Seymour Papert’s Legacy: Thinking About Learning, and Learning About Thinking

Paulo Blikstein (Stanford University)

If a historian were to draw a line connecting Jean Piaget’s work on developmental psychology to today’s trends in educational technology, the line would simply be labeled “Papert.” And perhaps the most remarkable thing about that line would be the other points it intersects along its course of more than fifty years. Seymour Papert has been at the center of three revolutions: child development, artificial intelligence and computational technologies for education. His storied career could be likened to a series of seismic events that continue to be felt around the world, from fundamental basic research on human and machine cognition to applied research that has touched children around the world. Can anyone envision a school robotics subculture without Papert? Can we imagine the entire field of computational literacy without him? Or for that matter, most of technology-enabled project-based learning?

Papert, who was born on February 29, 1928 in Pretoria, South Africa, has written very little about his early years, although he noted in “Mindstorms,” an early fascination with gears. Papert was a philosophy student at South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand, where he received a doctorate in mathematics in 1952. As the recipient of a British Commonwealth scholarship, he proceeded to St. John’s College at Cambridge, where he earned a second doctorate in 1958. As part of his doctoral work, Papert had spent time at the Henri Poincaré Institute at the University of Paris. It was in Paris that he would meet Jean Piaget.

Papert would spend four years working under Piaget at the International Centre of Genetic Epistemology, at the University of Geneva. The young mathematician was profoundly influenced by Piaget’s work on how children make sense of their world – not as “miniature adults” or empty vessels, but as active agents interacting with the world and building ever-evolving theories. Piaget’s constructivist principles in the nascent field of child development were the foundation for Papert’s later development of constructionism in educational contexts. Papert wrote in 1991:

Constructionism shares constructivism’s connotation of learning as ‘building knowledge structures’ irrespective of the circumstances of the learning. It then adds the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it's a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe.Seymour Papert

In later work Papert would diverge or expand on the Piagetian worldview, but Piaget’s influence would still be overwhelmingly apparent through the rest of his career. During his time in Geneva, Papert had made another serendipitous connection that would have great repercussions: At a 1960 symposium on information theory in London, he met Marvin Minsky where they both coincidentally presented papers on a similar theorem. Later in close partnership with Minsky, Papert became co-founder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab. He believed that Piaget’s seminal work on learning processes would be a great boost to AI. “Perceptrons,” the groundbreaking 1970 book by Minsky and Papert, was possibly the first look at AI to gain widespread notice beyond domain experts.

If one were to, albeit unfairly, measure Papert’s career by the sheer number of people a project touched, Logo would eclipse all other achievements. In 1968, Papert, Cynthia Solomon, Daniel Bobrow, and Wally Feurzeig crafted Logo, a revolutionary programming language, the first designed expressly for use by children, at a time when computers used to fill entire rooms and were impossibly complicated. Papert’s vision was that children should be programming the computer rather than being programmed by it. In 1970, Papert convened a symposium at MIT called “Teaching Children Thinking” where he laid out his case for children teaching computers. This radical idea would float around for nearly two decades before digital tools would become commonplace in the classroom. And yet to this day, there is still a great gap between paradigms: Is the machine driving the child or vice versa?

Before Papert's vision could be fully realized, there was the question of programming behavior in physical objects, as opposed to control of what’s on the screen. Papert’s research with students in Brookline, Mass. convinced him that children learned more efficiently if they could see a tangible result for their computing efforts. The first turtle was a physical robot (and later a virtual one) that could be programmed by Logo commands and draw geometrical shapes. Papert's work entered mainstream consciousness in 1980, with the publication of the seminal “Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas.” MIT’s Epistemology and Learning Group, which Papert founded in 1981, attracted a legion of bright students and researchers who over the next two decades, would bring to millions of children advanced ideas and technologies such as robotics, multi-agent modeling, system dynamics, and digital fabrication. The Lego company itself would eventually transform many of these ideas into products under the title “Mindstorms,” in honor of Papert.

Gary Stager, the creator of the most comprehensive set of Papert documents online, believes the “father of educational computing” rarely gets acknowledged today. Stager writes:

While Papert’s innovation, scholarship and wisdom is widely recognized across the globe and among scientists, his half century of contributions is largely invisible. It is not that educators disagree with Papert’s theories or recommendations, they just ignore him entirely. This ‘idea aversion’ (a term of Papert’s) is manifest by Papert’s absence from teacher education texts, educational technology publications and school reform literature.Gary Stager

Papert, for his part, has never seemed troubled by playing the provocateur to the educational establishment. In a 2002 MIT speech he said:

The essence of Piaget was how much learning occurs without being planned or organized by teachers or schools. His whole point was that children develop intellectually without being taught!Seymour Papert

Papert’s constructionism has, at its heart, a desire not to revise, but to invert the world of curriculum-driven instruction. If there is one keystone concept from Papert that will forever set the teeth of educational administrators on edge, it is probably this, from “Mindstorms”:

Many children are held back in their learning because they have a model of learning in which you have either ‘got it’ or ‘got it wrong.’ But when you program a computer you almost never get it right the first time. Learning to be a master programmer is learning to become highly skilled at isolating and correcting bugs ... The question to ask about the program is not whether it is right or wrong, but if it is fixable. If this way of looking at intellectual products were generalized to how the larger culture thinks about knowledge and its acquisition we might all be less intimidated by our fears of ‘being wrong.’Seymour Papert

Papert was perhaps the first interaction designer especially concerned with digital tools and children. His awareness that children effectively think differently than adults, and that their cognitive evolution requires designing rich toolkits and environments rather than force-feeding knowledge, has set the tone for decades of research. The combination of developmental psychology, AI, and technology proved to be powerful and generative, and created a new genre of educational technologies. Papert was an inspirational force that motivated an entire generation of researchers and practitioners to bring his vision to the world. But the work is far from done. For example, why is it that half a century after these ideas were formulated, still we do not have robust forms of assessment by which to evaluate this vision?

Perhaps Stager said it best, when speaking to a group of Papert’s academic progeny:

Each of us and our work represents but a tiny fraction of Papert’s legacy. It might take thousands of us to assemble the quilt that is the life and legacy of Seymour Papert.Gary Stager

Let’s get started.