Ghost in the Machine: Seymour Papert on How Computers Fundamentally Change the Way Kids Learn

Interview of Seymour Papert by Dan Schwartz

This interview was posted on in 1999. It has since been removed.

Long before the World Wide Web or even PCs, Seymour Papert was proclaiming the educational value of computers. While today parents and politicians alike demand computers for their children's classrooms, in the 1960s, Papert was derided as an elitist for advocating an educational tool to which only children of the very richest families would have access.

Papert is the co-founder of MIT's Artificial Intelligence and Media Labs, professor of Media Technology at MIT, and one of the world's foremost experts on the impact of computers on learning. He is the current elderstatesman in a lineage of educational reformers that include John Dewey and Jean Piaget. His constructionist theories are manifested in Logo, a programming language he developed for children. His 1980 book Mindstorms sent shockwaves throughout the education and psychology communities, both of which accused him of pushing an educational pill that would induce psychosis in our children.

Almost twenty years later no one is exactly clamoring for surgeon general warning labels on PCs. Indeed, anyone who has witnessed a toddler using a computer has probably experienced a sense of awe at that child's facility with what for adults can be an infinitely frustrating gadget. It's one thing for a child to play a computer game; it's another thing altogether for a child to build his or her own game. And this, according to Papert, is where the computer's true power as an educational medium lies -- in the ability to facilitate and extend children's awesome natural ability and drive to construct, hypothesize, explore, experiment, evaluate, draw conclusions -- in short to learn -- all by themselves. It is this very drive, Papert contends, that is squelched by our current educational system.

Papert knows the bureaucracy he is crusading against is firmly entrenched. But he takes comfort in a secret weapon unavailable to a long line of education reformers up until now. He calls it "kid power." Papert's is a trickle-up vision of change demanded by a generation that learned to use a mouse about the same time it learned to use a spoon. And for the parents of this digitally-weaned generation, Papert offers some ideas about how to bridge a gap that, for many, starts not during adolescence, but in preschool.

ZZ: Let's begin with an overview of your ideas about child as a learner.

SP: Children, of course, come into the world as very powerful, highly competent learners, and the learning they do in the first few years of life is actually awesome. A child exploring the immediate world does that pretty thoroughly in an experiential, self-directed way. But when you see something in your immediate world that really represents something very far away -- a picture of an elephant, for example -- you wonder how elephants eat. You can't answer that by direct exploration. So you have to gradually shift over from experiential learning to verbal learning -- from independent learning to dependence on other people, culminating in school, where you're totally dependent, and somebody is deciding what you learn.

So that shift is an unfortunate reflection of the technological level that society has been at up to now. And I see the major role of technology in the learning of young children as making that shift less abrupt, because it is a very traumatic shift. It's not a good way of preserving the kid's natural strengths as a learner.

With new technologies the kid is able to explore much more knowledge by direct exploration, whether it's information or exploration by getting into his sources, or finding other people to talk about it. I think we're just beginning to see, and we'll see a lot more non-textual information available through something like the Web or whatever it develops into. So there will be much more opportunity to learn before running into this barrier of the limitations of the immediate.

ZZ: So context is key?

SP: It's purpose. I think context is a concept that's been overused here, and it's misleading because people try to give context by relating it to other things and preaching to kids about how this is relevant to X and Y and Z. Or even providing a story of somebody who invented it, and that provides a--that's not the same thing as being in a situation where you are struggling to solve a real problem that comes from your own activity that you really care about, and you struggle around and find this mathematical method by remembering it, or asking somebody or reinventing it or gets bits and pieces of it from other people and putting them together.

More thoughts:

ZZ: Does technology by its very nature lead to this kind of experiential learning? Is it the tail that wags the educational dog?

SP: In fact what's happening now is almost the opposite. I like to distinguish between that first phase of exploratory learning (home-style learning or Piagetian learning), and school-style learning. What we've seen with most so-called educational software is pushing school-style learning backward to earlier ages in the home, which is almost the reverse of the way that I think the technology could be used. And I think it's a very dangerous trend that people will buy this software because it looks schoolish, and they think that makes it good, but maybe it makes it bad. I mean even apart from what you think about school as such. Pushing school back into the region of a powerful spontaneous learning is not something we should be doing lightly.

ZZ: I have a friend who has two kids. He is well-educated and keeps up with current events. He told me he's worried that there is something about raising kids in the digital age that he should know, but that he doesn't. What doesn't he know that he needs to know?

SP: Well, of course, there are a lot of things that people don't know and none of us know about the digital world. We don't know what it's going to turn into. There are things that people know are wrong, and maybe that's something that one could focus on.

