Papert's visionary call to ditch obsolete letteracy (1993)

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This reference is used to annotate "I would never send my kids to school" (2017) by Piotr Wozniak

Visionary ahead of his time

In 1993, Seymour Papert wrote a text for Wired Magazine in which he outlined the expected changes in education that would be induced by the access to new media. His predictions were visionary even though his use of the word "web" referred to a "web of knowledge". The World Wide Web was just 2 years old, largely unknown, and composed of just 500 servers or so.

Problem of schooling

Papert's diagnosis of problems with education reads like a summary of the Problem of schooling that followed a quarter century later. Papert's remedy shows many parallels to incremental reading that followed a decade later. Papert's reasoning is parallel to mine: first one needs to see how efficient learning looks like, and then compare it with the reality of schooling. The conclusion is inevitable: schools are horribly inefficient and often harmful!

Power of free learning

In his own language, Papert preluded a few important theses presented at SuperMemo Guru:


Here is how Papert complained about the old fossilized stance on the three Rs:

The facetious old turn of phrase that identifies schooling with the three Rs -- reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic -- may express the most obstinate block to change in education. The central role of these "basics" is never discussed; it is considered obvious. Thus the most important consequences of new technologies are not recognized by education policy-makers

New media

Papert predicted the impact of videogames, VR, and YouTube (12 years before its birth):

Demoting reading from its privileged position in the school curriculum is only one of many consequences of Knowledge Machines. A child who has grown up with the freedom to explore provided by such machines will not sit quietly through the standard curriculum dished out in most schools today. Already, children are made increasingly restive by the contrast between the slowness of School and the more exciting pace they experience in videogames and television. But the restiveness is only a pale precursor to what will come when they can freely enter virtual realities of animals in Africa or wars in ancient Greece

I describe the inevitable rebellion of children, and the inevitable resistance of the adult world in the Morse code planet metaphor in: Tunnel vision of school letteracy.

Collapse of passive schooling

The conflict between free learning and passive schooling will inevitably lead to a collapse of the old system. Peter Gray described it in his many essays and books (see: Collapse of coercive systems). I write about this in Compulsory schooling must end. Papert knew about it in 1993. Perhaps the only thing that was hard to predict is that schools would hijack the new technologies only to dish out the old material. In other words, the learntropy of schooling increased, but freedom is an obstinately undying issue.

What follows from imagining a Knowledge Machine is a certainty that School will either change very radically or simply collapse. It is predictable (though still astonishing) that the Education Establishment cannot see farther than using new technologies to do what it has always done in the past, teach the same curriculum. I have suggested that new media radically change the concept of curriculum by demoting its core elements. But I would go further: The possibility of freely exploring worlds of knowledge calls into question the very idea of an administered curriculum

How do giraffes sleep?

Papert used an example of a 4-year-old driven by a healthy learn drive. She asked a question "How do giraffes sleep?". To answer the child's question, Papert went on to investigate giraffe sleep using a stack of books in his library. He depicted his own dendritic exploratory learning process as a model of what children will experience in the future when they access the web enhanced with modern learning technologies (i.e. what he called the Knowledge Machine).

My activity followed a pattern very reminiscent of a child at play. And the knowledge I gained was not the collection of propositions I read in the books, but the web of intuitive connections that formed as my mind bounced here and there in a non-linear fashion

Papert needed only one example. I see similar examples dozens of times per day. This is the norm in free learning (esp. in incremental reading).

26 years after Papert's article, this is what Google told me when I asked about giraffe sleep (search time below 500 ms, Sep 3, 2019):

Figure: In 1993, Seymour Papert predicted that the new media (web) will transform the way children learn. He noted that the old system of education would collapse. His visions inspired incremental reading among others. He illustrated his thinking with an example of a 4-year-old who wondered how giraffes sleep (see: Papert's visionary call to ditch obsolete letteracy (1993))

Quoted excerpts come from the following reference:

Title: Obsolete Skill Set: The 3 Rs — Literacy and Letteracy in the Media Ages

Author: Seymour Papert

Source: Wired Magazine

Date: 1993


Backlink: Asemantic curriculum

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru