Software Studies: literacy

Seymour Papert’s writing, Mind Storm, examines the notion of an object of learning, a tool to be used in the active creation/learning process of children. Pulling from his own story, of falling in love with automobiles and transmission gears as a child, Papert explores the idea of thinking with an object and in the process discovering complex mathematical ideas – but arguably most universal in its application is the revelation that one’s “relationship” to the material at hand is the driving force in actualizing the event of knowledge. Invested in the notion that (educational) context is the guiding principle that establishes a students relationship to x – material, and therefor his or her learning, Papert reiterates the findings and strategies of what is now a long tradition of “progressive” educators and educational philosophers… such as John Dewey, Rudolf Steiner, and many others. What differs Papert from these other thinkers is his critical vision of the computer’s role in contemporary education, rather then “the computer… program[ing] the child. … the child programs the computer.” In this way, the computer and the LOGO programming environment, specially designed for children, acts as an object to be thought through, a space for creative and critical exploration and development. Papert makes a strong case for general educational benefits of grasping complex math ideas in the context/process of play and creation. He situates this kind of work within a of pedagogy that is directional rather then instructional, that is to say when uncertainty and confusion arises students are shown how to think through the issues, and debug the problems, rather then shown how to simply do it correctly.

Some 30 years after Mindstorm’s 1980 publishing the ubiquitous presence of computers in middle class households is quite clear, yet it seems the ambitions of Papert and his logo colleagues, in making the inherent flexibility of the computers transparent and accessible did not flourish the way they would have hoped. Certainly such flexibility is slowly, little by little, entering the popular understanding of computers, and changing the educational terrain. But what Papert’s hints at is nothing short of a radical shift in how we think of human literacy. Not a literacy that is solely tethered to computers as a technology, as much as a form of literacy that is intimately conscious of what computers embody so well – process.


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