Review by Terry Freedman

Freelance edtech writer and publisher

16 Jan 2022, 5:00


Its range of suggestions, perspectives and personal experience is staggering

Twenty things to do with a computer (Forward 50)

By Gary S. Stager and Cynthia Solomon


Constructing Modern Knowledge Press




10 Nov 2021

Back in 1971, when computers in schools were barely conceivable, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon produced a revolutionary paper. Reproduced in this book, their Twenty Things to Do with a Computer introduced teachers to the idea that programming could be used to engage children, release their creativity and still learn stuff. 

Reading that paper now, it’s astonishing to realise just how visionary it was. It argued that children should be taught to programme computers, rather than employing computers to programme children.  

Stager and Solomon’s work of the same title for this Forward Fifty edition takes up the ideas originally presented in Twenty Things and seeks to renew or re-imagine them for a new age. They bring in a range of specialists to achieve this, and the result is uplifting and depressing in equal parts.  

The uplifting part emanates from its being a cornucopia of interesting, exciting and novel suggestions and challenges. The depressing part is the evidence that after 50 years, many teachers and policymakers still view computers’ place in education rather naively.  

Education technology has grown into a veritable industry in that time. But despite the efforts of those Papert referred to as ‘yearners’ – whom we might (sometimes dismissively) today call mavericks – much of it is concerned with training children to use existing software to attain pre-defined skills and outcomes. As explored also by Audrey Watters in Teaching Machines, we are using computers to programme young people, rather than teaching them to programme computers. 

 It’s a cornucopia of interesting, exciting and novel suggestions and challenges

As Stager explains, “Using computers to teach children things we’ve always wanted them to know, perhaps with greater efficiency or comprehension” inherently hampers technology’s transformative potential. And it is interesting to reflect that for all their ‘21st-century skills’ rhetoric, the tech industry has by and large bought into facilitating just that. 

However, this book is not about ‘guide on the side’ vs ‘sage on the stage’ pedagogy. Many of the ideas are predictably based in ‘constructionism’ (where learners take the lead and are encouraged to experiment, collaborate and discuss). But far from confining teachers to the role of ‘facilitators’, Twenty Things promotes a commonsense approach in which both constructionism and ‘instructionism’ cohabit successfully. In fact, thanks to contributions from a large number of writers, it displays with honesty the positive and negative aspects of all such efforts.  

The result is a book replete with lovely ideas, such as giving kids programming challenges in the form of haiku, using programming to learn about music (not just simple tunes but harmonics and other advanced concepts) and even civics. For example, what better way to teach young people about fake news than to get them to make videos, say, in which they deliberately set out to mislead people? 

Making videos does not, of course, constitute programming, but rather than a dissonance, this is one of the book’s great strengths. It takes the productive potential of children and computers, and places constructive practices at the heart of the curriculum, with careful consideration for where they do and don’t belong. 

The range of suggestions, perspectives and personal experience contained in Twenty Things is staggering. The variation in chapter length and writing styles keeps it vibrant throughout. And despite a few chapters that weren’t as interesting or as useful as others, it made me want to abandon my reading and try out the ideas for myself more than once. 

It’s bang up to date, too. Several contributors talk about the pandemic, and Stephen Heppell mentions TikTok videos. In fact, Heppell’s chapter gives cause for hope. “Phones are banned, TikTok has nothing to do with learning, and so on. An innovation’s potential contribution is simply denied,” he writes, “and the door for subversive innovation and radical progress opens!” 

At heart a potpourri of ideas for the maverick ‘yearners’ – the teachers who, in Heppell’s words, are “recklessly ambitious” –  there’s plenty here to make any educator think and rethink how our schools have engaged with technology over 50 years, and how they will continue to do so for the next 50.

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