What were the gears of my childhood?

The idea I reflect upon most often from Mindstorms is the one in the foreword. In it, Seymour Papert presents the thesis of his book and probably of his career as well. He discusses his childhood fascination with gears and how they developed into powerful, personal and lovely objects to think with. He was able to use his understanding of how gears worked to understand new abstract concepts, such as a system of equations with two unknowns. He wondered if there could be an analogous experience for every child. The problem, of course, is that every child will not have the same fascination with gears. But, in the last paragraph, he hints at one possible solution: “What the gears cannot do the computer might. The computer is the Proteus of machines. Its essence is its universality, its power to simulate.”

And so he goes on to describe how Piaget’s epistemological theory could be combined with computer programming, and an “object to think with” or, in this case, a Turtle. The marriage of these three ideas formed the basis of what he called a microworld. A microworld is a simulated environment where certain rules applies and various commands allowed tasks to be performed in this world. Children are put in control of the Turtle with the idea that the Turtle can be taught new words in a special language called LOGO (places to get it). Children begin by figuring out how they themselves would move in a certain way, for example, in a circle. Then, they tell the Turtle how to do it… In the real world, the child might take a step forward, then turn left a tiny bit, then take another step forward, then turn left a tiny bit, and so on… repeating these movements would result in the child moving in a circle on the floor. Eventually, through much playing, feedback, laughing, and trying out ideas, this could be translated into LOGO and look something like this: TO CIRCLE REPEAT 360 [FD 1 LT 1]. Then, CIRCLE can be used now as part of another program. CIRCLE has become a function that the Turtle can perform.

In a very real sense, computer programming served as the gears of my own childhood. What happened to Papert with gears happened to me with programming; my experience was very much as he described in the foreword to Mindstorms. As I learned to program (starting in grade 8), I learned strategies and ways of thinking that I applied to problems for the rest of my life. As I became more proficient programmer, I looked at problems in new ways. I could break them down into the smallest parts possible and figure out how a potential solution could fit together as a set of instructions using variables, functions and multi-use procedures.

This was also my first experience with constructionism. The act of building these computer programs strengthened my thinking in a unique and personal way. And it did not happen quickly. It took a number of years to develop proficiency and economy in programming. It is a discipline that takes a long time to learn. These days, I think Scratch is most in sync with Papert’s original thesis… the fact that there are several million shared programs on the Scratch web site makes it clear that people are learning with Scratch in a way that is fun, creative, and social.

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