Currents: An E-Journal  Seymour Papert. Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. Basic Books: New York, 1980. 

Currents in Electronic Literacy Spring 2000(3),

  1. Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, was published in 1980, long before the Internet, before easy to use word processors, and even before the Apple IIe became ubiquitous in elementary and secondary-school classrooms. But the book’s message of child-centered learning through computers and mathematics is still valuable for teachers who use these tools, or for teachers who want to learn to use them. 
  2. The text is ostensibly about how young children learn math, but math is only the nominal subject.  More important for Papert is the question of how computers can help kids to learn how to learn; his goal is to use mathematics and computers to make children into epistemologists (23). In this regard, he draws heavily on Piaget, whose developmental psychology is foundational to the argument that children can learn to learn. In Papert’s vision of education, “teaching” is not the central act, nor are classrooms the central locations. Learning happens everywhere, according to Papert, once a child is sufficiently excited about a subject and enabled with appropriate mental models to transfer knowledge from one subject to another (7).  By using the computer-based tools Papert proposes, children can do more than simply construct their own knowledge (though such “constructivism” is a thread that runs throughout the text). Instead, young children can question the foundational skills necessary to educate themselves and build mental models that go beyond mathematics and computers.
  3. Papert uses the development and teaching of LOGO as his case study and prime example. LOGO is a graphical programming language and environment that allows children to give simple commands to a “turtle”—either on-screen or mechanical—that will move and draw lines following those commands. LOGO and the turtle are simple to use but they allow for ever-greater complexity as children learn to speak the mathematical language. LOGO is fun to use—the challenge of drawing a house or a flower or a complex pattern is one that children find engaging and exciting. (I can speak from personal experience as a LOGO child: it was great fun and I learned a great deal more about geometry than I would have if the turtle weren’t available to my class.)
  4. Language-learning, for Papert, is the perfect model for understanding how children learn; LOGO makes learning to “speak math” analogous to learning to speak French, for instance, by providing children with an environment where a small programming lexicon can grow quickly and discovering solutions requires conscious application of language-based knowledge.  With LOGO, Papert claims, “children can be deliberate and conscious in bringing a kind of learning with which they are comfortable and familiar to bear on math and physics” (137). 
  5. The most important lesson teachers can take from Mindstorms is that schools and lessons should be arranged to mimic the natural methods that children bring to language learning. Kids should feel emotionally engaged with the subject and they should be given tools that help them learn the analytical and productive skills that will be useful in all subject areas, not just mathematics. 

  6. I’m particularly impressed with Papert’s rigorous and interesting discussion of the connections between Piagetian pyschology and computer-assisted learning; I would strongly recommend Mindstorms for anyone interested in developmental psychology and computers. There are more recent books that address some of these issues—teachers and scholars are well aware of the many problems and benefits associated with computer-assisted learning—but for the teacher who wants to read a ground-floor account of children, computers, and learning, Mindstorms is a good place to start. 
    Ben Feigert
    The University of Texas at Austin
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