Q: You often say that the computer revolution
hasn't happened yet. What do you mean by that?
A: If you look with a squinty eye at most of personal computing
today, you'll see we're basically just automating paperusing
digital versions of documents and mail. But as was the case with
the invention of the printing press, the interesting thing about
the computer is that it allows you to have new ways of representing
things, new ways to argue about things, and new kinds of fluencies.
Most schools define computer literacy as being able
to operate Microsoft Office and maybe do a little web design. They're
missing the point. That's like saying, "If you know which end
of a book to hold up, and you know how to turn to Chapter Three,
then you're literate."
Literature is first and foremost about having ideas
important enough to discuss and write down in some form. So you
have to ask, "What is the literature that is best written down
on a computer?" One answer is to make a dynamic simulation
of some idea that you think is important, a simulation that you
can play with and that you can learn from.
Q: What kinds of new ideas and arguments do computer
simulations make possible?
A: Well, for children, a really interesting argument that
might be nice for everyone in the world to learn is that a disease
that is contagious, deadly, and incurable will have an exponential
growth curve. And that is an almost impossible argument to makeespecially
to children but also to most adultsif you just show them a
mathematical formula with an exponential in it. Because it's beyond
our unaided imaginations to think in a nonlinear fashion.
But part of the process of becoming a scientist or a mathematician
is to learn how to think nonlinearly a little bit. So a child using
Squeak or Logo software can create a bunch of little sprites on
the screen and write a small program that bounces them off each
other, so that they basically have a simple infection system. If
you spread out a few hundred of these and give them a wide area,
you'll get the curve that an AIDS epidemic generateswhich
has almost nothing happening in the front part of the curve, because
the probability of infection is very low. But as soon as you get
enough of the sprites infected, which takes a while, the infection
rate shoots through the roof and soon the sprites are all dead.
So by first writing that simulation yourself, you
know what the assumptions are. And by letting it run through, you
can generate the phenomena and get a visceral sense of it, and then
you can capture what happens in a graph. This way, the computer
can be a kind of thought amplifier.
Q: U.S. schools have spent $40 billion on computers
and Internet access. Do you think they've put that technology to
A: It's a chicken and the egg thing. What's happened is probably
a successful eggbut with no chicken yet in sight. I can go
into virtually any school that has computers and see children who
are happily using them, as well as see teachers who are happy that
the kids are using them. Parents are happy, principals are happy,
and school boards are happy. But if you know anything about computing
or about math and science, you can see that very little of importance
is going on there.
One of the things that pollutes a lot of computer
use in schools is a heightened sense of vocationalism. Parents are
concerned about whether their children are going to get jobs, and
so they really want the schools to train the kids. But my belief
is that the training part is kind of like driver's ed: It takes
about as long to learn how to use a computer as it takes to learn
how to drive a car, maybe less. So it's not something you really
want to pin twelve years of school on.
That's one of the reasons why, in my research, I've
retreated into early childhood. The earlier you go, the further
away you are from the thing that parents are worried aboutwhich
is whether the kids are going to get jobs. However, vocationalism
is now rampant in elementary schools, even in kindergarten.
Q: What have you found to be the greatest obstacle
in your work?
A: I think the most difficult part is helping the helpers.
Logo was a great idea and it failed. It didn't fail because computers
couldn't do Logo, and it didn't fail because Logo software was bad.
It failed because the second and third waves of teachers were not
interested in it as a new thing, and virtually none of them understood
anything about mathematics or science. It's very hard to teach Logo
well if you don't know math. But one of our ways around it this
time is that the Internet is getting mature enough to do some of
the online mentoring ideas we'd had a long time ago. Our idea is
to extend the one-room schoolhouse to the entire world.
Q: What do you think of the current trend toward
one-to-one computing in schools, in which every kid has his or her
own laptop or handheld?
A: Well, that's why I invented the idea of the Dynabook [Kay's
1968 prototype for a wirelessly networked, multimedia laptop]. That's
the whole point of that concept. As Seymour Papert once pointed
out, just imagine the absurdity of a school that has only two pencils
in each classroom. Or imagine a school where all the pencils are
locked up in a special room.
But I think the big problem is that schools have very
few ideas about what to do with the computers once the kids have
them. It's basically just tokenism, and schools just won't face
up to what the actual problems of education are, whether you have
technology or not.
Think about it: How many books do schools haveand
how well are children doing at reading? How many pencils do schools
haveand how well are kids doing at math? It's like missing
the difference between music and instruments. You can put a piano
in every classroom, but that won't give you a developed music culture,
because the music culture is embodied in people.
On the other hand, if you have a musician who is a
teacher, then you don't need musical instruments, because the kids
can sing and dance. But if you don't have a teacher who is a carrier
of music, then all efforts to do music in the classroom will failbecause
existing teachers who are not musicians will decide to teach the
C Major scale and see what the bell curve is on that.
The important thing here is that the music is not
in the piano. And knowledge and edification is not in
the computer. The computer is simply an instrument whose music
Educators have to face up to what 21st-century education
needs to be about, and start thinking about solving that problem
long before they bring the computer
on the scene.
Q: Well, what should 21st-century education be
A: The most critical thing about the 20th and 21st centuries
is that there's a bunch of new invented ideasmany of them
connected with modern civilizationthat our nervous systems
are not at all set up to automatically understand. Equal rights,
for example. Or calculus. You won't find these ideas in ancient
or traditional societies.
If you take all the anthropological universals and
lay them out, those are the things that you can expect children
to learn from their environmentand they do. But the point
of school is to teach all those things that are inventions
and that are hard to learn because we're not explicitly wired for
them. Like reading and writing.
Virtually all learning difficulties that children
face are caused by adults' inability to set up reasonable environments
for them. The biggest barrier to improving education for children,
with or without computers, is the completely impoverished imaginations
of most adults.
Q: Why hasn't educational computing lived up to
the potential that you and Papert saw in the 1960s?
A: Don't even worry about computers yet. When did math and
science actually start becoming important for everyone in our society
to know? Probably 200 years ago. Now think about how poorly math
and science are being taught in elementary school today. So don't
even worry about computers; instead, worry about how long it takes
for something that is known to be incredibly important to get into
the elementary-school curriculum. That's the answer. Of course it's
taking foreverbecause the adults are the intermediaries, and
they don't like math and science.
So computers are actually irrelevant at this level
of discussionthey are just musical instruments. The real question
is this: What is the prospect of turning every elementary school
teacher in America into a musician? That's what we're talking about
here. Afterward we can worry about the instruments.
For more information about Squeak, go to www.squeakland.org.
Lars Kongshem is the senior editor of