The Children’s Machine

Here is an audio track to accompany this post, if you like: luminous-rain
Music courtesy of Kevin MacLeod

My recent purchase of an XO laptop moved me to finally dip into the writing of Seymour Papert and his often-referenced book, The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School In The Age Of The Computer. Being in the midst of lots of reading for the administration classes I’m taking, I still found it a challenge to get into the academic and wordy mind of Papert. This is definitely a book that will need re-reading (and is well worth it).

Let’s start with a few bigger-picuture ideas I took from the book:

  • It was written over 15 years ago (1993), but the concepts and challenges presented are as fresh as ever. I often found myself in agreement with Papert’s thoughts, only to realize how long ago he made them. For example, when he references “…the powerful contribution of the new technologies…is the creation of personal media capable of supporting a wide range of intellectual styles,” what was on his mind? 1993 was long before Web 2.0 (and a lot of Web 1.0), smart phones and iPods. We are only beginning to realize the power of these new technologies.
  • I particularly enjoy the focus on learning as a distinct, enjoyable activity, rather than something to get done (Yearners vs. Schoolers, chapter 1; A Word for Learning, chapter 5). Papert talks about how real-life learning is a process of discovery based on need. As we engage deeper into learning about things that are important to us, the new knowledge “sticks,” adding to previous knowledge. I like this analogy, as it resonates with how I feel I increase my technology knowledge. As I am exposed to new ideas or concepts, I can categorize them based on prior knowledge, and call on them as needed. I always enjoy going to technology workshops, even beginner workshops, because there is always some new aspect or interpretation that I can add to my own knowledge library. Papert challenges the traditional conept of school as a place that disseminates knowledge to become one that promotes discovery of it.
  • No big surprise here, but Papert explicitly explains that using the computer a a knowledge machine most likely will not increase scores on high-stakes tests. It will produce creative thinkers with a personal relationship to significant concepts and content. It is almost funny (or sad) that his responses in 1993 were to the America 2000 initiative. 15 years later, we now call it No Child Left Behind.
  • Papert makes a case that perhaps reading and writing should no longer be the first way in which children become knowledge literate. I have a REALLY hard time with that thought – but when people use video sites such as YouTube to learn, it makes one pause and think. I sure wish there were an audio or video version of the book to help me get my head more around it…

A quote from the book that I feel sums up Papert’s thesis, and most of his work in educational computing, is as follows:

“[Computers] should serve children as instruments to work with and to think with, as the means to carry out projects, the source of concepts to think new ideas.”

Logo is the programming language he created, and is the central topic of discussion throughout the book to demonstrate his beliefs. Logo is not about making a turtle move around the screen; it is about making students think about their learning.

Flashback to my high school days when I had my brand new Commodore 64 on the dining room table (you can now do the math on my age…). I sat there with the cassette drive, typing “Load, *8” and waiting 10 minutes for a program to get into memory so I could run it. I used the book on Basic to write a 60 line program that added a few numbers together. I thought to myself, “I’m not going to be a computer programmer – I’m going to be a computer user.” This appears to fly in the face of Papert’s view of the machine as learning agent.

Fast forward to 2009 – I regularly edit the code in the template that this blog is based on to make it look like I want it to. I just finished editing the Wikipedia article on the OLPC XO-1 to include a reference to Papert’s book. I looked at the code for other parts of the entry to figure out how on earth to make the correct syntax for the entry. What happened? I moved from a user to a programmer – not a programmer in the true sense, but the code to interpret in blogging software or wiki software is far more complex that the Basic language I shunned many years ago. The difference is in the product – while it was not worth the time to spend hours writing code to add some numbers, it is worth spending time when the results are far more satisfying. To take the quote from WordPress, “Code is Poetry.”

I’m just beginning to understand the impact of Papert’s writing, and how it affects me personally and children (and schools) overall. One thing is for sure – as we look around at the XO, netbooks, ultra-mobile PCs, smart phones, etc. – The Children’s Machine is here. What are we going to do with it?