8 Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Lab

In 1999, Seymour Papert, the father of educational technology, embarked on his last ambitious institutional research project when he created the constructionist, technology-rich, project-based,  multi-aged Constructionist Learning Laboratory inside of Maine’s troubled prison for teens, The Maine Youth Center.

The story of the Constructivist Learning Laboratory is documented in Gary Stager’s doctoral dissertation, “An Investigation of Constructionism in the Maine Youth Center.” The University of Melbourne. 2006.

Gary shares, “Shortly after the start of  the three-year project, Papert outlined the Eight Big Ideas Behind the Constructionist Learning Laboratory (PDF). Although non-exhaustive, this list does a good job of explaining constructionism to the general population.” Gary is also curating a site of Papert quotes called The Daily Papert, showcasing the enduring wisdom of Dr. Papert.

Eight Big Ideas Behind the Constructionist Learning Lab
By Dr. Seymour Papert

The first big idea is learning by doing. We all learn better when learning is part of doing something we find really interesting. We learn best of all when we use what we learn to make something we really want.

The second big idea is technology as building material. If you can use technology to make things you can make a lot more interesting things. And you can learn a lot more by making them. This is especially true of digital technology: computers of all sorts including the computer-controlled Lego in our Lab.

The third big idea is hard fun. We learn best and we work best if we enjoy what we are doing. But fun and enjoying doesn’t mean “easy.” The best fun is hard fun. Our sports heroes work very hard at getting better at their sports. The most successful carpenter enjoys doing carpentry. The successful businessman enjoys working hard at making deals.

The fourth big idea is learning to learn. Many students get the idea that “the only way to learn is by being taught.” This is what makes them fail in school and in life. Nobody can teach you everything you need to know. You have to take charge of your own learning.

The fifth big idea is taking time – the proper time for the job. Many students at school get used to being told every five minutes or every hour: do this, then do that, now do the next thing. If someone isn’t telling them what to do they get bored. Life is not like that. To do anything important you have to learn to manage time for yourself. This is the hardest lesson for many of our students.

The sixth big idea is the biggest of all: you can’t get it right without getting it wrong. Nothing important works the first time. The only way to get it right is to look carefully at what happened when it went wrong. To succeed you need the freedom to goof on the way.

The seventh big idea is do unto ourselves what we do unto our students. We are learning all the time. We have a lot of experience of other similar projects but each one is different. We do not have a pre-conceived idea of exactly how this will work out. We enjoy what we are doing but we expect it to be hard. We expect to take the time we need to get this right. Every difficulty we run into is an opportunity to learn. The best lesson we can give our students is to let them see us struggle to learn.

The eighth big idea is we are entering a digital world where knowing about digital technology is as important as reading and writing. So learning about computers is essential for our students’ futures BUT the most important purpose is using them NOW to learn about everything else.

Download the PDF of these 8 big ideas and share widely!


Monday… Someday

Note: This is part 4 of 4 of a series on Khan Academy.

Part 1 – Khan Academy and the mythical math cure
Part 2 – Khan Academy – algorithms and autonomy
Part 3 – Don’t we need balance? and other questions
Part 4 – Monday… Someday (this post)

In the previous post, I ended with a question about the inch-deep, mile-wide math curriculum in the U.S. that essentially requires teachers to force-feed their students so they can “cover” the material and pass the tests.

This is the Monday… Someday problem – the fact that even if a teacher changes everything in their classroom, nothing else in the system will change. How can one argue for a long term (Someday) overhaul of math curriculum, pedagogy and assessment when you know even if it does change, it’s going to be long time from now, and you have kids coming in on Monday who need to pass a test on Friday that will depend on them memorizing a bunch of facts and skills?

What good does it do to fight when the system not only doesn’t care, but will slap you down for it.

Even the students will likely complain – “why don’t you just tell us what we need to know?” They’ve been conditioned over the years that they aren’t supposed to really understand; they have figured out the rules of the game and don’t have any reason to believe that the game will change, even if one teacher insists it will.

So… what DO I do on Monday?
Even if I thought I had that answer I wouldn’t have the hubris to tell a teacher that I had a magic formula. I respect teachers too much to think that I could prescribe a “solution” that would fit everyone, every context, every kid, and every other major variable in the teaching/learning equation.

