Seymour Papert and learning to learn/think
- I wrote this for another group. Perhaps it will spark ideas. Andrius
Seymour Papert's work is popular in Lithuania. I'm glad that you've
inspired me to learn more how remarkable he is. Still, I think we're
just in the early days of "constructionist" learning, as he called it.
I'm curious why you focus on teaching kids rather than adults to
learn/think. I feel as if there are two camps:
* People who want to teach children. They consider it the optimal age
to teach because it keeps children out of trouble, gives them something
to do, and most adults aren't teachable, especially if they haven't been
taught as children, or they aren't competent or interested to teach or
encourage their children.
* People who want to teach adults. They consider it the optimal age
because adults can learn from each other as (possible) equals (or
unequals), the learning can be voluntary, and it can develop a shared
culture. Whereas children often don't need to be taught, they can learn
many things haphazardly, almost automatically, and they are ultimately
influenced by adults who are interested (or not) in learning.
I'm strongly in the second camp, mostly because I like to learn myself
and I want to share what I'm learning, but from Minciu Sodas I know
dedicated people in the first camp, like Edward Cherlin (advocate of
OLPC and Sugar).
Papert, a mathematician, worked with developmental psychologist Jean
Piaget from 1958 to 1963
Piaget did many original experiments that made clear how children of
different ages rely on internal models for judging, for example, which
container holds more water, (say, the taller one), and that these models
grow more sophisticated in predictable ways. "Individual learners
construct mental models to understand the world around them". See
Norman Anderson's information integration theory for a rigorous critique
of Piaget's ideas and results (notably his belief that children can't
integrate concepts), pg. 202, "A Functional Theory of Cognition".
Papert developed "constructionist" learning:
"learning can happen most effectively when people are active in making
tangible objects in the real world"
* "learning as a reconstruction rather than as a transmission of knowledge"
* "learning is most effective when part of an activity the learner
experiences as constructing a meaningful product"
which is related to John Dewey and "experiential education", where
experience is central, there is interaction (internal needs/goals of a
person) and continuity (from experience to experience).
Papert was a proponent of bringing IT to the classrooms. He developed
the Logo programming language (for writing simple programs to manipulate
a Turtle on a screen, drawing pictures, thereby learn math, etc.) He
wrote "Mindstorms: Children Computers and Powerful Ideas" (1980). Lego
Mindstorms were named after the book. His Epistemology and Learning
Research Group was a forerunner of the MIT Media Lab. He influenced
Alan Kay, who led the team that developed Smalltalk at Xerox PARC, in
part for constructionist learning, and who later created Squeak. Papert
was hurt badly in an accident in 2006.
"Some of the most crucial steps in mental growth are based not simply on
acquiring new skills, but on acquiring new administrative ways to use
what one already knows". "Papert's principle" described in Marvin
Minsky's "Society of the Mind":
Edith Ackermann's paper seems like a good comparison of Piaget's and
In 1997, I moved to Lithuania and met Kestas Augutis, a hermit living in
a swamp, but teaching kids computers (DOS, 286s, 386s) at the local
school. The "Mindstorms" book had been translated into Lithuania, and
the Logo language was and is popular:
Kestas had noteworthy visions of education, including that every child
should write three books:
* an encyclopedia, organized as a network
* a thesaurus, organized as a hierarchy
* a chronicle, organized as a sequence
These three books would be the outcome of the child's education, would
show that they were ready for the world, and would be what they would
build on throughout their life. He also thought every child should help
build a house, as he did with his father. Kestas died in 1998 at the
age of 43.
I liked his "three books" idea and, for my first project, I tried to
write software for organizing thoughts in those three ways. Then I
learned about TheBrain and MindManager and realized that there was a
need for an import/export format (or modeling language) for getting
collections of thoughts in and out of such tools. That led to Mindset
http://www.ms.lt/mindset.html in 2001. (I was told by HP Bristol Labs
that it was 10 years too early, but now in the age of Twitter, it might
I made a list of examples to check whether information gets organized in
sequences, hierarchies and networks, and surprisingly, I found out that
it never does! Instead, it gets organized in pairs of these
structures. For example, a sequence of historical events quickly
becomes unwieldy and so it is reorganized into a hierarchy and becomes a
"chronicle". I observed six types:
* chronicle: sequence -> hierarchy
* evolution: hierarchy -> sequence
* catalog: hierarchy -> network
* atlas: network -> hierarchy
* canon: sequence -> network
* tour: network -> sequence
Is that a good start? Perhaps you can add some key ideas?
I'm very active in trying to understand how we figure things out,
which is a key but neglected part of learning and thinking. It seems
that we are still in very early days to teach people how to learn and
Children are likely operating on an implicit approach that is better
than anything we might explicitly teach them about learning. Compare
their natural language acquisition skills and our educational methods
for teaching language (or vision or faith or ...?)
I'm trying to do this from scratch. For example, what's worth
teaching? Last year I decided that what's worth teaching is right and
wrong. Reading, writing (if they are worthwhile) help us care about
others. Mathematics (if it is worthwhile) builds models which are to
some extent valid, and at some point invalid, and perhaps that helps us
appreciate the relationship of system and spirit. I still don't know.
Who knows? I'm working on my math ideas here:
Who dares to teach children? I prefer to experiment on myself.
Who would like to learn about learning? along with me?