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Steve Cavrak <[log in to unmask]>
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Tue, 22 Oct 1996 08:22:38 -0400
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Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 10, No. 351.
    Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)
      Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
        Information at

  [1]   From:    "David S. Bennahum" <[log in to unmask]>          
        From:    Wendell Piez <[log in to unmask]>                 
        Subject: (Fwd) MEME 2.13

meme: (pron. 'meem') A contagious idea that replicates  like a virus,
on from mind to mind. Memes function the same way genes and viruses do,
propagating through communication networks and face-to-face contact
people.  Root of the word "memetics," a field of study which postulates
that the meme is the basic unit of cultural evolution. Examples of memes
include melodies, icons, fashion statements and phrases.

MEME 2.13

In this issue:

                    o School's Out?  A conversation with Seymour Papert.

On Tuesday, October 15, I met Seymour Papert
( in the lobby
of a mid-town hotel in Manhattan, where we spent the morning
discussing children, computers and schools.  Professor Papert
teaches at the MIT Media Lab (, and
for most of his career he's pursued a mission to redefine how
children learn.

Educated at Cambridge University (, Papert
studied mathematics, and later went to the University of Geneva
( where he studied with Jean Piaget, whose
theories of education deeply influenced Papert.  Since the early
1960s, Papert has taught at MIT where he fused his interests in
mathematics, learning, and artificial intelligence.  In the
1980s thousands of children, including me, encountered Papert's
programming language, LOGO.

This week, Papert has published a new book, The Connected
Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap
(, which explores the gap
between parents and children when it comes to using computers.
We discussed the big questions -- the future of learning and
schools -- and whether we would still have teachers in the

David Bennahum: In 1980 you published a book titled Mindstorms:
Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas, which had a tremendous
influence on teachers and schools by giving them a conceptual
framework for how computers could be used in education.  This
week you've come out with a new book, The Connected Family:
Bridging the Digital Generation Gap, give me a sense of how the
landscape has altered in the intervening years.

Seymour Papert: The big shift is social rather than
technological.  In 1980 kids used computers in schools, and if
you wanted to talk about changing education, school was the
place to do it.  Now there are many more computers in homes than
schools, and there is more interesting innovation and
alternative learning taking place in homes than in schools.  The
transformation is in the kids.  They are the power that will
change schools.  They know a lot more than many teachers do --
certainly collectively they do.  Computers in the home is the
biggest source of change in education.

DB: Why is it an improvement that education might be happening
in the home rather than in the schools?  Why is that a cause for

SP: We have to step back to a bigger story.  If I think in terms
of my three books on this subject, when Mindstorms was written
there were barely any computers in schools.  Throughout the
1980s many schools got in the act, acquiring computers.  The
most important phenomenon I understood at that time was the
power of school, as an institution, to assimilate anything new
that came along.  School is like a living organism.  A foreign
body comes along -- the computer -- and the organism's immune
system and defense mechanism takes over.  So we saw a shift in
the 1980s.

        Before then computers were being used in exciting ways.
They were in the hands of visionary teachers who were trying to
use computers because they were dissatisfied with how schools
did things.  By the end of 1980s the larger number of computers
were under the control of the school bureaucracy and the school
as an institution.  There were still visionary teachers, but
they were being neutralized.  Previously teachers with a few
computers in the classroom were using them to move away from the
separation of subject matters, and the breakup of the day.

        When the administration takes over they make a special
room, and they put the computers in that room and they have a
computer period with a computer teacher.  Instead of becoming
something that undermines all these antiquated teachings of
school, computers became assimilated.  It is inherent in school,
not because teachers are bad or schools are bad, but in all
organisms that have come to a stable equilibrium state in the
world, that they have a tendency to preserve the inertia they
have.  So school turned what could be a revolutionary instrument
into essentially a conservative one.  School does not want to
radically change itself.  The power of computers is not to
improve school but to replace it with a different kind of

DB: The kind of learning that children do with computers you
have called "learning by doing", is that generally the
distinction here, that using a computer the child is able to
build a model and learn from seeing a complete system in action?
As opposed to learning by rote, or in fragments?

