School's Out?

Interview of Seymour Papert by David S. Bennahum (davidsol@panix.com).

The following piece is excerpted from and interview by David S. Bennahum that took place in 1996. The interview can be found on the MEME website at http://memex.org/meme2-13.html.


David Bennahum: In 1980 you published a book titled Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas, which had a tremendous influence on teachers and schools by giving them a conceptual framework for how computers could be used in education. This week you've come out with a new book, The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap. Give me a sense of how the landscape has altered in the intervening years.

Seymour Papert: The big shift is social rather than technological. In 1980 kids used computers in schools, and if you wanted to talk about changing education, school was the place to do it. Now there are many more computers in homes than schools, and there is more interesting innovation and alternative learning taking place in homes than in schools. The transformation is in the kids. They are the power that will change schools. They know a lot more than many teachers do -- certainly collectively they do. Computers in the home is the biggest source of change in education.

DB: Why is it an improvement that education might be happening in the home rather than in the schools? Why is that a cause for optimism?

SP: We have to step back to a bigger story. If I think in terms of my three books on this subject, when Mindstorms was written there were barely any computers in schools. Throughout the 1980s many schools got in the act, acquiring computers. The most important phenomenon I understood at that time was the power of school, as an institution, to assimilate anything new that came along. School is like a living organism. A foreign body comes along -- the computer -- and the organism's immune system and defense mechanism takes over. So we saw a shift in the 1980s. Before then computers were being used in exciting ways. They were in the hands of visionary teachers who were trying to use computers because they were dissatisfied with how schools did things. By the end of 1980s the larger number of computers were under the control of the school bureaucracy and the school as an institution. There were still visionary teachers, but they were being neutralized.

Previously teachers with a few computers in the classroom were using them to move away from the separation of subject matters, and the breakup of the day. When the administration takes over they make a special room, and they put the computers in that room and they have a computer period with a computer teacher. Instead of becoming something that undermines all these antiquated teachings of school, computers became assimilated. It is inherent in school, not because teachers are bad or schools are bad, but in all organisms that have come to a stable equilibrium state in the world, that they have a tendency to preserve the inertia they have. So school turned what could be a revolutionary instrument into essentially a conservative one. School does not want to radically change itself. The power of computers is not to improve school but to replace it with a different kind of structure.

DB: The kind of learning that children do with computers you have called "learning by doing," is that generally the distinction here, that using a computer the child is able to build a model and learn from seeing a complete system in action -- as opposed to learning by rote, or in fragments?

SP: Yes. But it is incomplete. I think any way of summarizing this is an incomplete assessment. It's like -- what's the difference between a living thing and a dead thing? Is it any one particular characteristic? I think that to put this in perspective we should recognize that school has developed a very particular approach to learning. A child starts learning from day one. The learning is driven internally. It comes from personal interest. It is often passionate. It is not cut up into fragments. There is a long list of ways children learn. You can see creative adults doing this too. At the MIT Media Lab you see this, or in any research lab, music studio or creative business enterprise -- people are learning what they need to know in order to carry things out. That is much more like the way a preschool child learns. School developed a particular artificial way of learning at a stage where knowledge technologies probably made it impossible to do it any other way.

DB: What are other examples of old technologies, no longer suited to education?

SP: The segregation of children by age is such an absurdity. I talked to a group of educators recently, and I said "Before I talk to you let's put the 20 year old there, the 22 year olds there, and so on." Nobody would do that. It is absurd. We do it for kids because of this fragmented way of handing out knowledge in order to systematize it. And you'd better divide the day into periods, and the kids into grade levels.

DB: It's an industrial process.

SP: It is. Many of these things are so associated with school that it is hard for people to shake them off. I give talks about this sort of thing to educators and at the end they say, "Well exactly how is the computer going to help me teach fourth-grade math?" And that's exactly the wrong question -- there's not going to be a "fourth-grade." There's not going to be a separate math class. There's not going to be teaching.

DB: So what's left? What do you have in this future? What does it look like?

SP: What it looks like in terms of lives of kids?

DB: Yes.

SP: The kids being involved in interesting projects, enterprises.

DB: Do they go to school? Are there places they go to?

SP: Do you mean, "Are they places they go to, or do they stay at home?"

DB: Yes.

SP: Will these be called schools, I do not know. Will they look like schools as we've known them? Very definitely not.

DB: Will they have teachers? Will "teacher" still be a word people use?

SP: Yes. Will they have adult professionals to facilitate the learning process? Yes. Will these teachers be people who are in a privileged position as the ones who know and the source of knowledge? I do not think so. Not at all. They will have a very different role. Sensitive, well-informed adults who understand deeply about learning processes and social interactions will be able to give advice. They will be able to spot that this kid has a problem, or this kid needs more interesting challenges, or put pressure on them and make suggestions.

DB: And the computer is the catalyst then. It is the means by which we get to this end?

