Papertian Constructionism and At-Risk Learners

Since September 1999, the presenter has worked with Seymour Papert to develop a high-tech alternative learning environment inside the Maine Youth Center, the state facility for adjudicated teens. The experience of trying to reacquaint or acquaint these previously unsuccessful students with the learning process teaches us many lessons about just at-risk our entire educational system has become.

Program Description:

Since September 1999, the presenter has worked with Seymour Papert to develop a high-tech alternative learning environment inside the Maine Youth Center, the state facility for adjudicated teens. This multiage environment provides each student with a personal computer and access to a variety of constructive material. This is not just the story of corrections education. The experience of trying to reacquaint or acquaint these previously unsuccessful students with the learning process teaches us many lessons about just at-risk our entire educational system has become. This presentation shares some of the data, analysis and conclusions of this groundbreaking work. Research suggests that exciting implications for systemic school reform.

Session Description:

Seymour Papert, a colleague of Jean Piaget and Professor of Learning Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has created the Constructionist Learning Laboratory (CLL) project at the Maine Youth Center (Portland, Maine USA).

The Constructionist Learning Laboratory, an alternative learning environment has been created within the grounds of the Maine Youth Center, the state facility for adjudicated youths. The project commenced in September 1999 and ran for two years before being reintegrated into the redesigned school on the premises. Ten children attended the CLL as an alternative to participation in the more traditional high school within the Youth Center. As a result, the Constructionist Learning Laboratory might be best described as a multi-age computer-rich one-room schoolhouse.

The intent of the project was to create a rich constructionist learning in which severely at-risk students will be engaged in long-term projects based on personal interest, expertise and experience. Students use computational technologies, programmable LEGO and more traditional materials to construct knowledge through the act of constructing a personally meaningful project. The hypothesis was that the constructionist philosophy offers students better opportunities to learn and engage in personally meaningful intellectual development.

The theoretical basis for this research develops from the work of Seymour Papert, author of Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas (1981), The Children's Machine (1993) and The Connected Family (1997). These seminal books in the field of educational computing detail more than four decade's worth of thinking about learning with computers. This research offers the educational community an analysis of Papert's latest and perhaps most ambitious project.

Constructionism extends the Piagetian notion of constructivist learning by stating that the best way to ensure learning is through the act of constructing something shareable outside of one's own head. Papert believes that personal digital technologies provide a powerful vehicle for the construction of knowledge in a social setting. Previous research based on Papert's theory of constructionism by Sherry Turkle, Seymour Papert, Idit Harel, Yasmin Kafai and Mitchel Resnick support the hypothesis that children are capable of constructing knowledge when using computational material in a social setting.

While much has been written about the theoretical basis for constructionism attempted in more traditional school settings, this research offers the first opportunity to document a full-scale implementation of constructionism in an alternative learning environment built and directed by Papert. The Constructionist Learning Laboratory combines the theory of constructionism with powerful ideas from the school reform movement, including: multi-age grouping, interdisciplinary learning, authentic assessment, project-based learning and reflective practice. This research makes a significant contribution to knowledge by creating a model of constructionism complete with ubiquitous digital technology and important strategies school reform with a population of at-risk students. The goal was to engage these children in unprecedented learning activities while offering the world with a new way of thinking about creating learning environments for the 21st Century.

In Situating Constructionism (Papert & Harel 1991), Seymour Papert makes the following claims:

"When one looks at how people think and learn one sees clear differences. Although it is conceivable that science may one day show that there is a "best way," no such conclusion seems to be on the horizon. Moreover, even if there were, individuals might prefer to think in their own way rather than in the "best way." Now one can make two kinds of scientific claim for constructionism. The weak claim is that it suits some people better than other modes of learning currently being used. The strong claim is that it is better for everyone than the prevalent "instructionist" modes practiced in schools. A variant of the strong claim is that this is the only framework that has been proposed that allows the full range of intellectual styles and preferences to each find a point of equilibrium."

It is impossible for one dissertation to prove Papert's strong claim, yet this research offers great potential for confirming the weak claim. The careful design of the constructionist learning environment and the challenging student population found at the Maine Youth Center may make a significant contribution towards the eventual satisfaction of the strong claim. Simply stated, this research intends to make an important contribution to knowledge by defining constructionism practice for the wider educational community through a clear description of compelling innovation and educational practice.

Participants in this study are students within the Constructionist Learning Laboratory. Each of these students volunteered to attend the CCL rather than a traditional secondary school. This research documents their work, collaborations, learning reflections as well as a detailed description of the classroom culture.

The presenter has been involved in the development of the Constructionist Learning Laboratory since it's inception and is documenting the project as part of his doctoral studies. This presentation will share highlights of the data, analysis and conclusions of this important research.