Sunday, September 14, 2008

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Seymour Papert: Visions of Turtles Danced in His Head
by Lillian C. Spina-Caza

Who is Seymour Papert? A Brief Bio

“In my vision the child programs the computer and, in doing so, both acquires a sense of mastery over a piece of the most modern and powerful technology and establishes an intimate contact with some of the deepest ideas from science, from mathematics, and for the art of intellectual model building” -- Seymour Papert, Mindstorms (5).

“Papert sees the computer presence as a potential agent for changing not only how we do things but also how we grow up thinking about doing things” – Cynthia Solomon writing about Papert in Computer Environments for Children (112).

It is impossible for me not to regard Seymour Papert as a jolly-Old-Saint-Nick sort of fellow. It isn’t just the photographs I have come across of Papert (like the one above), with his round, red cheeks and full beard, which inspire this association. Although I could argue there truly is an uncanny resemblance (have you seen the original Miracle on 34th Street)? No, it is Papert’s 40-year career dedicated to enriching the intellectual lives of children that makes this association possible. Papert’s contributions to the field of HCI and educational technology are significant because of his unwavering belief in the abilities of all children to learn. From the start, he did not view children as passive consumers of technology, but as active producers of knowledge while interacting with computer technology. “In the LOGO environment…[t]he child programs the computer. And in teaching the computer how to think, children embark on an exploration about how they themselves think…Thinking about thinking turns the child into an epistemologist, an experience not even shared by most adults” (Papert, 1980, 11).

According to his biography, available at The Learning Barn Seymour Papert Institute website, Papert -- a native of South Africa and an anti-apartheid activist in the early 1950’s – joined the faculty of Witwaterstrand University when he was in his twenties. Between 1954 and 1958, Papert conducted mathematical research at England’s Cambridge University and the Institut Henri Poincare in Paris. It was around this time he began to make the connections between mathematics and the fields of artificial intelligence and cognitive science which led to an invitation by Jean Piaget to join his Centre d’Epistemologie Genetique in Geneva, where Papert devoted four years to studying how children learn (Papert Biography, ¶2).

In 1964, Papert was invited to MIT as a research associate, was eventually made Professor of Mathematics and later became Professor of Learning Research. In the late 1960s, Papert worked with Wallace Feurzeig’s Logo programming language – the first programming language designed for children – extending it to include “ ‘turtle graphics,’ in which kids were able to learn geometric concepts by moving a ‘turtle’ around the screen” (Bruckman, et. al, 804). The underpinnings of Papert’s Logo work were his convictions that children learn best by doing. Computers provided a dynamic framework where “processes can be displayed and played with, processes that act on and with numbers” (Solomon, 118).

In Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas (1980), a seminal work on how children learn, Papert writes, “I take from Jean Piaget a model of children as builders of their own intellectual structures. Children seem to be innately gifted learners, acquiring before they go to school a vast quantity of knowledge by a process I call ‘Piagetian Learning,’ or learning without being taught’” (7). Piaget’s constructivist theory, now called discovery learning, influenced Papert’s constructionist principle which refers to “everything that has to do with making things and especially to do with learning by making, an idea that includes, but goes far beyond the idea of learning by doing” (Papert, 1999,viii). Both Piaget’s and Papert’s concepts of how children learn and think have been influential in shaping educational policy over the past several decades.

At the Nexus of Education Reform and Advances in HCI

Papert happened to be working at a pivotal point in both the history of computers and education. The 1960s and 1970s saw a "deschooling movement" influenced by education critics who began to express “concerns that public schools were preaching alien values, failing to adequately educate children, or were adopting unhealthy approaches to child development” (Home-Schooling, ¶4). As a result, alternative, child-centered schooling emerged as a grassroots revolution and expanded to include a variety of available educational choices, from home-schooling to religious and private not-for-profit schools, technological schools, and alternative public magnet, and charter schools. “The concept of alternative schooling, which first emerged as a radical idea on the fringe of public education, evolved to a mainstream approach found in almost every community in the United States and increasingly throughout the world” (Alternative-Schooling, ¶ 13). Both Papert and Piaget were working at a time when new ideas and changes were evolving in modern education. Numerous developments occurring in the field of computer science at the time Papert came to MIT, also helped shape his work.

