Remembering Seymour Papert in Ontario Education
As a long time member of the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario (since 1980), I wish to express my appreciation for the life and work of Seymour Papert. He contributed widely and significantly to Ontario education through those who have learned from him since the late 1970s. Countless Ontario students grew up with Logo and Lego TC Logo robotics—and, more importantly, in learning environments that honoured their freedom to invent, to err, to create and to tinker in wonderment.
This is rather a personal glimpse although I shall provide many wonderful tributes and resources from other members of this wonderful, brilliant community.
Dr. Seymour Papert has often been recognized as the Father of Educational Computing. His impact on the early world of information technologies in schools is legendary for it was borne from his collaboration with Jean Piaget, theories of constructivism, and the ‘tutee’ concept within Tool, Tutor, and Tutee.
But Seymour has been much bigger than Logo.
What You May Not Know
But what you possibly don’t know about Seymour Papert is his significant contribution to the field of cognitive science. With Marvin Minsky, he cofounded the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT. He collaborated with Marvin Minsky on Perceptrons (1969), which temporarily reduced the focus on neural networks and encouraged increased study of symbolic models. Indeed, in the early 80’s, the exploration of neural networks rebounded and became a prominent force in Artificial Intelligence (AI) research and development. I don’t pretend to understand the ins and outs of these very technical arguments among the Newell & Simon cognitivists, artificial intelligence supporters, and cyberneticists. However, these times were central to the creation of the current theories of cognitive science.
The Human Side
I had the good fortune of spending some time with Seymour Papert. I wish I’d had more time and I wish that I’d had more opportunities for debate with him—not about cognitive science but about cognitive psychology and his dreams for schools and children’s learning.
We were at a conference together in Israel in 1987 (Second International Congress on Early Childhood Education: Childhood in the Technological Era. I helped usher him away from the throngs of people after his presentation to his hotel in another city. He was always deluged in those days and he valued his privacy. He asked me if I wouldn’t mind driving his rental car for him. He found it crazy to drive there and, of course, I was happy to oblige. On the way, we stopped in the old city and were happily walking along, browsing at the stalls. Then, I turned around and he was gone! Oh my goodness! It took me some 20-30 minutes to find him. He was contentedly sipping tea with a shopkeeper and deeply involved in a wonderful conversation about the state of the world.
Another meeting was at the Media Lab when he invited me to sit in with his graduate students to discuss the social implications of a group (gathering) of untethered, programmable turtles! You see, Fred Martin (one of his graduate students) had created what became the RCX programmable brick controlled by an IR sensor which received instructions from the computer. So the turtle no longer needed to be connected via cables! Freedom! 🙂
Seymour was asking the students to think what might happen if we tried to replicate human interactions based on cultural differences. Turtles could be designed differently in some way and the sensors on each could detect the differences. People across cultures have different comfort levels with proximity to other people. Some don’t mind being close. Others like to have a little more personal space. Could we replicate that with a turtle community? This was a fascinating time for me because, once again, it revealed to me Seymour’s humanitarian sensibilities blended with his expertise in artificial intelligence.
LCSI (Logo Computer Systems Incorporated)
I started using Logo with my Grade 2s in 1980. Seymour, Brian Silverman and others started LCSI (Logo Computer Systems Incorporated) in 1981. It is based in Montreal, Canada. I switched to using LCSI’s logo shortly after that. Then my job changed in North York Schools. I became a centrally-assigned instructional leader and was able to make central purchases and decisions about professional learning at the district level. This gave me the opportunity to become friends with the folks at LCSI—including Susan Einhorn and Michael Quinn (current president). Now, that sounds like a conflict of interest (LOL), but the reality was that we were all part of the Logo community and ended up at the Logo conferences at MIT through the 80s.
Educational Computing Organization of Ontario (ECOO)
I regret that we never had Seymour at our ECOO conference. I don’t know why! It was an error. I take some responsibility for that as I was involved with both the ECOO Board and conference committees over the years (since 1980).
But, we did have a Special Interest Group for Logo (SIG-Logo) from approximately 1983 – 1989 or so. I was honoured to be its leader for most of that. In 1986, we had a wonderful conference called Look to the Learner. Many of the famous Logophiles of the day presented. (See So You Want Kids to Code! Why? for the agenda—along with some other Logo bits and pieces.)
Many influenced by Seymour have spoken at ECOO
Gary Stager (keynote many times), Sylvia Martinez (keynoted in 2015), Artemis Papert and Brian Silverman (keynoted and ran Minds On Media centre in 2014), David Thornburg (featured speaker several times), Norma Thornburg, Bonnie Bracey (featured), Mitch Resnick (keynote), Ron Canuel, Judi Harris, Margaret Riel, Brenda Sherry, and many more have shared his work and his influence on their own practice over the years. Indeed, I also have shared much Logo related work and thinking many times as a speaker—both featured and regular.
I miss Seymour’s presence. He was severely injured in a motorcycle accident several years ago. His strength of passion and genius should not be missed. Read his work.
A Last Word about Logo
If you have not explored using Logo with kids, I can still recommend that you do this. I am sure it must fit a 21st Century Skill or two. 🙂 There are many versions available. Seymour Papert was the Chair of the Board of LCSI for many years and they have, in my opinion, made the best versions of this computer language.
Please check out some of these wonderful resources and tributes to this revolutionary educator.
- Daily Papert – http://dailypapert.com/
- MIT: https://mitpress.mit.edu/blog/tribute-seymour-papert
- MIT Media Lab: https://www.media.mit.edu/people/in-memory/papert
- Seymour Papert: Revolutionary Socialist and Father of A.I. in Forward: http://forward.com/…/remembering-seymour-papert-revolution…/
- National Public Radio (NPR): Here is the NPR story on Seymour Papert (with audio) – http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016…
- Lego Foundation: http://www.legofoundation.com/…/2016/honoring-seymour-papert
- Conrad Wolfram: http://www.conradwolfram.com/home/2016/8/2/seymour-papert-1928-2016
- The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/educati…
Thank you Seymour.
And thank you to all in that community who have impacted children in Ontario and beyond.