Whose Fingers on the Button? Digital Technology Will Shape Learning in the Future, and as Manychildren Are Already Computer Virtuosos, They Will Have the Power to Influence the Direction of Their Own Education, Says Seymour Papert

By Papert, Seymour | The Independent (London, England), May 21, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Whose Fingers on the Button? Digital Technology Will Shape Learning in the Future, and as Manychildren Are Already Computer Virtuosos, They Will Have the Power to Influence the Direction of Their Own Education, Says Seymour Papert


Papert, Seymour, The Independent (London, England)


An advertisement for Research Machines, the major British supplier of computers for education, presumably written to reassure educators, promises that teachers will not have to change the way they teach and students will not have to change what they learn. This image of powerful technologies in otherwise unchanged schools suggests modifying a parable I made up some years ago.

A researcher in 1800, seeking to use technology to improve transport, invented a jet engine which he attached to a stage coach to enhance the power of the horses. In my original version, the failure of the experiment - the engine shook the carriage to pieces - led the researcher to conclude that jet engines had nothing to offer transport. But a different ending brings the parable closer to what is happening in classrooms: the researcher reduced the power of his engine to a level where it did no harm and devised delicate tests to demonstrate a small increase in speed.

The parable is meant to provoke us to imagine digital technologies powering forms of learning as far from the classroom of today as the 747 is from the stagecoach. Could learning outcomes change as dramatically as the speed of travel? Consider this scenario: in a summer workshop, children aged seven to 14 are building with extended Lego sets including motors, sensors (gadgets sensitive to light, touch and heat) and, most interestingly, a special computer small enough to be placed inside the model. Some are building vehicles inspired by the Mars Ranger. Several children are working together to make musical instruments that can be controlled by moving a slider or waving a baton. Two are collaborating on constructing an environment- monitoring station, to be left overnight in the woods to gather and analyse information. These children are engaged in something that traditional school seldom offers: serious projects that involve working on hard technical problems for many hours a day, every day for several weeks. In the course of doing so, they come into contact with a wide range of technical, scientific and mathematical knowledge, some of which may be in the usual school curriculum, some not. All come out at the end having learnt a great deal more about these subjects than anyone learns in a much longer time in a classroom. In addition, they have had some tough experience learning what it is like to manage a complex project. The scenario fits the ideal of learning that has been advocated for more than a century by proponents of "open", "progressive", "child-centred" education. But the scenario is radically different in several ways from the forms of progressive education that have been tested in schools and often found wanting. Indeed, I would argue that anything that could be implemented in a school context without extensive use of digital technologies could not be fully true to the progressive ideal that children should be able to acquire knowledge by using it in activities in which they have a personal interest. The test is in the learning of subjects such as mathematics and physics. Take an example from my scenario. Children building computerised musical instruments are energised by their love of music to explore more sophisticated concepts from mathematics, physics and programming than anyone would dare to put into an elementary curriculum, and their mastery of the concepts is guided by their understanding of musical principles. I cannot say categorically that this could not happen outside the context of digital technologies.

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Whose Fingers on the Button? Digital Technology Will Shape Learning in the Future, and as Manychildren Are Already Computer Virtuosos, They Will Have the Power to Influence the Direction of Their Own Education, Says Seymour Papert
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