So I think one thing that people know is wrong is the emphasis that has been accentuated by the success of the Internet as a way of getting information. And then you begin to wonder, "What do we do with it? Why do we want all that information? How do we distinguish good information from bad information, and how do we protect people from evil information?"

In education also we've got the same thing. There's education as putting out information; teacher lecturing, reading the book. There's learning by doing, which is the constructional side versus the informational side. And, unfortunately, in our schools the informational side is the one that gets the emphasis, and so there's this line-up between one-sided emphasis in the thinking about school, and the one-sided emphasis in thinking about the technology. Both of them emphasizing the informational side, and they reinforce one another. So in many ways, through this, the wrong image we have of what digital technology is about reinforces instead of undermining some of the weaknesses and narrowness of traditional education.

ZZ: In your book The Connected Family, you suggest that to further their understanding of these issues, parents need to learn more about learning than they do about computers.

SP: I use that term "connected family" as the name of a book, playing on two meanings of connected, of course. Talking about the fact that we connect through the Internet, but also about whether we connect or don't connect inside the family. And there's a widespread fear, often justified, about the possibility that computers inside the home are going to disconnect the family, that it creates a deeper generational gap than there was before. People get involved in their own isolated kinds of activities and already the television was a conversation killer in the home. This can be more so.

So what I'm interested in is, how can we think about the computer presence in ways that will strengthen rather than weaken the other kind of connection inside the family? I think if parents are going to connect with children, or if people in the family are going to connect together around the computer in intellectually interesting and bonding kinds of activities, what they need is not more knowledge about computers only, although they might need that too. But that's the easy part. The more interesting and important part -- and harder part -- to get is more knowledge about learning, about shared intellectual activities. I think that parents are very inhibited by the fact that they are being solicited by vendors of software which promise to prepare the kid for school or result in better grades and all the rest of that, but which allow very little opportunity for parent and kid to do anything together.

How can they be joint projects between members of the family? How can parents participate in the learning experiences of the kids? And even if they don't want to go through the actual learning experience of that complex game or simulation, whatever it might be, how can they converse about it, and be sympathetic and understanding, and learn from the kids about the kids' learning experience? I think there are very strong possibilities of that, and that many parents do it, but many more parents are not aware of that possibility, or are too nervous about the technology, or too angry at it, because they don't like what's happening. So I was trying in that book to take a baby step towards encouraging people to think about the technology in a way that would strengthen what I call the "learning culture of the family."

ZZ: How do you envision technology impacting teaching and learning in the classroom?

SP: I don't think I want to predict. I think people haven't done very well by predicting exactly what will happen. But I think we can predict that some things will go away. Age segregation will go away. This fragmentation of the day into periods devoted to different subjects will go away. Curriculum-driven structure of learning, by which I mean you learn something because it is the day in which you are supposed to learn that. As opposed to project- or application-driven learning; you learn it when you've got a need for it.

Now these are all transformations of existing school. "What grade are you in?" is a natural question you ask a kid, or "What subject are you doing in third period?" These are not intrinsic to the nature of creating a good learning environment. They are caused by a previous level of knowledge technology, where the only way we could give out knowledge was by a production-line method. And all this is a production-line model, an assembly-line model of school. So I'm sure that that will go away. What will come in its place has to be a social invention.

ZZ: Of course, educational reform initiatives come and go, and yet many schools don't look a whole lot different then they did decades ago. Do you see technology as a Trojan Horse for systematic and lasting change?

SP: I think the technology serves as a Trojan horse all right, but in the real story of the Trojan horse, it wasn't the horse that was effective, it was the soldiers inside the horse. And the technology is only gong to be effective in changing education if you put an army inside it which is determined to make that change once it gets through the barrier.

Unfortunately, the easier way to get the technology to the school, if you're a vendor, for example, is to open it up and say, "Look, there's no army inside here. It's fine. It suits your purpose. It's not going to be subversive, and so it's a Trojan horse without any soldiers, and that's not a very effective way of doing it."

Of course, the presence of computers in the home changes the whole political context. One way that I think is very important is that it turns kids into a political force. I've been using the phrase "kid power" for a very optimistic trend in what's happening in education. We're beginning to see a significant number of kids who grew up with computers in their homes in the classrooms now.

In fact, the generation of kids where a large proportion had computers in their homes from birth is just hitting the schools now. I think that that wave is going to have a dramatic effect on the schools. It just takes a sprinkling of kids in every class who know there is a better way of learning, have experienced it, and so can make a bigger demand in the classroom. Moreover, apart from the demand, they've got an offer also, because they can offer their own expertise. They can help. And so the kids are becoming a political force. They are also becoming an educational force, because they are in quite a lot of projects around the country, kids are explicitly being mobilized. Those kids who really know about computers, and love them, are being mobilized by the system to teach teachers and parents and implement changes in the school.

