Seymour Papert: Computing and Creativity

Seymour Papert, mathematician, computer scientist and educational philosopher died on 31st July, aged 88. He was a passionate advocate for computing in education, not because he thought technology could provide useful teaching tools, but believed programming could unleash the creativity of children. 

Born in South Africa, Papert studied mathematics, going on to gain a PhD at Cambridge, and then to work with Jean Piaget in Geneva. He later drew on Piaget’s ideas while developing the Logo programming language and its associated floor ‘turtle’ at MIT. His aim was a simple programming language which nevertheless included the versatility to solve complex problems. The experience of Logo for many children in the 80s & 90s will have been using a physical or screen turtle to draw geometrical shapes. Papert saw this as important, giving children a way of exploring geometrical & mathematical concepts, but he  only intended this as the start. Logo was conceived to put the child in charge of this exploration; connecting the abstract to the concrete, learning creative problem solving, and gaining mastery of new technology as active developers, rather than just passive users. Sadly for many children in the UK their experience of Logo may not have gone much beyond following instructions on a worksheet to draw shapes on a screen, the antithesis of what Papert intended. For those, however, who were allowed to explore logo further, or it’s commercial inceptions such as Lego Mindstorms, a world of possibilities opened up.

Logo may no longer be the first programming language of choice in schools, but several versions are still popular and the derivative NetLogo modelling tool is still going strong. The principles (and particularly turtle graphics coding commands) live on in tools such as Scratch and text-based languages like Python. I have recently taught some computing at KS4 after a break from the subject of ten years. I’m pleased to see students captivated by the the ability that coding gives them to take charge of a task and create imaginative (and often elegant) solutions. When I look at the youngest pupils in our all-through school embarking on their journey into computing, I can only wonder at what they will be achieving the next ten years. I think we need to understand that, while we teachers may be the facilitators, it will be them taking us there, not the other way around. I believe a curriculum and pedagogy based on creative exploration would be a legacy of which Seymour Papert would approve. 

As ever, I welcome constructive comments. If you want to read more about Papert’s contribution to computing and creativity in schools, I recommend this excellent article Papert, Turtles and Creativity written in 2015 by Miles Berry. 

NetLogo is a programming language developed by Uri Wilensky at Northwestern University and is available here.

Lego MINDSTORMS is a trademark of the Lego Group.

Python is an educational programming language produced by the Python Software Foundation.

Scratch is a free first programming tool developed by the MIT Media Lab and is available here.

Image created using Logo interpreter by Joshua Bell.

pendown 

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