A Critical History of Logo and Constructionist Learning

Reviewed by Greg Wilson / 2021-10-11
Keywords: Computers and Society, Computing Education

I grew up reading second-hand copies of books by Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, and bought every novel Larry Niven wrote in the 1970s the day it came out in paperback. I daydreamed about a world run by scientists, or at least by people who were as excited by science as I was. It never occurred to me that other people might legitimately be excited about other things: as far as I was concerned, if they didn't think space travel and plate tectonics were the coolest things ever, it was only because they didn't understand them yet.

When I started programming in my late teens, I transferred all of that proselytizing enthusiasm to computing. I was in my early thirties when I finally accepted that for most people, programming was and always would be a tax they had to pay in order to do whatever they actually cared about. Recursion, parallelism, and design patterns weren't somehow worthier than gardening, brewing, or running marathons; by acting and speaking as though they were, I was alienating people and making computing less accessible.

A lot of people have either never had that realization or have never accepted it. Most computer science departments still have faculty who sincerely believe that everyone should learn Scheme as a first language because gosh darn it, if we just show kids how beautiful programming can be, they'll fall in love with it just like we did. You will also find a lot of faculty (and even more entrepreneurs) who believe that "education" is part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Some of these beliefs can be traced back to Seymour Papert's influential work on Logo, which was a direct ancestor of Scratch, One Laptop per Child, and many other projects I've enthused about over the years. But as Ames2018 carefully shows:

…this foundational CSCL project—one of the first, and certainly one of the best-known—still frames assumptions about the universal allure and importance of learning to program computers, which undergirds projects like Scratch, FabLabs, the Hour of Code, One Laptop per Child, and more. Moreover, these individualistic assumptions about learning and computer use continue to have purchase within CSCW as well as HCI. They promote an atomized and often oppositional understanding of not just learners, but workers and technology 'users,' and make it more difficult to envision alternatives for computer-supported collaboration that account for power, are built around collectivity, or encode forms of social reciprocity. As the consequences of this individualized approach become clear—in antisocial practices online, in stress among family and friends regarding technology use, in ongoing problems with discrimination in the technology industry, in technology-assisted weakening of social institutions like public education, in algorithmic tracking of individuals, and in the technology industry's ongoing inability to imagine collective responses to these issues—it becomes useful to examine some of the assumptions that brought us here…

As the author writes:

Papert's disdain for school and his conflicting vision of the role of teachers point to a deeper problem in constructionism: it tends to present learning (especially learning motivation) as largely and implicitly individualistic when it is actually a deeply social process—and, in particular, that teachers, parents, and other adults play crucial roles. While Papert occasionally discusses the value of learning from peers—which Scratch, the Maker Movement, and other informal learning approaches also valorize—he often portrays adults as a hindrance to learning and the learning process itself as ultimately individualistic in both practice and motivation.


In dismissing the value of educational research more broadly, these responses sidestepped one of the most important critiques of Logo: that it was primarily the researchers' presence and scaffolding that accounted for children's positive experiences with the program. They also avoided addressing Papert's own 'technocentric' thinking in Mindstorms in assuming that computers would hold universal appeal for children—an assumption that still undergirds constructionist-inspired projects today.

I believe very strongly that we will only get through the next fifty years if we start to care about each other and our collective future more than we do right now. I also believe that in order to do that, we need to figure out why we haven't cared in the past. The Internet and modern computing culture aren't solely responsible for today's woes, but they're responsible for enough of them to be worth looking at much more critically than Silicon Valley chooses to. Papers like Ames2018 are a good place to start.

Ames2018 Morgan G. Ames: "Hackers, Computers, and Cooperation: A Critical History of Logo and Constructionist Learning". Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 2(CSCW), 2018, 10.1145/3274287.

This paper examines the history of the learning theory "constructionism" and its most well-known implementation, Logo, to examine beliefs involving both "C's" in CSCW: computers and cooperation. Tracing the tumultuous history of one of the first examples of computer-supported cooperative learning (CSCL) allows us to question some present-day assumptions regarding the universal appeal of learning to program computers that undergirds popular CSCL initiatives today, including the Scratch programming environment and the "FabLab" makerspace movement. Furthermore, teasing out the individualistic and anti-authority threads in this project and its links to present day narratives of technology development exposes the deeply atomized and even oppositional notions of collaboration in these projects and others under the auspices of CSCW today that draw on early notions of 'hacker culture'. These notions tend to favor a limited view of work, learning, and practice—an invisible constraint that continues to inform how we build and evaluate CSCW technologies.