So that's a huge change in the player forces, and maybe the thing that makes it most optimistic. I think that in The Connected Family I used this analogy -- I thought of John Dewev. Just 100 years ago, John Dewey was saying things about educational change, not very different from what I believe in. He couldn't get very far. And the reason why he couldn't get very far is that he had only philosophical arguments. He didn't have an army. You must have an army, and it's an army primarily of children and the adults also are a political force in this.

ZZ: You also write in The Connected Family that great change is never free and seldom comes without risk. What's at risk for children and families in the digital age?

SP: I think the biggest risk is what the term "connected family" is trying to counteract. There is a problem, because parents are likely to see that there is less control. That they've got less influence on the way their kids develop, and what the kids know, and what they learn. What they do. Many parents really don't understand what the kids are doing, or what language the kids are using.

So there's no doubt it has this disruptive effect--and I think that's bad. In some ways breaking the kids free from the grip of the previous generation, the previous culture, is good, and I think the kid power that will change schooling is a tremendously good thing.

On the other hand, the preservation of an orderly progress of society depends on an a balance between forces for change and forces for stability. I think we do have a need and responsibility for conveying to kids a heritage from the past, and giving them guidance that comes from our greater experiences. It's a delicate matter, this balance between growing independence of the kids, that has its good side, and its dangerous side.

ZZ: Has there been any risk for you in advocating something that is inherently risky?

SP: Well, I came into this business of what computers might mean for kids in the 1960s, and two significant things about the 1960s were that computers were very expensive, rare, big things, and the chance of a lot of these getting into the hands of a lot of kids seemed to a lot of people pretty remote. The 1960s was also a time of egalitarian anti-elitism -- so I very acutely felt attacks for being "elitist." I got reviews of a proposal to a federal agency, which was a scathing attack on this elitist proposal that will bring better learning to the children of a handful of millionaire families. It couldn't possibly have any effect on the majority of people, except to increase the gap. That was hard. And it was very very hard, practically impossible to persuade most people in those days.

Now was there risk? I was pretty sure already that it was going to change. You could see it looming ahead. You could see that computers one day would be mass-produced things, and would be inexpensive enough for every kid to have one. But it was way off, and most people weren't aware of that. So that was a risk, and I got into trouble in getting funding.

ZZ: You've been working with children, education and technology for over thirty years. What keeps you going? What drives you?

SP: I think what drives me --the deepest question about education is, what drives learning? What drives kids? What drives everybody? And when I look at young kids who haven't yet been to school, they are all driven. They are passionate about what they want to do. They get into it, and they really want to do it. I think that in a lot of people that's strangled as we go through this very traumatic, dangerous experience of school. Those who get through it can open out and find a new opportunity to be creative and free and self-directed like we had before school.

So I think the question isn't what drives me, but how is it that you and I and all the people in the world who remain creative and passionate about what they're doing survived the system, that in so many other cases -- in the majority of cases -- strangles that enormous energy?

ZZ: Looking back, did you get anything wrong that you would have done differently?

SP: There are two kinds of looking back about what I would have done differently. There's the looking back where you say, "Given what was known at that time, was that the wrong decision to make?" And that's a sensible kind of question, it's re-examining how you made decisions; versus looking back: "If I'd known more. If I'd known what I know now. If I'd know what I didn't know, would I have done..." Of course, there's an infinite amount of that, and that's not interesting. That's fantasy.

Just on this education/computers thing, I think that a key balance where I got it right, but I think that when it really got out to the schools, in the 80s, I could have recognized earlier and didn't; that there was going to be a dynamic of schools adopting and neutralizing this new thing. I think that in the 80s, if we had kept more focused on a goal of "one day," we could have been more effective and brought it somewhat nearer. But only somewhat. I think that if we say, "Where are we now? Where are we going to be?" As much as I analyze what could have been done and what we could have done in the past, I think that what happened in the last 20 years maybe could have happened in 10 years instead of 20 years. And maybe what's going to happen in the next five years could have happened five years earlier, but it's not huge changes.

I think one of the themes of Mindstorms is bugs that we learn by getting it wrong, and you never get it right, and the important thing is to be able to look in a kind of constructive way at what you got wrong, and that's a cause to do it. It's not always easy, and sometimes I have to fight back a little bit against bad thoughts. Well, what can I learn from how I decided to do what I did? I guess thatís what human life is about, and what learning ought to be about.