Controversial Constructionism


In the very thoughtful and unusually well-informed post "The Educational Philosophy Controversy" on June 6, Steve Hamm of Business Week wrote about some of the major issues that OLPC and Sugar face in getting into more schools in more countries. I believe that Steve missed some bits of what is going on, as I commented to him on the Business Week site, and repeat here. Maybe he knows something I don't, though. I have asked him to share some sources so that I can tell you more.

Seymour and Idit, conjuring up constructionism
...While Constructionism is key element in the OLPC's value system, it has also turned into a major point of friction. Please read on and send comments...

As one of many on the front lines of this battle, I would like to point out that there is more information available on some of these points, mostly in the OLPC Wiki and on OLPC News (not affiliated with OLPC). See for short descriptions and pointers to the original discussions. We have opened a discussion of what Constructionism really is, based on work of AlanKay, Seymour Papert, and Jean Piaget.

From the OLPC's beginnings a bit over three years ago, the founders had a set of values that fit together tightly. The goal was to transform learning in the Third World through the use of inexpensive computers. The strategy was to give a laptop to each child, so the computer could be an empowering device for the individual. The OLPCers believe in the Constructionist educational philosophy of retired MIT Media Lab professor Seymour Papert: Kids learn best by doing, and a computer can aid them in self-directed learning and collaboration with others. Papert had worked with and learned from the pioneering French educational theorist, Jean Piaget. The OLPC designed the Constructionist philosophy into both the hardware (mesh networking) and the software (the Sugar interface, the collaboration applications).

Your summary of Constructionism is one of the better definitions I have seen, but it is necessarily incomplete. We are working on ways to give people the experiences that make this make sense. Talk is cheap, and there are some who consider our work to be all talk and no music.See for some more elements of the program, and pointers to much more besides.

Victim or victor?
The OLPC has been criticized sharply in some quarters for making Constructionism central to the program. To them, this is a form of neo-colonialism. In Geri's and my story, we quote William Easterly, a professor at New York University and author of The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, who essentially accuses OLPC of cultural imperialism. "It's arrogant of them. You can't just stampede into a country's education system and say, 'Here's the way to do it,' " says. Our colleague, Bruce Nussbaum, critiqued OLPC over the issue in a blog posting in May.

There's no question that some large governments, including China and India, have felt threatened by the Constructionist philosophy, and they rejected the laptops partly because of it. But I think it would be a major mistake to strip Constructionism from the OLPC package just to make the XO laptop more palatable to some unenlightened
governments, which are stuck in the stone ages with the command-and-control educational philosophy. In fact, since the Instructionism educational philosophies of many Third World countries were bequeathed to them by their former colonial masters, you can argue that the OLPC offering up its Constructionist philosophy as an antidote is anti-colonialist.

On the issue of colonialism, I am one who argues for the OLPC XO and Sugar software as an antidote to education systems designed to keep populations in line while their countries were pillaged. These systems are like marching orders that troops are not intended to understand, while Constructionism is intended to function like a map that permits you to decide where to go, when to start, and how to get there, for yourself. In fact Internet access on the XO supports using Google Maps for roads, images, and terrain, and Wikipedia as a high-level map of human knowledge, and much more in that vein.

While the Indian educational ministry sees the XO and Constructionism as suspect, one of the leading NGOs working on reforming education in India, The Azim Premji Foundation, embraces Constructionism and is doing all it can to end the practice of rote learning that is so prevalent in the country. Abdul Waheed Khan, the assistant director-general for communications and information at UNESCO, says the key factor is how an organization like OLPC approaches the people it hopes will adopt its philosophy. "One of the basic problems of introducing the computer in education is that teachers are still the dominant force. Unless you convince them that using technology can help enhance the quality of learning, they won't play a positive role. Sometimes they'll resist technology even if it's for the betterment of their students."

I have not heard that India and China have issues with Constructionism, and would like references so I can follow up on that and understand it better. I know of entirely different motives for some in both governments, but it would take us too far afield to go into them in this note.

