Virtual Teacher

Life After Seymour Papert

The Apple 1 to 1 Notebook Conference

Seymour Papert is the greatest of all living educational theorists.
Above image is Dr. Seymour Papert with a robot, the “Logo Turtle,” for children’s play and problem-solving. (Full image credit below.)

The upshot of the Apple 1 to 1 Notebook Conference was that I had a lot of big ideas raging around in my head, some about the future,
some about now, some seemingly diametrically apposed.

The conference challenged current views on education,
challenged current educational thinking,
confirmed and supported many of my ideas but also challenged me to think beyond the constraints of my current situation,
which I had come to accept and had developed many ‘work-a-rounds”. Challenged me to think about curriculum,
beyond the specific criticism of things like,
“Why do we teach fraction manipulation in Primary school?” it challenged me to looking again at the broader picture, the whole forest.

Seymour Papert was amazing to hear, the author of “Mind Storms”,
a book I read in the early eighties,
the man who was instrumental in the development of the Lego Robotics,
who said in 1965 that every child should have a computer.

Seymour Papert saw computers as a way to liberate children, to learn about their own minds, to see mistakes as ‘just bugs’,
who played a major role in the Maine initiative to provide every middle and high school student with a laptop computer.
I heard him speak, and he did not disappoint.

Here is a man who has pursued his interests in education and technology with a passion,
he exemplifies the philosophy he espouses, he thinks deeply about the implications of education,
thinking and technology, on students and future students.
One could almost hear his mind ticking over as he answered each question during discussions at the conference.
These were no glib cliché answers but deeply thought considered responses that provoked the listener to further thought.
I guess I envied him the opportunity to be able to live a life concentrating on thinking and discussing these big ideas.
To have the time available to leap from the overwhelming amount of mundane,
routine dross that accompanies teaching and modern living and actually indulge in some sustained intellectual thought and discussion,
what a luxury. More luxury I say.

One of the big ideas he brought to the table centred on the invidious curriculum content debate. You know the “Why do we teach fractions?"
Why do we teach this and that?” Very pertinent really, student teachers are asked to find resources for teaching fractions,
and information on how to teach fractions, even the history of fractions, but never, why do we teach fractions?
Because – as Seymour put it, there is very little literature at all on this topic,
because the discussion of what should be included in the curriculum has some how been taken off the agenda,
because we are so busy trying to teach the curriculum that we are not discussing the really important questions of what should be IN the curriculum.
And this is really where the discussion should be.

Then with ease and simplicity Seymour gave us a framework to discuss this issue.
An interesting simple but intriguing framework, laced with historical anecdotes from his Latin learning student days.
Yes LATIN, a dead language taught to enhance thinking skills, logic and understanding of English grammar etc.
It’s not of much use in itself, it just helps you do other things. This Seymour called ‘Latinesque Knowledge’, non essential learning,
that has value, maybe interesting or not, but has no direct use. Of course ‘Driveresque Knowledge’ is the knowledge that is essential to know,
to survive on the planet – his example: you need to know what a STOP sign means otherwise you will be killed.

So here it is a framework for discussion, and I know exactly where the fractions and that peculiar thing with Cosines go.
So what do we want for our kids, we want them to learn the “Driveresque Knowledge”,
and to be able to choose the ‘Latinesque” stuff according to their interests, to be introduced to the Big Ideas, and not be bogged down by the dross.
We will need to define the “Driveresque Knowledge”, and this will take a great deal of debate and discussion,
BUT, curriculum certainly MUST be on the agenda again. Bring it on.

There was a sense of empowerment at the conference,
a sense that the participants all had part of the picture.

Maybe we couldn’t see the whole picture, but we had an idea where we were going, and ways to think about the journey and perhaps, together,
thinking and working together, all these people at the conference could start to make a difference,
could start changing the way we teach and students learn, deeply and permanently.

The Conference was an Apple Conference*, and Seymour, was there basically to promote the idea of one to one, a computer/laptop for each student,
this was by no means the end game though. As far as Seymour was concerned it was just the beginning,
after students had their own computer the hardwork would start, the hardwork of inventing the new ‘curriculum’, of finding out how to use these new tools.
Seymour himself is working on a new maths syllabus, starting with ‘big ideas’ and mathematical thinking.
Believing that the current mathematics syllabus has been constrained by the implements of trade to date – the pencil and paper,
the new maths will be based on the technology now available to students. And some stunning technology there is to be sure.

Based on the idea that predicting the future is notoriously tricky,
the 2 things that can be said about the future,
is that thinking and technology will be important.

How can we say that? Looking at trends in computer development one can reasonably assume that computers will become smaller and more pervasive.
Also it would appear that, although computers may be able take over many of the routine tasks for us, original ‘thinking’, is beyond them,
and will be beyond them for the foreseeable future, computers currently have the intelligence of an earthworm,
great uncomplaining slaves if you like, doing the dross work. Future curriculum needs as its basic skills, thinking and technology.