SP: Yes.  But it is incomplete.  I think any way of summarizing
this is an incomplete assessment.  It's like -- what's the
difference between a living thing and a dead thing?  Is it any
one particular characteristic?  I think that to put this in
perspective we should recognize that school has developed a very
particular approach to learning.  A child starts learning from
day one.  The learning is driven internally.  It comes from
personal interest.  It is often passionate.  It is not cut up
into fragments.  There is a long list of ways children learn.
You can see creative adults doing this too.  At the MIT Media
Lab you see this, or any research lab, music studio or creative
business enterprise -- people are learning what they need to
know in order to carry things out.  That is much more like the
way a pre-school child learns.  School developed a particular
artificial way of learning at a stage where knowledge
technologies probably made it impossible to do it any other way.

DB: What are other examples of old technologies, no longer
suited to education?

SP: The segregation of children by age is such an absurdity.  I
talked to a group of educators recently, and I said "Before I
talk to you let's put the 20 year old there, the 22 year olds
there, and so on."  Nobody would do that.  It is absurd.  We do
it for kids because of this fragmented way of handing out
knowledge in order to systematize it.  And you'd better divide
the day into periods, and the kids into grade levels.

DB: It's an industrial process.

SP: It is.  Many of these things are so associated with school
that it is hard for people to shake them off.  I give talks
about this sort of thing to educators and at the end they say,
"Well exactly how is the computer going to help me teach
fourth-grade math?"  And that's exactly the wrong question --
there's not going to be a "fourth-grade."  There's not going to
be a separate math class.  There's not going to be teaching.

DB: So what's left?  What do you have in this future?  What does
it look like?

SP: What it looks like in terms of lives of kids?

DB: Yes.

SP: The kids being involved in interesting projects,

DB: Do they go to school?  Are there places they go to?

SP: Do you mean, "Are they places they go to, or do they stay at

DB: Yes.

SP: Will these be called schools, I do not know.  Will they look
like schools as we've known them?  Very definitely not.

DB: Will they have teachers?  Will "teacher" still be a word
people use?

SP: Yes.  Will they have adult professionals to facilitate the
learning process?  Yes.  Will these teachers be people who are
in a privileged position as the ones who know and the source of
knowledge?  I do not think so.  Not at all.  They will have a
very different role.  Sensitive well-informed adults who
understand deeply about learning processes and social
interactions will be able to give advice.  They will be able to
spot that this kid has a problem, or this kid needs more
interesting challenges, or put pressure on them and make

DB: And the computer is the catalyst then.  It is the means by
which we get to this end?

SP: I would use the word "media."  I do not like the word
"catalyst." Computers are more than a catalyst.  It is a
material with which you can do much more interesting and varied
projects.  You can handle complexity like never before.  As a
society, if you think of what is involved in putting a space
shuttle in orbit, the complexity of doing this without computers
would have made it impossible.  At all levels of society we have
taken on projects vastly more complex thanks to computers, and
it trickles all the way down to kids.  Kids now are able to do
things on their own that are much more complex thanks to
computers.  So it is more than a catalyst.  It is the actual
instrument that makes it possible -- to search for knowledge.
Knowledge can be presented and accessible in many more varied

DB: Presumably it is up to human beings to use and shape the
computer in a fashion that supports learning.  There is nothing
innate about computers that would push people to learn this way.
After all, people have used computers to support bureaucratic
and hierarchical systems.

SP: Absolutely.  I think if you take, if you were to go and
count all the computers being used with the label "education,"
most of them are being used counter to this vision.

DB: What is the greatest misuse of computers that you have seen
in education?

SP: I think the most important is what we discussed before.
Here is this institution called school, and this new thing comes
along, the computer, and we say, "How is this going to change
school?"  We should not be surprised that in the end school
changes the computer.  It would be unnatural if school didn't.
Because school is a living, natural institution it is going to
do that.  So if the purpose of school is to keep itself going,
then it is using computers very well.  It is a use of computers
that is inevitably associated with this phase of development.
If you asked the question differently and said, "What is the
worst, most dangerous limitation of computers?", then it is the
assumption that everything will be the same and computers will
just help us do things better.  That is a disastrous assumption.

DB: The hope is that children who learn with an appropriate use
of computers become adults with a greater capacity to do what?
What's the benefit?

SP: We have to look at different kids differently.  The most
common element with all kids is that they start off as
enthusiastic learners, but by the time they have been in school
for a few years they have stopped being enthusiastic about
learning.  The learning instinct is strangled.  That makes their
lives poorer.  It makes society poorer.  It makes the economy
rigid and inflexible.  It makes for a more rigid society all
around.  For those kids computers could make a very big
difference by shaping education to fit their approach to
learning.  The kids who are already doing very well, who are
already going to turn out being successful, I do not know if
computers are going to make a deeper change in their overall
quality of life.  It is hard to say what level they will go to.

