Seymour Papert is a constructionist (not to be confused with constructivist), who worked with Jean Piaget and built on his theories to redefine how education could function on a constructionist basis. The Logo programming language was a tool he wrote to support this approach to learning and he has been a stern critic of traditional schooling. A politically socialist activist in South Africa, he claims that his work in education came from observing irrational racism and he has worked with disadvantaged groups all of his life. He cofounded the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT with Marvin Minsky and was a founding faculty member of the MIT Media Lab.
Constructionism implies a hands-on approach to learning, to learn by doing, even in abstract subjects like mathematics, where digital tools allow one to play with real world machines and build virtual models. The learner comes up with a solution to problems and makes things happen in the real or digital world. His constructionism saw learners as using the physical (or virtual) world and external objects to learn, as opposed to the more purely cognitive and mental theory of constructivism. He is very much a precursor to the maker movement, where learners construct, use and code actual physical objects, such as controllers, mini-computers, robots and so on.
Technology and learning
He was among the first to realise, and create projects, that saw computer technology as realising new pedagogies around how he saw children actually learn. The technology, he claimed, would use electronic resources, interactive video and virtual reality, to allow new forms of learning, with schools having to adapt to these changes. For Papert, computers and the web are not merely tools but ways of thinking, in the same way that writing is a way of thinking and expression.
To encourage problem solving through play Papert wrote, with Wally Feurzig, programming language Logo that controlled a Logo Turtle. This language has more recently been used to programme the Lego ‘Mindstorm’ kits, named after one of Papert’s books. These commercial kits allow you to put together blocks with motors, gears, sensors and a computer, then programme it to do things. It is this interest in technology, put to use in education, which fascinated Papert. As a major player in the OLPC (One-Laptop-Per-Child) initiative, he also tried to take these ideas to a wider, global audience.
Critique of schooling
For Papert, school is a process of regimentation through age segregation, a fixed view of knowledge, of what is ‘right’, too teacher-led with too much focus on academic, abstract thinking and reading, pushing what he calls the ‘epistemology of precision’. For Papert, children should play and personalise their learning through play, improvisation and doing. They should be encouraged to see knowledge as incomplete and accept vagueness and imprecision.
As a mathematician he is highly critical of both ‘what’ maths is taught and ‘how’ it is taught in schools. Most of what is taught, he thinks, is irrelevant to most people. He thinks this is the result of paper-based learning – the ability to write and manipulate symbols on paper. How it is taught, is also flawed, as it does not connect with the real world.
As part of his constructionist vision, he speculated that a Knowledge machine could be built, that takes anyone, especially children, into a learning environment, where they can interact, problem solve and develop. His knowledge machine predicted the virtual environment that appeared as the world-wide-web and the move towards virtual learning worlds. In this he was prophetic, as the web produced devices and resources that were almost unimaginable when Papert first realised this idea.
Papert may have underplayed the importance of direct instruction and the need for underlying knowledge to frame, understand and solve problems. It is difficult to see with subjects other than the geometry and physics he explored, the possibility of emergent knowledge and problem solving through his methods. Another problem with constructionism is that it can be time consuming, wasteful and can lead to disadvantaged learners losing out in collaborative work. The OLPC project has also been the subject of many trials around the globe, yet none have been shown to have led to significant increases in educational attainment. The MIT Media Lab, in general, has also attracted criticism due to funding and other links with Jeffrey Epstein.
Papert was deeply interested in the psychology of learning and his practical work and theorising on education was built upon a Piaget-inspired theory of constructionism, which shaped his subsequent work on Logo, Lego and learning. He was also prophetic on the use of computers and the web in learning, claiming long before it was fashionable, that every child will have their own, personal computer. In many ways he took learning theory into the brave, new, digital world of computers and has been influential on many teachers and online learning specialists, who built upon both his work and enthusiasm.
Perceptrons, (with Marvin Minsky), MIT Press, 1969 (Enlarged edition, 1988),
Papert, S. & Harel, I. (eds). (1991) Constructionism: research reports and essays 1985 - 1990 by the Epistemology and Learning Research Group, the Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ablex Pub. Corp, Norwood, NJ.
The Children's Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer (1993)
The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap (1996)