Friday, September 21, 2007

is papert a purist?

JTPowell's blog (second grade teacher) is inspirational

He is teaching himself Scratch, reading the MIT's Open Course Ware Readings on The Nature of Constructionist Learning (some great readings in this list) and then blogging about his learning process as it develops

Does the perception that Papert is a purist who has been advocating never teach anything directly to the learner come from Papert himself?

Currently, JT is agonising about this and I left a comment on his blog because I went through a similar agonising about breaking down the wall between behaviourism and constructionism when developing quadratics drill software in logo for my students

I think the origins of this purist perception comes from Piaget:
In order for a child to understand something, he must construct it himself, he must reinvent it. Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself.
However, this position was repudiated both by Papert and even more clearly by Kevin McGee in his 1992 thesis, Play and the Genesis of Middle Manager Agents (I have a hard copy):
Piaget's statement is ... potentially dangerous ... There are two processes being alluded to in Piaget's remark. On the one hand, there is the standard constructivist view that all knowledge is ultimately constructed by the individual. On the other hand, there is the further implication that it is somehow bad for individuals not to "reinvent the wheel" by themselves. One way to think about this is in terms of the difference between bringing about agent-conflict and resolving agent-conflict. Individuals need to be able to do both - and any approach to learning which de-emphasises one is seriously limited ...

If we really accept Piaget's strong emphasis on the large-scale, self-equilibrating, systemic nature of mind, then the debate over whether to give students answers or make them struggle for them falls almost entirely outside of the problem of conceptual innovation... it is not possible to give "answers" to individuals who don't have a question (don't perceive a problem to be solved); "making them struggle" is pointless since they have no idea what it is they are struggling for.

It is important to critique Piaget's "invention" quote seriously ... because a misreading of it seems to underly so much bad constructivist pedagogy ...
Kevin McGee was one of Papert's students. Another thought here is that Idit Harel (another Papert student) developed her theoretical approach by combining Vygotsky's zone of proximal development with Papert's constructionism. Really the teacher sets up a zone of appropriate struggle through the environment they help co-create with their students.

4 comments:

Tom Hoffman said...

Right on.

Mark Miller said...

The idea that the student must construct everything has puzzled me too. What about phonics, which is considered a rote method, but is tremendously successful at teaching children the basics of reading and spelling? What about "whole language" or "whole math", which totally shun anything that is rote, and where the students are expected to figure out reading and math by themselves? These methodologies have a poor track record. It seems to me, to misquote one of the U.S.'s Founding Fathers, "A little rote pedagogy is a good thing."

I remember seeing a quote from Papert about Piaget, where he was talking about how children learn, and this idea that they construct what they learn. Piaget noticed that at certain ages children showed certain levels of cognitive sophistication. An example he discussed was childrens' concept of where the wind came from. He asked many children this question. They consistently said things like "The wind comes from the trees", or "the waves" if they lived near the ocean. It was always based on what they could see and feel. I noticed that Piaget said he did not comment to the children about these observations, even though he knew they were wrong. After I read that I wished he had done some explorations with the children, helping them to realize where the wind comes from, rather than just leaving them with their mistaken impressions. He wouldn't have had to say, "That's wrong." Nothing so stern as that. It could've just been an invitation to learn, "Let me show you something..."

I guess the question for me is where does constructivism teach children well? I have a definite feeling that it fits well somewhere. To me the value of constructivism is its emphasis on exploration and experimentation. My own conception of it is the teacher is an integral part of it. Kids can discover things by themselves, but I think an adult's role is to guide children through the learning process. Guide them to experiments that will show them what is true, but let the children conduct the experiments so they own their realizations.

The value I've found with constructivist methodology in my own learning about Squeak is that on the way towards reaching a goal I find out information I didn't expect to find. So what I learn goes beyond just learning what I needed to solve a problem.

Bill Kerr said...

hi mark,

Papert says somewhere that Piaget was a conservative about children passing through stages. Papert's idea was that the developmental process could be speeded up with appropriate intervention, including logo but not only logo

Piaget wouldn't describe different children's beliefs as "wrong", he would see them as appropriate for that stage, a child's way of knowing. I'm a teacher and you certainly get to learn that sometimes trying to push more advanced or "correct" ideas onto students is often just a waste of energy. They are not ready for it. I think stage appropriate is valid even though I'm not a relativist or post modernist wrt knowledge, ie. I do believe there is such a thing as truth. As science develops we approach truth more closely but perhaps never quite get there. When sending a rocket to the moon we use Newtonian physics, not Einsteins physics. Is Newtonian physics "wrong" or just appropriate for some things and not for others?

Mark Miller said...

I see your point about age appropriateness. I would also not force concepts on a child when they're not ready for it. What I was addressing was this notion that I think you were talking about, which is that Piaget thought that children should learn everything by themselves. A concern I had with that approach is I wonder if students would end up keeping knowledge that they learned (incorrectly) at a young age, because they never thought to conduct experiments which would show what's really going on with something, like "what causes the wind?" Certainly books could convey this knowledge, but what if they didn't read books that contained this knowledge because the ones that contained that subject never interested them?

In our modern world there could be lots of influences that would eventually convey this knowledge to them, such as the meteorologist on TV. But what about people who don't get TV? I know adults who don't watch TV that much. I know parents who don't let their children watch TV hardly at all. Not to say this is a bad thing, but I think in some ways these people are isolated, since a characteristic I also notice is they tend to not get much in the way of news through print media, either. I know this is getting into wider commentary, but I know of people who don't care to know about the world around them. They would just prefer to shut it out. IMO it's a problem for society that people have this attitude. I believe in free will and all that, but I think school is a valuable place in which to get students interested in the wider world, to not shut it out and pretend it's not there.

What I'm saying is always counting on children to learn everything they need to learn to get a complete and reasonably correct conception of the world could be expecting too much, especially with the influence of some parents. IMO some guidance from adults, whether it be from parents or teachers, is needed in the learning process.