Style as Substance in Educational Computing

  • Sherry Turkle


IN the late 1970s, personal computers became powerful, reliable, and inexpensive enough for large numbers of them to be put into schools. Not surprisingly, the decade that followed has been marked by controversy about what to do with them once they were there and about their significance for education.


Grade School Fourth Grade Cultural Perspective Educational Software Educational Computing 
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Sources and Notes

  1. [1]
    See, for example the recent report on educational technology, Power On: New Tools for Teaching and Learning,Congress of the United States, Office of Technology Assessment, September, 1988. In the report summary one reads, “Today’s classrooms typically resemble their ancestors of 50 years ago more closely than operating rooms or business offices resemble their 1938 versions.” (p. 1)Google Scholar
  2. The OTA report begins with a description of a series of pilot projects in which the above statement is not true. My own optimism about computers in education comes from two sources. First, in settings that use the computer in relatively mundane ways, interesting things happen to individuals. They happen, as it were, in the interstices of the system. Second, pilot projects in which computers are integrated into classroom “computer cultures” are windows onto a future in which computers realize their potential as expressive media. I have observed three such projects, initiated under the sponsorship of Seymour Papert, Director of the Learning and Epistemology Group at the MIT Media Laboratory: the Lincoln School in Brookline, Massachusetts, the Lamplighter School in Dallas, Texas, and the Hennigan School in Boston, Massachusetts.Google Scholar
  3. [2]
    The OTA report comments that market factors play an important role in keeping available software banal: “OTA finds that software manufacturers tend to play it safe. They produce what teachers will buy and teachers usually buy products that are familiar.” (p. 22)Google Scholar
  4. A new genre of educational software is illustrated in a recent research project at the Hennigan School in which children themselves used programming tools to write educational software. MIT researcher Idit Harel had 17 fourth grade children designing, programming, and evaluating a collection of interactive lessons to teach third graders about concepts of fractions. Harel states, “children learn much more from designing interactive software than from using many of the pieces of instructional software that have been pre-designed for them.” Why? Because it is rare for the pre-designed kind to call upon the child to construct, explore, and appropriate materials in a personal way. See Idit Harel, “Software Design for Learning: Children’s Construction of Meaning for Fractions and Logo Programming”, Ph.D. Dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, June 1988, p. 368.Google Scholar
  5. Although at Hennigan, the Harel work is the most explicit attempt to create a new genre of software, other work uses the computer as an expressive medium where individual styles of learning emerge quite clearly. See for example, Judy E. Sacter, “Constructing A Human Skeleton: An Integrated Logo/Science Unit”, unpublished paper, 1988, and Mitchell Resnick, Steven Ocko, and Seymour Papert, “Lego, Logo, and Design”, unpublished paper, 1988, both available from the Media Laboratory, MIT, Cambridge, MA. What the fractions, skeleton, and Lego projects have in common is what Papert has called a “constructivist” perspective on learning: learning by making and through personal appropriation. See Seymour PapertGoogle Scholar
  6. Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas,(New York: Basic Books, 1980).Google Scholar
  7. [3]
    One familiar and extremely disconcerting pattern is the tendency as children progress through the grades to teach introductory program over and over, but to change the language in which it is taught. Thus children learn Logo in grade school, BASIC in junior high school, PASCAL in high school, and FORTRAN in college. Considering that Logo, a LISP cousin, is arguably as, or more advanced, than the languages that “follow” it, it is not clear what kind of progress is being made.Google Scholar
  8. Of course, much of the problem here is the lack of clarity about why we are teaching programming at all. There are several good reasons to do so: it leads to better “thinking skills”, a hypothesis much contested and still under investigation, see for example, Roy D. Pea and D. Midian Kurland, Logo Programming and the Development of Planning Skills, Technical Report No. 16 (New York, NY: Bank Street College of Education, Center for Children and Technology, 1984), T.A. Swartz et al., “Looking Into a Large Scale Logo Project”, paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, 1984, Joyce Statz, “The Development of Computer Programming Concepts and Problem Solving Activities Among Ten Year Olds Learning Logo”, Ph.D. Dissertation, Syracuse University, 1973, and D. Clements and D.F. Gullo, “Effects of Computer Programming on Young Children’s Cognition”, Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 76, No. 6, 1984. A second reason is because programming carries ideas, such as recursion, variable, procedure, and modularization, that are the building blocks of a nascent computer culture. A third is to use programming as a building material, the “constructivist approach”.Google Scholar
