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Thinking about How to Think about Technology and Learning
A Call for Dialog With Colombian Educators.
The idea that Colombia has a special destiny in the development of education is also supported by what I know about its tradition of educational innovation.

By: Seymour Papert

When I was invited to write this column my first reaction was pure delight. For many reasons. The one that is hardest for me to justify to hard-nosed critics is my gut feeling that Colombia is one of a small group of countries that will play a key role in the development of a new global order of learning. Hard to justify perhaps, but real and I feel I ought to pass it on to Colombian educators. The intuition behind the gut feeling is supported by my second and more selfish reason: whenever I have engaged in dialog with Colombian educators I have come away with a sense of having gained as much as I gave. So I am looking forward immensely to the feedback I am sure I shall get from this column. The idea that Colombia has a special destiny in the development of education is also supported by what I know about its tradition of educational innovation. In fact the first thought that came to my mind when I read the questions I was asked to address here was "The best answer is right there in Colombia." The questions were:

  • What would be an ideal learning environment for children to learn in different ways?
  • What is the role of technology?
  • What are the implications for teacher development?

And the answer that came to my mind was:

"Escuela Nueva + modern technology"

This is only a first thought and I shall be discussing these questions in other ways in the essay. But please take seriously -- at least as a theme for reflex ion -- my belief that if E.N. had been able to start with the "right" technology (which, of course, did not yet exist and even today barely does) it would have been a stunning world-class success. Perhaps it is not too late.


I have suggested elsewhere that the reason for the failure of "progressive education" to take hold was that it lacked the technological infrastructure for genuine and deep "learning by doing." There simply were not enough learning-rich project areas that would bring children into touch with the powerful ideas they need to learn. Using digital technology in a constructionist spirit vastly expands the number and richness of the kinds of project children can do, and so makes the idea of active learning far more feasible. Thus we can see the role (or at least one of the roles) of digital technology in education as giving progressive education a second chance.

The following three approaches to thinking about the technology show the difference between the two most common approaches (#1 and #2) my idea (#3) about E.N. and progressive education in general.

  • Start with the technology and try to find out how to "use" it. This is really like setting out to sea in a ship without a rudder or a compass and leads nowhere very significant.
  • Start with an education system based on an older pre-digital technology and ask how to "integrate" the new technology. This is like mixing oil and water and leads to incoherence.
  • My suggestion about E.N. (and about progressive education in general) starts with an educational idea that explicitly breaks away from the traditional system and then looks for the technology needed to implement it. The question: "how can we use technology to improve education" turns into a different question: "how can we re-think education in the context of new powerful technologies."
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My opening declaration of delight needs to be qualified by saying that the work of actually writing also caused me a streak of pain (productive pain!) by forcing me to face a rift in my recent thinking. The statement that computers give a technological infrastructure to progressive education is empty rhetoric without a quantitative qualification. How much is needed? I have sharply criticized well-intentioned projects advertised as providing "access" and "closing the digital divide" for seeking to empty an ocean by the teaspoonful. This has been exceedingly painful for me since on a local level these projects are usually run by people I admire and sometimes love. But while they may do good on a "micro-level" for a small number of individuals who get a little taste of using the Internet or Photoshop, they do great harm on a "macro-level" by creating the illusion that a big problem is being tackled. To help formulate a sensible balance between these two aspects I shall introduce language to deepen this micro/macro distinction. But first I want to say something about my own recent experience on the macro-level.

During the past four years I have been heavily involved in a sometimes bitterly waged political fight for the principle that every student in the state of Maine, where I live, should have a personal laptop computer. The fight has been successful to the extent that the state has already bought a laptop computer – an iBook – for every student in its middle schools which roughly means seventh and eight grades. I am now engaged in arguing that nothing less is acceptable at High School levels in this state.

So what do I say about Colombia? Advising the Columbian government to buy a computer for every student would not be helpful. On the other hand what is true for the students in Maine is equally true for the students of Columbia. In fact more true since Colombia may have a bigger educational deficiency inherited from the past and a bigger social gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots." There is a real dilemma in the need to reconcile the ideal with the practical. I face this dilemma in deciding what advice to give. You face the dilemma in designing a national education policy. The whole world faces the dilemma: the issue for education globally is how to reconcile what we know ought to be done and will fight to achieve in the future with what is feasible now. In English I like to use a little play on words to formulate this as "Reconciling Oneday with Monday."

Advising you to buy a computer for every student tomorrow is not practical advice. But advising you to make this part of your vision for the future is really quite down to earth and practical. Such talk might sound like the empty rhetoric of dreamers, futurists and the worst kind of politician. But if you take it seriously it leads to very concrete polices for the present and achievable phased goals for the future. Indeed I think that it leads to the only sensible basis for planning the use of technology in schools now. The alternative, which is what I see in most of the world, is to waste your precious resources on patching a system that is going to become obsolete. Worse yet: it leads to training the next generation of teachers to obstruct progress.

