In his classic book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and powerful Ideas, the founder of educational robots, Seymour Papert set out a vision of how computers could change school. In The Children’s Machine he now looks back over a decade during which American schools acquired more than three million computers and assesses progress and resistance to progress. Published by Basic Books.
It is often said that we are entering the information age. This coming period could equally be called the age of learning: The sheer quantity of learning taking place in the world is already many times greater than in the past.
Not very long ago, and in many parts of the world even today, young people would learn skills they could use in their work throughout life. Today, in industrial countries, most people are doing jobs that did not exist when they were born. The most important skill determining a person’s life pattern has already become the ability to learn new skills, to take in new concepts, to assess new situations, to deal with the unexpected. This will be increasingly true in the future: The competitive ability is the ability to learn.
What is true for individuals is even more true for nations. The competitive strength of a nation in the modern world is directly proportional to its learning capacity; that is, a combination of the learning capacities of the individuals and the institutions of the society.
Individual and institutional learning capacities do not always go together. For example, conditions in the Soviet Union bred a generation of individuals with a high degree of adaptability necessary for survival under the arbitrary oppression of the Communist regime. On the other hand, the breakdown of the institutions of the Soviet Union revealed an extraordinary degree of bureaucratic inflexibility. The institutions of the society were unable to “learn” to adapt to changing conditions; they were unable even to take account of the fact that a crisis was mounting until it had already reached fatal proportions.
Japan is the striking example in the contemporary world of a nation that has built success on the learning ability of the society — the capacity and willingness of its institutions and individuals to learn. Americans often complain that Japan has taken advantage of technical discoveries made in the United States. The complaint expresses my point perfectly, though in a sense opposite to the intentions of the complainers, who have failed to learn that the essence of the Japanese success is exactly the ability responsible for America’s past successes — the willingness to learn. The complainers would do well to relearn from the Japanese the skill of learning, at which America was once the world’s champion.
The rate of change in the workplace is not the only factor giving increased importance to the ability to learn. The global scale of the consequences of human actions makes it ever more urgent for us to understand what we are doing. The destruction of the upper atmosphere, the AIDS crisis, the population explosion, the social breakdown in American cities and Russian villages, the plight of the African continent, and all the other issues that make daily headlines are more than desperately urgent problems. They are examples of much worse to come if human beings cannot bring themselves, on a hitherto unprecedented scale, to learn new ways of thinking.
The optimistic note of this book comes from recognizing the potential synergy of two trends in the world. One of these trends is technological. The same technological revolution that has been responsible for the acute need for better learning also offers the means to take effective action. Information technologies, from television to computers and all their combinations, open unprecedented opportunities for action in improving the quality of the learning environment, by which I mean the whole set of conditions that contribute to shaping learning in work, in school, and in play.
The other trend is epistemological, a revolution in thinking about knowledge. The central thesis of this book is that the powerful contribution of the new technologies in the enhancement of learning is the creation of personal media capable of supporting a wide range of intellectual styles. Women and members of minority cultures have peen most articulate in protesting the imposition of a single, uniform way of learning. Most have scarcely begun to use the new media to express and develop their particular voices. But it is children who have most visibly demonstrated the energizing effect of media that match their intellectual preferences. They have the most to gain and they have the most to give.
Across the world children have entered a passionate and enduring love affair with the computer. What they do with computers is as varied as their activities. The greatest amount of time is devoted to playing games, with the result that names like Nintendo have become household words. They use computers to write, to draw, to communicate, to obtain information. Some use computers as a means to establish social ties, while others use them to isolate themselves. In many cases their zeal has such force that it brings the word addiction to the minds of concerned parents.
The love affair involves more than the desire to do things with computers. It also has an element of possessiveness and, most importantly, of assertion of intellectual identity. Large numbers of children see the computer as “theirs” — as something that belongs to their generation. Many have observed that they are more comfortable with the machines than their parents and teachers are. They learn to use them more easily and naturally. For the moment some of us old fogeys may somehow have acquired the special knowledge that makes one a master of the computer, but children know that it is just a matter of time before they inherit the machines. They are the computer generation.
What lies behind the love affair? Where is it going?
Can it be guided by the older generation into forms constructive or destructive? Or is its evolution already out of our hands?
This book focuses on one aspect of these questions: How does the relationship between children and computers affect learning? Understanding this relationship will be crucial to our ability to shape the future.