Seymour Papert

MIT mathematician, computer scientist, and educator

Seymour Papert (February 29, 1928 – July 31, 2016) was an MIT mathematician, computer scientist, and prominent educator.

Seymour Papert in 2006


  • Should the computer program the kid or should the kid program the computer?
    • Spacewar ROLLING STONE · 7 DECEMBER 1972
  • Now, given that picture of a rapid change of society, one would expect to see a rapid evolution of the institutions charged with preparing the young for it. We do not see this. We see a much slower rate of evolution of the school and that means we're seeing a bigger and bigger gap between school and society. This gap is what I believe is responsible for the deterioration of performance in our schools and our educational systems. Because the children can see this; they can see that school is irrelevant. They feel that the pace of school and the mood of the school culture is out of sync with the society in which they live. And so it becomes harder and harder to get them to buy into the idea that school is satisfying their needs, that school is a bridge to the 21st century, as our political leaders keep on reiterating.

Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas (1980)Edit

  • Many children who grow up in our cities are surrounded by the artifacts of science but have good reason to see them as belonging to "the others"; in many cases they are perceived as belonging to the social enemy.
    • Introduction
  • In my vision, space-age objects, in the form of small computers, will cross these cultural barriers to enter the private worlds of children everywhere. They will do so not as mere physical objects. This book is about how computers can be carriers of powerful ideas and of the seeds of cultural change, how they can help people form new relationships with knowledge that cut across the traditional lines separating humanities from sciences and knowledge of the self from both of these. It is about using computers to challenge current beliefs about who can understand what and at what age. It is about using computers to question standard assumptions in developmental psychology and in the psychology of aptitudes and attitudes. It is about whether personal computers and the cultures in which they are used will continue to be the creatures of "engineers" alone or whether we can construct intellectual environments in which people who today think of themselves as "humanists" will feel part of, not alienated from, the process of constructing computational cultures.
    • Introduction
  • In many schools today, the phrase "computer-aided instruction" means making the computer teach the child. One might say the computer is being used to program the child. In my vision, the child programs the computer and, in doing so, both acquires a sense of master over a piece of the most modern and powerful technology and establishes an intimate contact with some of the deepest ideas from science, from mathematics, and from the art of intellectual model building.
    • Introduction
  • A programming language is like a natural, human language in that it favors certain metaphors, images, and ways of thinking. The language used strongly colors the computer culture. It would seem to follow that educators interested in using computers and sensitive to cultural influences would pay particular attention to the choice of language. But nothing of the sort has happened. On the contrary, educators... have accepted certain programming languages in much the same way as they accepted the QWERTY keyboard. An informative example is the way in which the programming language BASIC has established itself as the obvious language to use in teaching children how to program computers... Today, and in fact for several years now, the cost of computer memory has fallen to the point where any remaining economic advantages of using BASIC are insignificant. Yet in most high schools, the language remains almost synonymous with programming, despite the existence of other computer languages that are demonstrably easier to learn and are richer in the intellectual benefits that can come from learning them. The situation is paradoxical. The computer revolution has scarcely begun, but is already breeding its own conservatism.
    • Chapter 1, Computers and Computer Cultures
  • BASIC is to computation what QWERTY is to typing. Many teachers have learned BASIC, many books have been written about it, many computers have been built in such a way that BASIC is "hardwired" into them. In the case of the typewriter, we noted how people invent "rationalizations" to justify the status quo. In the case of BASIC, the phenomenon has gone much further, to the point where it resembles ideology formation. Complex arguments are invented to justify features of BASIC that were originally included because the primitive technology demanded them or because alternatives were not well enough known at the time the language was designed.
    • Chapter 1, Computers and Computer Cultures
  • One might ask why the teachers do not notice the difficulty children have in learning BASIC. The answer is simple: Most teachers do not expect high performance from most students, especially in a domain of work that appears to be as "mathematical" and "formal" as programming. Thus the culture's general perception of mathematics as inaccessible bolsters the maintenance of BASIC, which in turn confirms these perceptions.
    • Chapter 1, Computers and Computer Cultures
