Mindstorms: Talking about tools, forgetting about people

I’ve finished reading Mindstorms, and bleargh there’s a lot to say. I’m going to try and plow through a small series of blog posts to get some mental closure on this one, so consider this part 1 of howevermany.

Let’s start from the ending. The final chapter of this book is probably where it should have started (as Papert mentions in the 2nd ed introduction).

In it, Papert writes of “Images of the Learning Society”, his vision for where the future should go.  It’s a hazy vision, high on hopes and short on details or driving forces.  Helpfully, Papert admits that he does *not* see his “Logo environments” as the be-all-end-all solution for anything, but just an early prototype of the sort of things that would make the world a more learning-friendly place.

His key analogy is that of a Brazilian “samba school” as he observed when visiting Brazil one summer.  What he saw there was a social environment with both experts and novices of all ages, from children to grandparents.  People would come “to dance, to drink, to meet their friends”.  However these were social clubs with memberships, with specific choreographed dances they were learning, and everyone is trying to learn a part.  The culmination of their learning was a street procession at carnival where every dance troop would perform their piece.

The samba schools would include times when expert teachers would gather children together, teach them a specific routine or part, and then 20 min later the group would dissolve again into the general hum and activity of the crowd.

The ideals that Papert sees here include some connections to his “Logo environments” of his then-new research.  They are highly social.  Both experts and novices are learning and participating together.  Experts facilitate and help students, but have no set curriculum in his Logo environments.  (Arguably, that’s *not* true of the samba schools – they have a routine they are all attempting to learn together. But it’s driven by the needs of the project, not the needs of a preset list of skills to master.)

Now, let’s stop a second and try to process why this is giving me a headache.

What I’ve written above is a barely summarized version of what is the best description of how these “Logo environments” were *actually run*.  Like, this is all we’re told.  Nowhere in this book does it tell us where these kids come from, how many kids are in the room, how long they’re there for, or what the instructor / facilitators actually DO.  We don’t know if this is a drop-in activity for kids in the area, or if they come from a local school, or if parents have to sign them up in advance.

There are plenty of anecdotes about the student experiences and the sorts of things they do in Logo.  But basically zero of these anecdotes include teacher interaction or any other context of what this “Logo environment” actually is.  They all have a myopic focus on student-computer interaction, with the occasional peer discussion.

And keep in mind this second-hand description, given only in comparison to something else, is at the end of the freaking book.  I think he meant it as a strong conclusion, but it could just as easily be read as an afterthought.  The book makes references to “Logo environments” all along the way without actually describing the environments at all.

Now let’s connect this with where I’m at.

Right now I quite-nearly get to live out exactly what Papert is writing about.  (I am freaking spoiled, it’s wonderful.)  I’m teaching Digital Media Explorations at a middle school and have been basing a large part of my course work in Scratch.  So kids are making highly visual and engaging animations, games, etc and actually scripting their own code.  There is nearly zero set-in-stone curriculum in terms of skills – I’ve set some targets for myself of things I’d like all the kids introduced to, but primarily I’m getting to reward them for trying out new techniques without having to worry about everyone mastering a specific skill set.

So, speaking from inside, let me just say a few things we need to remember.

People matter. Pedagogy matters. Classroom structure matters. The physical environment matters.

There is nothing stopping me from completely wrecking kids’ curiosity and imaginations while they work with Scratch.  I could wreck this no matter how good the tool is.

And there is nothing stopping me from taking the same creative approach to learning into a classroom with no computer technology at all, if someone would budget the time and space to do so.

I’m also signed up for the MIT Media Lab’s “Learning Creative Learning” MOOC, although to be honest I’ve just cherry-picked bits so far to see how their vision compares to Papert’s views from thirty years ago.  The same thing comes up – focusing on the tools with little emphasis on the social aspects of the learning environment.

If we are to truly learn from the early Logo environments, we need to talk about the whole environment.  We can’t discuss and understand educational tools as separate from the social environment they operate in.  If we do, we will fail to understand how to use the tools properly, and we lose the opportunity to critique and learn from those environments that worked.

I’ll stop there, and next post I’ll go into the contrasts Papert makes between the samba schools and his Logo environments and how those contrasts have already killed Mathland.

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