Obsolete Skill Set: The 3 Rs — Literacy and Letteracy in the Media Ages

By Seymour Papert

This article appeared in Wired Magazine  in fall of 1993


The facetious old turn of phrase that identifies schooling with the three Rs -- reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic -- may express the most obstinate block to change in education. The central role of these "basics" is never discussed; it is considered obvious. Thus the most important consequences of new technologies are not recognized by education policy-makers.

The role of the Rs in elementary education used to be beyond question. How effectively could one teach geography, history, and science to students who could not read? Looking back, we cannot seriously fault these arguments -- within their historical context.

But looking forward, we can formulate new arguments beyond the imagination of 19th century thinkers, who could hardly have conjured images of media that would provide modes of accessing and manipulating knowledge radically different than those offered by the Rs. Nor could they have formulated what I see as the deep difference between education past and future: In the past, education adapted the mind to a very restricted set of available media; in the future, it will adapt media to serve the needs and tastes of each individual mind.

In my forthcoming book, The Children's Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer, I use as a thematic image an encounter with a four- year-old girl who heard that I grew up in Africa and asked if I knew how giraffes sleep. I did not. But the ensuing conversation led me to pursue the question when I got home. Reference books were scattered all over my floor as I jumped from one to another in an exciting exploration of the giraffe's world. As I enjoyed the chase I pondered the unfairness of being able to get all this fun out of the girl's question -- why couldn't she do what I was doing?

Not long ago the answer would have been obvious: She can't read. But today, there is no technical obstacle to creating a "Knowledge Machine" that would allow a girl of four to navigate through a virtual knowledge space where she could see for herself how giraffes live. It will take time for the vast quantities of information available in print to be recast for such a machine. But it will happen; and when it does, the Knowledge Machine (a metaphor for much more varied forms of media) will provide easier access to richer and fuller bodies of knowledge than can be offered by any printed encyclopedia.

Admitting the prospect of Knowledge Machines does not imply that people will no longer need to read. But reading will no longer be the unique primary access road to knowledge and learning, and it should therefore no longer be the dominant consideration in the design of School.

Demoting reading from its privileged position in the school curriculum is only one of many consequences of Knowledge Machines. A child who has grown up with the freedom to explore provided by such machines will not sit quietly through the standard curriculum dished out in most schools today. Already, children are made increasingly restive by the contrast between the slowness of School and the more exciting pace they experience in videogames and television. But the restiveness is only a pale precursor to what will come when they can freely enter virtual realities of animals in Africa or wars in ancient Greece.

What follows from imagining a Knowledge Machine is a certainty that School will either change very radically or simply collapse. It is predictable (though still astonishing) that the Education Establishment cannot see farther than using new technologies to do what it has always done in the past, teach the same curriculum. I have suggested that new media radically change the concept of curriculum by demoting its core elements. But I would go further: The possibility of freely exploring worlds of knowledge calls into question the very idea of an administered curriculum.

When knowledge had to be handed out to children, it was necessary to break it up into pre-digested units that could be passed out in a systematic way. Thus the definition of knowledge by subjects, children by grades, and achievement by test scores. But the success with which they learn to speak (and manipulate parents) in their pre-school years attests to the fact that they learn very well from direct interaction with knowledge. The existence of media that could give children direct access to knowledge leads me to question much that is taken for granted in the organizational structure of school. But organizational issues are only at the surface of the rethinking. Deeper rethinking focuses on the nature of knowledge and the learner's relationship to it.

To illustrate this idea, I go back to the story about the child and the giraffes. I may have adopted an adult approach to the question by using books. But more important, I pursued the question by exploring in the way that children explore the immediate world around them. When I looked up giraffes in the encyclopedia I did not find out how they sleep, but I did learn a lot about giraffes, which led to new searches. I went from article to article and then from book to book following associations. I was playing. But as I played, I built a web of knowledge that could not always be described, even though it came from the medium of print.