The conference was littered with seemingly unassailable one or 2 liners that prodded and poked me to thought like:-

“You don’t need to budget for PD, in a professional environment Professionals develop.”

“How can we make the magic persist.”

“Magic is hard. You need books, to learn programs, to go to conferences, to ask questions. It’s absolutely worth it.”

“If we love children and we know what’s possible how can we do anything else.”

“How does a school that has seen the magic turn it’s back on it.”

“What is knowledge? How do you know it’s right? We don't. But through collaboration and continuous editing the entries get 'righter',
in fact nothing is absolutely right ever. “Wikipedia" is a copyleft encyclopedia that is collaboratively developed.
Wikipedia is free content under the GNU Free Documentation License, meaning that it may be freely used, freely edited,
and is free to copy and redistribute.
The content of Wikipedia is entirely created by its users. No single person owns the content; no article is ever finished.

Computers have the power to make a similar transformation to when writing began.
(The invention of script in the late fourth millennium BC) marks a quantum leap forward in human cultural development.
Time and space cease to be barriers to the transmission of knowledge and information.
To grasp the magnitude of this advance, try to imagine our culture today without writing
(for even today's visual media and high technology communications usually depend on written drafts and scripts).
It is impossible to imagine our schools and universities teaching, our scientists conducting and reporting research,
our government governing or our civil service functioning without the written word.

The invention of writing didn’t make much
difference to 0-5 year olds,
however computers can.

“School is a complex system, with inherent inertia, unless you make a big enough change it won’t stick."
“Changes need to go deep enough to change the culture of a school.”
“Why School Reform is Impossible?” Seymour Papert Article.
Because we need to change everything.
Break down fragmentation of the day.
Break down discipline structure.
Scrap the Curriculum.
We use the “Nuremberg excuse – We’re just doing what we’re told.”

I found my responses to these types of jibes, all passionate ranging from anger, to distress, eagerness, ecstasy, excitement, fervor,
indignation, joy, misery, and to zeal.(these are all synonyms for passionate actually). And I had them all at the conference.

The real kicker for me was:-
“You don’t need to budget for PD,
in a professional environment Professionals develop.”

I was angry, what does this mean?? No more PD?? But teachers need it. What have I been doing trying to provide PD?
Of course – it provokes thought, of course it is true, in a professional environment professionals develop,
but how we go about creating this professional environment where folk have access to knowledge, ideas and technology, with time to learn and grow,
without the weight of the dross work weighing so heavily on their shoulders that they have time for the ‘Luxury’ of thinking beyond the next lesson,
report, test, compulsory departmental survey, playground duty etc.

In a professional environment there needs to be time for reflection, growth and development as well as the business of the day.
Opportunities to attend great conferences like this one, to hear the best educational thinkers, to be guided by folk with expertise,
to have access to educational resources and studies and the time to discuss and think about them.

So here is where the discussion starts

How do we set up a professional learning environment for both teachers and students at our schools?
Anger turns to excitement to power to action. Yes I/we can make a difference. I/We can have the ‘Luxury’ of intellectual thought at a school level,
we have the power to change the school environment ourselves.

I guess that’s what this conference was all about, prodding us to think about the big ideas, to see the forest not just the trees,
to rekindle the passion, to connect passionate educators, and turn that passion into action. Thinking about the future, the sort of schools and working,
learning and teaching environments we want to have and planning to make changes so that this can happen.
We can all sit back and die by random increment in schools where we remain passive using the
“Nuremberg excuse – We were just following orders”, or we can do something about it.
We can “indulge in the luxury of some sustained intellectual thought and discussion” in each and every school,
if we are proactive. Perhaps I no longer need to envy Seymour.

I sit here on my iMac, my “imagination machine” and type, using Internet resources and references which litter my writing and I am empowered,
passionately empowered to make a change. “The computer is” the “instrument that is music to” my “ideas” Alan Kay

*This was an Apple Conference – I take my hat off to them.
It was brilliant. Sure they’re here to sell computers but their commitment to education goes way beyond just selling boxes.
They offer a total solution for schools, each individual school, ongoing training, technical as well as professional support.
Not just a box, a whole school solution. They are committed to the continual development of product suitable for educational usage.
Look at their site, they are always in development of the next great idea. No other hardware company offers the whole package.
Their computers and network systems are designed to required minimal technical support, they are virtually virus free,
because they operate with a robust Unix based OS. The old argument about price no longer applies, in most cases Apples are cheaper,
faster, better, lighter than their opposition. Look at the websites,
look at Dell, or HP then look
at Apple


© Cathy Brown June 12th, 2004 updated 2012 updated 2022
Image of Seymour Papert By
- Matematica C3 Algebra DOLCE 1, Testo per il primo biennio della Scuola Secondaria di II grado, prima edizione anno 2014. Pagg. 344. ISBN 9788896354681; prezzo € 0,00; formato ebook pdf; licenza Creative Commons BY; editore CC BY-SA 3.0

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