Entry Point to Twenty First Century Learning
A Call for Action at the Local and Global level
A recent paper by Papert in collaboration with former
governor of West Virginia Gaston Caperton opens with this statement:
approach of the twenty-first century has brought a chorus
of pronouncements that "the information society"
both requires and makes possible new forms of education.
totally agree with this. But we do not agree that tardiness
in translating these declarations into reality can be ascribed,
as it often is, to such factors as the lack of money, technology,
standards or teacher training. Obviously there is need for
improvement in all of those areas. But the primary lack
is something very different -; a shortage of bold,
coherent, inspiring yet realistic visions of what Education
could be like ten and twenty years from now.
does not mean prophesy or blueprint. Nor does it mean hand-waving
assertions that being connected will change everything. Vision
is a mindset with two characteristics: it refuses to be bound
by assumptions that what has been always will be; and it is
willing to bring hard work and rigorous, tough-minded thinking
to bear on elaborating alternatives.
call for action is written for activists and thinkers who have
had, or dream of having, the privilege of being able to build
visions of what learning could become in a globally connected
world rich in ubiquitous digital technologies. This is a privilege
because the work of making realistic and rich visions requires
conditions that are unfortunately rare. They include: time to
think, communities of like-minded people to think with, diverse
forms of knowledge to fuel the thinking, and real-world experiences
to keep the thinking under control. The concept of a Learning
Hub described here is directed at creating these conditions.
now? Our position is based on recognizing the present moment
as a special time for such action. Taken in abstract there is
nothing new about the idea that education will undergo radical
change in the wake of new enabling technologies and new demanding
needs. Futurists have been saying this in their vague way for
many years, and researchers, including ourselves, have labored
to give concrete content to the abstract promise.
is new is that for the first time the prospect of this level
of change is within the time horizon of practical education
planners. We are not saying that radical changes in education
can be implemented next year: for all except the richest countries
the technology is not quite ready at a feasible price point
and in any case there are necessary lags between planning and
achieving deep change. But for the first time a compelling
case can be made for the urgency of developing a vision
of deep change. Failure to do so will result in costly waste
of human and economic potential in a near and predictable future.
it would be futile to expect regional or national authorities
to commit themselves overnight to far reaching policies of change.
The plan presented in this paper offers a way for them to explore
alternative visions and to create a culture of openness to deep
change in the near future.
crux of the plan is the creation of a network of initially very
small entities we call "Learning Hubs." These "nuclei
of change" could be self-contained organizations created
for this purpose; they could be "departments" of larger
existing organizations, or indeed take any one of many other
forms. The essence is not the form but the function, which we
summarize under these heads, Vision, Organization, and Networking.
The two primary requirements in each participating area are
to create at least one new "out of the box" pilot
of an innovative learning environment and to form a local group
of "learning activists" to develop, guide, research
and help others appropriate successful models.
Learning Hub is made up of people who believe the following
deep changes in the learning environment are already possible
and desirable; they will become more urgently necessary
with the spread of digital technology.
towards the introduction of computers in schools fall far
short of the changes that must come.
larger changes will not come as automatic consequences of
the presence of technology in schools. Serious intellectual
effort is needed to define new forms of learning. Serious
efforts of social consciousness-raising are needed before
the public will accept the changes.
is needed to give direction and form to the work mentioned in
number 3 above. The organization we propose under the name "Learning
Hub" can take many different forms but a few principles
first principle is that theoretical work in the armchair
or ivory tower is insufficient as is trying to import "ready
to wear models" from elsewhere. Each Learning Hub
must take responsibility for at least one operation that
models a full alternative to a significant component of
traditional education. The obvious example is to operate
a school that uses modern technologies and ideas about learning
to break with current practice sufficiently strongly to
call well-established principles into question. Examples
of specific ways in which this might be done are discussed
later in this paper.
work is also insufficient. Each Learning Hub must have
the structure and the staff to act as a theoretical center
as well as conducting educational work. Again this can
be done in different ways. We believe that the ideal form
is to have a system of "Learning Fellows" young
people of great talent and dedication who would work at
a Hub full-time for a period of several years. If local
conditions make this impossible other forms of involvement
can be imagined. But the example of a full-time, multiple-year
fellowship provides a measure of the scaleof commitment
we believe necessary for success.