These days, OLPCers don't twist people's arms to accept Constructionism as their new religion. They see the XO as something of a Trojan Horse. If they can get countries to buy it as an e-book reader, maybe at night, at their homes, kids will use the machine more creatively. In fact, there's an effort right now to soft pedal constructionism. Edith Ackermann, a newly-minted OLPC consultant, who years ago was a research fellow at Piaget's Centre International D'Epistemologie Genetique, tries not to use what she refers to as the "C-word" when she talked to education ministers and teachers in Third-World countries. "I try to make my points by throwing the C-word into the garbage can. It can turn into dogma," she says. "Also, the complexity of it gets boiled down to 'hands on.' It's important, but it's not sufficient to have a major impact on learning settings."

It is important not to start with the word Constructionism. Ministers of education, teachers, parents, and above all students need to hear and see what the XO enables them to do, and what the benefits are. Once that is clear we can summarize our understanding with the word Constructionism, but not until then.

But the move to notch back on marketing Constructionism has also caused some conflicts within OLPC. When former OLPC president Walter Bender quit in April, one factor he cited was what he saw as a shift in the weight given to educational philosophy. "I left because I'm not agnostic about learning. I'm convinced that the way the deployments will be successful is if they focus on engaging in expression, collaboration, and critical dialogues," he says. Ivan Krstic, the former OLPC software security chief who quit a few weeks before Bender, says he left because OLPC had abandoned some of its original values. He claims that Negroponte told him the goal was to become a more effective laptop maker, and not press the educational philosophy. "As best I can tell, the organization is restructuring to become a more efficient laptop manufacturing and sales operation, while no longer wishing to focus on laptop distribution and enabling effective educational uses. In other words, it's dropping the hard problems and focusing on the trivial ones," Krstic wrote me in an e-mail.

Negroponte says he told Krstic no such thing. "That's the opposite of what I told him," he says. "I said we're not promoting a model, we're promoting several models, including some we don't like--such as drill and practice."

Both Nicholas Negroponte and Ivan Krstić got it wrong. OLPC is still doing distribution, but having several models (including Windows dual-boot) is precisely what Ivan was complaining about.

Both Walter and Ivan are active on Walter's new site, Sugar Labs. Sugar Labs is working on porting Sugar software to other versions of Linux, but not to Windows due to both technical obstacles (We can't get access to Windows to put in kernel-level facilities for mesh networking and power management) and philosophical/economic/human
rights issues (Software freedom, notably for Sugar porting, and for translations to local languages without waiting for Microsoft'spermission).

The proposed mesh networking standard, IEEE 802.11s, will mean that mesh networking becomes common in a few years, but not yet.

Where will all of this debate lead us? Not much of anywhere, unless the XO is much more broadly adopted by Third-World countries. If it gets out there in a massive way, I believe enterprising teachers will use it creatively, and kids will experiment, and there's a chance the XO and Constructionism could have a large and profound impact on education. If not, both the machine and its founding educational philosophy will be limited to islands of influence.

Since the XO is cheaper than books, and gives entry to the worlds of online information and e-commerce, there is no possible way that its deployment (or its promised $75 successors') can be resisted for long.

One cheerful note for the believers in Constructionism: Juliano Bittencourt, a researcher at Brazil's Federal University of Rio Grande Du Sud who helps coordinate one of the laptop pilot programs there,reports that Brazil's laptop program is being held up by cost concerns and evaluations. When Brazil went out to bid on an initial round of laptops for classrooms, Intel's Classmate PC won--based on price, he says. But even Intel's price wasn't low enough. So they're back to square one. But Bittencourt believes that eventually laptops will be distributed on a mass scale in Brazil. And, while the business may not go to OLPC and XO, he says key people who influence the ministry of education in Brazil are believers in Constructionism. "No matter which laptop wins, the OLPC philosophy will be an important part of any laptop adoption in Brazil," he says.

We have heard that the bidding process in Brazil failed not on the cost of equipment and services, but on tax policy. One part of the government announced plans not to charge the usual 100% import duties on computers for education. This proposal was not communicated either to the other part of the administration that was conducting the bid, or to the legislature for enabling legislation. So the bid was held under the rules then current, doubling the cost of everything. Since the money spent by the government would have come back to the government, it is not clear why this should matter in reality, but it is obvious that it does matter in politics.

We have heard nothing from Brazil about where this process is going next. It is not clear why a process that is supposed to support Constructionism did not include requirements in the bid for supporting Constructionist software, mesh networking, and the like, which Intel's Classmate doesn't. I don't pretend to understand how governments
really work internally.

