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Hard Fun 16

Teaching Disabled

When the Media Lab premiered its LEGO/Logo work in 1989, kids, kindergarten through sixth grade from the Hennigan School, demonstrated their projects before a full force of Lego executives, academics, and the press. A zealous anchorwoman from one of the national TV networks, camera lights ablazing, cornered one child and asked him if this was not just all fun and games. She pressed this eight-year-old for a typical, "cute," sound-bite reply.

The child was obviously shaken. Finally, after her third repetition of the question and after considerable heat from the lights, this sweaty-faced, exasperated child plaintively looked into the camera and said, "Yes, this is fun, but it's hard fun."

Seymour Papert is an expert on "hard fun." Early on he noted that being "good at" languages is an odd concept when you consider that any run-of-the-mill five-year-old will learn German in Germany, Italian in Italy, Japanese in Japan. As we get older, we seem to lose this ability, but we cannot deny we had it in our youth.

Papert proposed that we think about computers in education, literally and metaphorically, as if creating a country called, say, Mathland, where a child will learn math the same way she learns languages. While Mathland is an odd geopolitical concept, it makes perfect computational sense. In fact, modern computer simulation techniques allow the creation of microworlds in which children can playfully explore very sophisticated principles.

At Hennigan, one six-year-old boy in the so-called LEGO/Logo class built a clump of blocks and placed a motor on top. He connected the two wires of the motor to his computer and wrote a one-line program that turned it on and off. When on, the blocks vibrated. He then attached a propeller to the motor, but for some reason mounted it eccentrically (i.e., not centered, maybe by mistake). Now, when he turned on the motor, the blocks vibrated so much, they not only jumped around the table but almost shook themselves apart (solved by "cheating"--not always bad--with a few rubber bands).

He then noticed that if he turned the motor so that the propeller rotated clockwise, the pile of LEGOs would first jerk to the right and then go into random motion. If he turned it on counterclockwise, the pile would first jerk to the left and then go into random motion. Finally, he decided to put photocells underneath his structure and then set the blocks on top of a black squiggly line he had drawn on a large white sheet of paper.

He wrote a more sophisticated program that first turned on the motor (either way). Then, depending on which photocell saw black, it would stop the motor and start it up clockwise, to jerk right, or counterclockwise, to jerk left, thereby getting back onto the line. The result was a moving pile of blocks that followed the black squiggly line.

The child became a hero. Teachers and students alike asked how his invention worked and looked at his project from many different perspectives, asking different questions. This small moment of glory gave him something very important: the joy of learning.

We may be a society with far fewer learning-disabled children and far more teaching-disabled environments than currently perceived. The computer changes this by making us more able to reach children with different learning and cognitive styles.

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