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Seymour Papert: Constructionism
Seymour Papert

"Children don't get ideas, they make ideas"

"Better learning will not come from finding better ways for the teacher to instruct, but from giving the learner better opportunities to construct"

Seymour. Papert


Constructionism is one of the major contemporary dogma in education theory. It grows out of the work of Seymour Papert and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 60's Constructionism is based on Piaget's theory of constructivism which states that knowledge is not simply acquired but constructed into coherent frameworks called knowledge structures. Children build these structures based on their experience in the world. Constructionism adds an extra layer to constructivism asserting that people learn with particular effectiveness when they engaged in constructing personally meaningful artifacts such as a sand castle, a machine, a computer programme or a soap sculpture. So, constructionism is concerned with building things, both in the sense of building understanding and building artifacts.

Constructionism also has the connotation of "construction set", starting with sets in the literal sense, such as Lego, and extending to include programming languages considered as "sets" from which programs can be made, and kitchens as "sets" from which not only cakes but recipes and forms of mathematics-in-use are constructed. One of my central mathetic tenets is that the construction that takes place "in the head" often happens especially felicitously when it is supported by construction of a more public sort "in the world" - a sand castle or a cake, a Lego house or a corporation, a computer program, a poem, or a theory of the universe. Part of what I mean by "in the world" is that the product can be shown, discussed, examined, probed, and admired. It is out there...Thus, constructionism, my personal reconstruction of constructivism, has as its main feature the fact that it looks more closely than other -isms at the idea of mental construction. It attaches special importance to the role of construction in the world as a support for those in the head, thereby becoming less of a purely mentalist doctrine. It also takes the idea of constructing in the head more seriously by recognizing more than one kind of construction (some of them as far removed from simple building as cultivating a garden), and by asking questions about the methods and the materials used.

Seymour Papert (1993). The Children's machine: rethinking Schools in the Age of the Computer. New York: Basic Books.

Papert work with Jean Piaget at the University of Geneva in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This collaboration led the theorist to attempt to create an environment that was more conducive to Piaget's theories, and that would allow the children to be the active builders he knew they were. While Papert's theory embraces and builds in Piaget's constructivism, his particular emphasis on the construction of tangible artifacts led him to see drawbacks to Piaget's Stages of Cognitive Development

"...I think now that the...most outstanding corrections one must make to piaget's epistemology are related to his supervaluation of the logical, the formal, and the propositional forms of thought. His most important contribution is recognizing the importance of what he calls concrete thinking. His major weakness is his resistance to giving up the value system that places formal thinking 'on top'. This resistance leads him to see concrete thinking as children's thinking, and so keeps him from appreciating the full breadth of his discovery of the 'concrete' as a universal form of human reason"

Papert, 1990


Papert's Objects-to-think with are cognitive artifacts that provide a link between sensory and abstract knowledge, as well as between the individual and the social world. The theorist example of an object-to-think with are the sets of gears that fascinated him as a boy, and that gave him a concrete way of thinking about the more abstract qualities of ratios in mathematics. Papert believes that is is not the fact that children can not think and understand abstract (difficult things), all they need is an intelligent machine or artifact to get them over the learning curve.

In Papert's view, concrete thinking is not a stage that children overgrow but just another way of thinking, likewise logical or formal thinking, with its benefits and uses. Furthermore, it is complementary to more abstract, formal styles of thinking. By precluding concrete thinking in favour of abstract and formal thinking, Papert suggests that we will deny ourselves valuable modes of thinking and pathways to knowledge difficult to access by other means.

A model of knowledge construction that takes into account both, artifacts and understanding could be represented by the following diagram:


A Model of Knowledge Construction


A Model of Knowledge Construction

This model argues that artifacts produce understanding through interpretation, and understanding produces artifacts through constructing an explicit representation. The interaction between representing and interpreting triggers the evolution of artifacts and understanding. This co-evolution between artifacts and understanding is believe to be knowledge construction.

Within this framework, tacit knowledge is represented by understanding whether explicit knowledge is embodied in artifacts. The transformation process that a learner undergo by converting tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge can be understood as interpretation. This assumption leads to the hypothesis that the product of these transformations is each time more explicit and precise yet, less alike the original and core tacit understanding.

