In her overview of Learning to Code as one of the top ed-tech trends of 2012, Audrey Watters also shares her favorite ed-tech quote of the year, a pithy suggestion from designer/programmer Bret Victor:
"For fuck’s sake, read Mindstorms.”
It wasn’t the first time that I’d seen that quote, but it reminded me that it was in fact that quote, nearly 30 years into my life as an educator, that finally led me to read that seminal work on learning by Seymour Papert.
About time, don’t you think?
The irony is that the first edition of Midstorms was released in 1980, just a year before I decided to go back to school to get my Masters and become a teacher. And I can’t help but wonder what a different type of educator I would have been had someone, anyone in my program understood its importance and led me to it. Just this one snippet early on in the book might have changed much about my teaching:
For people in the teaching professions, the word “education” tends to evoke “teaching,” particularly classroom teaching. The goal of education research tends therefore to be focused on how to improve classroom teaching. But if, as I have stressed here, the model of successful learning is the way a child learns to talk, a process that takes place without deliberate and organized teaching, the goal set is very different. I see the classroom as an artificial and inefficient learning environment that society has been forced to invent because its informal environments fail in certain essential learning domains, such as writing or grammar or school math. I believe that the computer presence will enable us to so modify the learning environment outside the classrooms that much if not all the knowledge schools presently try to teach with such pain and expense and such limited success will be learned, as the child learns to talk, painlessly, successfully, and without organized instruction. This obviously implies that schools as we know them today will have no place in the future. But it is an open question whether they will adapt by transforming themselves into something new or wither away and be replaced (9).
Now, 32 years later, I’m just coming to know Papert and Mindstorms and much more about learning and education that I never knew or understood before. And I think about that often. My contextual knowledge of how kids learn, the history of progressive education, the workings of technology has only been developed over the last decade, moreso even in the last five years as my important new teachers like Gary Stager and Chris Lehmann and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach and Ira Socol and Sylvia Martinez and Tom Hoffman and many others have led me to the ideas and authors and thinkers who have framed education for me in a totally different light. I’ve envied (and still do envy) their brilliance, and the lens that they’ve brought to this conversation for far longer than I. And, importantly, I’m thankful for their willingness to share those lenses with me on an ongoing basis as I find new questions that need answering. Better late than never, right?
But aside from giving me the chance to frame my thinking about schools and kids and learning in a much different and, I think, more relevant way, it’s made me wonder the extent to which most educators carry these lenses with them as well. How many have read Mindstorms? How many are really familiar with Piaget’s learning theories, with Dewey’s progressive vision for education, with Sarason’s thinking on learning? How many of them truly understand why we have the schools we have today? How many have a context for teaching that’s based on learning? How many know what they don’t know?
I didn’t. Looking back, my preparation to be a teacher was abysmal. And I still have a lot to learn.
It all speaks, once again, for the need for us to see ourselves as learners, more than teachers, especially now that technology and the Web have “enable[d] us to so modify the learning environment outside the classroom” in ways that allow us to meet great teachers and debate important ideas with others far removed from our schools or programs, ways that allow us to learn the things we should have been learning in school. If we’re going to adapt, as Papert suggests, it’s going to be because we as a profession see our role much differently now, as something new, something different, not just something better.
And so it’s been with a lot of frustration that I’ve been watching the proceedings at Jeb Bush’s Excellence In Action National Summit on Education Reform in Washington DC these past two days. I won’t go deeply into the details, but suffice to say that as I watch Bush, Joel Klein, Condoleeza Rice and others talk about their views on “reforming” education, of using technology to deliver curriculum in new ways, of “raising student achievement” via the Common Core Standards, of competing against the world and making America strong again, I find myself wanting to scream one thing at them all:
"For fuck’s sake, read Mindstorms!"
My own philosophy is revolutionary rather than reformist in its concept of change. But the revolution I envision is of ideas, not of technology. It consists of new understandings of specific subject domains and in new understandings of the process of learning itself. It consists of a new and much more ambitious setting of the sights of educational aspiration (186).
Schools and teachers and classrooms still have an important role in our communities, and as I’ve said before, I don’t want them to go away. But, as Papert and many others suggest, they must change. They can’t be about courses or credits or grades or curriculum or teaching first and foremost. They have to be about learning. But the way we understand that word must be grounded in something much deeper than test scores and competition. We as educators have to own that word in its purest sense if we’re to move schools in ways that best support and nurture our kids. And we don’t have much time to waste.
So if you haven’t already, for goodness sake, read Mindstorms.