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.