When I went to bed I still had not found a direct answer. But by then I knew enough about giraffes to think about the question in an informed way, and to figure out that they probably sleep standing up. My activity followed a pattern very reminiscent of a child at play. And the knowledge I gained was not the collection of propositions I read in the books, but the web of intuitive connections that formed as my mind bounced here and there in a non-linear fashion.

Babies begin to build their knowledge by exploration of everything they can see and touch. When they become more mobile, their exploration is widened, but the mode is the same. My young friend came to me at a point of transition when the questions that arose in her immediate world -- which might have included pictures of giraffes or a local zoo -- could not be answered in her accustomed immediate way. Her acquisition of knowledge was shifting to a more mediated form, more dependent on the narrow bandwidth of verbal communication. The only way she could bring her inner speculations in contact with an outer reality was through the highly unreliable and usually not very interactive method of asking an adult. The transition is not clear-cut. Children ask questions even when they can barely talk, and nobody ever entirely abandons active exploration as a way of acquiring knowledge. But by the time they move into school, mediated acquisition has become the dominant form.

After mastering the Rs, the print medium gave me an "extended immediacy" -- a larger world I could explore in a freely interactive spirit. But thanks to an archaic school system, many children lose the taste for immediate exploration long before they acquire the mastery of book skills needed to find that extended immediacy. This is the real tragedy of dropping out. Whether or not they put in the requisite number of years in the classroom, many (or even most) children emerge without the intellectual spark with which all are born.

I see then a pattern of intellectual development that I shall oversimplify by casting it in three distinct phases. The first phase is one of universally successful learning. All children show a passion for interactive exploration of their immediate world. The diversity of possible activity is great enough for different individuals to find their own styles. The third phase is seen in intellectually awake adults. Here too we see a great diversity of styles. But not everyone gets there. The second phase is the narrow and dangerous passage in which many factors conspire to undermine the continuation of phase one. School is often blamed for imposing on children a uniformity that suffocates those who have developed markedly different intellectual styles; much as it used to suffocate left-handed people by forcing them to "write properly". Most of the blame is well-founded. But in these practices, schools reflect (and amplify) the poverty of media that has plagued society in the past. As long as writing was the only medium in town, schools did not have many choices.

The early and massive imposition on children of what I call "letteracy" carries risk not only because it suppresses diversity of style, but because it forces an abrupt break with the modes of learning shared by the first and third phases. New media promise the opportunity to offer a smoother transition to what really deserves to be called "literacy." Literacy should not mean the ability to decode strings of alphabetic letters. Consider a child who uses a Knowledge Machine to acquire a broad understanding of poetry (spoken), history (perhaps relived in simulations), and art and science (through computer-based labs), and thus draws on this knowledge to conduct a well-informed, highly persuasive campaign to preserve the environment. All this could happen without being letterate. If it does, should we say that the child is illiterate?

The use of the same word to mean both the mechanical ability to read as well as a rich connection with culture is one more reflection of today's paucity of media. As we enter an age in which diversity of media will allow individuals to choose their own routes to literacy, that dual meaning will pass away. For the next generation or two one must expect literacy to include some letteracy, since our culture's past is so connected with expression through writing. But even if a truly literate person of the future will be expected to know how to read books as well as understand the major trends in art history or philosophy, via whatever other media become available, it will not follow that learning the letters should be the cornerstone of elementary education.

My Knowledge Machine is a metaphor for things close enough in the future to demand serious consideration now. Although the software that can be purchased today gives only an inkling of what is to come, it should be seen in the same light as the first flight of the Wright Brothers' machine. Its importance for the future was not measured by its performance in feet of flight, but its ability to fuel the well-informed imagination. There are very few school environments in which the idea of the illetterate but literate child is plausible. The pundits of the Education Establishment have failed to provide leadership in this area. Perhaps the readers of Wired, who can see farther into the future, have a profoundly important social role in stirring up such debate.