In this context, a specific transformation of understanding between tacit and explicit (or becoming aware of something) is refer to as a breakdown. Breakdowns elicit interpretation and the construction of new knowledge.


LOGO Turtle


"Logo is the name for a philosophy of education and a continually evolving family of programming languages that aid in its realization."

- Harold Abelson Apple Logo, 1982


Logo is a computer programming language designed to be used by learners. The creation of Logo is founded in the "low floor, high ceiling" principle. Meaning that it is easy for the novice programmer to get started (the "low floor") in writing programs and getting satisfaction doing so nonetheless, it is powerful and extensive in a "sky is the limit" sort of way (the "high ceiling").

Logo was originally developed by Daniel Bobrow and Wallace Feurzeig at Bolt, Beranek and Newman, Inc., and Seymour Papert, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960's. It was based on the goal of allowing people to use and manipulate computers in more familiar manner than the numbers and equations used at the time.

Logo teaches problem solving, logical thinking, constructive methods and allows the user to interactively create and manipulate mathematical processes.

In its early days Logo was used to control a simple robot called the "turtle" because the first one had a turtle-like shell. Children would type commands such as FORWARD 50 to make the robot go forward 50 steps, or RIGHT 90 to make it turn right ninety degrees. The turtle robot carried a pen, so children could make drawings on a piece of paper.

The Turtle become a paramount component of the Logo language since it allowed teachers and learners facing their face computer experience to do so in a familiar manner by "talking to the turtle" (typing in commands to make it move).They could also imagine how the turtle moved by "playing turtle"---moving their bodies as the turtle would. Papert called this "body syntonicity," the idea of understanding how some external object worked by thinking about your own body. Papert described the Turtle as an "object to think with", a powerful way to be introduced to the idea of programming. Turtle geometry is geometry that describes paths "from within" rather than "from outside" or "from above.

Piaget described stages of mental maturation through which children go with age and experience. Each stage is characterized by a type of thought that is subsumed and transcended by the subsequent stage. The stage of concrete operational thought, where most elementary and middle school children function, is characterized by thought that is logical when concretely embodied. In other words, children of about eight to 14 years old can usually functional logically when the problem is of a type that can be worked out with objects. Thinking about thinking, or metacognition, was believed to be a formal operational process, too abstract for concrete stage thinkers. Papert asserts that by providing the Turtle as an object to think with, Logo furnishes for ideas previously known only through abstraction, a concrete embodiment. Logo thus allows the learner to externalize his or her expectations or intuitive notions into the concrete form of a program, where the notions are accessible to reflection.


Lego was the next step in Papert's search for 'objects to think with'. After developing LOGO and enabling children to programme computers, he explored the possibility of providing a context for children to learn about robotics and cybernetics.

Papert describes the basic Lego building block as a tool with unlimited power: "The Lego system consists of just a few simple elements out of which you can build everything". This power, children's expertise in using Lego materials in an open-ended manner and the capabilities that a computer provides enables the creation of a learning context where children have the possibility to learn concepts considered too complex for them.

The way Papert proposes to think about this can of Lego enable learning is "as flipping around the order in which things are learned. Control engineering is an example of a topic usually learned in college or graduate school, after you've learned math, physics and the like in elementary and secondary schools. We've turned that on its head: These children do the engineering first, and later they build their math and physics on intuitions already developed." The other way Papert likes to think about 'Lego learning' is as a way to "build a learning culture that will be more humane, more playful and more childlike"



Publications & Resources:

Media MIT Biography

Online articles

THE CHILDREN'S MACHINE Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer by Seymour Papert, 1993 Basic Books, New York

The Connected Family By Seymour Papert

A Conversation With Seymour Papert.

Vision for Education: The Caperton-Papert Platform By Seymour Papert and Gaston Caperton

Seymour Papert Links

Books by Seymour Papert available at The MIT Press Bookstore

Seymour Papert: Computers, Kids & Powerful Ideas

America's Formost Expert on Children & Computer, Valdosta State University