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Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas (Basic Books, 1980) is a seminal book on the use of computers in education written by MIT professor Seymour Papert. Papert, in addition to his interest in developmental theories (he worked with Jean Piaget at the University of Geneva), was also an accomplished mathematician and computer scientist who spent most of his career teaching and researching at MIT. Although we may not be familiar with Papert or Mindstorms today, we have probably heard about the “project-based learning” that developed out of his ideas.
Papert believed, correctly, that computers would revolutionize the way we communicate and interact with each other. In Mindstorms he explains how computers (rare in 1980) could be used to create an interactive learning relationship with the student that would allow them to develop robust intellectual models of how the world worked. It is fascinating to read about the free-form and deeply interactive relationship the students in Mindstorms had with these rudimentary computers.
Papert believed that learning was easy if one had developed sufficient intellectual models that could assimilate new knowledge. Education, Papert writes, should focus on “creating the conditions under which intellectual models will take root.” Papert recalls his early fascination with toy cars and mechanical gears which developed an intellectual model that later allowed him to easily grasp certain mathematical relationships.
Papert also believed that a student’s subjective experience – their mood, emotions, and feelings – was just as critical to learning as the objective cognitive processes. Piaget focused exclusively on researching the development of cognitive processes. According to Papert this misses a critical ingredient – the individual’s subjective experience. Papert writes it wasn’t his interaction with gears per se that developed an intellectual model that allowed him to understand math, it was his unexplained joy at playing with the gears in the first place:
First, I remember that no one told me to learn about differential gears. Second, I remember that there was feeling, love, as well as understanding in my relationship with gears. Third, I remember that my first encounter with them was in my second year. If any “scientific” educational psychologist had tried to “measure” the effects of this encounter, he would probably have failed. It had profound consequences but, I conjecture, only very many years later.
Much of Mindstorms relates to how the programming language he helped develop called LOGO would assist young people in developing robust intellectual models. Students interact with LOGO using written commands, unlike today’s touch screens, which move a “Turtle” around the screen. By using code to manipulate Turtle young people learn mathematical concepts in a concrete manner. By debugging their programs they solve problems and deepen their understanding.
Mindstorms is full of insights about the learning process and Papert writes with unbridled optimism about the future role of computers in learning. But perhaps his keenest insight into learning can be summed up by Papert himself while noting that the laws of physics keep a downhill bike upright even without a rider: “Thus learning to ride does not mean learning to balance, it means learning not to unbalance, learning not to interfere.”