I’m in the middle of a book writing project that I’m really excited about. It’s going well so far, and like with the best projects you ever do, you learn as much as you might get or teach out of the process.
The book and thinking about how children interact with technology got me to pick up Mindstorms by Seymour Papert again today. It was originally published back in the 1980’s, but what it has to say about learning and the process of learning is priceless.
Part of the joy of the book is having heard great stories about Dr. Papert from the always fascinating Gary Stager at past Educon conferences. Before even picking up the book, I knew fascinating facts about Dr. Papert, such as he studied under Piaget; he grew up in South Africa and was good friends with Nelson Mandela; he co-founded MIT’s Artificial Intelligence and Media labs. He developed the Logo programming language which is behind Lego Mindstorms. Dr. Papert has also worked with Nicholas Negraponte on the One Laptop per Child Project, making him a little bit like the most famous man in education who no one has really ever heard of.
The idea that struck me from reading through Mindstorms is that computers, as a learning tool, open up the most possibilities when we recognize them for what they are- new language systems. We’re no longer limited to just human based languages and grammar, but there’s a whole new world kids can explore and control with computers. Moreover, because of the way programming itself is structured, kids often need to learn how to “debug” programs. Instead of just repeating the same actions over and over again, hoping for different results, “debugging” requires that we “chunk” a problem out into smaller parts (subroutines) in order to figure out where the larger problem lies, and in order to fix it. Similarly, in real life, often we need to take the same analytical, step by step view of what’s not working when we mess up a recipe, or keep slicing the golf ball, or annoy our spouse, looking for the smaller part of the equation that leads to the bigger picture failure. Being able to use all the information at our fingertips to solve problems big and small, and knowing where to start searching for the “bug” in the machine are crucial skills for every kid to have. Sure, they may not need to program in Logo for the rest of their lives or careers, but they do need to learn the problem-solving framework they learn through getting legos or graphics on a screen to do exactly what they want them to do.
Creativity and Problem Solving is the key.
Here are some great videos that will help introduce you to the magic of Dr. Papert and the way education needs to evolve and change:
Papert talking about thinking, Piaget and more- How do we see ourselves in relation to the world?
A description of Papert’s life and constructivism: