Mathematician Seymour Papert is hopeful.
Never before has society been so close to freeing children from school walls, grading systems, and an overdependence on adults, says Dr. Papert, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and the inventor of Logo, a highly praised computer language for children.
Using the computer as a component of a construction kit, like plastic blocks, children will hold the key to learning. The computer will allow them to explore intuitively as they did as infants, and as scientists do, he says.
This is the learning revolution Papert proclaims the computer age is bringing to schools.
In fact, as the number of computer-fluent pupils keeps growing, "kids are bringing a certain demand for a more interesting way of doing things; there's a certain pressure from kids to speed things up," says Papert, author of "The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generational Gap" (Longstreet Press, 1996).
"Everybody knows that you learn much better when you're really interested in what you're doing, and it can't be the same for everybody," Papert says. "In the past, the only way we could give knowledge was to put kids in a classroom and give them the knowledge bit by bit. Today, with the technology, we have choice."
By way of example, Papert says in his computer-driven environment, children will "do" math by creating a computer program to build a space shuttle. They will grasp concepts of geometry not by memorizing facts and figures but by creating. Teachers will not act as dispensers of knowledge but as guides.
The problem is, schools have been far too slow in adapting.
While the rest of the society has been moving to adjust to technological changes, schools have lagged behind, causing children to believe in school less and less, and to reject it altogether. "Things go fast; kids can see that the outside world doesn't look like school," Papert says.
"Do we really expect children to sit still for the predigested curriculum of the elementary school when they have known the freedom to explore knowledge on the information highways of the world, and when they have been used to planning complex projects and finding for themselves the knowledge and advice they need to conduct them?" Papert writes in his book.
Papert challenges the priority given to the all-important three R's. "What I want to call into question," he writes, "is not the indisputable value in the present-day world of being able to read, write and calculate. What is disputable is whether the priority we give to the Rs will continue to make sense as other media for access to knowledge become available.... [A]lthough this shift will take time to happen, it has such profound implications for thinking about schools, and indeed about the nature of childhood, that it urgently deserves attention now."
Papert says the new technology will not stifle social interaction. Instead, if computers are used appropriately, they will engage parents and teachers in a "community of learning."
"The problem is ... to recognize the different ways of using them can go in different directions," Papert cautions, referring to the difference between using the computer to learn multiplication tables and using a computer to create a new program. "It is a matter of choice for society."
"Socialization is not best done by segregating children into classrooms with kids of the same age," Papert continues. "The computer is a medium in which what you make lends itself to be modified and shared. When kids get together on a project, there is abundant discussion; they show it to other kids, other kids want to see it, kids learn to share knowledge with other people much more than in the classroom."