THE Hennigan School in the ethnically mixed Jamaica Plain
section of Boston has been germinating the classroom of the future
for eight years. Called Project Headlight, the experiment is a
joint venture of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
Media Lab, International Business Machines (IBM), and the Boston
According to Seymour Papert, the MIT mathematician who conceived
the project, the Hennigan School has become a fountainhead of
information about how children and teachers can incorporate
computers into the daily task of learning.
The keynote of Project Headlight, says Dr. Papert, who is best
known for developing the computer language Logo, is its integration
of computers and normal classroom work. The tendency in many
schools, he notes, has been to isolate the machines into little
in-house "computerlands," with special teachers. "That," he
says, "is fundamentally opposed to our approach here."
On a typical day at Hennigan, Joanne Ronkin's fourth-grade class
is brainstorming about how to develop computer games that will
teach players something about the solar system. Yasmin Kafai, a
postdoctoral fellow at the Media Lab and the current director of
Project Headlight, is helping to steer the discussion. Ms. Kafai,
who has written a thesis on children as designers of computer
games, says the process of design and creation will take months.
"The process is the main thing," she says. "That's where the
learning takes place."
Games, Kafai notes, present some basic dilemmas for the young
programmers, such as how to control the movements of two or more
figures - space explorers, perhaps, or aliens - on the screen. The
kids will have to produce Logo instructions 10 or 11 pages long.
They will also have to develop promotional materials for their
games, test them on third graders, and consult with fifth graders
who have already experienced the design process.
After a quarter of an hour of discussion, Mrs. Ronkin's class
empties into the central area of the Project Headlight wing, where
dozens of computer terminals are arranged in two large circles at
each end of the open expanse. The children, many of whom have
already spent two or three school years using the machines daily,
quickly log on and begin their preliminary programming. Forty-five
minutes later they are back in the classroom entering findings in
their project notebooks.
At the other end of the computer area, some fifth graders are
absorbed in their projects. …