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Vale Seymour Papert

Imagine my surprise that I missed the demise of Seymour Papert this past year (yet another loss). I’ve looked back to see what I was doing on 31 July and how I missed it, and we were preparing for a week in the wilderness.  So it’s certainly likely I wasn’t deeply involved in the news.  This is a shame, because I’ve been a fan of Papert’s work for quite literally decades.  So here’s a belated tribute.

My first job out of college was designing and programming educational computer games.  I’d been exposed to some innovative thinking through my undergraduate thesis advisors, Hugh Mehan and Jim Levin.  Having read Papert’s Mindstorms, I gave it to my parents to help them understand why I did what I did (unsuccessfully ;).  The book is subtitled “Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas”, and argued that learning computing was a vehicle for learning to think.

Papert had studied with Jean Piaget, and proceeded to be a leader of the constructivism movement applying the notion of exploratory learning environments. I subsequently learned about Piaget (and post-Piaget, and Vygotsky) in my graduate studies, so I can see how the notion of developmental readiness and opportunities to create understanding through exploration could lead to the work Papert did.

Logo, the computer language for learning, was developed by Papert along with Wallace Feurzieg. It’s simple commands controlling a ‘turtle’ and gradually getting richer play challenges was the start to computer understanding for learners for decades, and has influenced computer language learning in many ways. Apple’s  Playgrounds uses similar small steps to control a creature to start teaching Swift.

He was invited to co-lead the MIT AI lab with Marvin Minsky.  He worked with Minsky on Perceptrons, which were an early exploration of the connectionist networks now so prevalent in artificial intelligence. There remains a controversy over whether and how the book influenced research in the area of symbolic and sub-symbolic intelligence approaches.

Papert was instrumental in much of the thinking that has shaped what we do in learning technology.  I’m grateful for his contributions.

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