Educational Ideas Inspired By Seymour Papert’s Constructionism

From wikipedia:

Seymour Aubrey Papert (/ˈpæpərt/; 29 February 1928 – 31 July 2016) was a South African-born American mathematician, computer scientist, and educator, who spent most of his career teaching and researching at MIT.[2][3][4] He was one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence, and of the constructionist movement in education.[5] He was co-inventor, with Wally Feurzeig and Cynthia Solomon, of the Logo programming language.


Below is a collection of insights from Papert’s “constructionist” educational ideas:


From Greg Wilson’s Teaching Tech Together by Ced Chin

  • Wilson asserts that the way you teach novices is to help them construct the right mental models, so they have somewhere to put your facts…Wilson uses the word ‘construct’ because he is most influenced by Seymour Papert’s work on knowledge acquisition. Papert’s claim is that humans learn by ‘construction’ — that is, we build knowledge in an iterative, cumulative way, replacing old, flawed mental models with newer ones, or stacking concepts on top of what we already know.


  • it explains why you must generate lots of examples and explanations until it clicks — and what clicks for one person may be different from what clicks for another.


  • Knowledge is a guided walk as the teacher gently nudges the student based on whatever models the student currently holds in their heads.


  • Because novice learners build knowledge based on what they already know, it is very common for them to construct a mistaken mental model as they begin to progress in their learning. Good teachers watch out for this and clear it out; one important way they do this is to use formative assessments (formative here means ‘to form’, or ‘to shape’ the learning) to diagnose mistaken mental models.


  • The education system should be reformed to encourage facilitation, not recitation. For instance, if a learner is made to move through a series of formative examples that are designed to subtly shape his or her understanding, this learner will develop intuition far quicker and more enjoyably than if he or she was given a mathematical equation in a lecture (and expected to develop intuition from that equation). The former practice teaches through knowledge acquisition; the latter practice stems from the belief that insight can be passed along wholesale. The sad truth is that the majority of our education systems teach in the latter manner;


  • Expertise, then, is a densely connected graph of facts. We should note that expertise comes not from the facts that are known (a competent practitioner may add many more facts to their mental model of the domain but not see an increase in expertise) — instead, expertise comes from how densely these facts are interconnected. And that interconnectedness comes from reflection and practice.

From You Can’t Teach What They Aren’t Ready To Know by Ced Chin

  • A key corollary of Papert’s critique of modern education is that by learning academic’s formal representations of knowledge, students come to hate learning. Papert believed that learning to memorize and compute F=ma, completely divorced from its meaning in the world and in a person’s life, essentially requires teachers to lie to children about its relevance. He lamented that teachers around the world must regularly argue, “This formula is important and valuable to you,” when teachers know it is not, and don’t even believe it is personally valuable to them. Papert believed that this deception erodes the relationship between teachers and children, and ultimately erodes the trust and respect of educational institutions. This stems from Papert’s ideas — basically, if you can only guide a ready mind, then you can’t hope to communicate insight or mental models just like that.


  • This idea — that you can’t communicate insight by explaining — has haunted me ever since.


  • [Me: this is the importance of scaffolding customized to the individual]


  • because all knowledge is constructed, the best way to teach would be to give a student a series of progressive exercises designed to correct their existing mental models. Explanations and formalisations come after  the student has developed an intuitive understanding of the concept; the teacher’s job is merely to facilitate the development of that insight — before giving the student tools to communicate it, such as mathematical notation. A knowledge-construction approach to teaching would involve the student experiencing a series of such questions, making guesses and mistakes as they slowly built up an intuition for how volume relates to weight and density. Then, as a final step, the teacher introduces the technical notation that captures this relationship, allowing the intuition to be externalised and made manipulatable.


  • Notice how different this approach is from teaching p=m/V first, and then asking the student to construct this intuition on their own. (Cue the references to ‘conceptual wall bashing’ — as I used to do). Papert asserts that this format of teaching is exactly backwards, and it creates an artificial selection process for those who are masochistic enough, or persistent enough, to acquire that intuition for themselves.


  • Papert’s vision of teachers was therefore not as someone “presenting” knowledge and guiding their “acquisition” toward it, but as someone understanding a child’s prior knowledge, intuitively understanding the opportunities to build on top of that knowledge in a manner that results in a deeper understanding of a concept.


