It’ s been a few hours since we got news of the death of Seymour Papert, 88 years old.

He seemed immortal to me, this ingenious and funny old man who always embodied , in my story, everything I think and hope and dream and try to achieve, on the frontier that joins technology and education. He deserves a memory, and his name deserves to be repeated and even honored here, so that maybe someone who has never heard of him could realize what kind of genius he was – my old mr. Papert.

Seymour Papert is (maybe) best known as the inventor of programming language Logothe first programming language for kids, as also the walls know where I come from, etc.

This definition is lacking a lot of content, starting with a few dates.
Logo was designed in the early ‘ 60, when computers were six fold cabinets that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Steve Jobs was in first grade school and nobody ever thought that one day those gizmos could be everyday tools, even less in education, arts and creativity.

Papert, born South African, was a scholar traveling around the world and at that time was coming off a crucial meeting at the University of Geneva where he ended up to study and research at the end of the 50, the one with Jean Piaget. The idea of Constructivism applied to education was born here, and so were the cognitive artifacts helping your child to learn – to make it easier: the idea is that we learn best through creation, construction, realization of objects and artifacts.

(says one who chose as payoff of his brand of daring activities as a technological educator, this sentence: 
it tastes much better if it’s done by you.
got it? 🙂 )

Papert at the beginning of the 60s was at MIT in Boston, the most crucial place ever for developing the thing that so sketchy and superficially yet we continue to call Computer science – he was the Co-Director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab, surely he came in touch with the newborn LISP, the programming language for artificial intelligence, as also the walls know where I come from, etc, and then he had the idea of a simplified, almost playful programming language, although strict in syntax and logic, to be used for educational purposes: Logo.

Computers in those days didn’t have screens, at least not as the ones we know today, so Logo interacted with the world through a strange tool, the Turtle: an (almost) spherical tool, with a pen on the bottom, which could be raised or lowered, leaving a trace of ink during any movement of the turtle, led by a program.

the turtle by Papert - detail
The turtle’s pen at work – detail
the turtle, in one of his first accomplishments

A few years later, in the 70s, the personal computers were invented by several teams of post-hippie nerds, including the most famous today, the ones behind Apple – I always like to remember to the damn poshy 1000 € phone owners and the ones showing off their gleaming laptops “branded by Mac”, that they were looking this way at the time:

Woz and Jobs, 1976

All personal computers developed their own version of Logo, and since Apple was the brand that has managed to penetrate deeper into the market which was just got named educational, the turtle appeared in many US schools and some houses aboard the color-striped Apple computer, in this form:

Apple II with turtle Logo
(a moment of emotional memory for my first computer…)

Let me also say this: I’m not an apple fanboy; having shared (by chance and by luck) the story of Apple in its early days, many of its choices appear to me indeed hateful and way off-base nowadays, compared to its original identity. But Apple early in its history… well, they wrote the history of computers, full stop.

Let’s go back to Papert, as he couldn’t stop for a moment: in the 80s with Negroponte and other geniuses of his kind he founded the MIT Media Lab, and he wrote his crucial book: MINDSTORMS – Children, computers and powerful ideas.

If the title reminds you of a fantastic series of (still sold and updated) mechanical – electrical – electronic Lego sets of the times, well… it is not a coincidence. It’ s just that Lego called them so right after this book, which also convinced them to fund the research of Papert at MIT , creating for him the title of “LEGO Professor of Learning Research”.

From this study course came MIT’s lifelong kindergarten (a place where I would like to sign up tomorrow morning…). It is the place who gave the world tools like Scratch, and which today is headed by former student and then associate of Papert, Mitch Resnick, also obviously moved by his mentor’s demise:

The great school success by Logo (as well as Scratch today – and maybe the comparisons are not by chance…) brought Papert to some very negative comment about the use of his creature in formal education; the quotes are tons, here are a few of my favorites:

The computer in the classroom, it threatened the division of knowledge in subjects and then it was converted into a subject.

When you criticize the computer lab, arguing that it thwarts the virtues of the computer itself, you don’t want to deny that PCs can be used in a wonderful way also in a classroom reserved to them , provided, however, that that isolated room can become a melting pot of ideas that used to be kept separate.

Generally in life you get knowledge to then use it. But the school learning abides more often to the metaphor of Freire: knowledge is treated like money, to be put in a bank for the future. Logo now is something more to be learned than to be used, students study it to learn it, and once they have mastered it, they place it in their “databases” and switch to another topic covered by the curriculum.

In the 90s Papert left MIT and began to do something else, for example, working with the famous and sometimes infamous OLPC project, and writing another prophetic book, Connected Family – whose subtitle was: How to help parents and children to understand each other in the internet age… notice that it was a certain number of years before the tales about digital natives and all the consequent debate.

In short, a total genius, an absolute idol of mine, and one who really changed the world without making too much noise, and especially without bragging about it. For this reason, most of all, I love him.

There are so many beautiful photos around, showing his cheerful and sly face, the old fashioned beard and his big smile, but I wish to salute him with the picture they chose at MIT for his memorial, sitting next to a table full of fantastic Lego robots, closed to an Apple IIGS, which was and still is my computer, once and forever. Who was there at the right time, and the few who know what I’m talking about, will know it so very well.

Thanks Seymour for having shown the world a wonderful path.

Papert with an Apple IIGS and the first Lego Mindstorms