The debate over One Laptop Per Child and Constructionism will likely burn hot for a long time. All the better. Now that countries that embrace Constructionism, such as Peru, are deploying laptops, the philosophy will be battle tested in the field. Educators will learn by doing, and good will come of it.
Edward Cherlin is the founder of Earth Treasury and an active OLPC contributor.

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The lenghty diatribe above suffers from one major flaw: there is no proof whatsoever that the XO (or any piece of computing hardware) plus Sugar (in its current state of buggy under-development) amounts, in any way or by any stretch of the imagination, to a "constructionist" education.

Constructivism, constructionism or whatever you want to call it is far more that giving children an XO to play with. It is a complete slap to the face of real educators over the world to pretend that kids can get any sort of meaningful education by virtue of owning a little laptop with some buggy interface plus a silly assortment of make-shift pseudo-educational applications.

Sounds cruel, but it is the truth.

Ed, could you tell us where in the wiki is the information on how a kid learns to read and write using *current* Constructionism / OLPC tools?

I *love* Constructionism, but I certainly am ignorant at the current real world uses it has. Potential, great potential, certainly. Yet so far I have failed to find or understand how what we have *right now* is of any use beyond a very special population, as I noted in my first article here

I highly admire people in this field. Seymour, yourself, Walter, with much more experience and learning and opportunities to discuss these things with other clever people that I've ever had or likely will. And of course I am biased since I have come to believe that a Good kind of Instructivism is the way to go, while I must admit that such a thing might be just a figment of my imagination, for it might be impossible to achieve. But I'm curious.

Thank you for making public that the mesh don't work. It has been the hardest thing to accept to many OLPC supporters.

"there is no proof ... that the XO ... plus Sugar ... amounts... to a "constructionist" education"

"where ... is the information on how a kid learns to read and write using *current* Constructionism / OLPC tools?"

These two replies call for evidence of constructionism working.

The earliest work with Logo showed great promise but the concensus is that it "failed to scale" to large scale deployment.

Since Logo, there have been islands of success with constructionist Logo like, Etoys like, tools including Game Maker, Stagecast , Scratch, and Click & Play. It is too early to be able to say for sure whether these learning environments will "fail to scale" from their current islands of success.

The split between Sugar and OLPC has had one good effect, everything has been opened to discussion. That includes discussing the learning. See for a discussion of constructionism

I would like the development of OLPC and Sugar to be guided by experience of where constructionism has worked. See for example
(oh dear this site severely limits the number of links, follow the links section in the site above for many more links)

There is a largely unresearched history going back 5 years and some examples in Australia of large scale deployment over the last 2 years. Surely we should be looking at what is and isn't working in constructionist learning?



You're back!

Does that mean OLPCnews is still much too alive and kicking to your taste?

@Tony Forster:
Please, search OLPC for "Posted by: irvin".

You will see that Irvin is not interested in evidence, just in demanding it. He "left" when he thought the OLPC and OLPCnews would die.



thanks for the answer, even though it does not address my question.

Constructivism or constructionism is not the issue here. The issue is the author's misguided belief that mere possesion of a laptop plus Sugar amounts to "constructivism" in the classroom (or away from it).

In fact, given that no constructivism has never been implemented without the close involvement of teachers, it follows that countries should make sure that teachers and schools are in place before the kids can fully benefit from the perceived (or real) benefits of the (suppossedly) constructivist tool that the XO + Sugar is.

As much as it pains me to say this - Irvin has a point. He also happens to have left the 10,000th comment on OLPC News.

I really hope that neither go to his head.

"As much as it pains me to say this - Irvin has a point."

I see any plan that involves "make sure that teachers and schools are in place" another way of saying "give up on those kids". Because trying to get the teachers in the schools was exactly what has been done over the past 6 decades.

And it didn't work. That was why the OLPC started in the first place.



I see any plan to increase educational opportunities for children including teachers, formal or informal. If technology is involved, it can be a catalyst, making education happen faster, better, and more holistically, but there still needs to be teacher involvement. Even Papert agrees on that.

What "teacher" or "school" means can be different in different situations with different technology.


>I see any plan that involves "make sure that teachers and schools are in place " >another way of saying "give up on those kids".

