Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Reflecting on Papert, Palmer and Freire


I’ve been reading several books in parallel these days (I haven’t managed to read a non-fiction book in a linear manner since I finished my PhD!) and finding amazing connections between them. There’s Papert’s Mindstorms, Freire’s Pedagogy of Hope, and Palmer’s The Courage to Teach.

I’m going to do something here which I used to do while working on my thesis to make myself efficient and to avoid long quotes: I am going to try to sum up some of the ideas without referring back to the texts – this helps me solidify my own ideas and make the connections more freely, I think (it also helps me avoid overly long quotes that aren’t necessary).

So in Palmer’s book, I was really struck by this idea of how denying learners access to their own subjectivity (as in by preventing them from writing in the first person, which in some academic circles is still unacceptable) – distances students from their inner reality. He goes on to talk about how a lot of what happens in educational reform and elsewhere focuses on fixing external, supposedly objective realities, and devaluing inner reality, which means we end up reducing teaching to techniques rather than opportunities of engaging with students’ souls. It also, I suppose, reinforces the idea of authority belonging to some external person and denies one’s own capacity for building knowledge and constructing one’s own interpretations of knowledge. I believe that by distancing learners from their own process of learning, we limit their capacity for growth, for becoming autonomous learners able to set their own goals and paths.

Which brings me to Papert. I had read briefly about constructionism and vaguely could see the connection between it and the maker movement. Papert’s book clarified for me how constructionism takes Piaget’s constructivism one step further. We know constructivism as a belief in an individual constructing knowledge, rather than receiving it (which also goes well with Freire’s ideas, of course) and that Vygotsky’s social constructivism gives this a social dimension as we learn with peers or more capable mentors. Constructionism takes this one step further into a belief that we learn by creating things, and Papert’s belief is that computers can be the most versatile tool for this. The book was written in the 1980s but is truly visionary in the way Papert imagines computers transforming learning. Instead of the way computers have often been used to program the child (predefined content and predefined pathways that merely adapt to learner skill levels), Papert imagines ways in which children program the computer (from a very early age) to learn. I am still early on in the book but I think the ideas Papert has are actually more generic than programming computers.

Papert talks about how his own love of gears as a child helped him in later mathematical thinking. He then makes an important point: that what we can generalize from his experience is not that we should use gears per se to help all children learn mathematics, but rather, that each child will have an affinity with something or other, and that that particular thing is what we can work with to help the child learn other things. He emphasizes the affective aspect of the learning process here.

Which brings me back to Palmer, who talked about how we as teachers learn from our mentors, but that when we try to mimic our mentor’s teaching style we often fail. Because they are different
people from us, and what we often admire about them relates to how well they fit their teaching style to their own personality, philosophy, etc., and that this is the lesson we can generalize, rather than the particular techniques used.

Back to Papert… His idea was that computers are so versatile that letting children discover how to program in a language like LOGO means they can start creating whatever worlds they like in order to learn. This made me think of a few things as a mom. I first thought about something as versatile as play-doh and how a child can form it into whatever they want. Give a child play-doh and they can mix up the colors to create whatever they like, they can make food, they can make animals, they can make cars,they can make jewellery, and this all feeds their imagination. The other day, my daughter left the play-doh and started playing with the containers of the play-doh, stacking them, and saying “sorry blue, sorry red, sorry green” (I have no idea what she was apologizing for, but those are more unprompted “sorries” than she’s ever said in one day!). I thought about the versatility of blocks/legos and how not providing kids with a particular structure helps promote their creativity. It reminded me of one of the games my own students designed this semester. They called it ‘recycling legos’ – it is basically a game where two teams compete to create a “toy” out of reused material (not recycled, but you get the idea). Teams can create the toy from the material provided or add material of their own; they can create from their imagination, or look at a sample photo (but lose some points). I love this game. And it’s made me think of more ways of reusing and remixing my child’s toys at home.

Remix culture is beautiful. On all levels. On the level of my using the different-sized egg surprises my daughter has and creating a Russian-doll like activity out of them; on the level of my students’ games (that particular game is partly inspired by the Landfillharmonic video which I had shown my students to inspire them to create something beautiful out of recycled/reused material). And online with all the versatility of online and open licenses (or even ignoring closed licenses!).

And I was thinking of why it is so difficult to keep my daughter away from the iPad for so long. It’s versatile. She can use it to play music, watch videos, finger paint, play piano, look at photos, play with a cat, do puzzles, play all kinds of games, and type. Now that’s not all “programming” and you could argue that there is a lot of passivity in some of these activities. But here’s the thing: she has some control over what he does next, how long she listens to a particular song, which app she’ll look at next, etc. And for me, if I need to go out of the house, instead of carrying 10 toys, the iPad (or smartphone) has the versatility to keep her engaged in different ways for a long time. Strangely (or not?), Papert imagined similar things back in the 1980s. What is really strange, though, is the ways that a lot of educational technology provides more prescriptive learning experiences rather than ones that promote discovery and creativity. Ones that give learners more control, but provide the rich resources in the environment for learners to work with.

Because Papert’s point is all about how learners as builders work with the materials of their physical environment and culture. The more we enrich these, the more material is available for learners to build with. And his idea is to leave them to build on their own and figure out what the role of teachers/schools would then be, if it is not to impart knowledge/content.

And Freire is right: we still don’t have education that is content-less, but (and you know I am very much against education that is centered around content) that those choices of which content and how to teach it are value-laden. Freire, Papert and Palmer, all coming from different directions, are all advocating for something similar: creating space for learners to make meaning from what matters to them, rather than having teachers or policy-makers make those decisions for them. No teacher can know what will make every single student “click”, but every teacher can try to provide an environment rich enough and flexible enough for each learner to mix and match and create their own learning.

How to do this in MOOC-like environments? I’d say #fedwikihappening was a great example of this, as was #rhizo14 and some others but to a lesser extent.

How do we do this as parents? Let them play and break rules, I guess. I’m reminded of an experiment (can’t remember where i read it) where some children were shown a toy and shown a few of its functions, and others were not shown any of its functions. Those who were not shown the functions managed to discover more functions than the ones who had been shown specific functions. This makes a lot of sense. Provide the material and let the child discover and make what they want from it.

I am also reminded of a recent blogpost by Simon Ensor where he talks about children’s imaginations. And I think he mentions specifically how fiction can be a person’s (inner) reality, that it’s not a lie to a child. I remember my own make-believe brothers and sisters growing up (I am an only child, but I was never lonely, and they were there for me whenever I needed them). Children construct their reality this way. I think adults do it to a lesser extent. It’s one of the ways I survive the loss of a loved one. I continue talking to them, imagining what they might say in response. I remember reading a couple of novels where computers reconstructed a dead person’s conversation such that you could have conversations with them: Goodbye for Now and another one whose name I can’t remember right now. And I remember thinking I don’t need a computer to do that for me. I have my memories and my imagination.

And aren’t those the richest resources of all?


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