  • It is not uncommon for intelligent adults to turn into passive observers of their own incompetence in anything but the most elementary mathematics. Individuals may see the direct consequences of this intellectual paralysis in terms of limiting job possibilities. But the indirect, secondary consequences are even more serious. One of the main lessons learned by most people in math class is a sense of having rigid limitations. They learn a balkanized image of human knowledge which they come to see as a patchwork of territories separated by impassable iron curtains.
    • Chapter 2, Mathophobia: The Fear of Learning
  • An unknown but certainly significant proportion of the population has almost completely given up on learning. These people seldom, if ever engage in deliberate learning and see themselves as neither competent at it nor likely to enjoy it. The social and personal cost is enormous... Deficiency becomes identity: "I can't learn French, I don't have an ear for languages;" "I could never be a businessman, I don't have a head for figures;"... These beliefs are often repeated ritualistically, like superstitions... Although these negative self-images can be overcome, in the life of and individual they are extremely robust and powerfully self-reinforcing. If people believe firmly enough that they cannot do math, they will usually succeed in preventing themselves from doing whatever they recognize as math. The consequences of such self-sabotage is personal failure, and each failure reinforces the original belief. And such beliefs may be most insidious when held not only by individuals, but by our entire culture.
    • Chapter 2, Mathophobia: The Fear of Learning
  • Our children grow up in a culture permeated with the idea that there are "smart people" and "dumb people". The social construction of the individual is as a bundle of aptitudes. There are people who are "good at math" and people who "can't do math." Everything is set up for children to attribute their first unsuccessful or unpleasant learning experiences to their own disabilities. As a result, children perceive failure as relegating them either to the group of "dumb people" or, more often, to a group of people "dumb at x" (where, as we have pointed out, x often equals mathematics). Within this framework children will define themselves in terms of their limitations, and this definition will be consolidated and reinforced throughout their lives. Only rarely does some exceptional event lead people to reorganize their intellectual self-image in such a way as to open up new perspectives on what is learnable.
    • Chapter 2, Mathophobia: The Fear of Learning
  • I have asked many teachers and parents what they thought mathematics to be and why it was important to learn it. Few held a view of mathematics that was sufficiently coherent to justify devoting several thousand hours of a child's life to learning it, and children sense this. When a teacher tells a student that the reason for those many hours of arithmetic is to be able to check the change at the supermarket, the teacher is simply not believed. Children see such "reasons" as one more example of adult double talk. The same effect is produced when children are told school math is "fun" when they are pretty sure that teachers who say so spend their leisure hours on anything except this allegedly fun-filled activity. Nor does it help to tell them that they need math to become scientists---most children don't have such a plan. The children can see perfectly well that the teacher does not enjoy math any more than they do and that the reason for doing it is simply that it has been inscribed into the curriculum. All of this erodes children's confidence in the adult world and the process of education. And I think it introduces a deep element of dishonestly into the education relationship.
    • Chapter 2, Mathophobia: The Fear of Learning
  • The kind of mathematics foisted on children in schools is not meaningful, fun, or even very useful. This does not mean that an individual child cannot turn it into a valuable and enjoyable personal game. For some the game is scoring grades; for others it is outwitting the teacher and the system. For many, school math is enjoyable in its repetitiveness, precisely because it is so mindless and dissociated that it provides a shelter from having to think about what is going on in the classroom. But all this proves is the ingenuity of children. It is not a justifications for school math to say that despite its intrinsic dullness, inventive children can find excitement and meaning in it.
    • Chapter 2, Mathophobia: The Fear of Learning

Quotes about PapertEdit

  • Frank Rosenblatt... invented a very simple single-layer device called a Perceptron. ...Unfortunately, its influence was damped by Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert, who proved [in Perceptrons: An Introduction to Computational Geometry (1969)] that the Perceptron architecture and learning rule could not execute the "exclusive OR" and therefore could not learn. This killed interest in Perceptrons for a number of years... It is possible to construct multilayer networks of simple units that could easily execute the exclusive OR... Minsky and Papert would have contributed more if they had produced a solution to this problem rather than beating the Perceptron to death.
    • Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (1994)

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