The Lessons We Don't Learn

In my Twitter stream today, Sylvia Martinez (@smartinez) retweeted a link to Seymour Papert’s 1980 paper written for a Presidential commission that proposed that we provide a computer for every child in America. Long before One Laptop Per Child, Papert saw that computers should not be an “auxiliary” aid to learning but “fundamental” to changing how we learn. He understood that the computer by changing education could change our culture for the better.

I believe that the computer could be used as a powerful weapon to break down barriers related to gender, ethnic culture, class origin, and even genetic differences.

By no means do I believe that computers are the only thing needed to improve education but Papert was so right nearly thirty years ago in recognizing the potential for computers (and networks) to break down all kinds of barriers, and to open doors to opportunity.

On this same day, I heard from a physics teacher in California that he can’t access the site. He was trying to download a project plan for the Wooden Mini Yacht in Volume 20 of Make to use in his class. His school district uses software to block access to any sites that have a “blog.” The teacher said he calls up regularly to request access but even when he gets it, the change only lasts a few days and then the site is blocked again. It’s a second such comment made by a teacher in recent weeks so I don’t believe it’s unique to this school. This is a high school teacher seeking free resources on the Web to use with students in the classroom. It’s too bad that it’s so hard for him to do what he wants. It is just one example of how our educational system fails to grasp the fundamental uses of technology.

After thirty years, Papert’s call for action is still fresh today:

I believe that one of the most urgent national needs for the 1980s is to find ways to increase the technological sophistication of the education community, to create contexts in which educators can probe the potential effects of fundamental uses of computers.

It doesn’t feel like we’ve seen much progress in education. Pappert made these strong recommendations but there was little urgency to act on them. Is that the pattern — gather up the good ideas and then decide not to do anything with them? I was reminded of Taylor Marsh’s recent article on a day-long Washington DC conference on the Innovation Economy. It was another talkfest about “what we should do” to improve the future of American competitiveness. One of the participants, Senator Mark Warner, said that we need “radical rethinking of high school and college. Does high school need to be 4 years, does college?”

After listening to a laundry list of such recommendations, Taylor concluded:

An innovation economy may be able to save our nation, but not with the current crop of political leaders, regardless of party, who don’t seem to be able to take any good idea and move it forward. Small thinkers, vested interests, no political will to move forward together, with the upper crust stifling so many Americans who just never get a chance.
[Can the Innovation Economy Save the U.S.? (HuffPost)]

Papert’s paper ended with a warning: “Unless we do this, tomorrow will continue to be the prisoner of the primitivity of yesterday.” Tomorrow is here and educators are still being held prisoners of the past. I just wonder if it’s truly possible to move forward.

  • sylvia martinez

    Thanks for spreading the word, Dale. Seymour Papert also accurately predicted that the computer would be absorbed by the institution of school and its power appropriated to maintain the status quo.

    Stories like your blocked site happen in schools every day. In fact, many times, it’s only the teachers who are blocked from educational use of the Internet. There are many ways that students quickly learn so they can get around these filters to access sites.

    We are at a crucial time in our history. We must re-create school and grow beyond its roots in the factory model of the industrial revolution. The school we know today is desperately trying to hold on to its relevance in today’s knowledge economy, but unwillingly to change to do so.

    This change will not come from summits or think tanks. I believe it will come from students and other lifelong learners, who now have the tools to claim their rightful place as makers and creators of their own learning journey.

    Sylvia Martinez
    Generation YES – Youth and Educators Succeeding

  • paul martin

    I appreciate the argument over blocked sites but as pointed out there are many ways to overcome the problem. Indeed I use the filtering software at my workplace to highlight to the students that there will always be limits to what you can do – one must learn to recognise them, appreciate them and exploit.

    I went to a talk last night about Minimum Alcohol Pricing. This bandwagon acquires momentum of its own(locally), in a similar fashion, and should maybe not not be supported but should be well down the priority list of calls to action. As a general rule the enemy is seldom within – it is partially sloth and partially something else.

  • John Battelle

    Dale, reminds me of this piece in the first ever issue of Wired, I remember editing it and thinking “I wonder if this will ever happen”.

  • Wayan

    Interesting that this topic comes up now. Over at the Educational Technology Debate – an initiative of World Bank and Unesco, this month we’re discussing:

    What have we learned from OLPC?

    Sylvia, I’d love to have a Guest Post from you on how OLPC has moved (or not) Papert’s ideas forward, especially his thoughts around Constructionism. So often with these conversations we get lost in technology and a educational viewpoint would be refreshing

  • Chris Morgan

    This made me think of encouraging work being done at the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT). They’ve taken an empirical approach to redesigning large, lecture-based “gateway” courses by encouraging the use of interactive technology. The result has been improved student outcomes AND lowered costs at relatively large scale. Reading through NCAT’s cases, Dale’s point is pretty clear: undergoing this level of change is daunting — politically, technically and economically. The redesigns were multi-year projects and radical changes for each of the institutions. It seems that we should look not just to political leaders, but also to business leaders and investors to solve this problem. The collective buying power of these insitutions and students is pretty large. Meanwhile, textbooks and course management systems are notoriously overpriced and underused. Is there an opportunity for existing or new businesses to make NCAT-style redesign easier for educational institutions?

  • Greg

    Hmm, maybe the lesson we still haven’t learned is that utopian visions of educational technology aren’t the answer. How many more computers are there in education now than in 1980? Maybe 1000X?

    The real drivers of change are new organizations and processes. Charter schools, for example. What we really need are motivated students, parents, and teachers, as well as new ways of learning that engage kids more than the standard lecture model. Focus on those, not just the laptop or “smart environment” from the Wired article, which at best are just facilitators and at worst are distractions. I’m not saying technology doesn’t have a big role in creating change, but let’s not put the cart before the horse (again).