“Gears of My Childhood”


I’m participating in the second round of Learning Creative Learning from MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten Lab. This is in response to the first prompt: Read Seymour Papert’s essay on Gears of My Childhood and write a short description about an object from your childhood that interested and influenced you. 

My thesis could be summarized as: What the gears cannot do the computer might. The computer is the Proteus of machines. Its essence is its universality, its power to simulate. Because it can take on a thousand forms and can serve a thousand functions, it can appeal to a thousand tastes. This book is the result of my own attempts over the past decade to turn computers into instruments flexible enough so that many children can each create for themselves something like what the gears were for me.

–Seymour Papert, Forward to “Mindstorms


In the essay linked above, Papert describes how a simple toy, in this case gears from a car, built a powerful framework upon which his future learning hung. Some mathematical and scientific concepts were completely intuitive to him because he had, as a very young child, experienced the operation of gears. Because he had a concrete understanding of that mechanism, underlying principles of it became very easy for him to grasp. In essence, because he understood the “what” so personally, the “how” and “why” fit themselves neatly into his understanding even years later. Reading his experience, I immediately saw two “gears” of my youth reflected therein: the computer and the piano. Just as with Papert’s gears, I believe that these two tools formed for me what he refers to (extending Piaget) as “intellectual structures [that] grow out of one another and […] in the process, they acquire both logical and emotional form.”

The Computer

I can describe every corner of my father’s home office from my childhood home. It held the TV, and (probably related) the most comfortable couch in the house, but most importantly, it held the IBM PC XT: a personal computer shamed by the earliest cell phone. I couldn’t tell you how old I was when the XT showed up in our home (although Wikipedia puts its release date at 1983, so it must not have been long after that), but I could probably list for you every program that it ran. To this day, I still keep two floppy discs from that beast: the required boot floppy of DOS 1.0, and a first edition Zork.

The IBM PC XT (Wikipedia)

The IBM PC XT (Wikipedia)

Whether consciously or no, my parents embraced the educational nature of the computer. My box of floppies was a veritable roll call of “edutainment” of the day: many varieties of Carmen Sandiego, Oregon Trail, text-based games such as Zork and Deadline which required constant puzzle-solving and notetaking, and text-controlled games like Space Quest, which forced you to think first as a player about all of the myriad possible actions in any given frame, and then type them in one-by-one to see if the game would allow them at any given time. (In reflection, that process sounds a good deal like most of my career up to this point: brainstorm the most outlandish possibilities, and then work inwards to find the first one that I can get away with…)

The most important function that I could run on the XT, though, was BASIC. Again, I don’t recall when my dad first prompted me into BASIC, nor how he learned about it– although a skilled practitioner of logic and algorithm, my father is an attorney, not a computer scientist nor mathematician. I do remember keenly the endless exploration that BASIC allowed. I clipped programs from magazines and retyped them line by line, creating faithful reproductions before beginning to tinker with controls to change the mechanics of the game. One early experiment resulted in my first introduction to flow charts, with my father sitting me down at the kitchen table to lay out all of the various decision trees and junctures I would have to create based on a given scenario (in this case, I was trying to create Super Mario Bros. using BASIC). One of the most vivid memories of that early stage was writing an entire scenario for a game based on the Avengers comic books. I crafted the entire storyline, all of the variables and combat scenarios required for a text-based adventure, and finally ran the program for the first time. I didn’t realize it at the time, because I had not yet played one, but in essence I had created a text-based RPG. I had failed in one crucial step, though: the first choice that the player made was which character to play first. That choice made no difference in the way the adventure played out, though: playing as Captain America was exactly the same as Hawkeye. I cried out in despair, and my father said, “It works! Looks good to me!”

It may have been the first time that I truly understood how complex computer programs were. It was also a stark view into how many variables, actions, consequences and possible processes had to be accounted for at any given time. I was in late Elementary school at the time: perhaps 10? Regardless of age, that experience is as vivid to me as today’s Breakfast. Papert isn’t just talking about vivid memories, though, or powerful experiences. Papert describes how we form intellectual frameworks based on systems which we understand on a deep level, and how those allow us to understand subsequent experiences and assimilate knowledge. Just as when Dewey refers to learning as the reflection upon experiences (and thus the comparison between our past experiences and our present), and Vygotsky describes the Zone of Proximal Development as the range between that which a learner can already do unaided (e.g. past understandings and skillsets) and that which an adult/expert can demonstrate, Papert says that we hang our future learning upon the structure of those skills, processes and knowledge which we have built prior. His fundamental belief in the use of technology in education was that the computer was malleable enough to adapt to whatever our individual “gears” were to allow any student to extend their framework, regardless of its origin. No matter what your gear is, the computer can simulate and extend that reality to allow further and deeper learning.

Perhaps BASIC alone was my gear– the process of building programs and identifying actions and variables has without question formed who I am today.  I believe, though, that the computer was one-half of the equation: that this digital tool had an analog which represents the same essential toolbox and processes; another “transitional object” (Papert) which is both cognitive and personal and equipped me with the tools to make learning both intellectual and emotionally relevant.

