Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Professor Seymour Papert passed away recently.
While he had been fragile for some time following an accident, his extraordinary influence on teaching and learning, including how he really created the maker movement more than 25 years ago, will continue for many years to come.
Without his wisdom and vision, many educators in the school technology fields, where I spent most of my career, would not have been fortunate enough to pursue exciting and deeply meaningful vocations. Every school, every teacher, every educational technology specialist, and every K-12 technology director can trace their professional activities back to Dr. Papert’s deep understanding of the power of learning with computers and digital devices. The Media Lab remembrance page notes that:
Papert’s career traversed a trio of influential movements: child development, artificial intelligence, and educational technologies. Based on his insights into children’s thinking and learning, Papert recognized that computers could be used not just to deliver information and instruction, but also to empower children to experiment, explore, and express themselves.
In the mid-1980s, I attended a conference, I don’t remember when or where, but Dr. Papert was a speaker. I left the event a better teacher and a changed educator. At that time I was a classroom teacher, and I returned to school filled with ideas about how computers might improve the way teachers teach and students learn. I also heard about the Logo programming language at this conference and learned how to use the early technology learning tool with my students. Later as a school educational technology faculty member, Dr. Papert’s ideas were central my work with teachers and students.
Over time and at his MIT Media Lab base, Dr. Papert focused on a personal mission — getting devices to young learners and helping those students construct and expand their knowledge. It was evangelism at its purest, though his one-to-one ideas took nearly a generation to become ubiquitous in school settings.
Two summers ago I was fortunate to attend the annual Constructing Modern Knowledge conference led by Gary Stager and Silvia Martinez, an event that helps educators put many of Dr. Papert’s ideas into action. Participants use various tools — coding, electronics and chips, and a variety of resources and materials from power tools to art supplies — to take somewhat abstract ideas and figure out (with an emphasis on repeatedly trying out) how to translate the ideas into real things. In essence, our week was filled with project-based learning.
For this conference, Gary Stager, who worked with Dr. Papert hires all sorts of conference staff members, many of whom also knew Professor Papert, including Dr Cynthia Solomon, who was one of the creators of Lego and who helped me refine my MIT Scratch programming skills. I also met Artemis Papert (Dr. Papert’s daughter), who introduced me to her current focus, Turtle Art, and helped me to categorize the incredible amount of information at the conference and how I might share it with teachers. We also got to hear a talk at the MIT Media Lab given by Professor Michael Resnick (a former Papert student at MIT) who led a team that created Scratch.
Over the years, many of my professional colleagues, myself included, were guided by a specific comment that Dr. Papert frequently, included in his writing and presentations, also quoted in his Washington Post obituary.
“Imagine that writing had just been invented, and somebody said, ‘Let’s take it easy. We’ll start by putting one pencil in each classroom.’ The idea of one computer in each classroom is about as absurd as one pencil in each classroom.”
That quote, which he shared again and again in different ways over many years, paved the way for the birth and development of technology and learning and eventually one-to-one programs in schools, although it took many years for programs to mature and approach the point where each child uses a personal digital device. Read other Dr. Papert remembrances at the MIT Media Lab.
Thank you, Dr. Papert.
** Blog Posts Inspired by the Constructing Modern Knowledge Conference **