On Reading Mindstorms


by Tracy Rudzitis -

Reading Mindstorms should be inspirational. I love reading anything that Seymour Papert has written. His words and his vision have always rung true for me and have always motivated and inspired me to infuse the practice he calls "Constructionism" into my classroom.  Then what it is about this time through the book that I have been left with such a grey and pessimistic feeling about everything that is the state of public education 35 years after Papert wrote Mindstorms?

Could it be that I can't seem to get past Papert's prediction that school would reject the ideas he has for using computers? Not understand his vision of Mathland or the way that learners can use the computer as material, as a tool, for shaping their understanding of the world they live in and must navigate through?

"Conservatism in the world of education has become a self-perpetuating social phenomena".   pg 37 Mindstorms

To get past this negative feeling I reached into my own student's experiences with the Turtle. I have taught Microworlds in a formal setting (meaning as a 2 to 3 month unit in all my 6th and 7th grade Digital Media classes) for the past 14 years. I absolutely love it. I love the joy the students experience the first time they get the turtle to move. I love the smiles on their faces and their shrieks of delight and the way that some will jump out of their seats with their fist in the air, "I did it!" which comes out much louder then they expected, and even catches themselves off guard.

The Turtle is able to capture the imaginations of every one of my students. We begin with simple turtle geometry as described by Papert in Chapter 3. For most students this is their first time "programming" an object on the computer screen using a text based interface rather than the familiar GUI or point and click and drag interface. Because of this the students are awestruck on the abilities and seemingly magical characteristics of the turtle. I will always remember when one student turned to me, in his most serious 6th grader voice, and said "It really is amazing, what this turtle is able to do".

My students go on to tackle some very complex concepts and thinking strategies when they work through their Microworlds programs. When I observe my students working through their ideas and sharing their observations and their "code" with their classmates, I can see the learning that is happening. If learning is a verb and is an active state then why is it that we are surrounded by tests and grading practices that are grounded in data collection and traditional frameworks of receiving information through direct instruction and then measuring what student's have retained using a methodology that is disconnected and often out of context from where the information originated from in the first place.

In 1980 Papert thought children deserved better than just the recycled and refitted mathematics from traditional approaches. Why do we still keep working with the old framework today and keep struggling to force-fit the old into today's world. Papert's approaches to learning are readily and easily accepted by children, as confirmed with my students as they "make sense" of the turtle. It is time his ideas and of allowing the students to be physically immersed in their learning makes sense to adults too.