To show what I mean by using a "vision of oneday" to guide thinking about "what to do on Monday" I sketch out a hypothetical possible program of action for Colombian educators. The central idea is that you can make small changes today and tomorrow that will add up to big changes over the decade. But this requires a shift tin the criteria we use to choose between alternative actions. Without the vision you might choose A today and B tomorrow and C the next day because each of these looked at in itself seems to be good for learning. But while they might be good in themselves they might not add up to anything coherent. But with a vision of where you are going you can make coherent choices that will add up in the long run to a whole that is much bigger than the parts.


An example of this that is central to the hypothetical program is the idea that for big change in education teachers may need to learn new skills and new concepts. But we cannot take them out of school for them to learn. Instead we design a curriculum in such a way that the teacher learns new ideas in the course of teaching them. Now the immediate results of this curriculum for how well students learn might not be exceptional. But the long-term results might be dramatic as teachers learn over the years.

To make it more readable I present the hypothetical program in two phases. In the next section I state a number of principles in a short form and then in the following section add notes on each principle to fill in some details and deal with some of the likely objections.

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1.Call for an official commission (or failing this create an unofficial working group) charged with setting new national goals for education based on the assumption of a shift from the primacy of paper-based media to the primacy of electronic-based media in a time frame of between 5 and 10 years.
2.Recognize in particular that curriculum in certain areas including mathematics and a large segment of science could be radically changed – more accessible to more students, more intellectually powerful, more relevant. .
3.Devote substantial resources to designing new curriculum in such a way that the change can take place progressively over several years trough a process in which teachers will be able to learn as they teach. For example: intermediate phases in the process are designed so that they introduce teachers to new ideas gradually in preparation for the next phase.
4.Imbue the entire system with a vision-oriented attitude. Change must be something to be expected. Teachers are educated and empowered to act as change-agents.
5.Allow for uneven development. Big changes happen best in situations that encourage "early adopters". Among the major causes of sluggishness of educational change are policies demanding uniformity. If you can only make the changes that can work for everyone and everywhere at the same time you will only be able to make tiny changes.
6.Launch a massive program to educate the public about learning. This means preparing people to accept new ideas and preparing parents to support their school-going children and prepare their pre-school children for new ways of learning.
7.Make discussion of learning and change in learning a priority in Universities, in serious magazines, in the political world.

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1.Adopting a national goal. As a model let me briefly tell the story of my experience in Maine, the state where I live. Four years ago I persuaded the governor, Angus King, that the proper ratio of computers to students was one to one. When he announced a plan to provide every student from seventh grade up with a laptop the public reaction was violent and negative. Newspapers wrote editorials declaring that the governor is out of his mind, that Maine is one of the poorest states in the country (officially fortieth in income per head but this is over-optimistic) and could not afford to give its children expensive toys when some schools had leaky roofs and not enough money to buy normal supplies. But Gov. King was persistent. I was drawn into working with him on a long campaign that led me to write dozens of articles in newspaper, meet with legislators, talk at meetings, be accused of corruption (in the pay of the computer companies) and, in short, learn what it is like to conduct a political campaign. Six months into the process it still seemed hopeless. Two years later we won. Today if you walk into any public middle school (that means grades seven and eight) in Maine you will see a neat white iBook on every desk.

Relevant morals. (1) The initial response seemed to show that the project was impossible; what it really showed was that it needed a campaign that was longer, more arduous and better planned than any previous campaign for a school reform. (2) Campaigning seemed to be "politics" and so outside the specialty of educators; it wasn’t; it was education from beginning to end; it was a process of educating a state.

1a.But where does the money come from? We must not allow people to get away with declaring good education to be impossible because of lack of money. It is not a matter of the money not existing. It is a matter of priorities in spending it. On an international level I believe that it would not cost much more than the operations going on now in Iraq and Afghanistan to do the R&D to develop a low cost but still powerful computer and manufacture one for every child in the world. And, via education, this would be a much more effective action against terrorism. On a national level it might cost a country like Colombia a couple of percent of GNP to give every student enough computer power to permit dramatic improvements in education. The return on investment could be equally dramatic.

