Thursday, September 27, 2012

Seymour Papert Storms My Mind

So at Bret Victor's behest I am reading Seymour Papert's "MindStorms".  Perhaps because I am the father of three boys, or perhaps just because one of my key roles is currently being an "educator", I find  a number of the passages in the introduction to the book particularly moving, especially this one on "cultural toxins" and "mathophobia":

We shall see again and again that the consequences of mathophobia go far beyond obstructing the learning of mathematics and science. They interact with other endemic “cultural toxins,” for example, with popular theories of aptitudes, to contaminate peoples’ images of themselves as learners. Difficulty with school math is often the first step of an invasive intellectual process that leads us all to define ourselves as bundles of aptitudes and ineptitudes, as being “mathematical” or “not mathematical,” “artistic” or “not artistic,” “musical” or “not musical,” profound” or “superficial,” “in-telligent” or “dumb.” Thus deficiency becomes identity and learning is transformed from the early child’s free exploration of the world to a chore beset by insecurities and self-imposed restrictions.
 This sums up one of my recent concerns with institutional education as comes across from my experience with putting my children in schools and even in my interaction with "bleeding edge" education from "top" universities such as Stanford and Princeton.  Maybe I'm getting excessively sentimental in my old age, but the following from the introduction to Mindstorms actually made me cry:

I have seen hundreds of elementary school children learn very easily to program, and evidence is accumulating to indicate that much younger children could do so as well. The children in these studies are not exceptional, or rather, they are exceptional in every conceivable way. Some of the children were highly successful in school, some were diagnosed as emotionally or cognitively disabled. Some of the children were so severely afflicted by cerebral palsy that they had never purposefully manip-ulated physical objects. Some of them had expressed their talents in “mathematical” forms, some in “verbal” forms, and some in artistically “visual” or in “musical” forms.
It's been a challenging week :-) but lest my melodrama obscure the message, I think it is extremely unfortunate when we see our children in these terms.  My eldest son has recently been using the Mathletics system on his computer at school and now at home.  It's great to see him excited about Math, but the excitement seems to come a lot from the ranking and competitive component of mathletics, rather than from a real educational exploration.  I'm sure it is improving his fluency with numbers, but I would much rather he was playing with Papert's Logo Turtle or some modern equivalent so that he was learning to control the computer, rather than learning to better follow instructions loaded into the computer by other people.

Is Lego "Mindstorms" the key?  This last weekend I was involved in a team getting an Aldebaraan Nao Robot to pretend to be a Dalek, and my son got ever so slightly involved, but the slowness of the Nao programming, and also my lack of experience with it, preventing it from distracting my son from the more immediate rewards of a friend's Nintendo DS.  If anyone knows the best modern equivalent of the Logo Turtle let me know; otherwise I think my son is getting Lego Mindstorms for Christmas ...

1 comment:

Sam Joseph said...


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