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.
…and obviously the other stuff too!
Click on this picture to make it larger and more readable!
I continue to hear that we need ‘pedagogy before technology‘ and that it ‘isn’t about the tools, it’s about the learning‘! Well, I am somewhat frustrated by these relatively simplistic statements. But, before you shoot me, understand that a strong emphasis on both pedagogy and learning are foremost in my mind. Also, let me clarify that this is somewhat a new educational battlecry—one that didn’t exist when many of us started with kids and these technologies back in the late 70s. We just took it for granted that we were implementing these tools in deep and significant ways! (After all, you either took a constructionist/constructivist approach or you adopted the beliefs of CAI (Computer Assisted Instruction—aka Institutionalization! LOL)
It is only since decision-making was taken out of the hands of classroom educators that computers (and other technologies) have landed unceremoniously in classrooms, along with expectations that they will be used effectively. This has gained momentum since the onslaught of cheaper tools such as tablets, Chromebooks and BYOD and even more decision-makers and policy-makers have arrived on board (finally)—because they have a ‘device’!
So, trust me. I get why we are hearing this battlecry. People didn’t necessarily come to it themselves and now we have a plethora of devices and not enough forethought and preparation.
Having said that, it is dangerous to claim that it is not about the tools. It is also about the tools. Read on, and click on the links, to find out why I think so.
I have decided to make this graphic representing these ideas that I have written about in the previous posts:
If you would like to see an interactive version, please click on the link below.
This is a project I developed, and presented, in 1989.
It’s interesting that we are struggling with many of the same issues today—although perhaps using ‘modern’ terms.
Intentional learning has grown into knowledge building.
We still speak a great deal about metacognition.
Two of my favourites remain:
“Thinking must be a highly valued activity. Not just thinking hard, but thinking about thinking, in addition to the task.”
“Students must be engaged as coinvestigators into the processes of thinking.”
These would fall under the umbrella of the current visible thinking enthusiasm.
Fun to look back to the future.
It is very much about the tools:
and their impact—both intended and unintended.
Once again, as a result of the ISTE conference, the issue represented by statements such as, “It’s not about the tools, it’s about the pedagogy” has come to the fore. (See Stop It Already by @dougpete and Not Everyone is You by @gcouros.)
I have spoken about this before in “It’s Not About the Tool”—A Naïve Myth.” In that post I share some thoughts related to computers as cognitive partners, ‘effects of’ vs ‘effects with,’ drip effects of technology, blue dye plus water or blue water and other McLuhanist-type thoughts.
As I mentioned there, I understand the intent of these kinds of statements. I believe they arise from the focusing on the skills required to use the tool rather than on the learning at hand. So, yes, that would be an issue. I totally understand that problem. That’s why, in 2002, I presented a session at a CUE conference titled Mindstrokes—Not Keystrokes.
However, it is very much about the tools.
As described in that post, tools shape behaviours. Tools shape cognition. Tools shape societal structures in both intended, and unintended, ways.
Let’s face it, eras of humankind have historically been defined by tool creation and use (the Three Age System)! We have the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age. Then came the Industrial Age, and, now, the Digital Era. In fairness, these descriptors vary regionally and are constantly under revision as many cultures use reference to other types of technologies.
So to simplistically say that it isn’t about the tools, is in my opinion, digital age doodoo.
“If the role of the computer is so slight that the rest can be kept constant, it will also be too slight for much to come of it.”
Seymour Papert in Computer Criticism vs. Technocentric Thinking, 1987
Teaching for Durable Mental Models
Many years ago, I devised ways to have my students make their thinking explicit for all to see and to discuss! One technique I created was Watch Me Think! We dreamed up as many ways as we could to make this possible.
We tried public journal writing and collaborative idea mapping (as we called it then). I have written much about the former, and wish to address the latter here.
Idea mapping, in my view, comes in two varieties:
- traditional outliners that are hierarchical & linear in nature (as you would find in any wordprocessor like MS Word or Pages—but not Google), and
- graphic organizers which may be used hierarchically or in a web-based manner and are graphical in nature. Many graphic organizers also allow for the creation of mind-maps and concept-maps (which can show a relationship among the nodes of of the map).
- In fact, may of these graphic organizers will also export to an outliner—often a handy feature!
Both categories of these tools are extremely useful—perhaps in different ways. Many excellent resources are available to support you in using them with your students.