I see any plan that neglects the passion and expertise of teachers is another way of saying give up on those kids. Education systems around the world have neglected the input and expertise of teachers for decades. No one cares more about education than teachers.

So many educational initiatives have failed because they failed to incorporate the input of the practicioners of education, the real experts, teachers.

In my experiences in Nepal, teachers are extremely passionate and forward-thinking but lack the resources the move forwards. We can all succeed by empowering them.

@Wayan: Perhaps what is needed is neither "instructionism" nor "constructionism" (nor anly other "-ism" label) but possibly something closer to how the Boy Scouts' merit badge program works. The teacher acts as a mentor and there is a program to provide the tools to learn with and suggestions for things to learn. In that regard, the XO (once Sugar gets out of beta) becomes one of the tools -- one of: not the only tool. Let the student complete the "merit badges" in whatever order seems reasonable. (The student will quickly learn when some "badge" has a prerequesite).

@Brian: Okay, how can we empower the effort in Nepal? (My engineer's soul cringes at that manager-speak!) What do they need? How can a techie with no education background and no skill in foreign languages help?

@bryan berry

> Education systems around the world have neglected the input and expertise of teachers for decades.

Since teachers are at the bottom of the professional heap in any public education agency why *wouldn't* the input and expertise of teachers be neglected?

Experiential Education, David, you're talking about EE. (no -ism there :-))
OK, EE is the fancy Pedagoguese word for what Scouting has been doing for now, this year in August, 100 years. Mentoring. Kids. Outdoors. Hands on. Discover. Explore.

For many years I've been running after whatever it was that made kids "grow" in one week of summer camp what they hadn't all year long in the classroom. Found it, but then discovered those mentors don't grow on trees. There's a lot of theory, practical ideas, discussions (just google it, and trust mostly anything that comes from the ACA, though by now they have to balance things against lawsuit fear. BSA is still good, though under attack. YMCA and Girl Scouts lost the "jeito" or "aji" a while back)

Only one problem: for EE to work, you need dedicated mentors, hopefully they actually know a bit beyond the Merit Badge pamphlet. That is the problem some people, bless their souls, thought would be solved forever by simply handing out XOs connected to the internet.

Hang on to Bryan. He's precisely in the business of, ahem, "empowering" that sort of mentors, which is the way to go for Education, the one that has quality built in. Debate on this very subject going on right now at the Localization @

@David Wallace:
"Okay, how can we empower the effort in Nepal? (My engineer's soul cringes at that manager-speak!) What do they need? How can a techie with no education background and no skill in foreign languages help?"

We empower the teachers by meeting w/ them periodically and asking for their feedback. Then we try to improve the activities, support, etc. according to that feedback.

The most immediate thing you can is help develop a Typing Tutor program for the XO. I believe some work may already be done on this but it needs a lot of work.

If you are ambitious, you can check out and help us develop learning activities, which we are doing using EToys

"Since the XO is cheaper than books, and gives entry to the worlds of online information and e-commerce, there is no possible way that its deployment (or its promised $75 successors') can be resisted for long."

I don't think, this is true anywhere outside US. When a country has national curriculum developed by formally organized educators, usually the same organization (Department of Education or equivalent) has either exclusive copyright or at least unlimited distribution rights for all textbooks, so they are very cheap. The fact that in many countries there is a shortage of books has more to do with poor organization or lack of communication than to any kind of costs -- people who mess up distribution of books would mess up delivery of snow to Inuits in winter if they for some reason were given such a job, and no amount of laptops will fix that.

I think, it's a really bad idea to expect that "e-books are cheaper!" argument will be accepted or even seen as legitimate by education officials anywhere outside US and maybe Europe. While most government officials everywhere, especially in Third World, are allergic to words that end with "-ism" and are spoken by foreigners, it makes more sense to appeal to the parts of their educational strategies that already include pieces of constructionism even if educators may not use the names or refer to works of particular people who developed the concept. There are very smart people working on national curricula and educational strategies, and many of them developed way past the stage of promoting rote memorization and completely passive role of a student. Educators of the world can't be all judged by those who still have discussions about appropriateness of saddled dinosaurs.

"I see any plan that neglects the passion and expertise of teachers is another way of saying give up on those kids."