  • [this also explains why some books hit at the right time and others will not. And also why re-reading books is a good idea. Heraclitus: No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.]

  • Papert’s big idea explains why the Socratic method works as a teaching methodology. By eschewing explanations and relying on repeated questioning, a teacher may quickly learn the map of a student’s existing understanding, and better guide them to the insight that is the goal of their conversation.
    • the Socratic method (and therefore Papert’s approach) works wonderfully for “know-what” (facts) and “know-why” (science). But it begins to fail the further we move away from such explicit forms of knowledge, towards embodied or tacit knowledge. This is the ‘technê ’ I’ve mentioned so often on Commonplace — the idea that certain types of knowledge cannot be easily expressed through words, and may only be learnt through practice or apprenticeship.


  • Prescription: But that means that when it comes to technê — a form of knowledge that can only be learnt through practice or apprenticeship — Papert’s idea becomes a limiting factor. If you can only learn what you are ready for, then you cannot learn from experts without practice of your own. I wager that the mutterings of people like Dalio, Buffett and Munger are of limited use when you remain at the bottom levels of their respective skillsets. Technê is by definition knowledge that is difficult to codify and explain; their mutterings will therefore only be useful to people of a certain level of expertise. This implies that you shouldn’t waste time looking for insight in codified mental models written down by second-rate bloggers (myself included). It implies that you should do as Buffett did when he went straight to Benjamin Graham at age 19: read only from expert practitioners, put things into practice, and if possible, find those practitioners directly and learn from them.

From Mindstorms: what did Papert argue and what does it mean for learning and education? by Amy J Ko

  • Computing is necessary to make powerful representations personal and concrete.

    To Papert, personal computers were therefore the perfect medium in which to engage students with powerful representations:

    “Before computers there were very few good points of contact between what is most fundamental and engaging in mathematics and anything firmly planted in everyday life. But the computer —mathematics speak being in the midst of the everyday life of the home, school, and workplace — is able to provide such links. The challenge to education is to find ways to exploit them.” — Papert, Mindstorms (Chapter 2)

    But it wasn’t just computers that Papert viewed as necessary for realizing his vision. It was also computing, and in particular, concrete expressions of systematic procedures, which we now call algorithms. Papert viewed algorithms as descriptions of action in the world and a means for reflecting on action. By encouraging children to write down algorithms as part of their learning, he believed we might help them learn to better reflect concretely on their ideas, accelerating their construction of knowledge.

    Because of the power of algorithms, Papert lamented that schools taught so much about numbers but so little about procedures:

    “In our culture number is richly represented, systematic procedure is poorly represented” — Papert, Mindstorms (Chapter 7)

    He imagined a world in which children learned just as much about algorithmic thinking as they did about numerical thinking, evening coining the widely used phrase “computational thinking,” in the hopes that thinking like a computer, combined with more powerful representations for making that thinking explicit, would be a path to better learning of all subjects.

  • Education should be facilitation, not recitation

    Some of the biggest critics of Papert’s ideas were teachers themselves: they could not comprehend a world without curriculum, pedagogy, learning objectives, and assessments.

    Papert responded with a vision of education as facilitating bricolage, which is the construction new things out of what is available, namely, the knowledge a child has available:

    “But ‘teaching without curriculum‘ does not mean spontaneous, free-form classrooms or simply “leaving the child alone.” It means supporting children as they build their own intellectual structures with materials drawn from the surrounding culture. In this model, educational intervention means changing the culture, planting new constructive elements in it and eliminating noxious ones. This is a more ambitious undertaking than introducing a curriculum change…” — Papert, Mindstorms (Chapter 1)

    Papert’s vision of teachers was therefore not as someone “presenting” knowledge and guiding their “acquisition” toward it, but as someone understanding a child’s prior knowledge, intuitively understanding the opportunities to build on top of that knowledge in a manner that results in a deeper understanding of a concept.

