One of the few formal sessions I attended at the ISTE conference was one by Gary Stager. Gary is one of those people with strong opinions, and I don’t always agree with him but he always gets me thinking. Which is a good thing.

His topic this time was a retrospective on the work and ideas of Seymour Papert, who passed away two years ago. If you are an educator and you don’t know about Papert’s work, then there is a big gap in your professional knowledge. Especially if you have anything to do with instructional technology.1

Papert was a pioneering researcher on how kids could use technology to learn. He believed in the idea that children could and should use all kinds of tools create their own learning, leading directly to the current Maker movement. He was also the godfather of today’s “coding for all” efforts, having co-developed the Logo language (Scratch’s grandfather) and advocated in the 80’s for programming as part of the standard curriculum.

During the talk, Gary reminded us of two particular Papert ideas that I believe are very relevant in the techno-rush to “personalize” student learning.

One comes from Papert’s landmark book Mindstorms in which he asks a fundamental question: “Does the computer program the child or does the child program the computer?”

It struck me that the former – the computer programming the child – is exactly the approach taken by many designers of personalized systems. They claim their products are simply offering kids choices, but too often their algorithms are in control of the learning process.

Before buying into the marketing hype of “personalized” learning products, anyone who works with children should be asking the developers Papert’s question. If they can’t offer a satisfactory answer, move on.

Gary also offered another, very simple, observation from Papert that should be quite obvious, but is often ignored: “Learning is not the direct result of being taught.”

Of course, when he uses the term “learning”, Papert was not thinking of standardized test scores. He was concerned with long term understanding and internalizing of knowledge. The kind that only comes from kids constructing their own learning.

It’s an idea that the vendors of “personalized” learning systems seem have missed, since their systems are all about being taught, not learning.

Just a couple of powerful ideas from Seymour Papert that we often forget when surrounded by all the attractive, shiny new toys at ISTE.

The image is a drawing of Seymour being drawn by the LOGO Turtle by Peter H. Reynolds. It is linked from Gary Stager’s Daily Papert website.

1. In addition to Mindstorms, I recommend Papert’s wonderful book from the early 90’s, The Children’s Machine. You can also get much more information about Papert and read many of his papers on Gary’s site, The Daily Papert.