Effects With versus Effects Of
However, I wish for deeper and more transferable understandings that students can learn when they are creating mind-maps, concept-maps or outlines. I want both effects with and effects of. It is wonderful that graphic organizers and outliners can improve the quality of students’ work as they use these tools (effects with), but it is as important for these tools to have a more robust impact on student thinking. If students develop mental models as a result of having used graphic organizers or outliners, they are able to apply these in other situations (effects of)—even when computers are not on hand. The model resides in the head.
…place thinking at the centre of the educational enterprise…
Placing thinking at the centre of the educational enterprise in classrooms is very much at the heart of the knowledge-building and visible thinking movement, and so, it makes a lot of sense to make these graphic organizers and outlines as visible as possible within your classroom. Sometimes this might be in your physical space. Other times, they may be, in fact, collaborative documents that are shared and discussable online.
Does wordprocessing make students better writers?
Research has indicated that students write better whenever they use word processors. Their work is longer, better revised and edited, and so forth. This would constitute effects with.
But can they subsequently write better after having used word processors?
Can they write better without the use of a word processor?
The answer to these questions is likely dependent on both the connections teachers explicitly make in class as well as the types of activities in which students are engaged while using word processors.
For example, if they use an outlining tool within a word processor or presentation software, they would then have a functional mental structure to carry with them to other tasks.
…helps students develop portable mental models they can carry to other tasks…
How does using the outliner tool differ from just using indents and hard returns? The ability to expand and collapse the headings and subheadings provides, in my opinion, a significant mental model—a model that is durable and independent of the computer. It is what Gavriel Salomon would call a residual effect. How might this be implemented in a classroom? Look at two examples here.
Similarly, graphic organizers may provide students with the capacity to think differently even when they are not using a computer. They may have the capability to see webs of ideas, and relationships among ideas, as a graphical representation in their mind. This is a tool with which to think—an alternate way of representing knowledge that they may not have at their disposal if they hadn’t used graphic organizers.
In fact, if they move their knowledge from a graphic organizer to an outline for a different view and then back again, they will start to develop a schema of how information can be structured. This is a valuable mental model—a wonderful effect of having used the tools.
Caution: Be careful these activities don’t become yet another worksheet! 🙂
My own experience shows that if outlining and mapping become routinized—like yet another ‘worksheet’—they become ‘something to get done’ and they, therefore, are not done mindfully or intentionally and the intended benefits are lost. Once again we need to understand that learning is strongly affected by the predominant culture of the classroom. So, be sure to value the efforts through conversation and the public discussions related to the thinking involved.
Thinking needs to be a highly valued activity and that should be explicitly and implicitly understood by all in the classroom. John Seely Brown has eloquently stated that learning is often a product of the ambient culture rather than of explicit teaching.
NOTE for Ontario Teachers:
“I’m an idiot!”
That was my thought about my crash landing shown in the video clip. I didn’t flare to slow down for the landing. Why not!?
I came to the most fascinating conclusion as I watched this video countless times on a large screen in an attempt to determine where it all went wrong,
My belief outranked reality.
My expectation outweighed all the other information that I was perceiving.
I was taking paragliding instruction. (Some people think this is why I was an idjit. LOL) I had completed ground school and some canopy handling on the ground. Now it was time for my first training flight.
You get attached to a tow rope connected to a winch placed some hundreds of metres away. This winch has a tension indicator on it so that the tow operator knows how much tension is on the rope. For the first flight, you get towed fairly strongly at first and fly several metres off the ground. At the right moment, the tow operator reduces the tension enough to stop the forward pull but still have the rope advancing ahead of the pilot so it doesn’t get in the way.
In the video, you will see that the take-off went quite well as I, at first, resisted the tension, as I was supposed to, and then took many small steps ‘til take off! Good one Peter! J
A couple of seconds later, the canopy started to turn, so I acted properly and pulled the correct line to straighten it out.
Then, I was expecting to continue my flight. I was moving forward still. I believed I was to continue flying. It was a strong belief. But, alas, it was the wrong belief! The operator had reduced the tension so I could land.
But I didn’t flare. I didn’t pull on the brakes.
My expectation–my belief–was more powerful than the ground approaching quickly!
Information that should have been extremely vivid and impactful eluded me.
How often, do we as educators, not see the obvious because our beliefs are so strongly interfering with reality?