  • Making learning culturally relevant

    Thus we are brought back to seeing the necessity for the educator to be an anthropologist. Educational innovators must be aware that in order to be successful they must be sensitive to what is happening in the surrounding culture and use dynamic cultural trends as a medium to carry their educational interventions.” — Papert, Mindstorms (Chapter 8)

    This demanded that teachers and education researchers be more than just experts on a subject: it demanded that they be experts on the social worlds in which their children live, so they could make culturally meaningful representations of ideas.

  • Practical problem

    Where will the powerful representations come from?

    When describing his vision, Papert worried a lot about where all of the powerful representations like Logo’s turtle would come from:

    “…the essential remaining problem in regard to the future of computers and education: the problem of the supply of people who will develop these [powerful representations]. The problem goes much deeper than a mere short supply of such people… there is a role but no place for them. In current professional definitions physicists think about how to do physics, educators think about how to teach it. There is no recognized place for people whose research is really physics, but physics oriented in directions that will be educationally meaningful.”—Papert, Mindstorms (Chapter 8)

    Here, Papert is essentially concerned about what institutions would support the work of physics education researchers, as they weren’t likely to be recognized as either physicists or education researchers. While this problem has been overcome in some domains (by coincidence, math and physics education are quite mature and have found homes in education, math, and physics), it remains a major issue for most other areas of education. It’s a particular issue for my doctoral students who study computing education: will they join CS departments or Education departments or rejected by both?

  • Amy Ko’s concerns

Papert’s ideas demand breaking the fundamental assumption of school, that children of similar ages learn similar things. It’s hard to imagine an educational institution that would actually realize Papert’s ideas about learning without violating this constraint, allowing children to follow their interests, learn different things at different paces.

I do believe that this would be an ideal context for learning, but I don’t buy that it’s feasible. Teachers would have to be virtuosos of many domains and representations, and would have to scale the facilitation of so many diverse student interests. That’s a lot of teacher training and a lot of research to build new representations.

From Edith Ackermann’s Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism:
What’s the difference? (Link)

  • Piaget & Papert: Similar Goals, Different Means

    Piaget and Papert are both constructivists in that they view children as the

    builders of their own cognitive tools, as well as of their external realities. For
    them, knowledge and the world are both constructed and constantly reconstructed
    through personal experience. Each gains existence and form through the
    construction of the other. Knowledge is not merely a commodity to be
    transmitted, encoded, retained, and re-applied, but a personal experience to be
    constructed. Similarily, the world is not just sitting out there waiting to be to be
    uncovered, but gets progressively shaped and transformed through the child’s, or
    the scientist’s, personal experience.

    Piaget and Papert are also both developmentalists in that they share an
    incremental view of knowledge construction. The common objective is to
    highlight the processes by which people outgrow their current views of the world,
    and construct deeper understandings about themselves and their environment. In
    their empirical investigations, Piaget and Papert both study the conditions under
    which learners are likely to maintain or change their theories of a given
    phenomenon through interacting with it during a significant period of time.

    Despite these important convergences, the approaches of the two thinkers
    nonetheless differ. Understanding these differences requires a clarification of
    what each thinker means by intelligence, and of how he chooses to study it.
    In appearance, both Piaget and Papert define intelligence as adaptation, or
    the ability to maintain a balance between stability and change, closure and
    openess, continuity and diversity, or, in Piaget’s words, between assimilation and accommodation. And both see psychological theories as attempts to model how people handle such difficult balances. At a deeper level, however, the difference is that Piaget’s interest was mainly in the construction of internal stability (la conservation et la reorganisation des acquis), whereas Papert is more interested in the dynamics of change (la decouverte de nouveaute).

    Allow me to elaborate:

    Piaget’s theory relates how children become progressively detached from the world of concrete objects and local contingencies, gradually becoming able to mentally manipulate symbolic objects within a realm of hypothetical worlds. He studied children’s increasing ability to extract rules from empirical regularities and to build cognitive invariants. He emphasized the importance of such cognitive invariants as means of interpreting and organizing the world. One could say that Piaget’s interest was in the assimilation pole. His theory emphasizes all those things needed to maintain the internal structure and organization of the cognitive system. [Me: Moving from the experiential to the formal or  abstract where in service of consistency]. And what Piaget describes particularly well is  precisely this internal structure and organization of knowledge at different levels of development.

