Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas

Okay, I'll admit it. Despite working on education technologies for several years, I never got around to reading Seymour Papert's Mindstorms, which was generally perceived as a bible by at least some part of the edtech universe. Over the holidays, I finally fixed my omission, and I'm glad I did.

The good

Let's start with the good. The book includes some great ideas. The foreword, written by Mitchel Resnick, the LEGO Papert Professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Lab, does a great job of summarizing the key principles:

Projects. People learn to solve problems (and learn new concepts and strategies) most effectively while they are actively engaged in meaningful projects. Too often, schools start by teaching concepts to students, and only then give students a chance to work on projects. Seymour argued it is best for children to learn new ideas through working on projects, not before working on the projects.

Passion. Seymour knew that people will work longer and harder, and make deeper connections to ideas, when they're working on projects that they're passionate about. Seymour once said: "Education has very little to do with explanation, it has to do with engagement, with falling in love with the material."

Peers. Seymour gives the example of Samba schools in Brazil, where people learn from and with their peers, rather than from teachers. This, in some sense, did hint at what was to come with today's socially networked learning communities.

Play. Seymour referred to play as "hard fun". He recognized that children don't want things to be easy. They're willing to work very hard on things that they find meaningful.

The not answered

After finishing the book, I was left wondering about two main questions:

1) Why are computers the best way to put the foregoing into practice? 

Unfortunately, Seymour never really quite explains why he thought computers were the best way to put these principles into practice. There are strong arguments to be made for this – for example, that it's too hard to train enough teachers to teach this way, or that you can only teach this way in small groups, and we are not willing to pay for enough teachers to do that, so we need computers to backfill that gap. However, the book doesn't say much on this topic. I found myself wanting to know to what extent Seymour thought that computers were less effective but much more affordable private tutors vs just being better period, at least for certain teaching tasks.

2) What did Seymour think about the impact of the rest of the computer revolution on education?

Seymour's focus is clearly on immersive learning environments – his key example is teaching math and physics by having students control and program an imaginary turtle moving through space. But what did he think about everything else that computers would enable? And more specifically, what would he think about where we are today? Excited? Disappointed?

  • On the one hand, despite incredible advancements in technology, very few students learn math and physics via programming today. In that sense, computers had relatively little impact. 
  • On the other hand, one could argue that that what really enabled "projects, passion, peers, and play" was not learning how to program computers, but simply using computers and the internet in particular for two things: (1) accessing an infinite library of great content, for free (by teachers who inspired passion, and provided enough guidance to enable projects), and (2) talking to other people about it (including peers), which made it more like play.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find any talks or articles by Papert where he expressed how he felt about where we ended up by 2005, 2010, or 2015, before his passing in 2016. If you happen to know of some, please let me know.