Learning Hub should start small not only because of difficulties
in obtaining resources but because we think that it is better
that it grow in an organic way and to follow the biological
model of splitting before it becomes too large. A measure
of what we mean by small is given by the image of the pilot
school operation involving at most 100 students (perhaps
as few as 25 in the first year) and the fellows program
recruiting 4 for the first year.
imagine in the not distant future a large loosely structured
international network of Learning Hubs. In each region or country,
there would be a small number of local Learning Hubs, with a
regional nexus poroviding facility and human resources and serving
as a mechanism for local exchange and critique of ideas. The
aggregation of these would form a global Learning Hub network,
which would have its initial nexus at the MIT Media lab and
its affiliate, the Learning Barn. But much as the individual
Learning Hubs should start small, so should the network. For
example, 4 to 6 regional Learning Hubs would be an ideal number
of founding members with the hope that many more research centers
might join in the future.
Some Proposed Forms
spell out some possible designs for the Local Learning Hub (LLH)
with the practical goal of making suggestions but also with
the conceptual goal of developing the idea through concrete
cases. We begin with what we call the "City Model"
because our liking for concreteness favors thinking very specifically
about a special case, which we locate in a city in a developing
country. But the names of the models are somewhat arbitrary
and the goals only superficially different: the essential
goal in each case is to conduct a cutting edge educational pilot
as a basis for the development and public dissemination of ideas
about learning. In particular the public, as well as the
communities of professional educators, need to be introduced
to visions of learning quite different from the structures of
traditional schools. As a foundation for this shift in mindset
they need to understand how digital technology can be used as
a constructionist as well as an informational medium and how
the acquisition of technological fluency goes far beyond learning
to use office software.
1. The City Model
design envisages an organization with multiple facets which
we describe separately even at the risk of some redundancy.
The principle of starting small suggests that not all the facets
be implemented at the start; however the spirit of the design
as a coherent concept implies that they are all anticipated
at the time of launching the Hub.
The LLH (Local Learning Hub) as public access technology/learning
face most visible to the general public is our synthesis of
the best of the ideas that go under such names as "Technology
Center" ... "Science Museum" ... "Learning
Center" ... "Children's Museum" ...
"Computer Clubhouse." It is a place where people can
come for a few hours or for a few whole days to see, learn participate
in intellectually rich, future-oriented activities. It will
have a special concern for children but will draw people of
all ages and especially families and other groups of people
of mixed age.
us to make an important distinction. While we may use familiar
terms and refer to familiar institutions such as schools, museums,
and so on, a major part of this effort is to break the assumptions
about how they must function and the roles people play in them.
For example, an assumption deeply embedded in museum design
is that people will only spend at most five minutes at any exhibit.
Thus, since there cannot be a deep engagement, the designers
concentrate on providing information or an "oh wow"
experience with the hope that the depth will come later. This
need not be the case.
The LLH as school.
special feature of the Learning Center is that most of the work
- R&D as well as operational -- is done by young people
between the ages of 8 and 18. In addition the students are given
the opportunity to form their own small businesses that will
be subject to the discipline of a market although the ground-rules
will require that more attention be devoted to self-conscious
learning. This is not exploitation of child labor. It is a concept
of learning by doing. At the core of the LLH is a very special
school in which work, play and learning are richly combined.
These students spend all of what would normally be school time
at the LLH, which therefore serves as an alternative school.
The fact that they are also doing socially meaningful work of
a kind for which professionals are paid salaries does not imply
that their learning is either diminished or less academic. Quite
the contrary: when we look at the details of what they will
be doing we will see that it is enhanced to a level higher than
the expectations of the best schools.
The LLH as center for research and innovation.
young people will be guided in their work by a staff of professionals
who are proud to be teachers in this sense. But their work is
very different from the image of a classroom teacher "trained"
to implement a curriculum whose main lines have been imposed
by a hierarchical system. As they teach they are creatively
inventing a new image of "teacher" to fit the needs
and opportunities of the twenty-first century, they are exploring
new educational content.
The LLH as center for community development.
fixed curriculum stands in contradiction to a learning environment
based upon the interests and initiative of the participants.
An LLH can take the host community as a basis for study and
activity. Students, staff, and parents can research the life
of their community and implement projects designed to improve
life in the community. Most importantly, this helps enhance
the relationship of the participants with their community and
re-integrates the learning environment into the full-life of
The LLH as incubator for small technology-based business.
we discuss more fully below the new content will include such
topics as "invention" and "entrepreneurship"
as well as the skills that would support the kinds of invention
and entrepreneurship appropriate to the particular LLH's
local area. But in line with a general philosophy of learning
by doing if these topics are discussed they will also be practiced.
And doing so will do more than improve learning: it will give
the LLH a richer set of connections with the life of the community
in which it is placed.
