Reflections on Seymour Papert’s article “The Gears of my Childhood”

 

I have read Seymour Papert’s article “The Gears of my Childhood” before and it always inspires the same questions. I feel I have only found a partial answer at the moment: What is meaningful? What triggers in children and/or adults the sense of involvement that allows them to “fall in love” with a project?

 

I remember exactly when I discovered computer programming, I was 6 years old and my father had given me a Commodore 64 for my birthday. It was not easy for me to use it, but I remember that I had recently learned to read and I found a guide to the basic programming language in the box with the computer. Following the instructions I was able to write and print (the printer … such a wonderful thing!) the recipe book that my mother had in the kitchen. 

 

I experienced a great satisfaction in creating  working code that did precisely what I had imagined. I also remember that I tried a drawing with asterisks, a dog as I recall. After that  we had other computers with other operating systems and there was no longer the need to write programs to write a text or draw. 

 

Love blossomed again at university with the Computer Science exam. The exercise of imagination in my head where I can foresee scenarios and imagine how to realize them has helped me in different areas of my life, for example using recursive cycles to break down complex activities into simple structures or a routing algorithm to organize daily activities.

 

Now I teach in a primary school in a city near Rome and I try to offer to my students different experiences so that each of them has the opportunity to find what is meaningful to her/him. In my school we are lucky enough to have a makerspace and I often found myself wondering what activity to propose. A few years ago I noticed that depending on the project, not everyone felt involved. Some dedicated time, carried out research, and constantly improved their artifact. Others, on the other hand, were building a sloppy project, working in a hurry to be able to move on to the next activity. It was a difficult balance, because if on the one hand a well-defined project did not emotionally involve the whole group, on the other hand, even very young children (about 6 years old) could not be expected to have the skills and creativity necessary to start from scratch. 

 

This was the situation I was in before I came across Papert’s explanation of how Logo was designed: that it has a “low floor,” allowing children to engage with minimal prerequisite knowledge, and a “high ceiling,” -offering opportunities to explore more complex ideas. I think this aspect is what fascinated me about computer programming, the possibility of having low floors and high ceilings. From that moment I always try to suggest activities that can then be accepted or declined according to everyone’s interests. Other goals are to offer a space that can be explored with very relaxed times and to help them with stimulating questions to find their project idea. Sometimes we start from the materials, for example glitters or rainbow straws, other times from an idea found on Pinterest or seen the day before on Youtube … who knows!

 

Another interesting aspect that I found in the article is in the following sentence: “Anything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models”. This construction of models happens when people have good, creative experiences. I believe that our mission as teachers and educators is to offer opportunities to our students, to propose experiences, challenges and learning environments that can allow everyone to discover their own gears. No one knows what it is until they meet them. So what actions must be taken to be able to do this? I believe that a synergy between teacher and learner must be born such as to abandon the “programs” that ignore the participation of the learner and give way to the co-planning of activities.

 

I remember that when I was in front of my Commodore 64 I did it by choice, no one ever asked me to do it or told me what to do. and I believe that the choice to start a project and the enthusiasm in designing and, deciding what and how to do it is an important detail that makes the work meaningful.