    Papert’s emphasis lies almost at the opposite pole. His contribution is to remind us that intelligence should be defined and studied in-situ; alas, that being intelligent means being situated, connected, and sensitive to variations in the environment. In contrast to Piaget, Papert draws our attention to the fact that “diving into” situations rather than looking at them from a distance, that connectedness rather than separation, are powerful means of gaining understanding. Becoming one with the phenomenon under study is, in his view, a key to learning. It’s main function is to put empathy at the service of intelligence.

    To conclude, Papert’s research focuses on how knowledge is formed and transformed within specific contexts, shaped and expressed through different media, and processed in different people’s minds. While Piaget liked to describe the genesis of internal mental stability in terms of successive plateaus of equilibrium, Papert is interested in the dynamics of change. He stresses the fragility of thought during transitional periods. He is concerned with how different people think once their convictions break down, once alternative views
    sink in, once adjusting, stretching, and expanding their current view of the world becomes necessary. [Me: this seems critically important today] Papert always points toward this  fragility, contextuality, and flexibility of knowledge under construction.

    Last but not least, the type of “children” that Piaget and Papert depict in their theories are different and much in tune with the researchers’ personal styles and scientific interests. Note that all researchers ‘construct” their own idealized child. Piaget’s “child,” often referred to as an epistemic subject, is a representative of the most common way of thinking at a given level of development. And the “common way of thinking” that Piaget captures in his descriptions is that of a young scientist whose purpose is to impose stability and order over an everchanging physical world. I like to think of Piaget’s child as a young Robinson  Crusoe in the conquest of an unpopulated yet naturally rich island. Robinson’s conquest is solitary yet extremely exciting since the explorer himself is an innerdriven, very curious, and independent character. The ultimate goal of his adventure is not the exploration as such, but the joy of stepping back and being able to build maps and other useful tools in order to better master and control the territory under exploration.

    Papert’s “child,” on the other hand, is more relational and likes to get in tune with others and with situations. S/he resembles what Sherry Turkle describes as a “soft” master (Turkle, 1984). Like Piaget’s Robinson, s/he enjoys discovering novelties, yet unlike him, s/he likes to remain in touch with situations (people and things) for the very sake of feeling at one with them. Like Robinson, s/he learns from personal experience rather than from being told. Unlike him, s/he enjoys gaining understanding from singular cases, rather than  extracting and applying general rules. S/he likes to be engaged in situations and not step back from them. S/he might be better at pointing at what s/he understands while still in context, than at telling what s/he experienced in retrospect.

    Integrating the views:

    Along with Piaget, I view separateness through progressive decentration as a necessary step toward reaching deeper understanding. Distancing oneself from a situation does not necessarily entail disengaging, but may constitute a necessary step toward relating even more intimately and sensitively to people and things. In any situation, it would seem, there are moments when we need to project part of our experience outwards, to detach from it, to encapsulate it, and then reengage with it. This view of separateness can be seen as a provisory means of gaining closer relatedness and understanding. It does not preclude the value of being embedded in one’s own experience.

    On the other hand, Papert’s view that diving into unknown situations, at the cost of experiencing a momentary sense of loss, is also a crucial part of learning. Only when a learner has actually traveled through a world, by adopting different perspectives, or putting on different “glasses,” can a dialogue begin between local and initially incompatible experiences.

    To conclude, both “dwelling in” and “stepping back” are equally important in getting such a cognitive dance going. How could people learn from their experience as long as they  are totally immersed in it. There comes a time when one needs to translate the experience into a description or a model. Once built, the model gains a life of its own, and can be addressed as if it were “not me.” From then on, a new cycle can begin, because as soon as the dialog gets started (between me and my artifact), the stage is set for new and deeper connectedness and understanding.

    In his book, The Evolving Self, Kegan elaborates on the notion that becoming embedded and emerging from embeddedness are both needed to achieve deeper understandings of oneself and others. To Kegan, human development is a lifelong attempt on the part of the subject to resolve the tension between getting embedded and emerging from embeddedness (Kegan, 1982). In a similar way, I think of cognitive growth as a lifelong attempt on the part of the subject to form and constantly reform some kind of balance between closeness and separation, openness and closure, mobility and stability, change and invariance.

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