R.I.P. Dr. Seymour Papert

Dr. Seymour Papert with a Logo Turtle
Dr. Seymour Papert with a Logo Turtle

This morning I learned that Dr. Seymour Papert died yesterday at his home in Blue Hill, Maine. Dr. Papert was a pioneer in the world of computers and children, the LOGO programming language, co-founder of the Artificial Intelligence lab (now CSAIL) and a founding faculty member of the MIT Media Lab. Papert has also been called the “father of the maker movement” for ushering the constructionist learning theory into schools decades ago. Each time I speak to a group of educators, parents or students it is grounded in what I have learned about constructionism, a theory of learning by Dr. Papert inspired by his work with Jean Piaget. So great is Papert’s influence on my thinking that I can never know learning as I did before.

While I never met Dr. Papert in person, over the past 10+ years I have grown to know him through studying his work and through many friends, mentors and colleagues who have shared personal accounts of working and spending time with him. His work has been shared with me first hand by many close friends and colleagues. Dr. Gary Stager, Sylvia Martinez, Dr. Cynthia Solomon, Dr. Edith Ackerman, Artemis Papert, Brian Silverman, Dr. Claudia Urrea, Dr. Mitchel Resnick, and many others were my open door to the work that Dr. Papert pioneered in thinking and learning with computers. Dr. Papert’s words will forever be foundational in our thinking, learning, and work in education.

I hope that those that have known him will continue to share his important work with new generations of educators and learners. This closing excerpt from a post by Paulo Blikstein captures how we might honor and continue the work Papert laid down before us.

In the famous Gears of My Childhood preface to Mindstorms, Papert states what he has always considered“the fundamental fact about learning: Anything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models. If you can’t, anything can be painfully difficult.”

Education needs a collection of models demonstrating the impact of implementing Seymour’s ideas in school. Maybe then they will not anymore be painfully hard to implement, but a lot easier. And it is our job to build those models. So go forth and construct.

There is no better way to thank Seymour Papert than to live out his vision of learning. Dr. Papert, you will be dearly missed. Rest in Peace.

Books

Mindstorms – Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas

The Children’s Machine – Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer

The Connected Family – Bridging the Digital Generations Gap

Videos

YouTube Playlist

Vimeo Search – Seymour Papert

Websites

Works by Papert – papers and periodical articles

Daily Papert – excerpts and quotes from Papert’s talks, papers and other work

Planet Papert – a comprehensive collection of Papert’s work by Dr. Gary Stager

Seymour Papert – Wikipedia entry for Dr. Papert

UPDATE: I originally wrote Papert was a co-founder of the MIT Media Lab, he was a founding faculty member of the Media Lab.

 

Gears of My Childhood

tamc0356Each time I read Papert’s essay about the gears of his childhood, I feel a little remorse for some of the more episodic moments I had growing up.  Though that remorse fades as I realize that all is not lost and consider my “gears” more as seeds for later realization.

When I was 9 or 10 years old, I remember waiting for the delivery truck.  Everyday.  For two weeks.  It was such an eternity for me.  I was awaiting an RC car kit. One I had saved for with money I had earned. The Grasshopper had a 380 motor, shocks, big sandpaddle studded rear tires, an ABS resin chassis and a 2-channel radio with 1 servo.

Upon arrival, I tore through the box and sorted out the pieces.  I remember reading through the directions taking it all in.  Wondering if I could complete the kit.  Several days later I finished putting the Grasshopper together and drove it in the driveway until the battery died down.  I raced my friend, who had a similar car, and as all boys do, crashed the car numerous times.  I often went “under the hood” to tweak a screw here and there.  I even tested the servos to be certain they were calibrated even though there wasn’t anything really wrong with them.  I loved peering in on the moving parts, unhooking and reattaching wires, and testing how the shocks worked.  I was so amazed that one could control a machine remotely from several hundred yards away.

Despite having this early interest, and having a a mechanical engineer for a father, the tinkering and kit building faded.  While I didn’t go into engineering or other related field, the experiences I had with putting the car kit together, along with having a space to do so, we had a great basement with plenty of tools and workbenches, was the dormant seed for my current interest in tinkering and making for learning.

I want the children I work with, including my own child, to have a variety of these “gears” experiences.  I don’t mean that it must involve actual gears as Papert’s and, at least partially, mine did.  I want children to experience Papert’s powerful idea around constructionist learning.  My goal is to create a Maker Studio in my school where children can tinker and make using not only digital technologies that have garnered so much attention, but ones that bridge the physical world with the digital and vice versa.

Learning is Making

Dale Dougherty:

Making is learning. Remember John Dewey’s phrase “learn by doing.” It’s a hundred-year-old educational philosophy based on experiential learning that seems forgotten, if not forbidden, today. I see a huge opportunity to change the nature of our educational system.

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I’ve been a growing supporter of the Maker movement over the past couple of years and I hope that it’s starting to pick up steam in some places in American culture. At least it then has a chance to seep into schools.

I’ve always felt that EdTech is too screen-based and that the EdTech community needs to do better melding with the arts, science, math and technology (TechEd). The good news is that there are real and doable opportunities for schools and teachers to do just this within the Maker/DIY movement. Today.

The most important thing I have learned the past six years is that there’s so much more to educational technology than the Web 2.0, interactive whiteboards and video games. I think this movement illustrates what I’ve believed for some time now… that children of all ages be active and, not only engaged, but empowered through concrete, yet meaningful learning experiences.

Some Thoughts on Constructivism

I stumbled upon this Straight talk on constructivism post by Robert Talbert from 2008 this morning. I am a big believer in constructivism so I took interest right away. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about constructivism in education and I’m not sure his post helps to paint a clearer picture. Talbert, a math and computer science professor, writes:

“Constructivism, when used with the right kinds of students and in the right ways, can be quite effective. But it’s important to remember that not all students are ready for this, and not all material is taught effectively this way. When I teach geometry to junior and senior math majors, it’s almost entirely constructivist, because the process of mathematical investigation and discovery is precisely what I am trying to teach them (through the medium of Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry). But I’d be crazy to try constructivism at that level on, say, a precalculus class full of students who have little skill in and absolutely no taste for math at all. Those students aren’t dumb, but they need structure and guidance a lot more than they need the supposed thrill of mathematical discovery.”

What I think Talbert is missing here is that constructivism is not a classroom technique, it is a theory of learning, described as such in the link he provides in his post.  Keep in mind, he is writing about college students here and suggests college students are not ready for constructivist learning experiences. He states that “not all students are ready for [constructivist learning experiences].” While I can see this being true at this point in time, I don’t think this need be so.

I think it is fairly obvious that most teachers at the K-12 level are using traditional theories (i.e. – behaviorism or cognitivism) more than constructivist approaches to learning. Talbert suggests that if students have been “drilled” enough, that by college, they would be ready for constructivist approaches to learning.

Isn’t that what’s happening now?  Then why are not all students ready?

I believe the opposite is the most effective approach.  Constructivist learning environments and experiences can be set up in ways that students are, not just engaged, but empowered to acquire and refine necessary skills. The “drill and practice” approach to skills should come from the learner’s understanding that they are important, not because it will be good for them some future time that they cannot see or comprehend.

How does constructivism look in your schools?

Photo Credit: College of Education Constructivism by derekcx