Reading Papert’s Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, my reactions and reflections went in several directions. As a historian, I was struck by some of the assumptions about the development of computers. In some ways, his predictions about the growth of the technology were right on, albeit a bit quaint sounding, “Readers who have never seen an interactive computer display might find it hard to imagine where this can lead. As a mental exercise they might like to imagine an electronic sketchpad, a computer graphic display of the not-too-distant future. This is a television screen that can display moving pictures in color. You can also ‘draw’ on it, giving it instructions, perhaps by typing, perhaps by speaking, or perhaps by pointing with a wand….” Sounds like an iPad to me. What struck me was his assumption that using such devices would continue to require students to learn how they worked, and be, at some basic level, masters of the technology. In fact, the opposite is true. Just like other technologies in our lives, we know less about what is making the computer work, about the code behind the graphical interface, than we do about our cars, our refrigerators, or our television sets. So does this amazing technological progress reflect any of the hope Papert had for computers as learning and teaching devices. I think my answer is maybe. When we use the computers to read, write, play video, record audio and video, or access the web, we are using a useful tool, we are perhaps opening up a gateway into a revolutionary new expanse of available knowledge, but we are not doing anything to help a child’s brain develop patterns for math, problem solving, or debugging. However, when we use a few more creative tools in the classroom, movie making software and vector drawing programs come to mind from my own classroom experience, we do see students engaging in some of the same debugging activities that make LOGO so compelling.
When I started teaching digital storytelling in my 8th grade history classroom, I had to start with handouts, including screen shots, of how to use the basic features of iMovie. Today, when I assign a movie project, I don’t specify a program, and I don’t teach the software at all. The students, to a greater or lesser degree, know that part of the task is creating something, watching it, and seeing where the audio or the video did not work as they intended. Then they go back into the editing window and see what they can do to make it work.
All of this leads me on to reflect on the possibilities the computer presents, and the ways in which schools are, and are not, exploring the possibilities Papert points to as possibly fundamental in teaching and learning. It seems to me that we should have answers to some of his questions about how teaching programing (Turtle based, Scratch, whatever) have had any positive effects on students and “mathophobia.” I don’t know, however, if the presence of such evidence would be enough to move the behemoth that is American education in any useful direction.