One of the most frustrating moments when I give a talk to educators is the moment when I put Seymour Papert’s picture and quote up on screen and ask how many of them have ever heard of him. Nine times out of ten, maybe a hand or two goes up. Many times, no one knows of him.
I was in that camp too not so many years ago. I’ve lamented many times the fact that people like Papert, Seymour Sarason, Russell Ackoff, Deb Meier, and many other progressive, challenging thinkers on education, learning, and technology came to me so relatively “late” in life. It wasn’t until I was into almost my 25th year as an educator that I started reading these and others who resonated so deeply with my own experience but never had a chance to directly impact my classroom practice. I was never introduced to them in my pre-service courses, never talked about them in staff lounges, never knew anyone in my physical space education circles who espoused their world view.
It wasn’t until seven or eight years ago when Gary Stager started feeding me these links and book titles that my brain started melting with thoughts and ideas about what learning really is, what schooling might be, and I’ll be forever grateful. Gary worked closely with Papert, and I know his loss right now is huge. But we should all be feeling some sadness today, because there’s no question that Papert was one of the greatest minds of our time at the intersection of the work that so many of us care deeply about and do every day.
It’s not at all surprising that I heard of his passing this morning as I was working on a piece for Ed Leadership in which I mention Papert serveral times. In fact, in my tabs, I’ve got open the directory of Papert’s writing that Gary started and I’ve contributed to, and also his essay “Child Power,” which I’ve read many times and was citing in my piece. If you’ve never read Papert, it’s a good place to start:
So the model that says learn while you’re at school, while you’re young, the skills that you will apply during your lifetime is no longer tenable. The skills that you can learn when you’re at school will not be applicable. They will be obsolete by the time you get into the workplace and need them, except for one skill. The one really competitive skill is the skill of being able to learn. It is the skill of being able not to give the right answer to questions about what you were taught in school, but to make the right response to situations that are outside the scope of what you were taught in school. We need to produce people who know how to act when they’re faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared.
I never had the chance to meet Seymour Papert in person, but I will always be thankful that his writing, his speaking, and his ideas live on, and that my own life has been made many times richer by his work. Many more eloquent tributes will be written in the next few days from those who can capture his impact and his spirit far better than I. But I can’t let his passing go by without some mention of the important role that he has and will continue to play in my intellectual life. May he rest in peace.