Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Mindstorms by Seymour Papert

I enjoyed this short book by the inventor of LOGO, which I fondly remember first hearing about from Yuri as a kid. It was a challenging read, especially in the philosophical sections in the end. Also I have this weird thing where Seymour Papert and Mark Gross somehow blend into one person??

Papert is fascinated by embodied learning, and the LOGO Turtle is one of many examples of an "object to think with". This has great benefits for children, since they can imagine becoming a turtle in their mind. For example, drawing a circle as a Turtle is simple: take a small step forward, turn to the right a bit, rinse and repeat. This is easily translated into LOGO: FORWARD 1; RIGHT 1;.

Papert rails against the way math is presented in school, making compelling arguments in its direction as well as the direction of "New Math", which I guess was a big deal in 1980 but has not aged well. He draws a comparison from our current educational system to QWERTY, which we have kept for a long time despite its obsolescence. He warns about a dumb use of computers in the classroom, in which computers program the child (e.g. Mavis beacon teaches typing). In Papert's world, the child programs the computer and learns in the process.

Conceptually, LOGO represents a third view of geometry. Three views of geometry: Euclidean is the most abstract, providing conceptual underpinnings. Cartesian, which allows for algebraic descriptions and practical applications. And Turtle which allows for an algorithmic approach. Latter is also more intuitively approachable.

Today Papert's ideas live on in the maker movement, which Papert is generally considered to have fathered (at least conceptually). I care about this movement a lot. Also in my work as a software prototyper, I gravitate to "learning through making", which is the lens through which I view my job.

Throughout the book Papert makes amazing analogies I haven't heard of before:

  • Analogy of artificial intelligence to artificial flight. We started by imitating birds with flapping machines, but that clearly failed. Instead we had to understand the principles (aerodynamics, bernoulli).

  • Analogy of samba school to education in general. Samba school is a naturally integrated part of life in Brazil. It's informal, highly intense, sought after. Great model for modern edu?

  • Analogy of teaching someone to juggle to programming computers. I haven't really thought about this, but maybe this is why so many CS people juggle?

  • Analogy of the skiing revolution of the 70s to what is happening in computers. One of many changes in skiing style that came about alongside a revolution in ski technology. Did the new skiing technology cause the new style or vice versa? Papert suggests a deep entanglement between the two.

"The most powerful idea is that there are powerful ideas."