Papert. Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. Basic
Books: New York, 1980.
in Electronic Literacy Spring 2000(3),
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.
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.
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.)
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).
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.
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.
University of Texas at Austin