Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer

by Seymour Papert, 1993
Basic Books, New York

Children, computers, and learning: these are the themes Papert weaves together in The Children's Machine. According to Papert, we are entering the "age of learning" during which time the "competitive ability is the ability to learn". It is the revolution in technology that has simultaneously brought about the need for improvements in learning as well as providing the opportunity to improve "learning environments". New technologies will enhance learning particularly for children through "the creation of personal media capable of supporting a wide range of intellectual styles".

Unfortunately however, as Papert concludes, this prophesy for the future of learning faces one major obstacle: schools. Education, as he sees it "remains largely committed to the educational philosophy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries" and attempts to "impose a single way of knowing on everyone". Tests, "segregation by age", teachers as technicians who mould passive minds, and an emphasis on reading as the "essential route to knowledge" are the prime characteristics of today's education system. Schools use a "Gothic Cathedral model of learning" with the "knowledge architect who will specify a plan (...) for the placement of 'knowledge bricks' in childrens' minds". Knowledge is transmitted "through a pipeline from teacher to student" and is "treated like money, to be put away in a bank for the future". Schools practise discrimination and actually impede learning by emphasizing "abstract-formal knowledge" and by using an "epistemology of precision" that insists on students being "precisely right" and that considers knowledge inferior if it lacks precision.

Papert's philosophy of learning contrasts sharply with his depiction of schools' epistemology. According to Papert, schools should favour a more "partial", "qualitative", "interconnected" "personal", "concrete", "intuitive" "nonformalized" way of knowing. He draws on the field of Cybernetics with its epistemology of "managed vagueness" that considers "ways to make the best use of limited knowledge". "Bricolage" or tinkering is the idea he evokes to describe an image of "improvisational" learning with "self-directed activities" that ressemble play and that simulate "the way children learn in non-school settings".

Papert uses the term "contructionism" to brand his favoured approach to learning. "Constructionism is built on the assumption that children will do best by finding ("fishing") for themselves the specific knowledge they need. Organized or informal education can help most by making sure they are supported morally, psychologically, materially, and intellectually in their efforts." (p.139) As such, "the goal is to teach in such a way as to produce the most learning for the least teaching".

Constructionism differs from constructivism in that "it looks more closely than other educational -isms at the idea of mental construction. It attaches special importance to the role of constructions in the world as a support for those in the head, thereby becoming less of a purely mentalist doctrine."(p.143) As examples of constructionist learning activities, Papert refers, amongst others, to measuring quantities while making a cake, building with Lego or working with the computer programming language LOGO developed specifically by Papert and collegues for educational use.

Papert's philosophy of learning and his constructionist approach rely on the computer for realization. He posits that the computer, and particularly, its future development, will change "children's relationship with knowledge" producing a revolution comparable to that of the "advent of printing and writing". He imagines a machine he refers to as "The Knowledge Machine" which would allow children a rich exploration of the world. Primitive examples of this Knowledge Machine would include "interactive video", "electronic books" and "virtual reality"

While the computer offers "new opportunites to craft alternatives", moving from the present epistemology and approach in schools will, in Papert's view, require "megachange". "Little schools", involvement of community, encouragement of educational "diversity", decentralization, fostering of personal teaching styles, and the involvement of parents, teachers and students: these are to be the prime ingredients of change to embark on the revolution necessary to move into "the age of learning".

Writings on the theme of educational reform are abundant and Papert is not the first to link computer use with educational reform. Even his critique of the present educational system echoes the criticisms of the behavourist/objectivist approach with which we are well familiar. What makes Papert's perspective unique and valuable however, is his insistence on focusing on epistemology and on a theory of learning as the starting point for educational reform. In this sense, educational reform, Papert style will indeed require a revolution- a revolution in thinking

Whether or not Papert's Knowledge Machine or his little schools become a reality will constitute less of an imperative in terms of change than will our ability to reconceptualize learning. Rethinking our conceptions of learning to accommodate Papert's perspective will require relinquishing some of the control and formalization that we insist on building into education. Relinquishing control may prove challenging given that change in education at the turn of the millennium appears to be driven more by economic imperatives than by pedagogical or philosophical concerns. Increasing demands for accountability will likely lead to more testing, more top-down planning and to a curriculum-driven style of schooling - exactly that which Papert believes we need less of.

Rethinking our theory of learning and of knowledge may well be the best way to reform education. Ironically, the best way is often the more arduous. Reform has traditionally focused on changing the curriculum, adopting alternative methods or new tools. Yet Papert's reform looks beyond this superficial level and demands fundamentally rethinking our role as educators, rethinking how we behave, what we believe about knowledge and learning, and what we do. In this sense, the revolution he calls for is a very personal one. It requires not so much that schools change but that we, as educators, teachers and parents, change. Essentially, this is the most important lesson to be learned from The Children's Machine.


Top of Page| Entrance to Site| Introduction| Technopoly| The End of Education| The Children's Machine Version Franšaise| Things That Make us Smart|The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design|The Gutenberg Elegies|Being Digital| School's Out |Synthesis|
This page was produced by Elizabeth Murphy, Fall, 1996.