Papert chain

6th January 1995 at 00:00
The Children's Machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer, By Seymour Papert., Pounds 12.50 Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Mindstorms is probably the most quoted, the most talked about and least read book in the whole of educational computing. Seymour Papert's new book, The Children's Machine, might suffer the same fate.

There is the danger that we view Papert as we now view the machines that were current when Papert's first book was published. But ideas do not date in the way that technology does.

The fascination here is seeing how the mind of an original thinker has evolved. A book on computing should offer us some kind of holiday for the mind, a stimulus, nourishment, a provocation, a push into new areas. Papert manages to do all these things.

Your friendly neighbourhood futurologist is in no doubt that what the information technologies are doing to all aspects of society is very radical, in spite of the fact that our most important activities like crime prevention and education are done with the least amount of innovation.

Papert argues that time-travelling teachers would feel at home in the classroom, but if they followed a student home they would find a bewildering world. Forty seven per cent of school-age children have access to a computer in their home. This has not occasioned much debate in the computer world.

The level of discussion among people who use computers is usually confined to whether a Risc chip or a 486 chip is to be preferred. In schools, if they are not talking about that, they are talking about how information technology can be assessed.

They might have known why they were using computers 10 years ago, but why are they doing it now? "Computers enhance learning!" Do they?

"Stories express ideas better than any abstract statement," Papert asserts, justifying the style of the book. He also writes with a humanity that is grounded in the real world of the classroom.

I talked to someone who met Papert a few months ago. They said that he seemed dispirited. There is a strain of melancholy all through the book. He is concerned that so little has been accomplished over the years and tries to understand why that is.

He comforts himself with the knowledge that just a few years ago it was unthinkable that Nelson Mandela would be out of prison and be elected president of South Africa. If that can happen, he argues, so can educational change. He hopes that the richness brought to children by machines in the Children's Machine will intensify their dissatisfaction.

He criticises many schools on the grounds that "isolating the computer in one room instead of changing the emphasis from impersonal curriculum to excited live exploration by students, the computer was now used to reinforce school's ways.

"What had started as a subversive instrument of change was neutralised by the system and converted into an instrument of consolidation."

Papert is pessimistic about the future of the traditional school. He argues that students will gradually reject the attempt to impose on them the educational philosophies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ultimately this is a revolutionary book.

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