All I can do is present alternatives to what I see are these math myths that are so pervasive in American culture. To speak about things that often go unquestioned. To point to great thinkers and research that have changed my own thinking. That’s my whole purpose here with these posts on Khan Academy.

Seymour Papert said, “My answer is that if you have a vision of Someday you can use this to guide what you do Monday. But if your vision of where it is going is doing the same old stuff a bit (or a lot) better your efforts will be bypassed by history.” – Technology in Schools: To Support the System or to Render it Obsolete.

Working on “a vision of Someday” requires doing some thinking about what you believe about learning, and how different teaching models align with those beliefs. Without having an “eye on the prize” it would be difficult to steer your own classroom towards anything new. In a similar vein, Alvin Toffler, futurist and author of the book Future Shock said, “You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.”

Someone else who has influenced my thinking on the “what do you do Monday” is Gary Stager. He says that anytime you go to “help” a learner, pause and think about whether you are taking away an opportunity for them to learn it themselves. He summarizes this as “Less us, more them.” His recent TEDxNYED talk showed examples of what at-risk students could do in science and math when given the chance.

A Monday solution pretending to be a Someday solution
Unfortunately, Khan Academy is a simplistic “what do I do on Monday” solution that is being hyped as a Someday solution. If you have a long-term vision that in any way aligns with more open-ended, more constructivist learning, Khan Academy is not a step on that path. It’s a “more us, more us” solution.

You can’t expect an instructionist solution like Khan Academy to pair with, or even more implausibly, magically morph into a constructivist solution.

Instruction begets instruction.

Well, if it’s not Khan, what does Someday look like?
I’m going to go back to theory for this and talk about constructionism (the learning theory developed by Seymour Papert.)

“The word constructionism is a mnemonic for two aspects of the theory of science education underlying this project. From constructivist theories of psychology we take a view of learning as a reconstruction rather than as a transmission of knowledge. Then we extend the idea of manipulative materials to the idea that learning is most effective when part of an activity the learner experiences as constructing a meaningful product.” – Seymour Papert (Wikipedia article on constructionism)

“Meaningful product” – now there are a couple of important words. Is it possible to shift math education to “constructing meaningful products”? What does a classroom look like when students are engaged in developing meaningful products?

Good news — there are lots of answers out there that are well researched and classroom tested. Bad news — these models are virtually ignored in most American classrooms. Call it constructivist, project-based, progressive, inquiry-based… there are a lot of good books, websites, and help out there to change the way we teach math. Gary Stager has collected a starter kit of constructivist books in the collection at The Constructivist Consortium.

One of Papert’s answers was to invent a programming language for children called Logo. This language allows very young people to construct things on the computer, or to control physical objects like robots. There are thousands of versions of Logo today that offer all kinds of constructivist learning opportunities on the computer. Scratch, free from MIT is one such Logo offspring.

Even when people acknowledge that some topics in the math curriculum are not needed in the real world anymore, we hear, “oh, but it’s good for developing logical thinking.” Really? How about some real world math that teaches logical thinking… programming. Where  is that to be found in math curriculum? In my original post about the difference between Conrad Wolfram and Salman Khan’s TED talks (Compare and contrast: using computers to improve math education), Wolfram also mentions that programming is a way to teach procedural, logical thinking.

This is an idea whose time has come.

Here’s a video of a keynote speech that Seymour Papert (by the way, another protégé of Piaget) gave in Australia in 2004 where he makes some incredibly good points about these things.

Seymour Papert in Sydney, Australia 2004 from The Daily Papert, Gary Stager

Why I keep coming back to Papert
Seymour Papert has been an enormous influence on my life and my thinking about math learning. He’s also the reason I do what I do. If you read the article I linked to above (Technology in Schools: To Support the System or to Render it Obsolete.), one of the things he talks about is “Kid Power” and Generation WHY – which was the original name for the non-profit of which I’m now president, Generation YES.

Seymour says in this article that there are changes coming:

“A hundred years ago John Dewey was showing the faults of the curriculum-driven, non-experiential ways of teaching favored by schools. But all his work had only a marginal effect on what schools do; they have changed in some details but most are not essentially very different from those which Dewey criticized way back then.

