Scoil Naomh Fiachra

Control Technology: Theoretical Background

Control Technology in the Primary School – Theoretical Basis©


Tommy Maher

This essay was written as part of the course of study for a Higher Diploma in Education (ICT) at NUI Maynooth.



Constructivism and the Primary Curriculum

Revised Curriculum

Information Technology and the Principles of the Curriculum


Distributed Constructionism

Control Technology

Logo and LEGO/Logo

The Programmable Brick

Diversity of Learning Styles and Interests

Project-based Learning




Top of Page


The subject of this essay is prompted by the inclusion of our school, together with three other primary schools, in the NCTE Schools Integration Project. Our project, “Control Technology Empowering Minds” (1) involves exploring and implementing a programme of control technology with primary school children, leading to the development of a new way of learning in schools. The technology in question has been developed by Seymour Papert, Mitchel Resnick, Fred Martin and others at the MIT Media Lab.

The epistemological basis for this work at the MIT Media Lab is the constructivist theory of education and the development, from constructivism, of the constructionism of Seymour Papert. In order to understand what the developers of this technology foresee as its benefits for primary education, it is necessary to trace the thinking behind the technology.

Launching the Schools Integration Project, the Minister for Education and Science, Mr. Martin (2), referred to our own unique curriculum and school culture and the need to explore how best Information and Communication Technology can enhance the delivery of this curriculum. The view of the Department of Education and Science, therefore, is that the Schools Integration Project is an investment in action research, which will lead to models of best practice, which in turn will enhance delivery of the new Revised Curriculum.

Examination of the project proposals under the Schools Integration Project confirms that most projects arise from specific curricular areas, and findings from them would feed easily back into the curriculum. However, the Empowering Minds project may not fit so comfortably into this model. How, for example, would Seymour Papert view the notion that constructionism, in practice in the classroom, would, or could, be used to implement an existing curriculum?

I propose, therefore, to examine the epistemological background to, and the technological possibilities of, the use of control technology in the primary school classroom. As our project is still in its infancy, this essay will, of necessity, raise more issues than it resolves.

Top of Page


Constructivism is a theory of cognitive growth and learning, largely based on the research of Piaget. However, the roots of constructivism as a philosophy of learning date back to, at least, the early eighteenth century work of the philosopher Vico, who believed that humans can only clearly understand what they themselves have constructed.

In more modern times, the work of Dewey developed an understanding of how constructivism applied to childhood development and education. Dewey held that knowledge only emerged from situations where learners drew it out of experiences that had meaning and significance for them.

Piaget rejected the traditional view that knowledge exists independently of the individual and that the mind is a ‘tabula rasa’, a blank tablet, upon which knowledge can be absorbed. A fundamental premise of constructivism is that children actively construct their own knowledge rather than absorbing it from others, e.g. teachers, or internalising it through rote learning.

Piaget asserted that there are mental structures, which determine how information is perceived and that if this new information makes sense within the existing mental structure it is incorporated into the structure (‘accommodated’). If the information does not make sense within the existing mental structures it is either rejected, or transformed so that it will fit into the structures. Mental development is a product of the desire to operate in a state of equilibrium. When information is received, which is too far away from the mental structures to be accommodated, but makes enough sense to make rejecting it difficult, the result is a state of ‘disequilibrium’. The desire for equilibrium prompts either the rejection of the data or changing of the mental structures.

” assimilate new information to simple, pre-existing notions, and modify their understanding in light of new data. In the process, their ideas gain in complexity and power, and with appropriate support children develop critical insight into how they think and what they know about the world as their understanding increases in depth and detail.” (3)

The application of this theory in education involves developing a curriculum that both matches and challenges children’s understanding, thereby fostering further mental development, and training educators for their new role in this ‘child-driven learning environment’. (4)

This new role for the teacher is more complex than that in the traditional classroom, where knowledge was presented to the children in a didactic manner.(5) It demands more flexibility as the teacher guides and organises children in their self-directed exploration.

Top of Page

Constructivism and the Primary Curriculum

The Irish Primary School Curriculum, introduced in 1971, acknowledges the importance of a constructivist approach to education:

“Recent research, conducted in many countries, into the learning processes and development of children has shown … that knowledge acquired through the child’s personal experience and discovery is likely to be more meaningful and purposeful to him than information acquired at second hand. The child is now seen to be the most active agent in his own education.” (6)

The handbook goes on to outline the changing role of the teacher, who would be

“.. no longer regarded as one who merely imparts information but rather as one who provides suitable learning situations and who guides and stimulates the child in his pursuit of knowledge.” (7)

The new curriculum, then, was an experiential, integrated proposal within which children would learn through activities based on their own experience and taking advantage of their own natural curiosity.