SP: I would use the word "medium." I do not like the word "catalyst." The computer is more than a catalyst. It is a material with which you can do much more interesting and varied projects. You can handle complexity as never before. As a society, if you think of what is involved in putting a space shuttle in orbit, the complexity of doing this without computers would have made it impossible. At all levels of society we have taken on projects vastly more complex thanks to computers, and it trickles all the way down to kids. Kids now are able to do things on their own that are much more complex thanks to computers. So it is more than a catalyst. It is the actual instrument that makes it possible to search for knowledge. Knowledge can be presented and accessible in many more varied ways.

DB: Presumably it is up to human beings to use and shape the computer in a fashion that supports learning. There is nothing innate about computers that would push people to learn this way. After all, people have used computers to support bureaucratic and hierarchical systems.

SP: Absolutely. I think if you were to go and count all the computers being used with the label "education," most of them are being used counter to this vision.

DB: What is the greatest misuse of computers that you have seen in education?

SP: I think the most important is what we discussed before. Here is this institution called school, and this new thing comes along, the computer, and we say, "How is this going to change school?" We should not be surprised that in the end school changes the computer. It would be unnatural if school didn't. Because school is a living, natural institution it is going to do that. So if the purpose of school is to keep itself going, then it is using computers very well. It is a use of computers that is inevitably associated with this phase of development. If you asked the question differently and said, "What is the worst, most dangerous limitation of computers? then it is the assumption that everything will be the same and computers will just help us do things better. That is a disastrous assumption.

DB: The hope is that children who learn with an appropriate use of computers become adults with a greater capacity to do what? What's the benefit?

SP: We have to look at different kids differently. The most common element with all kids is that they start off as enthusiastic learners, but by the time they have been in school for a few years they have stopped being enthusiastic about learning. The learning instinct is strangled. That makes their lives poorer. It makes society poorer. It makes the economy rigid and inflexible. It makes for a more rigid society all around. For those kids computers could make a very big difference by shaping education to fit their approach to learning. The kids who are already doing very well, who are already going to turn out to be successful, I do not know if computers are going to make a deep change in their overall quality of life. It is hard to say what level they will go to. The performance of kids in school is determined by intrinsic limitations. "This kid is not mathematically minded. He does not have that kind of intelligence. There is something about that kid that is responsible for bad performance in mathematics." I think that is absurd. If you look at kids in French classes in American schools few of them learn French. But the kids in France have no trouble learning French. Normal human beings can learn mathematics to a much higher level than we do in schools. Now whether beyond that they might all be Einsteins? Presumably not.

DB: In your book you talk about personalization as key to the way of learning you propose. Is this a reflection of the ability of computers to personalize learning, so that a student you thought was a bad math student was really someone who just needed to learn math in a different context than school was prepared to deliver, and that computers can be flexible enough to give that context. Is that a fair interpretation?

SP: Yes.

DB: I have to confess that when I was 13 we got LOGO in our school. I learned to program in LOGO in 1981, and we had one of these visionary teachers where we learned about programming and computers, and how to model things. I came back to my high-school six months ago, and the computer room was completely different. The students were all using Apple Macintoshes, and learning how to use computers the way a consumer learns to use a product.

SP: That is a profound shift. There is no doubt that if you look at the predominant uses of computers, that is what schools are doing. There are still a lot of visionary teachers that have stuck to their way of doing things, but they are a minority. Conditions are ripe for things to become personalized again. One reason why schools could get away with this trivialized stuff is that there weren't enough teachers who understood computers. If one teacher is really excited and trying to do great things, he or she is limited to certain number of students. The teacher cannot be there for all of them. If schools want to bring this kind of learning to everyone, they get caught in bureaucratic problems. It is much easier for them to say, "We will do keyboarding skills, load up Microsoft Word," or some other program. But after awhile everyone gets beyond that. The new generation of kids, and of teachers --

DB: There is a generation of teachers now who have spent 10 years with computers --

SP: We are at an interesting time. We are just beginning to get this wave of people who took advantage of computers in college and teacher's school, with computers taken for granted. This wave is now hitting the schools. At the same time the kids who have grown up since babyhood with computers are also hitting the schools now. These two waves are coming in, and that will make a huge difference.

We are seeing a new movement towards more progressive schools and alternative schools. We saw a lot of this in the sixties, and it failed then because it did not have the technological infrastructure to support itself. They were learning tie dying, but they were not learning math and science. My patent solution is just to find a million adults who love kids and love learning and have them around. That did it in the sixties. And of course it was impossible. Now it is possible with computers.

DB: The Internet as well?

