When I look back at my time as a primary school teacher in the 1990s, one of the most powerful learning experiences for me and my students was the use of LOGO – that little pixelated turtle tracing geometric shapes on a monochrome CRT screen. I was inspired by the impact that LOGO was having on my students as learners, as well as by the thinking that Seymour Papert used in the development of LOGO.
At its most basic, LOGO is an environment that enables students to programme an onscreen turtle to create geometric shapes. At its most sophisticated, it is a tool that enables students to explore, problem solve, experiment – and become immersed in an environment in which they take charge of the computer.
I recently re-read a book by Papert published in 1980: Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. Thirty four years on, I am interested in revisiting the themes that Papert discussed and reflecting on these in the context of 21st century teaching and learning.
Papert was strongly influenced by constructivist educational theory, particularly the work of Jean Piaget. Papert saw that the power of the computer was its universality and its power to simulate. It was his children’s thinking machine – a machine that enabled children to be builders of their own learning and thinking.
“In the LOGO environment … the child, even at preschool ages, is in control: The child programs the computer” (Papert, 1980, p. 19).
Papert claimed that in 1980 education was at a point in history when “radical change is possible, and the possibility for that change is directly tied to the impact of the computer” (Papert, 1980, pp. 36-37). This was a bold prediction given that the book was published at a time when the smell of methylated spirits from the Banda machine filled staff rooms, the Apple II+ was released, and the first microcomputer hard drive (5MB!) was released by Seagate. The IBM PC and the Internet were yet to reach us.
Papert’s vision was of a new kind of learning environment, one that “demands free contact between children and computers” (Papert, 1980, p. 60) and where children can learn to use computers masterfully – becoming the programmers and creators in new and unimaginable ways. He also argued that computers may affect the way people think and learn. They could become tools to facilitate thinking about thinking.
However, Papert argued that for this radical change to occur, society’s view of the role of ‘school’ would need to change, and that this change would need to be revolutionary rather than reformist.
Looking back at the thirty-four years that have passed since Mindstorms was published, it is interesting to ask how Papert’s predictions have (or haven’t) come to pass, and how his philosophy of learning impacts our use of digital technologies in 2014.
Firstly, how visible is the impact of the microprocessor on education. As Papert predicted, the microprocessor (in all its forms) has had a huge impact on almost every aspect our 21st century lives. In medicine, commerce, and in our social connections it has created dramatic changes. However, can we see the impact of the digital revolution in our schools? Has the technology radically changed the way teaching and learning happens?
In his subsequent book, The children's machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer (1993), Papert appears disconcerted by the lack of impact that technology was having in classrooms. I believe that in 2014, he would still argue that in many classrooms teaching and learning looks strangely similar to that seen in 1980 and that technology is having only a limited impact.
Secondly, are we now at a time when society will permit the radical change required of schools to ensure that they are able to maximise the potential of the tools we now have available?
Thirdly, are the technologies that we are putting in front of our students providing environments that enable them to become more than consumers of content? Are we providing technology that supports students to be creators of their own knowledge and to become active, self-directed learners?
In summary, in this world of eye-catching multimedia, are we able to learn something from that old black and white turtle?
“I predict that long before the end of the century, people will buy childrens’ toys with as much computer power as the great IBM computers currently selling for millions of dollars” (Papert, 1980, p. 24)
Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York, USA: Basic Books, Inc.
Papert, S. (1993). The children's machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer. New York, USA: Basic Books, Inc.
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