Indeed. But any plan that is NOT based on the teachers and schools present but wants different (more) teachers and schools (and studetns) is bound to fail now as it did in the past.

If you want to improve education, you will have to do that with the teachers you have NOW. It takes decades to significantly retrain all teachers and hire a significant number of new ones. History teaches us that this will also most likely fail.

Most fundamental criticism of the OLPC and Constructionism (whatever -ism), is about fantasies of more, new, and well trained teachers. That simply is not going to happen.

Irvin asked for scrapping technology and just hope for more, better teachers and schools, as he has done from his first comment on OLPCnews. That will never work unless the developing world has become rich without the education.


Winter wrote:

"Irvin asked for scrapping technology and just hope for more, better teachers and schools,"

Not at all, Winter.

Technology has a definite and clear place in education. Always has, always will.

My position is very simple: if the choice is between teachers and computers, then teachers need to be chosen. The reason is that teachers have successfully educated people in every rich or poor nation for hundreds of years. It is a proven method. Computers are just a tool. A great tool, but never enough to overcome the absence of a professional teacher.

My position is also that poor (especially) countries need to make very careful analysis of the many options at their disposal when deciding how to best spend their education dollars. let me give you an example: since there is not a single case of one-laptop-per-child successful implementation in the history of the world, it is very possible that such expensive proposition is not the best course of action for poor countries to provide their children with better access to information. Perhaps ONE COMPUTER PER HOUSEHOLD (much like in the more affluent nations) is a good, healthy and much cheaper alternative, where the money saved ccan be invested in developing (or buying) online educational materials and providing better internet access. That's just one of many possibilities... It is also possible that with the advent of cloud computring the solution is to concentrate on developing online educational content combined with the old-fashioned but solid and significantly cheaper ONE-TERMINAL-PER-CHILD concept.

So, as always, acting smart should be the top priority if the idea is to improve kids' education, as opposed to just dumping hardware on them while hoping for the best.

"My position is very simple: if the choice is between teachers and computers, then teachers need to be chosen."

Then this discussion will be short. Even after half a century trying, there has been found no way to increase the number or training of the teachers significantly. Therefore, technology is the only remaining option left.

The only problem now is how to deploy the technology most efficiently.

This IS the OLPC in practice.

Where would this terminal be located? The children need time, and lots of it. Computers in the classroom should not hamper the teacher, but help him. So computing should be concentrated to times when no teacher is available. That is, at home.

Not really alternatives, I think.


Perhaps the solution to the perceived "problem" is much simpler:

Kids in elementary school (OLPC's target) don't need much computer time - they can easily become a source of distraction, rather than a learning tool. Perhaps they can do best with just a few hours of computer time every week in the school's computer lab (much like it is done in the USA).

It is absolutely imperative that, no matter what the solution, professional educators are involved in the decision-making process. Negroponte tried, much to his chagrin, to bypass them and his project never got off the ground. He went from expected sales of 150.000.000 by 2008 to a grand total of less than 500.000 (most of them sold to sympathizers, not schools or goverments). That's an incredible shrinking of the original goals.

Education can't take place without educators. Those who think that kids can get an education without close teacher supervision and guidance are woefully unaware of the realities on the ground.

"Perhaps they can do best with just a few hours of computer time every week in the school's computer lab (much like it is done in the USA)."

That is an empirical question. The answer is NO:

Obviously, if there is a lack of teachers, only a few hours computer time a week translates to only a few hours of teaching a week. Which again was the point of the discussion.

"It is absolutely imperative that, no matter what the solution, professional educators are involved in the decision-making process."

And the Ministries of Education, who decide on everything taught on the schools, do not employ such people? Or do these countries regularly hold "teacher referendums" when they want to introduce something new?

From my fragmented knowledge about the USA, I see only the Unions involved. And they exclusively target the interests of the teachers (often to the detriment of the students).

In short, you are asking for contrary influences on a decision that is extremely exceptional.

"Education can't take place without educators. Those who think that kids can get an education without close teacher supervision and guidance are woefully unaware of the realities on the ground."

Which brings us back to the start: The reality on the ground is that there simply are not enough educators, so in conclusion, it seems you want to give up on these kids.

It is not that this has not been discussed on OLPC before. Dozens of times, actually. For instance:

And you were there every time.


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