2. Dumping the Obsolete Curriculum. Teachers have to learn how to answer "humanists" who say that technology should not lead to changing the curriculum. "It is just a tool," they say; "technology should serve the curriculum, not dictate it." It needs knowledge and guts to be able to look the would-be humanist in the eye and saying: "No, Doctor Professor, the boot is on the other foot. It is your established curriculum and your concept of School that were dictated by technology—the pre-twentieth century technology of writing, printing, and calculating. The real offer of digital technology is liberation from the consequences of having been restricted by these primitive tools!" We have to arm teachers with arguments like: "How often did you divide one fraction by another using the method of greatest common denominators? Let me show you some more powerful mathematics children could learn instead of that." And I only use a mathematical example because it is more obviously bad but not worse than other subjects.


We also need to arm teachers against the idea that technology will have a "dehumanizing" or "anti-social" influence. Again the boot is on the other foot. It is true that technology can be used in bad ways. And usually is. But it can be used to give teachers as well as students a more active participation in their own learning and greater opportunities to do this in collaborative ways. By comparison, the traditional school has far stronger dehumanizing and anti-social tendencies.

3. Teachers learn as they teach. When teaching consisted of standing in front of a class and talking the teacher had to know it all in advance. When teaching changes to working with the student on projects or searching the web for ideas the teacher can also be discovering. This not only solves the problem of how to get new material into the system. It also allows the teacher to set an example of good learning. And thereby leads to a more "humanizing" and "pro-social" relationship between teacher and student.

4. A Vision-oriented attitude. Instead of thinking that what is being done in school is "the right thing" or "the best thing" or "the way it is done" this means thinking of it as one more step towards a vision.

5. Encouraging early adopters. I believe that big change can only come about in conditions that allow variation. This is how biological evolution worked. This is how a free-enterprise economic system that rewarded initiative and entrepreneurial spirit succeeded where the centralized, command driven soviet system collapsed. In most parts of the world education is much closer to the soviet system and its inability to deal with the modern fast changing world comes from the same cause. I liked Escuela Nueva because it allowed teachers (and children!) more opportunity for initiative. A good model to adopt in the urban setting is the New York city system in which small schools can be set up in the building of a big school as independent organizations with their own curriculum, teaching methodologies etc.

6. Educating the public. Most people are unable to imagine any way of learning very different from the schools they attended. Lack of imagination also applies to subjects. For them "mathematics" means the mathematics they learned (or failed to learn) in school But this is just a tiny sliver of mathematical knowledge. It is taught because in the distant past it appeared to be the most useful mathematics around and because it could be taught using pencil and paper. It continues to be taught ONLY because it has been cast in some sort of cultural-bureaucratic concrete. Hardly any of it would be included if we could start from scratch designing a mathematics for schools.

7. Topic in Universities. The discussion of education in academic contexts is almost entirely about HOW to teach rather than WHAT to teach. For example, there are hundreds of books and thousands of papers on how to teach fractions and what goes wrong with learning them I have not found any serious books on WHY we are so insistent that our young learn this topic.

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An idea that runs through everything I have said here is the need to think about educational actions on two levels. One is about the development of the individual student. The other is focused on the development of the system. As I see it both are about learning. I referred to my work in Maine as educating a state. People and other living creatures are not the only entities that learn; states and organizations including schools and perhaps the whole human race can learn as well.

To give a name to this idea I borrow from the distinction made by economists between microeconomics and macroeconomics. Consider two ways to think about a decline in car sales. The head of the Ford motor company thinks about this in terms of prices and preferences and concepts like "elasticity of demand" that belong to the field of microeconomics. This might lead him to lower the price or do more advertising. Alan Greenspan, the head of the Federal Reserve Board (which makes government policy about such matters,) may have as much or more influence on car sales but uses a different set of ideas taken from the field of macroeconomics. This leads him to manipulate factors such as interest rates and the supply of money. Oversimplifying, one might say: Microeconomics is about the behavior of individual people and firms; macroeconomics is about the financial environment. And oversimplifying again, one might say: micro-Educology is for thinking about how individuals learn and how schools function while macro-Educology is for thinking about the "learning environment" in which schools exist.

These are novel words for ideas that have roots in the work of other people. For example my friend Peter Senge names one of his books "Schools That Learn." However in the Future of Learning Group at MIT (among whose members I mention in particular my former student David Cavallo and my present Colombian Student Claudia Urrea) we are developing the idea in two new directions.

In a theoretical direction we make a much stronger between specific micro-educological theories, such as Piaget’s, and macro-educological phenomena. For example my paper "Why School Reform is Impossible" applies the concepts of assimilation and accommodation to the development of School. (See www.papert.org for this and many other relevant publications. Also watch out for my new book which will hopefully appear in Spanish as well as English early in 2005 and for publications in preparation by Cavallo.)

In an applied direction we give far more attention to the development of new content. Most writing about how schools might learn, like most writing about how computers can be used, focus on how to teach and how students learn but for us the point is to change what is taught and what is learned.

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