  9. In most schools, programming is taught for a fourth and less focused reason. It is taught more or less for the sake of teaching it, with the vague sense that doing so will make people computer “literate” and that somehow this is a good thing. A full discussion of this position is beyond the scope of this essay. Suffice it to say that literacy with the English language is useful because English speakers do things with language and enjoy things through language. Teaching programming in the absence of use, construction, or pleasure seriously undermines the justification for programming through the literacy analogy.Google Scholar
  10. [4]
    For my exploration of the computer as a projective and reflective screen, see Sherry Turkle, The Second Self Computers and the Human Spirit (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984); “Computer as Rorschach”, Society, January February, 1980; and “The Subjective Computer”, Social Studies of Science, 12, 2, May 1982.Google Scholar
  11. [5]
    Papert, Mindstorms.Google Scholar
  12. [6]
    The notion used here of “styles of mastery” was built up over several years of collaboration with Seymour Papert and John Berlow. We worked together at the Lamplighter School in Dallas and the Lincoln School in Brookline where we developed the typologies of styles of mastery that are reported in Turkle, The Second Self. This work on styles of mastery added affective andGoogle Scholar
  13. relational components to earlier work on programming styles that was reported in Seymour Papert, Dan Watt, Andrea diSessa, and Sylvia WeirFinal Report of the Brookline Logo Project,Logo Memos 53 and 54, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA., 1979. For Dr. Weir’s later work on styles, see Sylvia WeirCultivating Minds: A Logo Casebook(New York: Harper and Row, 1987). My research program since the 198183 Lamplighter research has attempted to link the notion of style more explicitly with the quality of an individual’s identification with computational objects and through this with psychoanalytic object relations theory.Google Scholar
  14. [7]
    The example of the Logo flower came up during collaborative teaching with Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT. The eloquent essay of computer criticism that provides the philosophical basis for his skeptical position on computers in education is Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation ( San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1976 ).Google Scholar
  15. [8]
    See Turkle, The Second Self, in particular, Chapter 3, Papert, et. al. Final Report of the Brookline Logo Project, Weir, Cultivating Minds, Harel, “Software Design for Learning”, and Lise Motherwell, “Gender and Style Differences in a Logo Based Environment” Ph.D. Dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, January 1988.Google Scholar
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    Claude Lévi-StraussThe Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968) Google Scholar
  17. [17]
    Turkle The Second Self,p. 113. Google Scholar
  18. [11]
    The turtle was a computational object specifically designed to have its power enhanced because it could be experienced as a “transitional object”, bridging mathematics and children’s sense of their bodies. This identification is constructively exploited in Logo classrooms when children are asked to “play turtle”, in order to solve programming problems. On this, see the discussion of “syntonicity” in Papert, Mindstorms,pp. 63–68.Google Scholar
  19. [12]
    For a more detailed discussion of Lisa, see Sherry Turkle, “Computational Reticence: Why Women Fear the Intimate Machine”, in Cheris Kramerae, ed. Technology and Women’s Voices ( New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul ), pp. 41–61.Google Scholar
  20. [20]
    Project Athena, Faculty/Student Projects MIT Bulletin,March 1985 Google Scholar
  21. [14]
    The Athena findings reported here are described in detail in Sherry Turkle, Donald Schön, Brenda Nielsen, M. Stella Orsini, and Wim Overmeer, “Project Athena at MIT”, May 1988. This report was based on ethnographic studies of Athena from April 1986 to Fall 1987.Google Scholar
  22. [22]
    See, for example, Jean Piaget and Barbel Inhelder The Growth of Logical Thinking from Childhood to Adolescence (New York: Basic Books, 1958) Google Scholar
  23. [23]
    Carol Gilligan In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982) Google Scholar
  24. [24]
    The argument that follows on epistemological pluralism draws on collaborative work with Seymour Papert on gender and programming. See Sherry Turkle and Seymour Papert, “Epistemological Pluralism: Styles and Voices Within The Computer Culture”, in Signs,forthcoming Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1990

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  • Sherry Turkle

There are no affiliations available

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