Critics of school reform (including Todd Oppenheimer) are fond of quoting the failures of past movements as evidence for the extreme difficulty of changing school and hence casting doubt on the likelihood that revolutionary change is likely to come this time round.

But the critics are misled by their failure to look below the surface of what is happening to the learning environment. If they did they would recognize three aspects of a profound difference between the present situation and anything that has happened in the past.

Each of these takes the form of a reversal:

    • Reversal #1: Children become a driving force for educational change instead of being its passive recipients. Dewey had nothing stronger than philosophical arguments to support his attempts at changing school. But academic arguments can never budge an institution as firmly rooted as the School Establishment.This time we are beginning, just beginning, to see the effects of a wave that will soon become a veritable army of young people who come to school with the experience of a better and more empowering learning environment based on their home computers. There is much talk about schools setting higher standards for students. But what is more important is that these students are demanding higher standards from schools. And moreover they come armed with the know-how that makes better learning possible.
    • Reversal #2: Teachers’ technologies vs. learners’ technologies. The emergence of Kid Power as a force for change is closely related to the fact that digital technology is a learners’ technology. This makes it radically different from the educational films and television cited by the critics who scream about previous technologies promising to bring an educational revolution and fizzling.

      These technologies were teachers’ technologies.
      The fact is that a teacher talking out of a TV set is not different in kind from a teacher lecturing in front of a class. These earlier technologies did not really offer something really new. The computer does: it offers a fundamental reversal of relationships between participants in learning.

  • Reversal #3: Powerful advanced ideas can become elementary without losing their power. The reversal that is most often missed is the opportunity for making accessible to young children very powerful ideas that were previous encountered only in specialized college courses.I have mentioned two mathematical ideas in this class: random variables and successive approximations; one from engineering: negative feedback and a whole area of knowledge about project management.

    However, while this may be the most important reversal, it is also the one that has to overcome the most severe obstacle: for these powerful ideas are by their nature not familiar to teachers and parents raised in the days when they were inaccessible.(emphasis mine)

The strategy for overcoming the last obstacle brings us full circle to my opening paragraph:

for those of us who want to change education the hard work is in our own minds, bringing ourselves to enter intellectual domains we never thought existed. The deepest problem for us is not technology, nor teaching, nor school bureaucracies.

All these are important but what it is all really about is mobilizing powerful ideas.

And there it is…
“We have met the enemy and he is us” – Pogo

Khan Academy is the system’s pushback against real curriculum reform. In “Reversal #2” that Papert talks about, we see he has explicitly predicted Khan Academy. The system likes the status quo and things that support the status quo have a predictably comfortable feel to them. Then we get to call it a revolution without changing a thing.

Moving beyond Monday to Someday involves mobilizing powerful ideas that might not feel comfortable. It’s tiring to constantly rethink everything you “know” about learning, but rewarding in the end.

For technology in education advocates, it means constantly pushing the envelope towards learner-centered technology and away from teacher-centered technology. So although I said that the discussion about Khan Academy is not about educational technology, it should be, because it’s the perfect example of a wolf in sheep’s clothing “technology revolution” that really supports the status quo.

Some last thoughts
To teachers – 1) Keep your skeptic hat on tight. Anything that “solves all problems in education” probably doesn’t, and any “revolution” probably isn’t. 2) Anything that you use in your classroom should align with your theory of learning. Find one and drink deeply. Strangely enough, this is exactly the same two pieces of advice I give about using games in the classroom.

To students – Math isn’t what’s found in textbooks. Sorry you have to slog your way through a lot of crap to get to the good stuff. There are lots of people, videos, and sources out there to learn about vibrant, useful, beautiful things that also happen to be numerically interesting. Use the Google. PS- If you love math you aren’t weird.

To parents – The math your children are learning should not be about worksheets and lectures, even if those worksheets and lectures are on a computer. Demand that your children not be sacrificed to the gods of standardized testing. Your children’s teachers need you on their side to fight for something better.

To everyone else in the system – Don’t mandate to teachers or replace them with videos. Include them in long-term learning communities and conversations that support change, growth, and better teaching and learning for everyone.