SP: The Internet has to change. As it is at the moment it can only give limited support. But if Internet is a code word for connectivity then it is radical, a transformation. One of our graduate students at the Media Lab, Michelle Evard, is injecting into a school environment communications connectivity. It is an inner-city Boston school, and she had kids work on long-term projects. The one that worked best was creating a video-game. They spent four hours a week throughout the school year developing their game, and in doing this they ran into lots of problems. The biggest obstacle was that many teachers could not answer their questions. The kids had difficulty getting access to ideas. Michelle's project was to create a communications network, so kids could throw questions in there, with other kids answering them. At first it was full of flip answers, and then it settled down into a solid state where a few kids really got into the role of being consultants. You can be in touch with kids who did something similar last year or the year before. Together they can give answers. It has made a qualitative difference in the development of these kids. I can imagine that on a global scale other people interested in similar ideas could create a collaborative learning community, compared with a teacher handing out knowledge.

DB: But isn't there a role for teachers in telling truth, especially in history? History can be seen as a mass of interpretation, and the teacher is essential, more than in math or science, in pointing in the right direction. For instance the moral consequences of a war, or of genocide. If you go on the Net searching for answers you could stumble across information whose purpose was not truth but a political agenda. How then could you filter? Who would be the trusted authority? For instance if you had to research the Nazi Holocaust and you came across a White Supremacist site that denied the existence of the Holocaust, how could a kid know this was an outright lie?

SP: I am not advocating spontaneous uncontrolled learning. I think as a society we have an obligation to pass on values. I think this is an important function. I am sure there will be professionals dealing with kids who will do this. But that is a very different function from the traditional teaching function. This future teacher is acting like an advisor, maybe more like a faculty advisor in a university.

DB: So these people are still with us. We might call them advisors or coaches, but not teachers.

SP: Teacher has this other function. When you think of a religious teacher -- Buddha was a teacher. He was not a teacher in terms of giving assignments or grading papers. He was a teacher in the sense that defended ideas and cultivated them, and set an example for people. That is more like the role model of teacher I am thinking of for kids today.

DB: Is it fair to say that computers are better suited in certain disciplines, like math and science, than others, such as history or literature? If you studied Chaucer, what value would the computer bring? It would bring some, but it would be severely less than in math or science, where those are about modeling, building environments and testing hypotheses.

SP: If we look at what blocks the development of kids today that is true. The computer is a more potent de-blocking agent in relation to roadblocks we see in mathematics rather than in literature. If fact, our world does provide multiple perspectives into literature, much more so than in math. That is a matter of how mathematics, versus, say poetry, is reflected in our culture. Mathematics is presented as a narrow thing that if you fall of the track it is very difficult to get back on and continue. Reading poetry there are so many different ways to do so. I think that explains the big difference between the learning and teaching of mathematics versus literature in schools. So, yes, I think computers now have a more dramatic effect in math and science. But ultimately it opens up huge new ideas and possibilities. For example, being able to publish changes your relationship to writing. Desktop publishing, Web publishing, gives you openings into how kids might see literature in the future. Greater use by kids of literature as a model of how they themselves might create, write and express themselves -- it helps them formulate their ideas and sensitivities. All that is further away from the immediate roadblock now, but it is just as important.

DB: I think authorship is the great promise of computer technology, especially computer networks. It gives voice to people who in the past were socially constrained not to speak.

SP: Those kids in Michelle's class are programming and grappling with problems of how to express themselves in this new medium.

DB: If I look back at my education, I see that I learned how to program computers at a relatively young age for that time. One of the impacts that had on me was I tended to see things in terms of systems, as systems of things. So history might be part of a larger system, and the question is what are the inputs, what are the outputs?

SP: There is a set of ideas to which kids can get access because of computers, like thinking in systems terms. Ideas like "feedback" and "adaptive systems" -- all these ideas were very abstract in the way they were presented to small children before computers.

DB: With computers you really get a feel for it. Is that one of the big intellectual shifts of this generation, a tendency to see things as systems, interconnected. People in the past used to see history and the world differently.

SP: Many people did get there in the past, and understand systems theory. But many more had a lot of trouble getting there because it was hard to visualize. In the context of computers it is possible for ideas to be empowered, to be concretized, so ideas like systems can be made accessible to many more people. Whether the peaks go much higher or not, I am not sure. I think so, but from the point of view of mass education we do not have to worry about that. If we could get a much larger number of people to get to the level where the best people currently perform, we'd be doing very well. I think most of the concepts that really make a difference in our lives were there before computers. That does not mean that new ideas will not come from computers. It takes a certain amount of time before a culture can absorb new ideas. I think the idea of computation is one of those. And as an idea in our culture it is extremely young.

DB: Why this book now? Why should people read The Connected Family?

SP: Because we are at a point where the locus of innovation and learning is moving from the school into the home. Computers coming into the home present an enormous opportunity to create new forms of learning culture, and to allow parents to participate in this change. In the last few years this has become possible. This book is an invitation for parents of children with computers to think about learning, about the learning culture, and how it could change. I noticed that most parents accept the software industry's definition of what makes a computer educational. Often I think that definition is retrograde, pushing down to lower levels the schooling model. This book might stimulate a lot of parents to see computers in a new way. I think of this book as presenting options. If we can get parents not to take for granted what they think kids can do with computers, or what kids can learn, that could be the biggest force for change in society.