There was widespread approval for this curriculum when it was first introduced, but in later years there was a growing questioning, both of its rationale and implementation. The Curriculum and Examinations Board called for a review, which would include:

” … a study of the background and of the principles underlying the primary school curriculum.” (8)

For some, the questioning of the principles underlying the curriculum arose from a general suspicion that progressive teaching methods diminish the role of the teacher, undermine the hierarchical order of subjects and lead to a decline in standards in mathematics and language. (9)

However, the most common reservations about the curriculum were of a more pragmatic nature and centred on the final point – that of basic skills. (10)Research was tending to agree that these new informal teaching methods were inferior to the more traditional methods in teaching the basic skills of literacy and numeracy.

On the other hand it was pointed out that the benefits of informal teaching are not so easily quantifiable and, therefore, studies using only standardised tests were inherently biased in favour of formal methods. (11) All evaluations of the New Curriculum had shown a marked improvement in English and widespread improvement in Mathematics. (12)

Many studies were undertaken to assess the degree of implementation of the curriculum and its effects. These found that the great majority of teachers favoured an integrated, child-centred curriculum, with the child as the most active agent in her/his own education. Most teachers felt that they had achieved moderate, or high levels of curriculum implementation; that the New Curriculum had enhanced their job satisfaction and agreed with the principles behind the curriculum.

Teachers reported that the greatest difficulties in curriculum implementation arose from class size, inadequate materials and lack of alignment between primary and post-primary curricula. (13)

Other research, however, cast some doubt on the validity of relying on teachers’ own perceptions, confirming the level of acceptance of the principles behind the curriculum, but finding that practical action based on these principles was not as widespread as acceptance of the principles themselves. (14)

The Review Body on the Primary Curriculum affirmed the value of activity and discovery methods and recommended that in most instances classroom activity should be focused on directed discovery. It formed the view that, rather than minimising the role of the teacher, such learning required a high level of teacher skill and preparation. (15)

Top of Page

Revised Curriculum

The Revised Primary Curriculum, currently being introduced on a phased basis, in accordance with the recommendations of the Review Body, adheres to the constructivist principles, which underpinned the 1971 curriculum. It offers another opportunity to implement these principles and to alleviate some of the problems which research has shown to have inhibited implementation since 1971 e.g. teacher training, class size, lack of resources and second level entrance examinations.

Some of these obstacles have already, at least in part, been addressed. The emphasis now being placed on the promotion of the use of information technology in schools provides a new impetus and opportunity, to translate teachers’ attitudinal acceptance of the principles of constructivism, into practical action in the classroom.

Top of Page

Information Technology and the Principles of the Curriculum

The advent of the Information Age, and the rapid social and economic changes which have accompanied it, have focused attention on what skills and knowledge will be needed for life in the new century. Many people are now engaged in jobs, which did not even exist when they were born, or even when they were attending primary school. The idea that you should learn the skills at school that can be applied over your lifetime is no longer valid.

” The one really competitive skill is the skill of being able to learn. It is the skill of being able not to give the right answer to questions about what you were taught in school, but to make the right response to situations that are outside the scope of what you were taught in school. We need to produce people who know how to act when they’re faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared.” (16)

Seymour Papert points out that though Dewey’s philosophical argument in favour of experiential learning has generated widespread discussion and support, such philosophical arguments alone do not have the power to change a social institution as deeply rooted as the school system. He compared Dewey’s philosophy to the efforts of Leonardo da Vinci to develop a flying machine. Leonardo produced some excellent drawings but lacked the technical infrastructure to test his theories and modify them in the light of his experiences. Had Leonardo had this technical capability he might have succeeded in making a successful flying machine.

“I think that Dewey lacked a technological infrastructure … digital technology, can provide a kind of infrastructure for Dewey’s ideas that was not available until now.” (17)

For Papert, computer technology has two ‘wings’. The first is its use as an informational medium and the second is its use as a constructional medium. He believes that in the public perception, the informational side is totally dominant and this dominance has distorted how people think about computer technology and its role in education.

“The popular image of what technology is about is far too much about information and not nearly as much as … about using it as an instrument, as a tool to do something.” (18)

Papert has observed an interesting pattern of computer use in American schools. In the early 1980s computers were introduced into schools, usually by visionary teachers who saw them as a way of breaking free of the rigid, structured school system. Much of the early work done with computers was very creative and cut across curriculum boundaries.

