Mindstorms: Destroying Mathland

In my last post I summed up some of the similarities between Papert’s ideal that he saw in the Brazilian samba schools and what his group was creating in their “Logo environments”.  Now it’s time to talk about the difference that he brings up – the relation to culture.

The samba school has rich connections with a popular culture. The knowledge being learned there is continuous with that culture. The LOGO environments are artificially maintained oases where people encounter knowledge … that has been separated from the mainstream of the surrounding culture, indeed which is even in opposition to values expressed in that surrounding culture.

The knowledge he’s speaking of is that of computation and mathematics.  This brings us full circle to what Papert wrote about at length in the opening chapters of the book – the contrast between an ideal Mathland, and the math-phobic Western culture of the 1970’s (and equally much of today).

Mathland, in Papert’s terms, is a social and technological environment in which children would learn mathematics as naturally as they learn language.  (I tried not to cringe too much when he wrote of children learning language “automatically”, as though parents and caregivers had nothing to do with it. But see my last post, I suppose.)  In Mathland, mathematics is something one can grasp and manipulate, play around with, do something creative with.

This wasn’t an entirely magical fantasy.  In their LOGO workshops, children were exploring concepts of number and geometry for their own purposes – to draw a certain picture, or to explore visual patterns.

What’s more, the personal computer was exploding into being on the market.  And for the most part every one of those computers was a gateway into computational thinking in the form of a blinking BASIC cursor.  (Which wasn’t Papert’s ideal – he thought BASIC was far inferior to LOGO for enabling computational exploration. But … well, I’m getting to that.)  This is huge.  At that time, every person’s first experience in personal computing was a command-line powered by an honest-to-goodness programming language.  Even kids who mostly just loaded games onto their C64 were likely to at least type 10 PRINT “HA HA I AM AWESOME”: 20 GOTO 10 at some point.  They may even have typed in some short programs or one-liners from the manual or from a magazine.  They knew that programming was there, waiting for them.

Mathland was seemingly within our grasp.  All that was missing was a culture willing to accept it.

So where is Mathland now?

Don’t need no math here. Go away.

Now we have a world of ubiquitous computing in which computational thinking is entirely optional.  Whereas personal computing used to put programming directly in people’s hands, modern GUI computing hides it from view.  Programming is viewed as esoteric and inaccessible to the layman – and frankly, most programming environments are a royal pain to even get started in.  The most common programming language used in education requires class structures and methods with wonky cryptic keywords just to print “Hello World!” to the screen.  Apple’s revolutionary new iThings have given us Star Trek style computing but have aggressively limited the ability to program their devices for the sake of their business model.  (They’re reluctantly easing these restrictions now. Sort of. I think.)

I’m not at all saying we should throw away the GUI, or that it’s evil (although it’s insane how mystical people’s view of the command-line has become).  The point is simply that business and usability concerns have driven computing in the opposite direction from Mathland.  Ubiquitous computing as we experience it today has done next to nothing to shift the popular culture towards computational thinking or away from its math phobia.

Back to Papert:

…at the same time as this massive penetration of the technology is taking place, there is a social movement afoot … an increasing disillusion with traditional education. …I believe that these two trends can come together in a way that would be good for children, for parents, and for learning.  This is through the construction of educationally powerful computational environments that will provide alternatives to traditional classrooms and traditional instruction.

Maybe they can.  And certainly this has happened on a small scale in small pockets: involved parents getting kids to use something like Scratch, an after-school club here and there, and the occasional classroom like mine.  But Papert seems to have set his hopes on a culture shift towards Mathland, a shift driven by the effects of this new wave of technology.  If we’re going to build on his ideals, we need to own up to the fact that technology alone isn’t going to make that happen.