Enabling the Child to Teach the Computer Instead of Having the Computer Teach the Child

Seymour Papert, mathematician and educator, spotted the educational potential of computer games as early as the 1960s. Inspired by Jean Piaget’s constructivist theory, Papert holds a constructionist approach to learning, by which learning is more efficient when experiencing material in concrete and meaningful situations. In that regard, Papert (1980) saw in the computer a powerful machine that children could use to create and manipulate any content. Instead of having the computer program the child, Papert wanted the child to program the computer. Along with a group of colleagues and students at MIT, he created the Logo computer language that allowed children to control a virtual turtle in a playful approach. While engaged in a digital drawing activity, the children had to teach the turtle to do certain things, such as to draw a square shape. In the process, the children were learning, without being taught, through their mistakes and successes, the inherent characteristics of a square. Geometry was then made accessible to the child, in a way that the “knowledge is acquired for a recognizable personal purpose” because the “child does something with it” (Papert, 1980, p. 21). Papert also made children use computers to generate sentences; they had to teach grammar to the program to make it produce meaningful sentences. By teaching the computer, the children presumably understood what grammar entailed (Papert, 1980).

Papert understood early on the importance of letting children manipulate computers in a playful way to enhance learning at school and allowed children to learn through an iterative process, which is commonly recognized today as the successful process in engineering design. For David Kelley, founder of IDEO Product Development (America’s largest independent product design and development firm, behind Apple’s first mouse), “enlightened trial and error” (Kelley, 2001) is a critical process in design. “Fail faster, succeed sooner” (attributed to David Kelley) is a well-known adage in innovation design and in technology industries. Further, we now have evidence that unsuccessful trials when completing a task do not impair subsequent learning, but seem to enhance it (Kornell et al., 2009).

Following in Papert’s footsteps, a growing number of researchers and educators believe that video games are the future of learning. Video games have the potential to offer a meaningful, social, and epistemological experience that children can control at their own pace (Shaffer, Squire, Halverson, & Gee, 2005). But if we take a look at the majority of the so-called educational games that have been created, they have merely transposed paper school exercises into an interactive medium, wrapped in an attractive yet sometimes deceptive promise of making learning fun.

As a species, humans have survived and evolved not because of their strength, but because of their incredible ability to adapt to their environment, to learn about it and swiftly change their behavior accordingly. It is because children are born immature that they can adapt by learning about their physical and social environment: “Nature ensures that we do something that will be good for us (or at least our genes) in the long run, by making it fun (or at least compelling) in the short-run” (Gopnik, 2000, p. 309). This situation explains why babies are so compelled to explore their environment, and young children are driven to play and to eagerly ask so many questions. Discovery brings pleasure, and pleasure is what evolution has found to motivate humans in choosing an efficient behavior (Cabanac, 1992; Anselme, 2010). Hence, it is regrettable that formal education somehow fails to keep learning pleasurable, potentially given its emphasis on extrinsic rewards, such as grades, which may have negative consequences on children; undermining their own intrinsic interest in learning and motivation to learn (Ryan & Deci, 2000a).

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