Mindstorms: Minding the gap

Not sure if I’m going to get every idea on my list blogged following up my reading of Mindstorms, but here’s a quick one off the list.

There’s another problem with the samba school comparison that Papert makes that was bothering me … actually it bothered me well before reading that chapter, but the samba school model just served to give it clarity.

I found myself having a really hard time getting past the first half of the book – I would just stall out and set the book down for days, or a couple of weeks.  This isn’t unusual and it’s a tough read (especially those first chapters), but this was something else.  Finally I realized what was going on – I was sick of reading about this utopian vision that completely sidestepped discussion of systematic inequality in education.  If this Mathland was just going to make the rich get richer, I didn’t want any part of it.

Once I realized that was the problem, I could do a bit of hunting and answer that question for myself.  Did the MIT Media Lab people who were creating and working with LOGO care about making a positive difference towards equality?  While I didn’t do a lot of digging, it wasn’t hard to find evidence pointing to a giant YES.

This is good, but I’m still concerned.  There are just too many tech-utopian visions out there that don’t seem to give a rip about equality.  It’s not to say I’m faulting Papert for not addressing it in this particular book – maybe it’s out there in his later works, and he does mention the absence of a connection to feminism or multiculturalism in the 2nd edition foreward.

Still, when we look at the samba school comparison, we can see this problem yet again.  The samba schools described were social clubs with memberships, not public schools available equally to all.  There’s no discussion of fees for membership, but it seems safe to assume they weren’t freely available to all.  The samba school as an ideal requires parental buy-in for their children to be signed up and brought to the dance lessons.  This is all well and good in a world where samba is already culturally valued, but in a world where we’re fighting against a pervasive mathphobia and anti-intellectual attitude in North American culture as a whole, how is this going to help?  How is holding up this ideal going to do anything but make the gap worse?

Given what I know now about the Lifelong Kindergarten group, I think it’s likely that Papert and others running the LOGO environments had these questions in mind too.  They may even have invited students from low-income neighbourhoods into their LOGO sessions free of charge, I don’t know.  But I think they may be missing something fundamentally wrong in this extracurricular mindset.

Frankly I think the ideal is what I’m fortunate enough to do for a living right now.  I get to let kids explore computational thinking using Scratch as part of their Digital Media explorations class in a middle school.  Nearly every grade 6 and 7 student gets a chance to come through my classroom.  No elective, no opt-in, no needing to sign up after school, no competing with sports commitments, etc.  I don’t think this is a solution to everything Papert’s ideal Mathland was hoping to solve, but I think it’s a heck of a lot closer to making a difference than a sign-up samba school.  I may end up running some extra after-school stuff at some point, but right now I’m pretty happy knowing that every kid in the grade, no matter their interests or gender or economic status or race or family stability, is getting a chance to play with powerful ideas in my classroom.