One of the inspirations behind my research for my doctoral program is the theory of Seymour Papert. I was leafing through one his books tonight, looking at what I had highlighted several years ago when first reading the book.
He recalled a conversation with Jean Piaget about artificial intelligence, and a big idea Piaget had allegedly been repeating. It bears repeating here:
> To understand is to invent.
Papert himself talked about computers as devices that ought to serve children as instruments to work and think with, for them to carry out projects with.
Papertian (a word?) thinking about computers really pre-dated the Internet generation. It’s important to recall that his thinking about computers went beyond productivity tasks like word processing; it extended to writing code–at any functional level–to both express creativity and to solve problems. Papert would later consult with the Governor of Maine when they started their One-to-One initiative. That fact alone is ripe for me looking to see what he might have said about access to all the Internet’s information.
I know the web for me has me using a computer far less for tinkering or just “playing.” I spend a lot of time reading news (whether it’s from webpages or Twitter) when I have computer time at home.
Piaget, of course, is a famous name in the field of educational psychology. His quote, above, shouldn’t be surprising, given that he’s the father of “constructivism.” Piaget likely wasn’t thinking of a computer as the only path towards his understanding is inventing claim. But it does come full circle, at least a bit for me, when we stop to consider what the “point” of remembering anything is (in school) when it’s all just a search (or Siri query) away. Access to information isn’t the same as understanding it. Now insert Piaget: to understand is to invent. We (you, me, the kids) have to apply that information towards the creation of something. But invent is such a more powerful word, isn’t it? I can create a line on a page, and you’re likely to say “well, John, you’ve drawn a line. Congrats.” You also rolled your eyes. And I’m guessing you wouldn’t say that I’ve “invented” a line. Invention implies, to my ears, that something functional has come about from what just took place.
And if you think now to what some of our teachers have been learning about with children’s engineering, not just in the projects, but in the wider methodology of handing a student a design brief and saying “now… figure it out!”, you can see Piaget all over that, right?
That’s where programming a computer, if you will, takes on import. When you’ve got the basics down, you’ve now got yourself a little lab where you can invent all kinds of things.
Alan Kay talks about his history with computers and concept of the dynabook, and meeting Papert early in his career.