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Mindstorms – Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas

20 April 2013

I just finished reading Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms, the first couple of chapters of which were assigned readings for the MIT Media Lab course on creative learning, but I found so enjoyable that I kept going.

The central topic of the book is about the Papert’s LOGO/Turtle programming environment, which I had used myself in elementary school. I saw Turtle programming then as an introduction to computer programming in general: writing scripts to make the “turtle” on the screen move around and draw pictures. Papert’s intentions were in fact much deeper than that; he developed the Turtle programming environment for the purpose of creating situations in which children could learn about basic concepts of Newtonian physics (how objects move) and differential geometry (how shapes can be constructed).

While much of the book uses the Turtle programming environment as an example, the main thesis of the book is that people learn best when they are engrossed in an environment in which to make use of what they are learning, rather than learning abstractly, disconnected from application of the ideas. Papert brings up the challenge of learning a foreign language: would you learn French better by sitting in a classroom memorizing books, or by living in France for a month, communicating with native speakers? The goal of the Turtle system, then, was to provide an artificial place for children to go to engage in ideas of physics and geometry, where those were not just abstract concepts but things to play with and to create with.

But Papert’s grand vision was not to create Turtle and be done with it. He hoped that it would serve as an example for others, to continue to use computers to create environments in which people could engage with ideas for better learning of any imaginable subject. Years after writing the book, he mused that, unfortunately, what most readers got out of the book was a study of the Turtle system itself, rather than the ideas behind it.

A very good read for those interested in education, and the intersection of education with technology. Oddly enough, the book does not appear to be available in digital format yet, but you can buy a printed copy at Amazon.