        The performance of kids in school is determined by
intrinsic limitations.  "This kid is not mathematically minded.
He does not have that kind of intelligence.  There is something
about that kid that is responsible for bad performance in
mathematics."  I think that is absurd. If you look at kids in
French classes in American schools few of them learn French.
But the kids in France have no trouble learning French.  Normal
human beings can learn mathematics to a much higher level than
we do in schools.  Now whether beyond that they might all be
Einsteins?  Presumably not.

DB: In your book you talk about personalization as key to the
way of learning you propose.  Is this a reflection of the
ability of computers to personalize learning, so that a student
you thought was a bad math student was really someone who just
needed to learn math in a different context than school was
prepared to deliver, and that computers can be flexible enough
to give that context.  Is that a fair interpretation?

SP: Yes.

DB: I have to confess that when I was 13 we got LOGO in our
school.  I learned to program in LOGO in 1981, and we had one of
these visionary teachers where we learned about programming and
computers, and how to model things.  I came back to my
high-school six months ago, and the computer room was completely
different.  The students were all using Apple Macintoshes, and
learning how to use computers the way a consumer learns to use a

SP: That is a profound shift.  There is no doubt that if you
look at the predominant uses of computers, that is what schools
are doing.  There are still a lot of visionary teachers that
have stuck to their way of doing things, but they are a
minority.  Conditions are ripe for things to become personalized
again.  One reason why schools could get away with this
trivialized stuff is that there weren't enough teachers who
understood computers.  If one teacher is really excited and
trying to do great things, he is limited to certain number of
students.  He cannot be there for all of them.  If schools want
to bring this kind of learning to everyone, they get caught in
bureaucratic problems.  It is much easier for them to say "We
will do keyboarding skills, load up Microsoft Word," or some
other program. But after awhile everyone gets beyond that.  The
new generation of kids, and of teachers--

DB: There is a generation of teachers now who have spent 10
years with computers--

SP: We are at an interesting time.  We are just beginning to get
this wave of people who took advantage of computers in college
and teacher's school, with computers taken for granted.  This
wave is now hitting the schools. At the same time the kids who
have grown up since babyhood with computers is also hitting the
schools now.  These two waves are coming in, and that will make
a huge difference.

DB: A huge difference in terms of schools accepting computers.
There is this internal dilemma, which is why, if schools are
headed for obsolescence, would they want to accelerate it?  Any
system is going to want to protect itself.

SP: We are seeing a new movement towards more progressive
schools and alternative schools.  We saw a lot of this in the
sixties, and it failed then because it did not have the
technological infrastructure to support itself.  They were
learning tie-dying, but they were not learning math and science.
My patent solution is just to find a million adults who love
kids and love learning and have them around.  That would do it
in the sixties. And of course it was impossible.  Now it is
possible with computers.

DB: The Internet as well?

SP: The Internet has to change.  As it is at the moment it can
only give limited support.  But if Internet is a code word for
connectivity then it is radical, a transformation.  One of our
graduate students at the Media Lab, Michelle Evard
(, is injecting
into a school environment communications connectivity.  It is an
inner-city Boston school, and she had kids work on long-term
projects.  The one that worked best was creating a video-game.
They spent four hours a week throughout the school year
developing their game, and in doing this they ran into lots of
problems.  The biggest obstacle was that many teachers could not
answer their questions.  The kids had difficulty getting access
to ideas.  Michelle's project was to create a communications
network, so kids could throw questions in there, with other kids
answering them.  At first it was full of flip answers, and then
it settled down into a solid state where a few kids really got
into the role of being consultants.  You can be in touch with
kids who did something similar last year or the year before.
Together they can give answers.  It has made a qualitative
difference in the development of these kids.  I can imagine that
on a global scale that other people interested in similar ideas
could create a collaborative learning community, compared with a
teacher handing out knowledge.

DB: But isn't there a role for teachers in telling truth,
especially in history.  History can be seen as a mass of
interpretation, and the teacher is essential, more than in math
or science, in pointing in the right direction.  For instance
the moral consequences of a war, or of genocide. If you go on
the Net searching for answers you could stumble across
information whose purpose was not truth but a political agenda.
How then could you filter?  Who would be the trusted authority?
For instance if you had to research the Nazi Holocaust and you
came across a White Supremacist site that denied the existence
of the Holocaust, how could a kid know this was an outright lie?

