In Memoriam

A Tribute to Seymour Papert

This week visionary educator and mathematician Seymour Papert passed away at the age of 88. In 1969 he coauthored Perceptrons: An Introduction to Computational Geometry (with Marvin Minsky), which has become a classic text on artificial intelligence. Beginning in the 1980s he published books on children, technology, and learning. In this post, Yasmin Kafai, for whom Dr. Papert served as a mentor and thesis advisor, pays tribute to his work and enduring legacy. Yasmin Kafai is coauthor of Connected Code (dedicated to Seymour Papert) and the forthcoming Connected Gaming.

After writing his groundbreaking ideas on children, computers, and learning in Mindstorms: Children, Computers, And Powerful Ideas, Seymour Papert started working on the sequel. The years following the 1980 publication were heady times where many of the ideas previously kept under lock and key in the laboratory were moving out into the world: an inner-city elementary school in Boston called Project Headlight demonstrated how teachers and students could engage with computers by making their own software games, a robotics kit with which children could accessorize their Lego blocks with motors and sensors at home and in school developed at the MIT Media Lab became available to the public, and a gigantic Walk-Through Computer at the Computer History Museum made tangible the inner workings of the new machine. Seymour’s vision in Mindstorms was becoming reality.

However, writing the sequel to Mindstorms turned out to be a more complex and laborious enterprise. As Seymour shared draft chapters with faculty and students at the Media Lab, he originally cited his mentor Warren McCulloch’s admonishment to not be satisfied with early successes, asking readers to keep their eyes on what, how, and where Mindstorms pointed (McCullough famously stated: “Don’t bite my finger, look at where I’m pointing!”). Seymour realized that reform in education was not solely driven by bringing computers into school—that was the easy part—but by changing pedagogy—the much harder part. When glossy multimedia CD-ROMs muscled their way into schools, they offered a new and easier way to interface with the machine but they were accompanied by the old ways of learning and teaching. Published in 1993, The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School In The Age Of The Computer no longer carried McCullough’s admonishment because Seymour had woven it throughout the chapters highlighting promises while being cognizant of potential issues.

Two decades later, when Quinn Burke and I started writing a book to bring Seymour’s ideas to a new audience, we witnessed a remarkable comeback of computing in schools. Also remarkable was how many had forgotten the lessons introduced and discussed in Seymour’s books. It wasn’t so much that students kept asking us “What is this turtle thing?” when reading chapters from Papert’s books. Rather, it was that the push to bring back programming in schools seemed to ignore much of the educational research and evidence from the last twenty years. In fact, this research had come to the very same conclusions that were already “pointed to” and articulated in Mindstorms and The Children’s Machine: context, community, and culture—not just technology—matter in education.

Just this weekend when Seymour passed away, Quinn and I sent back the corrected proofs for the manuscript of our forthcoming book. We had decided to include the reprint of a preface that Seymour wrote in 1995 thinking about the “hard fun” of learning and games: “Every educator must have felt some envy watching children playing video games: If only that energy could be mobilized in the service of learning something that the educator values. But the envy can take very different forms. Instructionists show their ori­entation by concretizing the wish as a desire for games that will teach math or spelling or geography or whatever. The Constructionist mind is revealed when the wish leads to imagin­ing children making the games instead of just playing them. Rather than wanting games to instruct children they yearn to see children construct games.”

Seymour’s yearnings were those of a critical visionary who not only wrote beautifully about them but also creatively realized their designs. He shared them with those who are and should be at its heart—children. His forward vision, brilliant insights, and unbridled joy were one of a kind, and will be sorely missed by us all.