Friday, August 1, 2008

Seymour Papert's Powerful Ideas

I often get asked, "who was the most influential educational technologist in your career?".

Here is a quote from Seymour Papert's book, "The Connected Family" that I love:

"There is a prevalent tendency to think that when children under-perform at school and dislike schoolwork this is because it is too hard. Nothing could be more wrong. Most dislike of schoolwork comes from finding it boring, the exact opposite of finding it too difficult. Children, like everyone else, don’t want “easy” – they want “challenging” and “interesting” – and this implies “hard” (Seymour Papert, 1996, p. 52)

Although I could cite many important influences, the most influential researcher on my own development as an educational technologist is Seymour Papert from MIT. His early work in the 1960s on constructionism and children’s thinking with computers was ground breaking, and his influence continues to this day -- in fact, Nicolas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child Project builds on Papert's work.

I have never met Seymour Papert, and I hope that I might – I have attempted to read everything Papert and his close colleagues have written. His ideas inspired my own passion for learning with technology. Seymour Papert has been credited with having some of the most powerful ideas about children, learning and computers. His work continues to be the most important and influential work on children’s thinking with technology to this day. A great deal of the philosophy underpinning the work of Sharon Friesen and Pat Clifford, from the Galileo Network, and subsequently, my own work (Jacobsen, 2006), is based on the constructionist ideas proposed and published by Seymour Papert, and several of the researchers who follow in his footsteps (Mitchel Resnick, Andrea diSessa, Ricki Goldman, Yasmin Kafai, Nicholas Negroponte, Sherry Turkle, Amy Bruckman).

During my student teaching, I became passionately interested in how children use computers for learning and play. I was first asked to read some work by Seymour Papert in a mind-numbingly boring, “computers in education” textbook and programming course we were all required to take (Ironically, years later I ended up teaching the labs for this course, and then the course itself as a graduate student and then as a professor -- as you might imagine, I aimed to teach with computers in a radically different way!!). The book was Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas, published in 1980.

I loved Papert’s ideas, and was very keen to learn how to program with LOGO in the lab. After the course, I wanted to pursue creative activities with the computer further, so I proposed and completed an independent study on using hypermedia for learning with a professor in educational technology who happened to be in Ireland on sabbatical for a year (Incidentally, Dr. Bill Hunter became my colleague years later when I was hired as an assistant professor in educational technology). Dr. Hunter and I used email to communicate and exchange assignments, feedback, etc., and I also used the internet to do a great deal of my literature review and research on hypermedia (at that time, access to the web was through Lynx, a command line interface). Specifically, I investigated the nature of children’s learning when they created hypermedia representations of their original stories. This project, and many others that I became involved with, ignited what has become a life-long passion for better understanding (what can be) the emancipatory relationship between learners and technology.

So, almost 20 years ago I was asked to read a 10 year old book by Papert and it transformed my ideas about inquiry and technology.

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