The LLH as center for intellectual and political discussion
on the future of learning.
of the major sources of resistance to change in education is
the general public's low level of knowledge about modern
ideas and new needs for learning. A central function of the
LLH will be to nurture the development of forward-looking attitudes
in all segments of the population. Among many ways of doing
this are: regular and occasional meetings at which the future
of education can be discussed at various levels that correspond
to the interests and needs of different segments of the community.
In most cities even professional educators do not have access
to informed systematic discussion of future-oriented educational
The LLH is a site for professional development of educators.
particular example of the previous function deserves special
mention: this is providing a place where advanced students of
education could serve internships to enable them to learn about
future-oriented learning through direct participatory experience.
2: Village Model.
have had some recent experience in two countries - Costa
Rica and Thailand - with projects directed at developing
the learning environment of small villages where the full structure
of the City Model would not be feasible as a self-contained
local organization. In both these countries we have been collaborating
with a larger central organization that already carries out
some of the functions of the City Model. Our initial conceptual
plan for the village model is to draw on and integrate village-based
activities from these two situations.
Costa Rica the village activity is school-based. We have worked
for more than a decade with the Omar Dengo Foundation, an organization
created by the Costa Rican government in order to carry out
a large-scale introduction of computers into all the schools
of the country. This program has already set up computer labs
in more than half the schools and is now facing the problem
of extending the program to the remaining schools. Most of these
schools are very small, many what are classified there as "one
teacher schools." We join with the Omar Dengo Foundation
in seeing work with these small schools less a difficult challenge
than as an opportunity to develop pilot projects for deeper
change than can be brought about by a computer lab in a large
schools have often been regarded in the past as the orphans
of the educational system. However constructionist uses of digital
technology together with connectivity turn the tables, so that
in many ways these schools are ahead of the larger ones. In
the past the small school could not afford science labs and
libraries and did not have the larger spectrum of expertise
that could be provided by a larger teaching staff. These deficiencies
can now in large measure be remedied without losing the powerful
strengths of the small villages school: a more intimate relationship
with the teacher, a closer connection with the community, stronger
student independence and collaboration, and freedom from the
tyranny of age segregation. We hope that the Learning Hub will
provide support for the task of removing the deficiencies while
retaining and embellishing the strengths so as to form a school
structure that will serve as a model for schools everywhere.
Thailand our village work has also been carried out through
a relationship with a local organization, the Suksapattana Foundation,
set up to promote innovation in education. Here we have worked
with a greater emphasis on promoting the development of the
learning environment outside of the formal school system. We
have worked with centers of informal education and directly
with adult villagers on applying digital technology to immediate
problems ranging from the design of irrigation systems to developing
channels for direct sale of local artisans' products through
e-commerce. The goal is always double: to contribute to the
immediate problem and to enhance the learning and technological
cultures of the community.
3: The Early Childhood Model.
we address a situation where there is a strong interest in children
too young for the role as research and operational staffers
for public-oriented activities of the kind we placed at the
center of the City Model. In the case of the youngest children
operational roles are not appropriate at all; for older ones
operational work is possible and valuable but has to be of a
model we propose has three elements corresponding to the three
main goals that define a Learning Hub:
cutting edge learning projects. The material basis for
the pilot learning environment is defined by having free
access to laptop computers and technological building materials
such as the extensions of LEGO Mindstorms being developed
by projects based at Drake University in Iowa and at the
Reggio Emiglia schools in Italy. The educational basis is
developing constructionist activities to allow the technology
to become an integral part of the best kind of developmental
practices and to promote the acquisition of technological
fluency in a spirit of "whole learning".
depth of the educational culture. The Drake project
has been exploring the development of a new kind of course
for future teachers based on the anticipated widespread
use of constructionist technological materials. This is
providing the context for drawing faculty and research from
the University into close involvement with the pilot work
public education. A LLH with a focus on early childhood
can contribute to the education of the public in many of
the ways set out in the outline of the City Model. It also
has a special opportunity for public education about parenting
in the digital age.
paper was written to precipitate discussion and action. All
its ideas are formulated in the expectation that others who
agree with them in principle will contribute to their further
are sending the paper to a small group of educators who might
be interested in joining this endeavor. Those who are interested
are invited to send comments to our Director of Special Projects,
preferably in time to influence our next draft which will be
put together at the end of August, 2000.
the response confirms our impression that this is the time for
this kind of action we will then establish a Learning Hub Web
site through which more focused discussion can begin. Some of
you we will see during June-August at which time we can enter
into this discussion more deeply. We envision starting the discussion
online in preparation for a general physical meeting in the