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The Intimate Study & Papert’s Conjecture

relating programming and formal thinking

In a 1976 Panel discussion at Harvard, with Faculty there, Papert from MIT and others from the area, Papert argued for recognizing the importance of computing for its certain future impact on our culture and its potential impact on education. He advocated channeling that impact to favor encouraging the development of powerful ideas in individual’s minds through their experience of programming, seen as a way of embodying their own ideas in machine action to achieve goals they defined for themselves. His vision was challenged from two directions.

First came a question: what are these powerful ideas?
If he had said the obvious, that Lisp (and its dialect for children, Logo) embodied recursive function theory and thus could provide a concrete experience of a cognate of the great idea of mathematical induction, there would have been few in the audience that followed him. His response was necessarily vague, that programming the Logo Turtle would introduce children to important mathematical ideas and geometric notions.

The second challenge was, to me, more interesting, and it came from Mimi Sinclair,* a visiting faculty member at MIT’s newly formed Division for Study and Research in Education. She asked, “Can you be more specific: how could such experiences significantly impact the self-construction of the child’s mind?” Since Papert had been “Piaget’s Mathematician” for five years, she knew he could propose an answer in terms of Piaget’s theories. Papert replied, in “Piagetian short hand,” that programming experience could introduce a new kind of experience into popular cultures focused on procedures which lead to emergent results. Because repetition of well defined steps are ubiquitous in such procedures, these experiences could invigorate the development of systematic thought. Further, if this experience was available at an early age, it could result in reconfiguring elements of concrete and formal operational thought. I’m not sure that others heard that response, but it is what I understood from what Papert said. This conjecture then became one of my issues for exploration at the beginning of The Intimate Study.

An After Thought (2011):

A conjecture need not, of course, be seen as a theory to be proven or dis-proven; rather, in general use, it most often is taken to be a well articulated notion to be explored. This conjecture shaped the specific profile examinations of The Intimate Study, with their focus on combinations, multiple seriation, and the distinction between different variables participating jointly in a test outcome.

Papert noted in a later talk at Le Centre Mondial pour L’Informatique that most everyone now agreed that the “formal stage” was a questionable construct, possibly an artifact of schooling, and represented less a successor stage to concrete thinking that a suite of “clever methods” that were part of a scholars’ culture — or did I just hear him say what I believe? In any case, it is certain he said the following (quoted as the epigraph for chapter 3 of CECD):

“There is a more important question than the truth of the theory propounded by Piaget, that of its necessity: if by some unfortunate chance, this theory turns out to be false, what would be the next development ?… I even think I could anticipate the answer: it would be the establishment of a new theory which would likewise be an equilibration theory.”
Papert, 1976 “This is a free translation of Papert’s comments at a colloquium on the 80th birthday of Jean Piaget.”

* This wonderful woman was a co-author and colleague of Jean Piaget, a Professor and Head of the Faculty of Psychology and the Sciences of Education at the University of Geneva, and a linguist whose doctoral studies had focused on interrelations among the Indo-European Languages. As a linguist (and a mother as well), she was always interested in the developing language capabilities of young children. I was indeed fortunate to have her advice on The Intimate Study and her guidance at the beginning of the Infant Peggy Study. An able musician, she had survived internment in WWII concentration camps after capture driving trucks in the Dutch underground. What an honor it was to know her!

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