The Future of School

The following discussion between Seymour Papert and the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paolo Freire took place in Brazil during the late 1980s. It was sponsored by Pontifícia Universidade Católica, the Catholic University of São Paulo; and the Afternoon Journal TV show. It was broadcast in Brazil by TV PUC São Paulo and KTV Solucoes.

The following text is an adaptation of a transcript of the discussion, which was conducted in simultaneously translated English and Portuguese.


  Part 4   real video file

Participant: I'd like to ask to you about something. The school is a social institution controlled by historical and cultural forces…. What would be the foundation on which we could build our faith in potential change? Where is the seed of change? Professor Papert said it is in the children themselves. But wouldn't it be that those who are now controlled would become the controllers? There is obvious difficulty in surpassing this control -- the social control. How can we change this?

Seymour Papert: Well, every revolution works like that. The fact is, you know, that it's a political act.… But we do see examples in the world of where teachers in a school have demanded and won the right to do things differently. So they've escaped from overbearing control. And I think that this is one of the political axes that we work with. And the parents and especially the children are going to be more and more allies in helping teachers bring down the control of the bureaucracy in the schools. So I didn't say it's easy, and you might say, "Well, then, it's not school anymore if they do bring it down." But that's … a semantic difference.… It's only through people challenging that control that there can be real change.

Paulo Freire: Yes. Basically the issue Papert proposes has a lot to do with the 70s and the reproductivist thesis of Althuser. I've seen this since the 70s when I was living in Switzerland. I've read the first essays of Althuser about this subject, and those of his colleagues, too. And I've always tried to see the other angle of the reproductivity of the school, which has as its task to reproduce the dominating ideology. The other side, of which I have a more dialectic and less mechanistic understanding, is precisely the side of those who take upon themselves the nonreproduction of dominating ideology. And this is the same fight of those who want to change the general politics of society.

I personally didn't come to this world to help the "right." I know that I may have helped the "right" in some moment of naiveté…. Consciously, I wouldn't help the "right." Sometimes the fight is easy, and other times it gets very hard. And this applies to the naiveté of the schools, too.

Now, there's another aspect in this speech that I'd like to mention. It's about the first, second, third stages. In the first place, the problem, in my opinion, is not in preserving the name school. You could call it tomorrow as well as memory, which brings us back to school. The name doesn't matter. What matters to me is the determined space and time where determined tasks are accomplished. Social historical and political tasks, not only individual ones.

For example, I think that the second stage is horrible. But if this stage succeeds in executing some of the tasks assigned to the school today in the right way, I wouldn't have anything against calling it memory or enchanted or the island of beautiful women. If there were a school by this name, it would be wonderful. I don't have an objection to that. What I would like to know is how some tasks will be organized.

For instance, one of the reasons for the creation of school, that only became clear much later, is that in the experience of the first stage, you don't get to the systematization of the knowledge that ensures the continuity of the search for a new knowledge. One of the main tasks of school is to provide the knowledge of the already existent knowledge and to produce a nonexistent knowledge. These are the two main tasks of the school: to get the already known knowledge and to produce the knowledge not yet in existence.

In the first stage the technological modification definitely accelerates the apprehension of knowledge, but not necessarily the reason of being of the knowledge. For example, the grandson operates the computer with the extraordinary ease of someone much older than he is because the boy was born during the computer era. He was born in the history of computer and the culture of computer. It is one thing to be the contemporary of a certain technological advance, it is another thing is to arrive before the advance of technology.

For example, what was I contemporaneous of? PRA 8 Pernambuco Radia Club. One fantastic thing! I was amazed. How could the man talk from a long distance and we hear it here? And all those buttons! Just that. Now, it's the computer. I look at it and I'm amazed. I find it wonderful, but I'm not coexistent with it. I am not contemporaneous. And this weight, it's in the air. The historical atmosphere is filled with the computer. It's filled with these telephones these fools carry everywhere -- cellular phones. There is a history of the facts that generate the facts. It's difficult to translate. My problem is the following: How do we do the essential transition from the common knowledge and common sense to the more methodically rigorous knowledge of the sciences without the proper organization provided by an entity specialized in this matter?

It would be ideal if the second stage improved itself and substituted the mischievousness of the distortions that take place in the actual second stage without losing its teaching characteristics. I don't know. I might be totally wrong. I'm contemporaneous of the school. Do you see the problem? I don't say that I have the answers, but I challenge Bahamia…. Because it's not just by looking at and operating a computer that I understand the reason for the computer.

Seymour Papert: It's not simply by operating it.… For example, this morning we were at this Millennium 3 Project, seeing some kids who were making objects on a computer screen, geometric objects. And these were small 8-, 9-, 10-year-old children, and so I think that these children, better than anybody in a primary school, knew the raison d'être of not only the computer, but of geometric knowledge, because they were using geometric knowledge to make things on the screen.

Paulo Freire: Yet they are learning that inside of a school.

Seymour Papert: No. I don't think that … would we call a BIENAL a school? You see, I don't know how much they learn. I think that simply by having access to this computer and a very small amount of teaching about how to do something … they can start building and constructing things and they begin to see exactly the raison d'être -- the reason for having -- geometry. Now once they've got that, I'm sure that somebody who is articulate can serve a great function in tidying it up for them. So I imagine kids will become interested in and might spend a few hours in a little seminar or course where a mathematician, somebody who really has a mathematical perceptive, will connect together the ideas that they have.…

I think that the time needed for doing that is maybe 10 percent of the time that we spend, and so, as I see it, it's like kids going to piano lessons. When they want to, when they need to, they go. And I imagine that people of totally different ages who at some stage of wanting to know these things come together in a place where they can find them.

Paulo Freire: Of course!

Seymour Papert: In fact, you know it's exactly right when you say, "Well the important thing is, how do they see the raison d'être? That's exactly what school does not give them.…

Paulo Freire: Yes. I agree with you.

Seymour Papert: …And which they discover by themselves much more readily in this sort of less structure.

Paulo Freire: But this is what I want right now. You are not just saying that the school does not need to continue, you are proposing something different.

Seymour Papert: No.

Paulo Freire: Yes! This is fantastic to me. What the school would really have to do is challenge the epistemological curiosity of the students in order to provide an incentive to discover the raison d'être for the objects of knowledge. The school should not do what it is doing now.

If we can help the school … because when students come to the school they already know lots of things, which the school never taught them. It is easier for a good teacher to say, "Look, all the things you already now know have a certain scientific explanation which I will speak about now." Fantastic!

Seymour Papert: I have spent a lot of time and I'm prepared to help any school that wants to do this. Maybe that's a good thing.… Maybe that's a good place to end this discussion because I think I'm going to get a little tired. I haven't been well the last day. But I would like to propose that -- this is a great discussion -- and we should set a goal in the near future of having a day or two of this kind of thing -- maybe with these people participating more.

Paulo Freire: Good!

Seymour Papert: I think the dialogue could be useful to a lot of people outside.

Paulo Freire: Good, good.

Seymour Papert: OK. Thank you.

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