Seymour Papert, in addition to being one of the pioneers of Artificial Intelligence, is the creator of the Logo programming language. Once upon a time he envisioned that Logo programming would transform education, as millions of young children became creators of cool programs rather than passive recipients of knowledge; see, for instance, his Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, originally published in 1980.
But by 1997, after seventeen years of unsuccessfully promoting the transformative powers of Logo programming, Papert wrote “Why School Reform Is Impossible,” a response to two books on education reform at the time. He summarizes a key insight in one of them, David Tyack and Larry Cuban’s Tinkering Towards Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform, by saying:
The reform sets out to change School but in the end School changes the reform. One may at first blush see a tautology in using this proposition to explain failures of reform. But to say that School changes the reform is very different from simply saying that School resists or rejects the reform. It resists the reform in a particular way — by appropriating or assimilating it to its own structures. By doing so, it defuses the reformers and sometimes manages to take in something of what they are proposing.
In the case of Logo, instead of Logo transforming education, the schools that did use it put it into the conventional boxes of lesson plans and assignments and in so doing completely neutered the revolutionary pedagogical potential that Papert had seen in Logo. In searching to understand this phenomenon, Papert again refers back to Tyack and Cuban,
I am grateful to Tyack and Cuban for their concept of a “grammar of school.” The structure of School is so deeply rooted that one reacts to deviations from it as one would to a grammatically deviant utterance: Both feel wrong on a level deeper than one’s ability to formulate reasons.
Thus traditional teachers in traditional classrooms force “deviations,” such as Logo programming, or authentic Socratic inquiry, or authentic Montessori independent work, into the “grammar of school” and thereby eliminate the entire purpose of the “reform,” even if they are actually using Logo, doing Socratic Seminars, or using Montessori materials. In this account, the “grammar of school” is so deeply rooted, presumably in sociological structures and cultural norms, that conventional teachers are not even aware that they are undermining the power of the “reform.”
Papert (and Tyack and Cuban) are certainly correct about how deeply set the standard “grammar of school” is embedded in the mindset of most teachers (not 100%, but certainly upwards of 90%, and if one sets a high enough standard it easily becomes 99%). This is why I always preferred to avoid hiring experienced, certified teachers at the schools I created, or at least not too many. There are certainly a few great ones that I’ve worked with, but even many of those found it a struggle to break from the grammar of school that had come to dominate the neural structures of their brains. But it is simply not possible to create a fundamentally new mode of education using teachers from within the existing system – this is why The Missing Institution is so important (dedicated teacher training programs for distinctive, branded pedagogies).
That said, Papert is disappointing insofar as he appears to leave the issue, throughout his essay, as one of sociology and culture rather than addressing incentives bluntly. In the final paragraph an optimist could interpret him as endorsing school choice:
Tyack and Cuban spell out in the case of School reform how centralized social engineering inexorably goes wrong. Complex systems are not made. They evolve. Where I part company from Tyack and Cuban is when they turn from the book’s historical theme of showing that reform will not work to give advice to reformers about how to do it better. My own view is that education activists can be effective in fostering radical change by rejecting the concept of a planned reform and concentrating on creating the obvious conditions for Darwinian evolution: Allow rich diversity to play itself out. Of course, neither of us can prove the other is wrong. That’s what I mean by diversity.
But I really don’t think he is. I think even seventeen years after Logo failed to make an impact, he is hoping that school will change by means of “education activists” allowing “rich diversity to play itself out.”
His Darwinian analysis is 100% accurate, of course:
“creating the obvious conditions for Darwinian evolution: Allow rich diversity to play itself out.”
My goal is to liberate education so that thousands, or millions, of educational entrepreneurs can start whatever schools they please and thereby “Allow rich diversity to play itself out.” But Papert does not at any point specify that we must break up the government school monopoly in order for this to take place. I’ve looked and have not found any written work in which he has endorsed any form of school choice (let me know if he does so somewhere).
Without allowing funding to follow the student, with as few restrictions as possible, school reform IS impossible.
Papert is one of dozens of brilliant educational visionaries whose work I love and admire, and would implement in my schools (I have used Starlogo in a middle school I created), but who fails to think clearly about what is needed to create transformative education.
Until and unless we allow parents and families to choose their own education, school reform is impossible. Reform will not change school, school will change the reform.