Saturday, July 12, 2008

Seymour Papert

Today's Boston Globe has an article on Seymour Papert's attempt to recover from a severe brain injury. Papert has been one of the major figures in educational circles since the early 60's.

Photo from the Boston Globe of Papert at his home in Maine.

In December 2006 Ed Notes reported on the accident Papert suffered in Hanoi that put him in a coma. Since then we received reports on his recovery from Laura Allen from Vision Education who is a very close friend of the South African born educator who pioneered the use of computers in education with his invention of the Logo programming language (using the famous turtle.)

When computers hit the schools in the early 80's they arrived with one basic piece of software: Logo. I used it to teach kids from the 2nd grade through the 6th to program in Logo. What empowerment they felt when they could make the turtle move just by typing Forward [whatever number of steps] and then change direction by turning it by typing LEFT or RIGHT with a number from 0 to 360 degrees. There were so many teaching opportunities - ie. figure out how to make a square or a circle.

Logo also contained lots of language arts possibilities. We designed a program to act out nursery rhymes - Humpty Dumpty was the most fun. All the king's horses and all the king's men came marching in after Humpty fell off the wall. However, we were able to put Humpty back together again by running the program backwards.

I got my first start in robotics when LEGO and Logo teamed up, to no small extent due to Papert, when they created LEGO/Logo which gave us a language that could turn on motors and read sensors. That was the beginning of robotics in the schools - at least at the lower levels. LEGO/Logo evolved - some say devolved - when programs came out that did not require kids to do any coding - drag and drop motors. They still require a basic understanding of programming and they are easy to use but not as rigorous.

There used to be a Logo users group in NYC where teachers from all over the city met every few months, mostly at one of the private schools in Manhattan. At one meeting at the Spence School Papert thrilled us with a surprise visit. I remember that day around 17 years ago because I met a computer teacher from the Brearley school and she offered me about 30 Apple IIGS computers they were about to replace with Macs. I went up there twice and loaded my station wagon and that is how we got our first rudimentary computer lab.

I was as turned on by that first computer in my classroom (the first I ever saw) in 1984 as the kids – to the extent that very soon after I began to take computer science classes at Brooklyn College which ultimately lead to a Masters and a few years of adjunct teaching of programming languages.

But teaching kids to learn some programming (I can go on for hours on how valuable this is) faded very quickly in the schools. Too many teachers and administrators didn't see it as valuable. (See Wired Science- Forward 40: What Became of the LOGO Programming Language?) There are probably few if any public schools in NYC doing much today, but many private schools still use a souped up programming environment which incorporates Logo, now called Microworlds. There are also many other varieties of Logo around.

Seymour Papert's contributions to theories of learning that engage kids has been invaluable. Unfortunately in today's climate of test, test, test, the benefits of his views are being denied to children in urban areas who might be most in need while they are being implemented in the most elite private schools.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading this post Norm. Thanks. It has me thinking about projects I might introduce to my students this fall.

    No, not computer programming...but building and designing something linked to one of my English or social justice classes.

    Thanks again,



Comments are welcome. Irrelevant and abusive comments will be deleted, as will all commercial links. Comment moderation is on, so if your comment does not appear it is because I have not been at my computer (I do not do cell phone moderating). Or because your comment is irrelevant or idiotic.