Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Seymour Papert, Digital Learning and Missed Opportunities

I read today of the death of educator and mathematician, Seymour Papert. Papert was a visionary in the world of computers as instruments of learning and enhancing creativity. Papert's most famous book was Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas (1980). The book had two major themes: that children can learn to master computer use and that computers can help children think and learn in new ways.

Papert invented a programming language for children called LOGO. Using LOGO children learned to program a robot "LOGO Turtle" to move around a room (or computer screen) based on the instructions students wrote into the program. LOGO was focused on discovery - a self-directed method of teaching and learning. LOGO was also intended to be social - students working together to solve problems and create programming code that worked, with the immediate feedback available to them in the form of the movement of the turtle. Research indicated that LOGO helped children develop metacognitive ability (the ability to reflect on and revise their own thinking), improve problem solving ability, and enhance spatial orientation ability.

As a reading specialist, I was interested especially in how LOGO could be used to help children develop metacognitive abilities and problem solving abilities, both important components of skilled reading. I designed a simple LOGO module for my students, which they could apply on the limited computer screens I had available to them in the 1980s.

No doubt a visionary like Papert would be disappointed in the recent research from the Office of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the people that bring us the PISA test, who report that technology in the classroom has so far had little impact on student learning. William Doyle reported on these findings for The Education Partners and Diane Ravitch discussed the findings on her blog. Doyle says that "there is little evidence that digital tools are inherently superior to analog tools in the hands of qualified teachers in teaching children the fundamentals of learning."

Where did things go wrong. How did the promise of Papert's work devolve into the recent conclusions of the OECD report? A close look at what Papert hoped for and what Doyle suggests in his article might provide some answers.

Papert's vision of technology in the classroom was based on play, discovery, experimentation, and social interaction. The teacher acts as a facilitator of the learning, shaping, guiding, redirecting, but not forcing the learning. This has often not been the way that digital instruction has been used in the classroom. Too often the computer has been used as only an alternate delivery system for information and rote exercises, sometimes in a game like format, but still not appreciably different from traditional textbooks and worksheets. Instead of unlocking the real power of computing, schools have too often replicated traditional analog learning on the computer screen.

Doyle suggests that a return to Papert's original vision may be the way to go. Here is what he had to say about a lesson he observed at a teacher training school in Finland.

In the school's science lab, the fourth grade class is deeply immersed in building physical prototypes of LEGO MINDSTORMS robots. Small teams of twelve-year-olds gather around instruction charts on desktop screens, then get on the floor on their hands and knees to collaborate in the complex task of assembling wheeled mcro-robots that can talk, move, and play music. The teacher, Jussi Hietva explains that the children are learning not only critical STEM skills, they are building "soft skills" of teamwork, leadership, negotiation, trial-and-error and collaboration. Children are encouraged to giggle, wiggle and squirm from time to time, since that's what children are biologically engineered to do, in Finland and everywhere else. "They are having fun while they learn," says the teacher. "Why not? They are children!"

So we have come full circle in our thinking about the role of the computer in the classroom, all the way back to Papert's 40 year-old vision. As we have adopted more and more technology in the classroom we have tried to impose old learning paradigms on a new technology; it hasn't worked. Perhaps there are clues here to why online charter schools have shown such miserable results. We can't just plop kids down in front of a computer screen, expose them to a curriculum modeled after the analog learning models of the past, and expect great learning to take place.

Learning is social. Learning is collaborative. Learning requires the teacher over the shoulder facilitating the learning in real time. This all brings to mind the short story by Isaac Asimov entitled, The Fun They Had. In the story, written in 1950, but set in the world of the 22nd century, children do not attend school, but receive all their instruction on a personal computer programmed specifically for their learning rate. The children hate the mechanized approach to their learning. They find a book, something they have never seen before, that describes something called "school." This school was a place where children learned together with a real, flesh and blood teacher. These 22nd century children can only marvel at "the fun they had" in school.

To tap into the power of the digital age in learning we need to remember that children need to have the opportunity to experiment with the real potential of the computer, not through canned programs, but through experimentation, collaboration, and structured play. As the Finns say, "Play is the work of children." Seymour Papert would agree.