Listen to the children

18th September 1998 at 01:00
Education guru Seymour Papert believes schools must alter. And pupils' computer expertise will drive the changes. He explained why to Jack Kenny.

WHEN Seymour Papert, a leading computer expert in the US, stood in front of the House of Representatives Panel on Technology and Education he gave his opinion on Bill Clinton's proposals for educational technology: "It is pitiful that a national leader could see wiring each school to the Internet as a significant goal." This would be a good thing, he said, but a minimal goal should be several networked computers in every classroom within three years and a computer for every student within six.

Papert takes technology seriously. He has to. It's his life. He was the man who invented Logo, the computer language for children. Last month his "intelligent" Lego bricks, incorporating computer chips, went on sale in this country.

From the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, where he is LEGO Professor of Learning Research, he casts a critical eye on what education is doing with computers. He is not happy with the way that technology is being used in US schools; he is even more critical of what is going on in the UK.

"The move towards national standards is in an extreme form in the UK; in the US the government does not have the same power to impose. They both want to control and there is no consideration as to why we teach one particular thing rather than another; it is mainly because it comes from once upon a time. "

Papert does not disguise the fact the he thinks that the imaginative use of technology will be almost wholly beneficial. He was highly critical of an advertisement by a leading UK computer supplier: "You don't need to change what you teach or what they learn." To him that was a neat reversal of his own message: you do need to change what you teach and what they learn.

In London this summer to lecture at Imperial College, he asked the audience: "Why do we teach all people of a similar age in one place? Why is the grouping by age? If I asked you to work in groups set by your ages, how many of you would want to do it? Grouping by age is production-line education. It is a model that was once appropriate; it no longer is."

He also dislikes the idea of the linear curriculum, the idea that a child will learn one thing in Year 5 and will have to wait until Year 9 for other knowledge. He argues that children with access to a good communications network can go to discover what they need to know when they need to know it.

He remains optimistic that technology will bring about "mega-change": "Who would have predicted 10 years ago that Nelson Mandela would be President of South Africa, that the rulers of South Africa would have made way? The technology is here to bring about the change the educational philosophers of the past like John Dewey talked about. Look at it this way, Leonardo Da Vinci drew up plans for an aeroplane but in order to do it he required a technological infrastructure, metallurgy, fuels. Dewey's ideas required the communications infrastructure that we have now."

apert was strongly influenced by Jean Piaget, the French psychologist and is regarded as one of the most original thinkers about information technology and education. He sees a national curriculum as a retrograde step. He argues that we have to stop being coercive about what children should learn. "The new technology gives us a way out. We can now make a connection with almost anything anyone might be interested in finding out about. In order to take advantage we have to give up some of the fundamental structuring elements of school. We will have to spend some money.

"I can put kids into an environment where they can follow their interests. A kid that is interested in music will often be interested in creating a musical instrument. That kid will need maths at a moment in time, not when a curriculum decrees. Most legislators can see the difficulties of that and give up on it, but they are turning to the old ways."

In the US, 60 per cent of households with school age children have computers. Papert is keen to see what will happen when children who have grown up with them enter the school system in numbers. "Those children with rich learning experiences are coming into schools and they will be viewed as a nuisance, subversive, forcing change. It is only in the last three or four years that this has happened. I predict that this will create a force altering the structure, nature and content of schooling."

Many teachers will sympathise with his views but they are buried in the system. What do they do? "The first piece of advice is to explore your situation. There is a school I know in Boston where they have an hour a day which is free from the usual constraints. Carve out a pocket where you can do something different. Make allies of parents; an increasing number of parents are becoming critical and are unhappy. Try to develop a political base in the politics of the school."

What makes him hopeful? "The answer is kids. Children sense that school is out of sync with the time in which they live. The kids are getting the technology and they are doing good things with it. Not all kids, but some kids are leading the way. I think the number is growing steadily. In schools they are coming along with demands for better learning because they have tasted better things at home. They know how to do it."

NEW THINKING: The thoughts of Papert

It is astonishing that many (people) cannot see farther than using new technologies to do what it has always done in the past. The possibility of freely exploring worlds of knowledge calls into question the very idea of a set curriculum.

* I think that segregation by age, the sequence of the curriculum is doomed. People getting together for learning is not doomed. The US is interesting because of the decentralized nature of the system: home schooling has been increasing rapidly.

* Fluency in language means much more than knowing facts about the language; technological fluency involves not only knowing how to use new technological tools, but also knowing how to make things of significance with those tools. Most important, it involves developing new ways of thinking based on using those tools.

* I see the technology as rendering obsolete the structures of the school. Child Power is giving the children the power to control their own learning process. This is the antithesis of the set curriculum.

* School is lagging behind. We have a society that is changing very fast and a school system that is very slow to change. As the gap increases the problems increase and the people who are running the system attribute the problems to the small changes that there have been made and pull back even further, aggravating the problem.

* The Soviet Union was like the school system. It was a top down economy, what people made was decided by a committee. That was not compatible with the dynamics of the modern world. Like Soviet Russia, school will collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions.

* Our president is always talking about a bridges to the twenty-first century and yet is building bridges to the nineteenth. In the nineteenth century education was structured in certain ways. It was decided what people should know. Even then it was only a tiny sliver of the knowledge that existed at that time. Today, it is a microscopically small piece of the totality of human knowledge.

Why is it argued fanatically that it should be this, rather than that, that is taught? If you push it, you find that they don't have any reasons.

We don't debate why we teach fractions. I want them to know some mathematics, but why fractions?

* It is a paradox that in the decades immediately before the mega changes brought about by technology, governments seem to be attempting to undo what is about to happen.

* Substantial numbers of people are doing jobs that were not thought of when they were at school.

* The skill of being able to learn is the key skill.

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