The early 1960s onward saw an “outpouring of ideas and systems tied to the newly realized potential of computers” (Gruin, 4). IPTO funding from the United States government was being used by researchers like J.C.R. Licklider, Marvin Minsky, and John McCarthy to expand computer science departments, develop the field of Artificial Intelligence, and conceive of the Internet (Gruin, 4). Wesley Clark, who worked with Licklider, and was instrumental in building the TX-0 and TX-2 at MIT’s Lincoln Labs, put Boston on the map as center of computer research (Gruin, 5). Ivan Sutherland, whose 1963 PhD thesis describing the Sketchpad system built on the TX-2 platform with the goal of “making computers ‘more approachable’ ”(Gruin, 5). Technological developments such as Sketchpad, which launched the field of computer graphics, would be instrumental to Papert’s work. Others visionaries who made contributions to and advanced the field of HCI like Douglas Engelbart, who had a conceptual framework for the augmentation of man’s intellect and supported and inspired programmers and engineers (Gruin, 5), paved the way for the work that Papert and others would contribute to the field.

Though he is probably best known for the development of Logo, Papert was instrumental in shaping child-computer interactions by inspiring others to think differently about computers. For example, his work with children and Logo led to the design of a variety of programming languages intended for children. Papert is also credited with inspiring Alan Kay, a pioneer of object-oriented programming languages and developer of the concept of modern personal computing, to design the Dynabook, laptop personal computer for children (Kay, ¶9). More recently, both Kay and Papert have been involved with Nicholas Negroponte’s and Joe Jacobson’s One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Association, a not-for-profit corporation with the mission of forcing the price of laptops down to a level that would make “one laptop per child” feasible on a global scale (Papert Biography, ¶7) .

Papert’s Constructionist Views: Children as Builders

Not only renowned in the field of computer science, Papert was also first and foremost an experienced mathematician with a theory about how children learn – a theory influenced by his early work with Swiss philosopher and psychologist Jean Piaget. According to Cynthia Solomon, one of Papert’s former MIT colleagues and author of Computer Environments for Children, “Piaget’s research provided Papert with a large body of successful examples describing children’s learning without explicit teaching and curricula. Papert sees Piaget as ‘the theorist of what children can learn by themselves without the intervention of educators’ (Papert 1980d. p.994)” (Solomon, 111).

Papert himself describes one of Piaget’s most important contributions to modern education was his belief that “that children are not empty vessels to be filled with knowledge (as traditional pedagogical theory has it), but active builders of knowledge—little scientists who are constantly creating and testing their own theories of the world” (Papert, 1999). Inspired by Piaget’s work, Papert came to view learning as a constructive process. As Solomon explains:

He [Papert] believes that one of Piaget’s most important contributions is not that there are stages of development but that people possess different theories about the worlds. Children’s theories contrast sharply with adult theories. Piaget showed that even babies have theories, which are modified as the children grow. For Papert, the process by which these theories are transformed is a constructivist one. Children build their own intellectual structures. They use readily available materials within their own cultures (Solomon, 103).

The work of Piaget and other mathematicians in the 1960s offered alternative ways to the formal Principia Mathematic approach to teaching mathematics that reduced all math to logic and emphasized formula. Piaget’s work revealed logic is not fundamental but is developed over time as children interact with the world. French mathematician Nikolas Bourbaki supported the point of view that “number is not a fundamental idea but is instead constructed; the structures are built up from other structures and, for Piaget, from experiences with the immediate environment and culture” (Solomon, 117).

Papert not only built upon the work of Piaget and Bourbaki, but also that of other mathematicians such as Robert B. Davis who views learning as discovery, drawn from a child’s every day experiences, and that of Tom Dwyer who maintains creating conditions favorable to exploration lead to discovery and effective learning. Dwyer sees the computer as an expressive medium and as a source of inspiration to teachers and students, as well as a means by which students can engage in solo learning (Solomon, 11). Papert also imagines the computer as an expressive medium, a carrier of powerful ideas, and an intellectual agent in a child-centered, child directed environment (Solomon, 131).

Mathland as Metaphor

In Mindstorms, Papert presents two fundamental ideas: first, computers can be designed in such a way that learning to communicate with them is a natural process akin to learning French while living in France, and second, learning to communicate with a computer may change the way other learning takes place (6). Papert explains:

We are learning how to make computers with which children love to communicate. When this communication occurs, children learn mathematics as a natural language. Moreover, mathematical communication and alphabetic communication are thereby both transformed from the alien and therefore difficult things they are for most children into natural and therefore easy ones. The idea of ‘talking mathematics’ to a computer can be generalized to a view of learning mathematics in ‘Mathland’; that is to say, in a context which is to learning mathematics to what living in France is to learning French (6).

