Mindstorms: Powerful Ideas is actually a pretty awesome chapter

So far I’ve done a lot of critiquing and sniping. Let me just finally make one post that straight-up says this is some fascinating stuff in here.

One of the thing that surprised me about Mindstorms was that the phrase “Powerful Ideas” in the book’s subtitle wasn’t just a vague, positive sounding statement.  It’s something that Papert takes a full chapter to elaborate on, as well as working it into much of the rest of the book.

Papert’s “powerful ideas” are the sort of thing we would probably wrap into the fancy-sounding phrase of “metacognition strategies” or something like that.  It’s ideas about how to think.

Papert’s key example in this chapter is a hypothetical discussion between GAL and ARI on the nature of gravity and two falling weights.  ARI believes Aristotle’s view of gravity and claims that a heavier body will fall faster.  GAL poses the case of two identical ten-pound metal weights falling – ARI says, of course they will fall at the same speed, they are independent bodies.

GAL: But now if I connect them with a gossamer thread … is this now two bodies or one?  Will it (or they) take two seconds or four to fall to the ground?

ARI is confounded – if they are one body, then somehow this flimsy thread is making a hurtling metal ball go faster, which seems absurd.  But if they are two bodies … BOGGLE.

The point Papert makes with this example is not just that our Galilean thinker was more clever.  It’s that he had the “powerful idea” of thinking of an object as being made up of smaller objects.  This powerful idea of subdividing and combining objects enabled him to construct a scenario that brought ARI’s misconceptions about gravity to light.

This is probably the most convincing explanation I’ve heard yet for the idea that we as teachers are in the business of teaching kids how to think.  Usually this seems like crazy talk to me – or, really, like the only ones actually getting to do this for a living are the English teachers, and those of us teaching math / computing / science / etc are just caught up in wishful thinking.  But Papert’s idea of the value of computing as metacognitive tool is an interesting one.

He doesn’t limit powerful ideas to computing, but suggests that the advent of popular computing will open up a large number of new “powerful ideas” that previously weren’t part of our everyday lives.  Many of these are along the lines of modelling the workings of our own minds as being similar to computing – we mentally create distinct “threads” (mentioned in the epilogue), we can break down processes into steps and subroutines, etc.  (In the foreward he does mention that he isn’t intending to promote logical, structured thinking as the core model of our mind any more than he sees that as the only useful model of computing, despite most examples being along those lines.)

I wish I knew more about where research has gone with this in the time since this was written.  I vaguely recall from my ed psych class the thought that metacognitive strategies are powerful, but often don’t transfer between subjects/topics unless they’re explicitly reinforced as general strategies.  But perhaps the metaphor of computer as a thinking machine makes the cross-pollination of these ideas from thinking-about-computing to thinking-about-thinking much easier than usual.

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