Papert reloaded- Computers are the new gears

Italy, March 2021. We are in the middle of a pandemic, schools are closed and, as a technology teacher, seeing children every day as Google Meet boxes is both hard and fascinating. Hard for obvious reasons: everyone is trying to talk, chatting, using the tool they have in their hands (and forced to use it) to exchange ideas, organize (online) playtime together, look at the games others have at home, all while the teacher tries to get them to do something.

However, it is fascinating to note the children’s great resilient ability to always turn what they have into a way to do what they want to do, depending on their ideas: they have learned that every Google Meet has a code, so if the teacher’s has one they can create another too, and get together online to talk and be together, from a distance.  Wanting to do something at all costs has, in some ways, “forced” them to adapt the medium to their needs, going above and beyond to help each other.

This situation reminded me of my first experiences in approaching technology when I was a child, especially computers. In my parents’ house there was only one desktop computer, because my father (IT specialist) had his own personal laptop, so he had assembled a desktop one to use at home. In the afternoons after school, my brother and I wanted to use the computer to play games, but without getting caught… That’s why I looked for what solutions there might be to keep us undetected, and that’s how I learned to clear history and cache, open anonymous windows, put everything on my portable USB stick, change passwords, etc. It was fun watching streaming series, chatting, playing videogames, and then deleting most of the traces I left behind! Of course I was convinced that I always deleted everything, but today I can imagine that my father knew a lot more than I did, and was able to see what I was up to anyway. But more than the practical skills I acquired, the most important lesson I learned was to analyze the problem in front of me, and try many small solutions until I found a way to solve (or get around) it. It’s the same thing I try to make my students get experienced: it’s my first time as a teacher in a school, so many things are still new, but I think it’s fundamental to start from a “constructivist” approach to the problems we are now facing in school. In teaching technology, it is essential to develop, before any skill in the use of any device, an elastic and “resilient” approach, which allows not to be knocked down by the first difficulty in using an app, a device, a program, etc.. I’m experiencing firsthand the effort and passion behind this goal: it’s hard to help children at a distance, to explain to them that they don’t have to give up if the program doesn’t start or if the connection is slow. The way I have found to do this is very simple, and can be summed up in the word “LISTENING”: when you approach a digital tool you have never used before (whether it be a computer, Scratch, Google, Arduino, etc.) for the first time, the first impression is often “disorientation”, due to not knowing exactly where you are, and this impression risks irreversibly conditioning any future experience of approaching technology. As Papert said, we need to create and take care of the conditions in which the learning process takes place, because the creation of cognitive models is closely linked to the experience associated with them. Therefore, it is important to pay particular attention to the context in which the experience takes place, and to design it in such a way that it can be as ideas generating as possible and not an obstacle. This means thinking about the tools you want to use, trying them out, experiencing them firsthand to evaluate their possibilities. Papert rightly declares that the computer is a tool that offers countless possibilities: however, as with gears and mathematics, it can be hated right from the start if we don’t create the conditions to be able to experiment with it in a constructive way.

When we approach an instrument with children that they don’t know, the first thing I try to transmit to them is curiosity: by putting them in front of a challenge or a problem, I try to make them find their own way to the solution, supporting them when they ask for help or explanations. Exploring unknown tools in a creative and playful way creates a positive model linked to that type of experience, which will become an essential foundation for future learning processes.

Design process – from paper to prototype in schools (Workshop designed by FabLab Valsmaoggia)