Remembering Seymour Papert
As I was preparing to speak at Seymour Papert’s memorial last month, I turned to my 1980 copy of Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas. The hardback first edition. The one with the orange cover that had the photo insert of a young girl commanding a floor Turtle. She had programmed a computer in Logo to instruct the Turtle to sketch out a bear, and she looks happy as she surveys the results of her work.
Next to her is a young boy. He is laughing, joyful. His body cradles the Turtle, his hand lovingly grazes its back. The girl is Miriam Lawler, the daughter of the psychologist Bob Lawler who was one of Seymour’s students and collaborators. The boy is the nephew of John Berlow, Seymour’s editor. These children grew up with Logo. The joy in the photo is part of their everyday experience of living in the Logo culture. It illustrates many of Seymour’s most powerful ideas about objects and learning.
We learn by making, doing, constructing. It’s great to think with objects we find in the world. But when we get to build, the great becomes awesome. And these two children, with a computer, were building something of their own in a whole new way. Seymour saw that the computer would make it easier for thinking itself to become an object of thought. When I began to interview children learning to program, I could hear how right he was. It was dramatic. One 13-year-old told me: ‘When you program a computer, you put a little piece of your mind into the computer’s mind and you come to see yourself differently.’ That is heady stuff.
Seymour called the identification of mind and object, mind and machine, the ‘ego-syntonic’ quality of programming. He used the language of syntonicity deliberately, to create a resonance between the language of computation and the language of psychoanalysis. And then he heightened the resonance by talking about body syntonicity as well. Which brings me to the boy draped around the Turtle. Seymour loved to get children to figure out how to program by ‘playing Turtle’. He loved that children could experience their ideas through the Turtle’s physical actions. That they could connect body-to-body with something that came from their mind.
We love the objects we think with; we think with the objects we love. So teach people with the objects they are in love with. And if you are a teacher, measure your success by whether your students are falling in love with their objects. Because if they are, the way they think about themselves will also be changing.
Soon after Seymour and I became friends in autumn 1975, he wanted to meet my grandfather who lived in Brooklyn. I was nervous because my grandfather disapproved of my friends who had beards. But Seymour was a hit. After offering my grandfather food from Zabar’s, he took a few small red balls out of his bag and began to teach my grandfather to juggle. My grandfather was a very formal man, a serious man, a large man. He dressed to meet Seymour in slacks, a dress shirt, a tie. No one had ever seen him as the kind of man who might want to juggle. But now he was passing a red rubber ball from hand to hand.
The two men stayed at the juggling lesson for an hour. There were snack breaks and moments of frustration. But my grandfather learned to juggle – enough. And, more extraordinary, Seymour asked him how he felt about it. What was working? Not working? How could they fix it? What was coming to mind?
My grandfather said that as a young man, he had been a bookbinder. The juggling brought back distinct, happy memories of being young and working with his hands. He talked about the demanding materials, the repetitive patterns. He was describing the pleasures of procedural thinking.
It was all there in the juggling lesson: learning through objects, ego syntonicity, body syntonicity, and a direct way to engage – through objects – the emotional life of the learner.
My grandfather had to drop out of school when he was 12. In learning to juggle, probably for the first time in a long time, he saw that he could still learn something new. He became a bit smitten with juggling and a bit smitten with Seymour. But in the conversation, in the reminiscence after, something else kicked in. My grandfather became a bit smitten with himself – as a learner. And as someone who could think of his learning life in a positive light.
In his explorations of the ways objects carry identity as well as ideas, you can see Seymour’s desire to take the cool studies of learning that were his Piagetian heritage and infuse them not only with ideas about making things, about action and construction, but also with ideas about feeling things, about love and connection.
At the time of the juggling lesson, Seymour was deep in his experiments into what he called ‘loud thinking’. It was what he was asking my grandfather to do. What are you trying? What are you feeling? What does it remind you of? If you want to think about thinking and the real process of learning, try to catch yourself in the act of learning. Say what comes to mind. And don’t censor yourself. If this sounds like free association in psychoanalysis, it is. (When I met Seymour, he was in analysis with Greta Bibring.) And if it sounds like it could you get you into personal, uncharted, maybe scary terrain, it could. But anxiety and ambivalence are part of learning as well. If not voiced, they block learning.
I studied psychology in the 1970s at Harvard, in William James Hall. The psychologists who studied thinking were on one floor. The psychologists who studied feeling were on another. Metaphorically, for the world of learning, Seymour asked the elevator to stop between the floors so that there could be a new conversation.
He knew that one way to start that conversation was by considering something concrete. An evocative object. He bridged the thinking/feeling divide by writing about the way his love for the gears on a toy car ignited his love of mathematics as a child. From the beginning of my time at MIT, I have asked students to write about an object they loved that became central to their thinking.
A love for science can start with love for a microscope, a modem, a mud pie, a pair of dice, a fishing rod. Plastic eggs in a twirled Easter basket reveal the power of centripetal force; experiments with baking illuminate the geology of planets. Everybody has their own version of the gears. These stories about objects bring to light something central to Seymour’s legacy. For his legacy was not only in how children learn in classrooms and out of them. It’s in using objects to help people think about how they know what they know. A focus on objects brings philosophy into everyday life.
Seymour’s ideas about the power of objects have moved from the worlds of media and education (where he nurtured them) out into larger disciplinary spaces in social science, anthropology, social theory and history. People are studying objects of clothing, objects of kitchenware, objects of science, objects of medical practice and objects of revolutionary culture, in ways that bear the trace of Seymour’s wisdom.
One of the great virtues of putting object studies at the centre of learning is that nothing of great value is simple. Take Seymour’s story of the gears that brought him to mathematics. Simple? Not really. Behind those gears was Seymour’s father who gave him the toy car that held the gears. The father he loved, whom he wanted to please, but who didn’t want him to be a mathematician. He wanted him to take over the family pest-control company, so Seymour was all set to study chemical engineering. But then, he was persuaded, though not by his dad, to try a liberal arts course for a year.
Seymour interpreted this as a chance to take a year off to study mathematics and psychology – and well, from there, he became Seymour. But his father didn’t like it. Those gears were emotionally charged with conflict, ambivalence and competition. Seymour had a complex learning story. I think it contributed to his ability to nurture contradiction, innovation, originality, idiosyncrasy, creativity. It contributed to the intimate, non-judgmental attention that made him a great teacher and that deep learning in digital culture requires – more and more, of all of us, in order to make more of what he began.