Children hold the future in their hands, says Seymour Papert, and it comes with a keyboard. Jack Kenny profiles the IT education guru
Seymour Papert looks like one of the older generation in a Woody Allen film. He could probably play Woody's father. His gentle manner is in contrast to the intensity of his thought. The Lego professor of learning research is convinced that school is failing and that power is passing into the hands of the child.
Papert, regarded as one of the most original thinkers about information technology and education, likes to use metaphors. He takes flight when answering those who criticise the role of computers in learning.
"Imagine if we saw one of the first flights of the Wright Brothers. Someone might have told you that aviation would change the world. You could reasonably look at that flight and say: 'Well, I can't see it from that. You need imagination to see the 747. Computers in education are at the Wright Brothers' stage."
Papert has been given the Smithsonian award for leadership in education for his work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his creation of LOGO, the computer language for children.
Earlier this month Papert presented some of his latest ideas to an invited audience at London's Imperial College.
He argued that a critical turning point in learning would coincide very closely with the millennium: that, soon after 2000, a wave of digitally-armed kids would hit the school systems with a force for change immensely more powerful than the puny arguments of philosophers and psychologists. And he mused about whether Britain was choosing this moment to retreat back to an old-fashioned vision of education.
His child-centred thinking can seem curious in an age when targets, key stages and action zones claim so much space. His critics argue that the state has a role and responsibility for all children. Many in the audience, however, found it heartening to have their deeply-held beliefs re-stated with style, clarity and conviction.
Professor Patrick Purcell, now at Imperial, has worked with Papert. "He is the only man I know who can speak convincingly and in the same breath, about gears, computers and mathematical ideas together with play, fun and affection. For me he is the polymath professor, whose educational research mission is suffused with humanity and a real sense of social purpose".
The social purpose comes, like the still strong accent, from his early life in South Africa. Papert's early memories are being out with his entomologist father studying the tsetse fly. " We would go out into the jungles and set up camp to track the flies. It was a self-contained world. He would do the work and we would move on. I often contrast it with the world of the child today. The world to them is often unintelligible, threatening, mysterious."
His mother worried about his safety when he was attacked by a black mamba and he was back to Johannesburg and school. The segregated world of the city was in contrast to the egalitarian ethos of his father's camps.
The inequalities offended the 10-year-old. "I couldn't understand racism, the way that they thought. A few of us had heard of people teaching night-school classes to some of the black workers. We decided we wanted to do that so we asked the school if we could do it. They wouldn't let us, so with great naivete we decided to call a meeting of the parents because we knew that they would want us to do it. The parents were even more against.
"The arguments that were used had a profound effect on me. They said these people would be sitting at the same desks as us, there would be a danger of disease. We countered by saying: 'All these people are working in our houses, cooking our food, looking after babies. The parents weren't stupid or bad people. In other parts of their lives they were rational, decent and well-intentioned and yet...' That changed me."
It would be facile to suggest that suspicion of the adult world took root at that time but he does exhibit a certain weariness with the illogicalities of a world that seems intent on denying what is in front of it.
After studying maths at Witwatersrand University, he moved to Europe, spending the mid-Fifties in the UK at Cambridge. The stark medieval architecture was not to his liking, but he liked Paris. It was there that he met the psychologist Jean Piaget, who proved to be a major influence.
Marvin Minsky, the pioneer of artificial intelligence, was another. Minsky was instrumental in getting Papert over to the US and to MIT. It proved difficult to obtain a visa as Papert's left-wing politics did not endear him to US politicians.
A simple incident in Minsky's office proved to be a turning point. He used Minsky's computer and felt empowered. Now Papert is on the board of Mamamedia in New York, a group dedicated to the Internet and children. His most recent book, The Connected Family, looks at the impact of technology on the home. It has not yet been published in the UK.
Flying now consumes his leisure time. "I got into it because I like learning new things," he says. "Flying is all about awareness of your own body and its relationship to the machine . . . Your training is in believing the instruments, the technology, when your body is telling you something totally different."
When he left London after the lecture, he flew to Los Angeles to talk to the Disney Corporation, spent a day there, flew back to spend a day with his wife in Maine, and then flew back over the Atlantic to Greece. A great many people want to hear his message.