An Interview with Seymour Papert

  • Published November 9, 1984
  • By Anth Ginn

Sometime in 1983 a friend said he wanted to talk to me and asked me to visit.  I duly arrived at his home near London’s  Clapham North Tube station and found another friend, Derek Deardon, also in attendance.  This was an evening that changed my life.  Our host was Anth Ginn, a primary school teacher and aspiring journalist.  In those days he was also tutoring children of VIPs who breezed into London with their families.   Derek was an electronic and I was a mechanical engineer.  Anth wanted us to design a robot Turtle he could use with his VIP students.  He proceeded to tell us about Seymour Papert, Logo and Turtles.  I had served an engineering apprenticeship, gone to University and then worked for 15 years as a contract design engineer honing my skills in industries as diverse as jet engine, oil rigs, computer simulators, car production lines… a long list.  Despite all the study, training and experience I was aware that my chief skills were the ability to think, analyse and problem solve.  Here was Anth telling me about an educator who wanted wanted to teach kids to think.  I was sold.  Yesterday I was going through Reuben Hoggett’s excellent web site and there was a copy of an article Anthony Ginn interviewing Seymour Papert.  This is a reproduction of the interview first published in Practical Robotcs Nov – Dec 1984.

Anthony Ginn talks to Seymour Papert about the future

Giving maths power to the children

Anth: Could you talk about the history of Logo and robotic turtle?

Seymour: Logo started with the idea that we could give children a sense of power over an important piece of technology, power over an important intellectual system through the computer. One of the real reasons for the failure of elementary education, in mathematics particularly, is that children are learning about ideas they cannot use. They do not have power over mathematics. What children like is to take it over and use it for their own purposes. So the computer was a way for them to take over mathematics.

They had to do something with the computer. An adult cannot simply provide a program to do an inventory like in business. A child is not interested in that. We searched around and tried many applications of computation which could be interesting to children. The three which become most dramatically useful, proven to be most fascinating for children and very rich in what the children can learn from them, are graphics, manipulating musical sound, sound effects — the kind of thing they see and hear in the movies.

Enjoy turtles

That corresponds to something in their lives; and robotics makes something move around. So of the three, for little children, robotics is the most powerful. It emerged out of a long set of experiments, trying things you could do with the computer that they would accept and enjoy, and which would be rich in intellectual content. That is how we arrived at the turtle.

The robotic turtle is being used less than the screen turtle for practical and economic reasons. A mechanical object is more expensive — it can break and so on. It occupies more space. On the other hand, we have become better at making these mechanical devices, the prices have fallen, and we now see more of them being used with children. I have seen that computer-controlled robots are now being made for less than £50. I can imagine a large number of parents will buy them for their children.

Anth: How do robots contribute to education?

Seymour: First there is the general principle that you learn by doing. Programming the robot to do something helps a child to think about ‘doing’. You learn by doing but you learn better by thinking about what you are doing. Getting a robot to do something compels you to think about what you are doing and so enhances the whole learning process. I think this is what is most important. That is what is so fascinating for children about a robot; it is like a mirror, they see themselves.

If you want to make this robot do something, do it yourself, describe what you are doing, and then translate your description into a program for the computer. Then, of course, the robot does something different from what you expect. So you go back and you look and you see that you did not really properly describe what you were doing. That leads to self-awareness, better use of language and, of course, it leads to better mathematics. It is rich in mathematical knowledge.

You say “Bend you arm this much” but you cannot say that to the robot. You have to say “Bend your arm 45 degrees.” The idea of 45 degrees is meaningless to most children.

They have no room for it in their lives because they have no use for it but here they have a use for 45 degrees. It provides a field of action for mathematical ideas as well as self awareness. They have a use for it.

Anth: What differences do you notice nationally in the way robots and computers are used in education?

Seymour: There certainly are differences but they are difficult to pin down. For one thing you use more robots in Britain than they do in the United States. More robotic devices are used here to teach programming. In the States they used to screen graphics more. Of course, both are used in both places but there seems to be a preference for the actual robot in Britain. I think this might have something to do with a tradition in Britain of using very concrete objects for introducing young children to abstract thinking.

It might also have something to do with an accident; in Britain manufacturers made robots earlier than they made computers with good graphics. I do not know to what to attribute it but the fact is that there is much more work being done in Britain. When I come to Britain or visit projects, I see aspects of how children learn with computers which are new to me and different from things I see in the States.

The computer can support many different approaches to education. It can strengthen both sides. It could become an instrument for an Orwellian society with thought control or it could become an instrument for the flourishing of independent minds. Which it becomes is not a matter of debating or conferences about education. At the end it is a political issue. It will be decided politically.



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