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Hard Fun 16

Don't Dissect a Frog, Build One

Most American children do not know the difference between the Baltics and the Balkans, or who the Visigoths were, or when Louis XIV lived. So what? Why are those so important? Did you know that Reno is west of Los Angeles?

The heavy price paid in countries like France, South Korea, and Japan for shoving many facts into young minds is often to have students more or less dead on arrival when they enter the university system. Over the next four years they feel like marathon runners being asked to go rock climbing at the finish line.

In the 1960s, most pioneers in computers and education advocated a crummy drill-and-practice approach, using computers on a one-on-one basis, in a self-paced fashion, to teach those same God-awful facts more effectively. Now, with the rage of multimedia, we have closet drill-and-practice believers who think they can colonize the pizzazz of a Sega game to squirt a bit more information into the heads of children, with more so-called productivity.

On April 11, 1970, Papert held a symposium at MIT called "Teaching Children Thinking," in which he proposed using computers as engines that children would teach and thus learn by teaching. This astonishingly simple idea simmered for almost fifteen years before it came to life through personal computers. Today, when more than a third of all American homes contain a personal computer, the idea's time has really come.

While a significant part of learning certainly comes from teaching--but good teaching and by good teachers--a major measure comes from exploration, from reinventing the wheel and finding out for oneself. Until the computer, the technology for teaching was limited to audiovisual devices and distance learning by television, which simply amplified the activity of teachers and the passivity of children.

The computer changed this balance radically. All of a sudden, learning by doing became the rule rather than the exception. Since computer simulation of just about anything is now possible, one need not learn about a frog by dissecting it. Instead, children can be asked to design frogs, to build an animal with frog-like behavior, to modify that behavior, to simulate the muscles, to play with the frog.

By playing with information, especially abstract subjects, the material assumes more meaning. I remember when my son's third-grade teacher reported to me sadly that he could not add or subtract a pair of two- or three-digit numbers. How odd, I thought, as he was always the banker when we played Monopoly, and he seemed to do a dandy job at managing those numbers. So I suggested to the teacher that she try posing the same addition as dollars, not just numbers. And, behold, he was suddenly able to add for her three digits and more in his head. The reason is because they were not abstract and meaningless numbers; they were dollars, which related to buying Boardwalk, building hotels, and passing Go.

The computer-controllable LEGO goes one step further. It allows children to endow their physical constructs with behavior. Current work with LEGOs at the Media Lab includes a computer-in-a-brick prototype, which demonstrates a further degree of flexibility and opportunity for Papert's constructivism, and includes interbrick communications and opportunities to explore parallel processing in new ways.

Kids using LEGO/Logo today will learn physical and logical principles you and I learned in college. Anecdotal evidence and careful testing results reveal that this constructivist approach is an extraordinarily rich means of learning, across a wide range of cognitive and behavioral styles. In fact, many children said to have been learning disabled flourish in the constructionist environment.

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Updated on April 11, 1996