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.


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


YouTube Playlist

Vimeo Search – Seymour Papert


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.


Spoiling the Bunch

Apple, Inc. just confirmed Dr. Papert’s opening paragraph from Teaching Children Thinking.

“The phrase “technology and education” usually means inventing new gadgets to teach the same old stuff in a thinly disguised version of the same old way. Moreover, if the gadgets are computers, the same old teaching becomes incredibly more expensive and biased towards its dullest parts, namely the kind of rote learning in which measurable results can be obtained by treating the children like pigeons in a Skinner box.”

– Seymour Papert <strike(1980)(1970)*

Apple’s Classroom App

Apple is on the wrong side of history with its Classroom App. Everything about the app screams distrust. It’s heavy on content delivery (as if learners don’t construct knowledge), control (did I say you could tap that icon?), management (apparently, computer literacy is dead), locking out students (Johnny went to the Wiki one too many times), and shared devices (let’s call it collaboration!). Read the Getting Started with Classroom, it’s all there.

Alfie Kohn put forth a compelling case for being skeptical about announcements like this one in his post about The Overselling of EdTech:

There’s a jump-on-the-bandwagon feel to how districts are pouring money into computers and software programs – money that’s badly needed for, say, hiring teachers. But even if ed tech were adopted as thoughtfully as its proponents claim, we’re still left with deep reasons to be concerned about the outmoded model of teaching that it helps to preserve — or at least fails to help us move beyond. To be committed to meaningful learning requires us to view testimonials for technology with a terabyte’s worth of skepticism.

The less we trust students the fewer opportunities they have to develop the very agency over their own learning that we aspire for them. Our skeptical eye is much needed in these days of edu-preneurship, edtech startups and the dreamy influence of Silicon Valley giants.

*UPDATED: Gary Stager pointed out (below) that the quote is from 1970 though the paper I cited is from 1980. This further emphasizes that Apple and most other computer hardware/software companies don’t know history and continue to ignore research on learning.

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.

Hindsight may be 20/200

Wisdom is both foresight and hindsight.  Papert et. al, possessed tremendous foresight that never ceases to amaze me. I’m also amazed at the current lack of hindsight for this very work…

Wisdom is both foresight and hindsight.  Papert et. al, possessed tremendous foresight that never ceases to amaze me. I’m also amazed at the current lack of hindsight for this very work…

“We were sure that when computers became as common as pencils (which we knew would happen) education would change as fast and as deeply as the transformations through which we were living in civil rights and social and sexual relations. I still think this will happen even though the time needed is turning out to be a little longer than we imagined and the process more complex. When it does happen it will use the ideas that we worked so hard to develop back then.”

The Daily Papert, November 14, 2011
from You Can’t Think About Thinking Without Thinking About Thinking About Something