Don’t Dissect the Frog, Build It

Nicholas Negroponte, on how synthesis can be better for learning than analysis:

On April 11, 1970, Seymour Papert held a symposium at MIT called “Teaching Children Thinking” and placed a new stake in the groundwork of epistemology. His notion was based on using computers as engines which children would teach and thus learn by teaching. He moved the locus of interest from how computers can teach to how children learn. This astonishingly simple idea simmered for almost fifteen years before it came to life through PCs. Today, when almost 30 percent of all American homes contain a personal computer, the idea really has come into its time.

Certainly, some learning derives from great teaching and telling a good story. We all remember our good teachers. But a major measure of learning results from exploration, from re-inventing the wheel and finding out for yourself. Until the computer, the tools and toys for these experiences were limited, special-purpose apparatuses, frequently administered with extreme control and regimentation (my excuse for not learning chemistry).

The computer changed this radically. All of a sudden, learning by doing has become the standard rather than the exception. Since computer simulation of just about anything is now possible, one need not learn about a frog by dissecting it. Instead, children can be asked to design frogs, to build an animal with froglike behavior, to modify that behavior, to simulate the muscles, to play with the frog.

and

Funding of Media Lab research from Interlego A/S, the Danish company that owns Lego in the US, has resulted in an important contribution to products in Lego’s Dacta division (“LEGO TC Logo” and “Control Lab”), which have been used in elementary and secondary schools by more than one million children. The computer-controllable Lego allows children to endow their physical constructs with behavior. Both anecdotal evidence and careful testing results reveal that this constructivist (as Papert calls it) approach has an extraordinary reach, across a wide range of cognitive and learning styles. In fact, many children said to be learning disabled flourish here. Perhaps we have been more “teaching disabled” than “learning disabled.”

 

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