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Seymour Papert's Legacy Remains in Our Hands

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The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge - Seymour Papert

Seymour Papert, one of the creators of the Logo programming language and a significant influence behind 'One Laptop Per Child' and 'Lego Mindstorms', has died.  A maverick in education and technology, those who he influenced are feeling a tremendous loss, personally. However, there are many he influenced who don't even know it. It is a loss for all of us. He joined MIT as a research associate in 1963. Soon after, he became co-director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. There he co-created the simple programming language that could be taught to children called Logo. He also

pioneered "constructionist learning," the idea that students learn most efficiently when they participate in semi-self-directed projects that are designed to push their own learning. (ars technica)

The influence of his work cascaded into the work of Nicholas Negroponte, MIT Media Lab founder and Mitchel Resnick, LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research, Director of the Okawa Center, and Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab.

Even if you never heard of Seymour Papert, as an educator, it is likely he has or will touch your practice and eventually will have been partially responsible for how you change the way teaching and learning is taking place in your schools. Beyond his work in technology, one laptop per child, robotics, and much more, his role in the development of the concept of constructivism provides the foundation for changing teaching and learning today and into the future. Constructivism is a theory about how people learn.

...people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences...We are active creators of our own knowledge...To do this we must ask questions, explore, and assess what we know.

On the Stanford University Transformative Learning Technologies Lab (TLTL) website they describe Papert's legacy as: "Thinking about learning and learning about thinking."  Papert was a veritable genius when it came to seeing the future and building the bridges needed to move toward a horizon where all children build their knowledge with the inclusion of technology.  Yes, whether you know it or not, Seymour Papert knew a long time ago, what schools are still struggling with today.

In our work with school districts and their leaders, no matter where they are in the process of shifting to new practices, we find one common theme.  They know that the their curriculum, their teaching methods, their learning environments, their schedules, their use of technology, the way students are expected to learn, do not meet the needs of their students especially with the goal of being prepared as graduates. They know that the world within schools does not mirror the world students live in outside of schools. They struggle with their beliefs that policies, regulations, contracts and money interfere with their ability to allow the flexibility they desire.  And many have difficulty even considering the frontier and the preparation needed to cross it.

Answers and questions about changing schools have existed forever. Asking the right questions is imperative for discovering the right answers.  We have written often about our work in understanding the underpinning of how STEM can shift schools into 21st century learning environments. Here again it fits as part of the answer.

The body of knowledge transferred from  teacher to student enlarges daily. New science, new methods of solving problems, new literature to learn from, new ways to be physically fit, all expand the system as it bulges with new knowledge.  Aren't we at the breaking point yet? 

Seymour Papert saw long ago that technology holds a powerful answer.  He understood that the learner, once given the responsibility for making sense of the intended understanding, would learn.  He understood that the information that was transferred from teacher to student could become shared territory between the teacher's objectives and the student's search for understanding and answers.  He saw 'making' as a learning tool. And he understood that the body of knowledge we think students leave us with dissolves when they leave our classes but the learning, searching, making sense, solving problems, project building, collaborative, creative, critical thinking skills, and the ability to communicate well remain with them for a lifetime. 

In this video, Seymour Papert describes his view on the difference between math and mathematics.  It reveals the leap between what we do and what we might be able to do if we changed teaching and learning. 

The example Papert gives raises the question about what we value, what we believe, and what we think may be our barriers to forward motion.  Often, that is where school leaders and their teachers stop.  "Nice idea but we need training for our teachers and we don't have the money." "Nice idea, but our community of parents will be flummoxed by the difference in the work they see their children doing and the work they know how to help them with." "Nice idea, but I don't know how to create a motivated followership for this."  And then nothing changes. 

Similarly, technology has been placed into school structures, cultures and mindsets. Rather, Papert saw as a way to redefine relationships, from teacher to student, from receiver of information to maker of knowledge.  Papert's work was future seeing.  We are now living in his future and yet,  he is still ahead of us.  He saw the children coming.  He saw the advantages of technology.  He saw role of the learner as an active, knowledge making role.  He saw the teacher as the designer of the conditions for all this to take place, not the purveyor of information.  His legacy remains in our hands. 

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