SP: I am not advocating spontaneous uncontrolled learning.  I
think as a society we have an obligation to pass on values.  I
think this is an important function.  I am sure there will be
professionals dealing with kids who will do this.  But that is a
very different function from the traditional teaching function.
This future teacher is acting like an advisor, maybe more like a
faculty advisor in a university.

DB: So these people are still with us.  We might call them
advisors or coaches, but not teachers.

SP: Teacher has this other function.  When you think of a
religious teacher -- Buddha was a teacher.  He was not a teacher
in terms of giving assignments or grading papers.  He was a
teacher in the sense that defended ideas and cultivated them,
and set an example for people.  That is more like the role model
of teacher I am thinking of for kids today.

DB: Is it fair to say that computers are better suited in
certain disciplines, like math and science, than others, such as
history or literature?  If you studied Chaucer, what value would
the computer bring? It would bring some, but it would be
severely less than in math or science, where those are about
modeling, building environments and testing hypotheses.

SP: If we look at what blocks the development of kids today that
is true. The computer is a more potent de-blocking agent in
relation to road-blocks we see in mathematics rather than
literature.  If fact, our world does provide multiple
perspectives into literature, much more so than in math. That is
a matter of how mathematics, versus say poetry, is reflected in
our culture.  Mathematics is presented as a narrow thing that if
you fall of the track it is very difficult to get back on and
continue.  Reading poetry there are so many different ways to do
so.  I think that explains the big difference between the
learning and teaching of mathematics versus literature in
schools.  So, yes, I think computers now have a more dramatic
effect in math and science.  But ultimately it opens up huge new
ideas and possibilities.  For example, being able to publish
changes your relationship to writing.  Desktop publishing, Web
publishing, gives you openings into how kids might see
literature in the future.  Greater use by kids of literature as
a model of how they themselves might create, write and express
themselves -- it helps them formulate their ideas and
sensitivities.  All that is further away from the immediate
roadblock now, but it is just as important.

DB: I think authorship is the great promise of computer
technology, especially computer networks.  It gives voice to
people who in the past were socially constrained not to speak.

SP: Those kids in Michelle's class are programming and grappling
with problems of how to express themselves in this new media.

DB: If I look back at my education, I see that I learned how to
program computers at a relatively young age for that time.  One
of the impacts that had on me was I tended to see things in
terms of systems, as systems of things.  So history might be
part of a larger system, and the question is what are the
inputs, what are the outputs?

SP: There is a set of ideas to which kids can get access because
of computers, like thinking in systems terms.  Ideas like
"feedback" and "adaptive systems" -- all these ideas were very
abstract in the way they were presented to small children before

DB: With computers you really get a feel for it.  Is that one of
the big intellectual shifts of this generation, a tendency to
see things as systems, interconnected.  People in the past used
to see history and the world differently.

SP: Many people did get there in the past, and understand
systems theory. But many more had a lot of trouble getting there
because it was hard to visualize.  In the context of computers
it is possible for ideas to be empowered, to be concretized, so
ideas like systems can be made accessible to many more people.
Whether the peaks go much higher or not, I am not sure.  I think
so, but from the point of view of mass education we do not have
to worry about that.  If we could get a much larger number of
people to get to the level where the best people currently
perform, we'd be doing very well.  I think most of the concepts
that really make a difference in our lives were there before
computers.  That does not mean that new ideas will not come from
computers.  It takes a certain amount of time before a culture
can absorb new ideas.  I think the idea of computation is one of
those.  And as an idea in our culture it is extremely young.

DB: Why this book now?  Why should people read The Connected

SP: I think "this book now" because we are at a point where the
locus of innovation and learning is moving from the school into
the home.  Computers coming into the home present an enormous
opportunity to create new forms of learning culture, and to
allow parents to participate in this change.  In the last few
years this has become possible.  This book is an invitation for
parents of children with computers to think about learning,
about the learning culture, and how it could change.  I noticed
that most parents accept the software industry's definition of
what makes a computer educational.  Often I think that
definition is retrograde, pushing down to lower levels the
schooling model.  This book might stimulate a lot of parents to
see computers in a new way.

        I think of this book as presenting options.  If we can
get parents to not take for granted what they think kids can do
with computers, or what kids can learn, that could be the
biggest force for change in society.

The contents of MEME are (c) by David S. Bennahum.  Pass on the
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*non-commercial* use. Just be sure to keep this signature file
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--- End of forwarded mail from [log in to unmask] (David S. Bennahum)
-- End of forwarded mail from [log in to unmask] (Hope Greenberg)