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Society of Mind

10.8 education and development

Such lessons just don't seem to work very well. Given enough explanation and encouragement, and enough drill and practice, we can make children appear to understand — yet even then they don't often apply what they've learned to real-life situations. Thus it seems that even when we lead them along these paths, they remain unable to use much of what we show to them until they develop inner signposts of their own.

Here's my guess about what goes wrong. Presumably the child senses that the spaced-out eggs are more because they stretch across a longer span. Eventually, we want that sense of greater length to be canceled out by the sense that there's more empty space between the eggs. In the more mature Papert hierarchy, this would happen automatically — but for now, the child could learn this only as a special, isolated rule. Many other problems could also be solved by making special rules for them. But to simulate that multilayer society, complete with middle-level agents like Appearance and History, would involve so many special rules, and so many exceptions to them, that the younger child would be unable to manage so much complexity. The result is that educational programs allegedly designed according to Piaget often appear to succeed from one moment to the next, but the structures that result from this are so fragile and specialized that children can apply them only to contexts almost exactly like those in which they were learned.

All this reminds me of a visit to my home from my friend Gilbert Voyat, who was then a student of Papert and Piaget and later became a distinguished child psychologist. On meeting our five-year-old twins, his eyes sparkled, and he quickly improvised some experiments in the kitchen. Gilbert engaged Julie first, planning to ask her about whether a potato would balance best on one, two, three, or four toothpicks. First, in order to assess her general development, he began by performing the water jar experiment. The conversation went like this:

Gilbert: Is there more water in this jar or in that jar? Julie: It looks like there's more in that one. But you should ask my brother, Henry. He has conservation already.

Gilbert paled and fled. I always wondered what Henry would have said. In any case, this anecdote illustrates how a young child may possess many of the ingredients of perception, knowledge, and ability needed for this kind of judgment — yet still not have suitably organized those components.

Parent: Why are all the agents in your societies so competitive? They're always attacking each other. Instead of making Tall and Thin cancel each other out, why can't they cooperate?

The first part of this book has given this impression because we had to begin with relatively simple mechanisms. It is fairly easy to resolve conflicts by switching among alternatives. It is much harder to develop mechanisms that can use cooperation and compromise — because that requires more complex ways for agencies to interact. In later sections of this book we'll see how higher-level systems could make more reasonable negotiations and compromises.