Computers and Computer Cultures

Papert, S. (2000). Computers and computer cultures. In Jossey-Bass /Reader on Technology and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp.229-246

In most educational situations involving computers, the program teaches or trains the child. Papert feels this relationship should be reversed, because “in teaching the computer how to think, children embark on an exploration about how they themselves think.”

Papert worked with Piaget at the Center for Genetic Epistemology in Geneva in the ’60s and observed Piaget’s notion of looking at children as the “active builders of their own intellectual structures.” For Papert, a point a departure from Piaget’s philosophy concerns the effect that environment/culture has on a child’s development. “Like other builders, children appropriate to their own use materials they find about them most saliently the models and metaphors suggested by the surrounding culture…I give more weight than [Piaget] does to the influence of the materials a particular culture provides in determining that order [in which the child develops different intellectual abilities]” (p.229).

He goes further to assert that “less intricate” components of knowledge develop more “‘spontaneously,’ that is to say, without deliberate teaching” than others due to “our culture’s relative poverty in materials from which the apparently “more advanced” intellectual structures can be built” (p.230).

Papert is making a case for one type of “material” in particular — computers. He feels that the “computer presence” will have a “fundamental” effect on intellectual development. “The metaphor of computer as mathematics-speaking entity puts the learner in a qualitatively new kind of relationship to an important domain of knowledge…[Furthermore] When a child learns to program, the process of learning is transformed. It become more active and self-directed. In particular, the knowledge is acquired for a recognizable personal purpose. The child does something with it. The new knowledge is a source of power and is experienced as such from the moment it begins to form in the child’s mind.”

Another benefit of computers is that they can “concretise (and personalize) the formal,” referring to Piaget’s latest stage of development and a marker of the onset of “adult thought.” “Knowledge that was accessible only through formal processes can now be approached concretely” (p.231). To illustrate what he means, he discusses two types of “Piagetian formal thinking”–combinatorial and self-referential thinking–and how learning how to program computers and consequently exposure to concepts like “nested loops” and “debugging,” could help children more quickly develop intuitive knowledge in those areas.

Papert summarizes the most popular criticism of the inevitable pervasive “computer culture” at which our society was at the cusp of in 2000, when this chapter was authored. (1) “Skeptics do not expect the computer presence to make much difference in how people learn and think.” Papert feels that this group conceives of education and development too narrowly as things that happen primarily at school. (2) There are also the “critics” who think “that the computer presence will make a difference,” causing “social fragmentation, exacerbation of “existing class conditions,” Orwellian “system of surveillance and thought control,” and health hazards. Papert doesn’t deny that computers have to potential for such enormous impact that our society could fall victim to these worst-case-scenarios– however, he feels that he has shown through his work with LOGO and turtles that one can harness some aspects of computers — it’s “holding power,” or “mechanical thinking” for example — and turn them into “useful educational tool[s].”

“By providing a very concrete, down-to-earth model of a particular style of thinking, work with the computer can make it easier to understand that there is such a thing as a ‘style of thinking’…The intellectual environments offered to children by today’s cultures are poor in opportunities to bring their thinking about thinking into the open, to learn to talk about it and to test their ideas by externalizing them. Access to computers can dramatically change this situation.”

To this point, Papert is aware that “there is absolutely no inevitability that computers will have the effects I hope to see…the physical presence of a computers is not enough to ensure that such conversations will come about…In most cases the computers is being used either as a versatile video game or as a “teaching machine” programmed to run children through their paces in arithmetic or spelling. And even when children are taught by a parent, a peer, or a professional teaching to write simple programs in a language like BASIC, this activity is not accompanied at all by the kind of epistemological reflection that we see in LOGO environments.” (p. 237). He summarizes: “What is happening now is an empirical question. What can happen is a technical question. But what will happen is a political question depending on social choices” (p. 237).

Papert’s general thesis is that “what is good for professionals is good for children.” So computers/word processing programs should be used in schools the way they are used in the workplace. However, instead, they are viewed mainly as a teaching tool to help children “distinguish between verbs and nouns, in spelling, and in answering multiple-choice questions about the meaning of pieces of text.” Writes Papert, “I believe that the computer as writing instrument offers children an opportunity to become more like adults, indeed like advanced professionals, in their relationship to their intellectual products and to themselves. In doing so, it comes into a head-on collision with the many aspects of schools whose effect, if not whose intention, is to “infantilize” the child” (p.239).

A similar issue occurs with the use of Papert’s Turtle, who is primarily seen “as a device to teach elements of the traditional curriculum, such as notions of angle, shape, and coordinate systems…Of course the Turtle can help in the teaching of traditional curriculum, but I have though of it as a vehicle for Piagetian learning, which to me is learning without curriculum.”

Papert clarifies, though, that “‘teaching without curriculum’ does not mean spontaneous, free-form classrooms or simply ‘leaving the child alone’…It means supporting children as they build their own intellectual structures with material drawn from the surrounding culture” (p.239).

“The educator must be an anthropologist. The educator as anthropologist must work to understand which cultural materials are relevant to intellectual development. Then he or she needs to understand which trends are taking place in the culture. Meaningful intervention must take the form of working with these trends” (p.240).

Papert mentions that “There is a tendency for the first usable, but primitive, product of a new technology to dig itself in.” He calls this the QWERTY phenomenon and says that this is happening with computers, as exemplified by two trends: the use of computers for drill and practice and the persistent use of BASIC as the programming language du jour in classrooms.

“One might ask why the teachers do not notice the difficulty children have in learning BASIC. The answer is simple: Most teachers do not expect high performance from most students, especially in a domain of work that appears to be as ‘mathematical’ and ‘formal’ as programming. Thus the culture’s general perception of mathematics as inaccessible bolsters the maintenance of BASIC, which in turn confirms these perceptions” (p.242).

Thus, there is a “conservative bias being built into the use of computers in education.” Because Education is such a “sluggish and conservative system…not only do good educational ideas sit on the shelves, but the process of invention is itself stymied. this inhibition of invention in turn influences the selection of people who get involved in education. Very few with the imagination, creativity, and drive to make great new inventions enter the field. Most of those who do are soon driven out in frustration. Conservatism in the world of education has become a  self-perpetuating social phenomenon” (p.244).

However, with the dawn of the personal computer era, Paper sees hope. “Increasingly, the computers of the very near future will be the private property of individuals, ans this will gradually return to the individual the power to determine patterns of education. Education will become more of a private act, and people with good ideas, different ideas, exciting ideas will no longer be faced with a dilemma where they either have to ‘sell’ their ideas to a conservative bureaucracy or shelve them…There will be new opportunities for imagination and originality. There might be a renaissance of thinking about education” (p. 244).

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