The original Mindstorms

At Educating Programmers I talked to several people about Mindstorms. Not LEGO (though there’s a great deal to be said about that too), but the book, published in 1980 by Seymour Papert, in which he sets out a vision of learning inspired by the use of computers. It’s a book which most people present had heard of, of course, but I can’t recall anyone saying they’d actually read it. I encountered it in the mid-1980s, when my children were young, on the back of exploring many different programming languages and coming across Logo. It left a deep impression on me, and I was enthusiastic in talking about it, and lending my copy (too enthusiastic — would the last person I lent it to, please give it back? Thanks).

Rereading it now, I’m just as impressed — by its vision, its prescience, and its humanity. The prime motivation is Piaget’s thinking on learning — especially the intense, incredible learning that children undertake on their own in the first few years of their lives. It tackles head-on all the current concerns about dissociation between science and humanities, math phobia. A central concept is the idea of an “object-to-think-with” — that can be identified with, that serves as an extension of the self, and that through it’s affordances and capabilities stimulates the kind of purposeful exploration that characterises powerful learning at any ages, especially the early years. Papert tells his own story about one such object, in the book’s preface, The Gears of my Childhood; I like the story so much I’ll quote it at length:

BEFORE I WAS two years old I had developed an intense involve-ment with automobiles. The names of car parts made up a very substantial portion of my vocabulary: I was particularly proud of knowing about the parts of the transmission system, the gearbox, and most especially the differential. It was, of course, many years later before I understood how gears work; but once I did, playing with gears became a favorite pastime. I loved rotating circular ob-jects against one another in gearlike motions and, naturally, my first “erector set” project was a crude gear system.

I became adept at turning wheels in my head and at making chains of cause and effect: “This one turns this way so that must turn that way so …” I found particular pleasure in such systems as the differential gear, which does not follow a simple linear chain of causality since the motion in the transmission shaft can be distributed in many different ways to the two wheels depending on what resistance they encounter. I remember quite vividly my excitement at discovering that a system could be lawful and completely comprehensible without being rigidly deterministic.

I believe that working with differentials did more for my mathematical development than anything I was taught in elementary school. Gears, serving as models, carried many otherwise abstract ideas into my head. I clearly remember two examples from school math. I saw multiplication tables as gears, and my first brush with equations in two variables (e.g., 3x + 4y - 10) immediately evoked the differential. By the time I had made a mental gear model of the relation between x and y, figuring how many teeth each gear needed, the equation had become a comfortable friend.

Many years later when I read Piaget this incident served me as a model for his notion of assimilation, except I was immediately struck by the fact that his discussion does not do full justice to his own idea. He talks almost entirely about cognitive aspects of assimilation. But there is also an affective component. Assimilating equations to gears certainly is a powerful way to bring old knowledge to bear on a new object. But it does more as well. I am sure that such assimilations helped to endow mathematics, for me, with a positive affective tone that can be traced back to my infantile experiences with cars.

Embodying learning in an object-to-think-with to which one develops an affective relationship is a powerful stimulus to owning the knowledge that’s being gained. Papert gives the example from a class using Logo to generate poetry — not what you’d usually associate the language with, but this was a slightly older class. They’d had some ineffective drilling in English grammar some time before, which their teacher hadn’t been able to motivate. But when faced with having to generate sentences, suddenly the previously dry rules and constraints made sense — they had an owned, immediate purpose. Children learn more, and more effectively, about math, coordinates and geometry by programming pictures, sprites and collision detection than by doing sums and exercises”

Arithmetic is a bad introductory domain for learning heuristic thinking. Turtle geometry is an excellent one. By its qualities of ego and body syntonicity, the act of learning to make the Turtle draw gives the child a model of learning that is very much different from the dissociated one a fifth-grade boy, Bill, described as the way to learn multiplication tables in school: “You learn stuff like that by making your mind a blank and saying it over and over until you know it.”

Musicians, I think, never lose this sense of an affective, thought-inspiring object: I’ve found the best are always challenged by the relationship with their instruments, and with the nature of musical sound itself. There’s always more to explore, to learn, and though work away from an instrument has its place, for me it’s always secondary to where sound and the physicality of playing lead me.

There’s lots more to the book, of course. The good news (for me, and I hope for you too) is that it’s still in print, and also available as a download from the ACM. If you’re at all involved in computers and education, or if you need inspiring about the potential for this thing called programming to change the way we live and learn, then you owe it to yourself to read Mindstorms. It’s reminded me of the happy fact that, essentially, I’m paid large amounts of money every day — essentially — to learn and to play.

No Comments

Add your own comment...