The mathland metaphor for Papert, becomes a way to question deep-seated assumptions about human abilities (6) and to challenge the social processes that contribute to the construction of ideas about what children can learn, how they learn it, and when. “A central idea behind our learning environments was that children would be able to use powerful ideas from mathematics and science as instruments of personal power” (212). Although early research did not shore up the idea that computer programming improves general cognitive skills, Papert’s work has inspired the development of numerous educational or construction kits designed to appeal to a user’s interests and experiences (Bruckman et. al, 2008).

Papert as Re-constructivist

On December 5, 2006, while attending the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction at Hanoi Technology University in Vietnam, Papert was struck by a motorcycle and suffered severe brain injuries. He fell into a coma and needed two brain surgeries, after which he spent more than two years in and out of hospitals dealing with several complications resulting from the accident. According to the The Learning Barn Seymour Papert Institute website, updated last in March of 2008, Papert’s health has been steadily improving and on February 29, Papert celebrated his 80th birthday.

He looks wonderful, is in good physical health and is back to his normal weight… He is slowly getting back to the computer, enjoys watching videos of his lectures and seminars and is beginning to look at notes from his unfinished book… Doctors say that eventual recovery from such serious brain injuries takes one to two full years and judge that because of the complications he suffered this time must be counted from May 2007 (Papert Institute, ¶ 20).

May 2009 is still several months away, and though I do not presume to guess what’s on Papert’s mind, it is my hope that visions of computers and kids are dancing in his head and that, perhaps, one day he will be able to share these ideas and more about how to “benefit the minds and lives of the children of the world” with the rest of us (Papert Institute, ¶ 20).

Works Cited:
Alternative-Schooling. “International Alternative Schools,” (¶ 13). Available at [2008, September 14]
Bruckman, A., Bandlow, A. & Forte, A. (2008). HCI for Kids. In A. Sears and J.A. Jacko (Eds.), The Human-
Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, evolving technologies and emerging applications (pp.
804-805). NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Grudin, J. (2008). A Moving Target: The Evolution of HCI. In A. Sears and J.A. Jacko (Eds.), The Human-
Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, evolving technologies and emerging applications (pp. 4-
5). NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Home-Schooling. History. Available at
[2008, September 14]
Ishii, H. (2008). Tangible User Interfaces. In A. Sears and J.A. Jacko (Eds.), The Human-Computer Interaction
Handbook: Fundamentals, evolving technologies and emerging applications
(p.477) NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Lazzaro, N. (2008). Why We Play: Affect and the Fun of Games. In A. Sears and J.A. Jacko (Eds.), The
Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, evolving technologies and emerging
applications (p. 686). NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Sutcliffe, A. (2008). Multimedia User Interface Design. In A. Sears and J.A. Jacko (Eds.), The Human-
Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, evolving technologies and emerging applications (p.
396). NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Thomas, J.C., & Richards, J.T. (2008). Achieving Psychology Simplicity. In A. Sears and J.A. Jacko
(Eds.), The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, evolving technologies and emerging
applications (p. 498). NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Zaphiris, P., Siang Ang, C. & Laghos, A. (2008). Online Communities. In A. Sears and J.A. Jacko
(Eds.), The Human-Computer Interaction Handbook: Fundamentals, evolving technologies and emerging
applications (p. 614). NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Papert, S. (1999). Introduction: What is Logo? And Who Needs It? In Logo Philosophy and Implementation
Available at [2008, September 14]
Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. NY: Basic Books, Inc. Papert, S. (1999, March 29). Papert on Piaget. In Time "The Century’s Greatest Minds," (p. 105). Available at [2008, September 13]
Solomon, C. (1986). Computer Environments for Children. Cambridge: MIT Press.
The Learning Barn Seymour Papert Institute. Report on Seymour Papert’s Condition: The History (¶ 20).
Available [2008, September 13]
The Learning Barn Seymour Papert Institute. Seymour Papert Biography (¶4). Available at [2008, September 13]
Viewpoints Research Institute. Dr. Alan Kay. (¶1 ). Available at
[2008, September 13]

For more information and readings by Seymour Papert visit his website at or visit The Learning Barn Seymour Papert Institute

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