Can Computers Recreate The Classroom?


By Seymour Papert

Basic Books x 272pp x $22.50

About 500 years ago, Leonardo da Vinci sketched out the first airplane. The reason the people of his time couldn't build one, though, was not because his dreams of flying machines were off-base, but because the necessary engines, fuels, and tools didn't yet exist. By the time the Wright Brothers arrived, on the other hand, the technology was there to validate the vision.

In the same vein, psychologists such as Jean Piaget and educators such as John Dewey told us 50 and 100 years ago that the way modern society teaches its kids is incompatible with the way they learn. Inspired by their bold ideas, progressive educators have been trying--and largely failing--to reinvent and reform public schools for decades. In The Children's Machine, Seymour Papert argues that what's been missing is the right technology.

Papert identifies the needed technology as the Knowledge Machine--essentially a personal computer that runs engaging, interactive software. While computers have been here for years, Papert, a professor of mathematics and education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks there haven't been enough PCs in schools to spark what he calls "megachange" in education. At the end of the '80s, he notes, the nearly 50 million American children enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade were sharing about 3 million PCs.

Even more important is the way the education establishment has misapplied computers, Papert says. Since kids can use them to explore knowledge in any way and at any pace they please, Papert sees the machines as subversive tools that threaten the educational bureaucracy. In his view, the establishment, obsessed with pouring a predetermined curriculum into a sea of minds and then administering tests, has forced the computer into its rigid teaching model. That's why classroom computers are mainly used in one of two ways: Either they function as electronic flash cards in rote drills, or they are mistakenly added to the curriculum for the sake of "computer literacy," as if learning about the computer itself was the important thing.

Papert, who studied under Piaget for four years in the 1960s, sees the computer as a tool for learning about the world. According to his mentor, "play is a child's work." The late Swiss psychologist believed that kids learn best when they playfully construct their own learning environments with only gentle guidance from adults. And that, Papert says, is where computers, with their ability to present any type of information on command, come in. With computers, kids can construct and participate in "microworlds," such as a game in which they must solve math problems to, say, move a train across the screen.

Papert reports on Debbie, a fourth-grader who was listless during classroom lessons about fractions. Later, while writing poems on the computer, she discovered that a graphics program she used to decorate her poems could also be used to draw fractions. When other kids in the room wanted to know how it was done, Debbie suddenly became an expert on a subject in which she had little prior interest.

The book contains many such triumphant tales. All focus on the qualitative aspects of how kids learn. Papert never tries to measure whether computers boost student achievement. As such, his book is detached from much of the current debate about education. Papert rails against the America 2000 program, a set of broad goals for excellence pushed by President Bush and repackaged as Goals 2000 by President Clinton. Papert calls it an unrealistic attempt to solve problems by decree, imposing more exams instead of changing the basic nature of what happens in classrooms. But Papert proposes no alternative way to check whether students are up to snuff.

And while the jacket flap promotes The Children's Machine as a "how-to" book, Papert tells teachers and parents little about how to judge which software is useful. Instead, he mainly discusses Logo, a simple programming language he invented. With Logo, children learn science and math by manipulating turtles and other objects on a computer screen. But only a fraction of schools use Logo, and Papert's many references to it come off as self-serving.

To his credit, though, Papert sticks to what he knows best: How kids learn using the technology he's familiar with. As co-founder of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Lab and a lifelong student of learning itself, he brings to the topic a unique mix of insights. For a more political and economic approach, readers can always turn to School's Out, a 1992 book by Lewis J. Perelman, a conservative theorist. Perelman looks forward to the day the nation's public schools become extinct because, he says, information technology can now deliver instruction far more efficiently than today's teachers.

Papert, fortunately, is not so glib as to call for scrapping the entire school system. He doesn't suggest that computers are a panacea or a substitute for human interaction and hard work. Still, he presents some pretty provocative ideas. He asserts, for example, that in a world of multimedia information, literacy as currently defined--to mean proficiency with words--is too narrow a goal. Learning via video, graphics, and even virtual reality should be on an equal footing. Such arguments are central to one of the key questions of our time: How do we educate tomorrow's knowledge workers, who will have to constantly seek and absorb new information? Put to its best use, the computer can be the catalyst for a sorely needed educational renaissance.

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