The Piano

There’s something different about the piano. I remember a freshman Music Theory TA explaining this to me. There were, he said, three types of people in freshman Music Theory classes: vocalists, who could do everything by ear but looked at a full orchestral score as if it were about to bite them, instrumentalists, who could navigate scales and arpeggios (the bricks and mortar of western music) but were lost at ear training, and pianists, who spent most of the class looking at everyone else saying “This is obvious! Why don’t you all get this?”

One day I was surprised to discover that some adults-even most adults- did not understand nor care about the magic of the gears. I no longer think much about the gears, but I have never turned away from the questions that started with that discovery: How could what was so simple to me be incomprehensible to other people?

–Papert, Forward

Not my hands (Wikimedia)

Not my hands (Wikimedia)

Two weeks later, I was a Music Theory major. Music Theory is the Architecture of Music: the study of structures, forms, materials, and formulas. More essential, it is the study of variables and functions. Functions control Beethoven’s 5th just as much as they control the operation of your smartphone. Just as changing one variable in a BASIC program changed the entire operation of a game, all it takes to make a triumphant Major chord collapse in Minor tragedy is the shift of your middle finger one key to the left. Move the pinky one to the left as well and all the angst of an Augmented chord jumps out.

My undergraduate Music Theory classes were each A-Bombs of learning: a constant stream of new ideas, “Of Course!” revelations and rules to codify that which I already intuitively knew. They were the perfect mixture of prepared mind and raw knowledge which assembled that which I was primed to know into a complete structure. Each new structure, when assimilated, eradicated the landscape of understanding which previously existed and left it so transformed that no similar prior knowledge could grow forth from it. The only constant through each development was the underlying mechanical principle of half-steps and whole-steps, illustrated so clearly upon the piano as on perhaps no other instrument.

No Man an Island

I am a profoundly fortunate man. Many people have had access to both of these tools, and not had the same experiences. The two tools above would have meant nothing without the power of support and opportunity: support in the form of my family placing value on my experiences, and opportunity in the form of teachers allowing me to demonstrate my learning in ways which reflected my learning structures.

A perfect example is one of the most memorable things I did in 8th Grade: a science project to demonstrate knowledge of the solar system. Ms. Pohl gave us a menu of things which we could include in the project, and left the form up to us. There were a number of the standard wire-hanger and ping-pong ball models of the solar system to be had, as well as posters and a couple of presentations using this new software called PowerPoint, but I had something else in mind: I had just heard about a new Windows programming tool called Visual Basic. Even better, it was available through a new “academic discount” purchasing plan so that students could get it fairly reasonably priced. When I told my father about my plan, and rather sheepishly mentioned that we’d have to go buy some software to accomplish it, there was not a moment of hesitation: we went straight out that afternoon and picked it up.

How I built my solar system model (Flickr: lrosa)

How I built my solar system model (Flickr: lrosa)

This illustrates for me both of the things I had which let me take advantage of my personal learning structures– a teacher who designed an open-ended project, letting me demonstrate my knowledge and understanding in a method of my choosing, and the support, encouragement and resources at home to give me tools to enact my vision. This is not the only example– upon reflection, some of the most memorable learning opportunities in my early school career were those which allowed me to use my learning structures and skillsets to demonstrate knowledge through use of music or technology. Furthermore, because these were personal processes, and not “dressing up” an impersonal project through use of PowerPoint (as often seems to be the case), they were incredibly rich and challenging projects.

In order to animate the solar system in Visual Basic, I had to experiment and calculate the orbit and rotation speeds of the planets many times. I can remember off the top of my head the locations of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in 1968, because I had to find a way to rhyme “Chicago” in my folk-rock rendition of the events of that year for US History (for the record, it was “don’t go”– a warning to Bobby Kennedy and reference to his assassination that year as well). These learning experiences are made lasting because I was free to interpret them through the structures I had naturally formed for assimilating and organizing knowledge.

Papert cautions us, though, not to mistake successful use of an activity by one student to mean that the activity will be similarly meaningful to all students– his gears gave him particular cognitive strengths and weaknesses, just as mine did. The key to their success is that the learner applies them naturally and transparently, but also individually. Were I to try demonstrating a scientific principle using simple machines, and he to do the same using string resonance, it likely wouldn’t be as resonant (pardon the pun). Likewise, blanket “everyone do this project this way” recipes miss the point of student-centered learning: forcing the same process does not reflect the nature of our individual learning processes and constructs.

Computer as Holodeck

Papert believed that the computer was such a powerful tool for children because it could simulate whatever “gears” a student needed in order to learn and create more effectively. A student empowered with a computer and skilled in its use could use that build a tool reflective of their individual strengths and learning structures. Doing so requires a personalized approach to technology which is only now becoming viable through 1:1 programs which allow students to have and customize a tool according to their own needs. This vision has tremendous implications for the design of a 1:1 program, from device selection, to ownership and management, to software deployment and student instruction. My Visual Basic story wasn’t a success because we had computers in the classroom (we did), but because I found a piece of software externally and installed it on my own computer. in essence, it could be viewed as a success of instruction but a failure of instructional technology in that the school’s program did not support the learning.

What About You?

What were your gears? What examples do you have as a learner or educator about how an existing learning structure made learning more powerful or meaningful? Comment below!

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