Computer as Condom
By Seymour Papert
Discussing laptops with local teachers reminded of my encounter in Thailand with Mr. Condom. His real name is Meechai, but he proudly accepts the nickname given in honor of his work teaching villagers in remote areas to use condoms. Statistics show that he has contributed significantly to keeping birth rate and sexually transmitted diseases under control. I was thinking about Kuhn Meechai (using the Thai for Mr.) because his tactics for teaching villagers about condoms might also teach us something about teaching everything else. I personally took from him a lesson in "teaching as creative problem solving."
He explained his problem like this: if you stand up in a meeting of villagers and say you want to talk about anything related to sex, or birth or condoms, your audience will be gone within three minutes. So what do you do? Some people might try to convey the message without actually using the taboo words. To my mind this would be not only ineffective but also dishonest -- and as I have said several times in this column true education and deception don't mix. Meechai's solution was as honest as it was clever: if you have just three minutes, then figure out how to use them vigorously! So he developed a three-minute routine.
He stands up at a village meeting and says directly: "Do you know what a condom is?" The tension mounts faster and faster as he produces one from his pocket and unwraps the package saying: "Watch, I'll show you what you can do with it." Then just as the tension is getting to breaking point he puts the condom to his mouth and blows it up like a balloon. (I've tried it ... they blow up surprisingly big!) While everyone is still paralyzed by shock he ties it off, pulls out a magic marker, draws a funny face on it and tosses it into the crowd. Out comes another condom package. He has a collection of variations of the same theme and pretty soon gets a giggle from his audience.
Once they giggle he says "Thank you" and leaves. That's it! If you come back a year later you find the lesson has had its effect.
I contrast this with a sex education class I witnessed in a school. Teacher produces a diagram showing the plumbing of human genitalia and gives a lesson full of physiological information. I could almost hear him ticking off in his mind the "content" that has to be "covered" in the lesson plan. Meechai didn't teach any of this. Can we call what he did sex education? I say "yes" ... he taught those villagers something far more important than facts, which they probably knew anyway or could find out. He taught them to open their minds to a subject they previously wouldn't let in. He taught them they could play with a topic that previously made them clench their minds into a tight knot.
Kuhn Meechai's method is relevant to much more than sex education in the villages of Thailand. It is about opening minds to learning everything. Kids whose minds resist fractions or grammar or dates in history need something more like what Meechai gives his villagers than a carefully planned lesson full of the facts laid down in some curriculum.
So what about laptops? My idea of using the computer has much in common with playfully blowing up the condom. This was not "just play" it was play with a purpose. It makes me think of Debbie a fifth grader in an experimental project conducted by my (then) Ph.D. student Idit Harel in a school in one of the toughest neighborhoods of Boston. Debbie hated math and resisted everything to do with it. Tested at the bottom of the scale. She learned to program the computer because this let her play with words and poetry, which she loved. Once she could write programs she found a way to tie fractions into words and poetry. Writing witty programs about fractions led her to allow herself to think about these previously horrible things. And to her surprise as much as anyone's her score on a fractions test jumped into the upper part of the scale.