Part 1 – Khan Academy and the mythical math cure
Part 2 – Khan Academy – algorithms and autonomy
Part 3 – Don’t we need balance? and other questions
Part 4 – Monday… Someday  (this post)

Why Education Reform Will Work This Time

This is a remarkable piece of video from 1998 unearthed by Gary Stager. In it, Ryan Powell, then a GenYES middle school student, interviews Seymour Papert and John Gage about the model of students learning technology in order to help teachers in their own schools. Both of these heavyweights of educational technology say some really interesting things about the model, including Dr. Papert saying that it’s the best thing the US Department of Education has ever funded! Pretty nice to hear that.

As further background, Dr. Papert is the father of educational technology, a colleague of Jean Piaget, and an internationally renowned educator famous for the theory of constructivism. His advocacy of student laptop programs extends around the world including the XO laptop for developing nations, and he invented the Logo programming language for children. John Gage, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems, started the NetDay movement to wire schools and originated the phrase, “the network is the computer.”

About halfway through this clip, Dr. Papert talks a bit about why he believes that education reform can happen now, even though decades of reform efforts have not had much impact.

He says there are two things that are different now. One is that school was designed to fit the previous “knowledge technology” of chalk, blackboards, paper and pencil. These technologies match quite well with the prevailing pedagogy of the last century, which relied on instruction, teacher as the center of all knowledge, and delivery of content. So criticizing it was a bit idealistic and theoretical. But now we have new technology that directly enables construction, connection, and distributed expertise. These new knowledge technologies tip the balance and as a result, new pedagogy can become reality.

The second factor is what he calls “Kid Power.” The technology amplifies the voices of people who are traditionally without voice or representation in our society.

For more explanation of Papert’s view on why technology will power education reform, check out this speech: Chlld Power: Keys to the New Learning of the Digital Century.

In Gary’s post about this video, he also recalls some of the early days of Generation YES, when Dennis Harper had this “crazy idea” of kids being at the center of changing education with technology. Seymour Papert on Generation YES & Kid Power : Stager-to-Go

By the way, Ryan is now a college graduate serving in the Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa with his wife Kimberly.


Tinkering as a mode of knowledge production in a Digital Age

From the “Carnegie Commons” – Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge Production in a Digital Age.

The MacArthur Foundation brought together educators, “tinkerers,” curators, artists, performers and “makers” to grapple with questions around ensuring that all students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully and creatively in public, community, and economic life.

These interviews from five of the participants were produced to provide some insights into the thoughtful and passionate conversations from that convening.

These videos make connections between tinkering, innovative ideas, the idea of making work public as in a studio, creativity and collaboration, the ability to incorporate criticism, and more. Well worth watching!

I posted my own thoughts about students having “tinkering time” with technology a few weeks ago and it’s quickly risen to be one of the most looked at articles on this blog. It’s especially important as educators work hard to figure out how to make education more relevant to students and to connect to the real world.

Seymour Papert, the father of educational computing, often used the French word bricolage to describe the kind of playful attitude both children and scientists use to tinker, build, test, and rebuild their way to solving problems. Bricolage has the additional advantage (besides being cool sounding) of implying that you are using materials that you find around you – a very eco-green idea!

Problem-solving in schools is typically taught as an analytical process with clear plans and steps, like the “scientific method.” But bricolage is clearly closer to the way real scientists, mathematicians and engineers solve problems. Sure, they make plans. But they also follow hunches, iterate, make mistakes, re-think, start over, argue, sleep on it, collaborate, and have a cup of tea. Bricolage encourages making connections, whereas School tends to like “clean” disconnected problems with clear, unambiguous step-by-step solutions.

“For planners, mistakes are steps in the wrong direction; bricoleurs navigate through midcourse corrections. Bricoleurs approach problem-solving by entering into a conversation with their work materials that has more the flavor of a conversation than a monologue. ” – Papert & Turkle

For more on the concept of bricolage and computers, Papert’s book, The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer is the one to read. If you want to get a taste, the Math Forum has a nice synopsis of it on their website.


* Note: the Papert & Turkle quote is from their seminal paper, Epistemological pluralism and the revaluation of the concrete. I found this on the Edutech Wiki, hosted by the University of Geneva.