolutely at home with the computer. They see this as a very complex thing that they can master, that's theirs. I think it changes a lot of children's outlooks on the world and their ambitions for themselves.
I see, for example, some children from social backgrounds where they would never think of science as a career, and now, at 8 or 9 years old, they're talking about wanting to be computer scientists or programmers because they've played games with a computer and they want to make that sort of fascinating thing themselves.
VS: Back in the early '80s, parents were warned that if they didn't buy computers and teach their kids programming, their children would end up as unemployable adults because they were computer illiterates. Wasn't that concern blown out of proportion?
SP: Worse. It's nonsense and irresponsible. The kind of computer uses children might learn now are so primitive that anything they learn about today's computers will be totally irrelevant to them as adults.
On the other hand, I do think that having a computer in their lives makes a difference to children. My strongest advice to parents is yes, get a computer for your child, but treat it the way fathers used to treat electric trains -- play with it yourself. I give that advice to teachers, too. For the future of computers in schools it's even more important for teachers to be playing with computers and to make them part of their lives and their cultures.
VS: Can you make any recommendations about software?
SP: Children should learn to program, and I think Logo is the right way to go. Besides that, I think word processing is vitally important. One should learn to use the computer as a writing instrument. There's also a class of software of which the prototype for me is something called Rocky's Boots, where the computer is used as a sort of building kit.
I think that's an important, valuable craft. A child should be able to modify games -- in the ideal case by making small modifications at first and then building up to bigger ones. Then the line between playing games and programming disappears.
VS: Yet I've seen studies comparing groups of children who studied programming with children in a traditional classroom, and the former had no better organizational skills than the latter.
SP: Well, there have been many studies that have come out with different results. If you ask the question "What's the effect of reading?," you have to say it depends on what you read and the culture that the reading is part of. Reading pornography or romantic poetry is going to have a different effect on you. So the role of programming in a child's development depends on the culture that activity is part of.
What's surprising is that people ask such primitive questions. Who says computers should produce orderly thinking or even that orderly thinking is the most desirable thing?
The effect of computers on my writing, for example, has been that they allow me to be somewhat more disorderly and more comfortable because I don't have to be so meticulous about keeping files and index cards. I think for many children the problem at school is that a too-orderly style has been imposed on them. The computer allows them to be themselves in a more personally relaxed way of approaching learning.
VS: So traditional schooling tends to impose curricula instead of encouraging children to learn?
SP: Yes. Our schools infantilize children, giving them childish activities that are not real or purposeful. But when a child has a computer that can publish a magazine that looks like an adult magazine, and put it all together like the real thing, he feels he's making a serious product.
What I'd most wish for is an environment where children could fall in love with learning. The computer enables them to do this because they fall in love with their sense of power over the technology and with the fact that they can make their own graphics and music and do mathematics as something purposeful.
That's a radical change because school has always been much more focused on cognitive and thinking skills and not enough concerned with the affective side of being in love with knowledge. There's no question in my mind that the difference between people who are intellectually successful and those who aren't is that at a sufficiently early age the successful ones fell in love with an intellectual activity. ::