However, as computers became more common, they began to fall into the hands of the administration. Computer rooms were built, specialised computer teachers were appointed and there was even a curriculum for computer studies – all of which took computers out of the hands of those who had been making the most creative use of them.

As schools continued buying more computers they began to fall back into the hands of those who could use them in a more visionary way, and so there now once again seems to be the beginnings of an era of innovative use of computers.

It is not difficult to see signs of a similar pattern emerging in this country, especially at second level. At primary level it is only now that the rapid expansion in computer numbers is taking place. This fact, together with the IT 2000 initiative and the contemporaneous arrival of the Revised Curriculum, provides us with an opportunity to develop good practice in innovative and creative use of computers and avoid having computer technology become merely another subject in an already overcrowded curriculum.

Top of Page


Seymour Papert has developed a theory of learning, and a strategy for education, which he calls ‘constructionism’. Based on constructivism, it asserts that learning is an active process, in which children construct knowledge from their own experiences. Constructionism adds to this a second type of construction, the idea that children learn much more effectively when they are engaged in constructing personally meaningful objects or products.

“Constructionism – the N word as opposed to the V word – shares constructivism’s connotation of learning as `building knowledge structures’ irrespective of the circumstances of the learning. It then adds that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity, whether it’s a sandcastle on the beach or a theory of the universe… ” (19)

Papert, in this, his own reconstruction of constructivism, sees constructions in the world as being especially important in support of constructions in the mind. By constructions being ‘in the world’, he means that they can be shown, discussed, examined and admired – they are out there.

He views one possible future development in learning theory as the reversal of the traditional belief that intellectual development is synonymous with progression from the concrete to the abstract. (20) One of his many criticisms of the existing educational system is the rush to move from the concrete to the abstract, and, in so doing, spending the least amount of time where the most valuable work can be done.

He uses the term ‘instructionism’ to describe the belief that the route to better learning is through better teaching. He contrasts this with ‘constructionism’, which, while not dismissing the value of teaching, aims at teaching in such a way as to produce the greatest amount of learning for the least amount of teaching.

“Constructionism is built on the assumption that children will do best by finding (“fishing”) for themselves the specific knowledge they need; organized or informal education can help most by making sure they are supported morally, psychologically, materially, and intellectually in their efforts. The kind of knowledge children most need is the knowledge that will help them get more knowledge.” (21)

Two further observations on constructionism bear mention. Papert believes that the exalted value placed on abstract knowledge, closely linked, he believes, to the medium of text, amounts to serious discrimination against those for whom such abstract knowledge is an impediment to learning, through reasons linked to culture, gender or personality. The second is that one important reason for poor instruction is that nobody likes teaching reluctant children. The constructionist approach, where learning situations are meaningful to the pupils, increases motivation and thereby improves teaching.

Although Papert has been severe in his criticism of schooling, his ideas have found favour with many teachers. In particular, teachers working with students in the Logo environment have been impressed with the enthusiasm and spontaneity of pupils, with their own ability to control curriculum and assessment and with the levels of success in the most unpromising of circumstances. The reason for such a positive response from teachers appears to be that results

” .. correspond to three of the aspirations [identified] as paramount for teachers: informality in their interactions with students; autonomy in their relations with superiors; individual response and progress on the part of their students. In effect, Logo appears to offer a `technical fix’; a technological shortcut to these ideals.” (22)

Top of Page

Distributed Constructionism

Distributed constructionism is a concept that has been developed by Mitchel Resnick and others at the MIT Media Lab. (23) Its main focus is on the use of computer networks in support of students collaborating on design and construction activities.

The two most common models of the use of computer networks in education involve either the delivery of information to students, or allowing students to search through servers to find the information that they require. Both these models focus on information and the ‘information superhighway’.

Distributed constructionism, on the other hand, puts the focus on construction rather than information. It proposes that effective knowledge-building can occur through collaboration in the design and construction of meaningful objects.

Initially students could use electronic mail, newsgroups and bulletin boards to exchange ideas and strategies for design and construction.

Computer networks can also be used to share constructions themselves so that students can experiment with each other’s constructions and, perhaps, modify or re-use parts of the shared constructions.

The third, and most significant innovation, is the development of collaborative construction environments, which will allow students to collaborate on the design and construction of projects in real time.

Top of Page

Control Technology

At the MIT Media Lab projects are ongoing to develop constructionism as both a theory of learning and a strategy for education. This work is based on the constructionist theory that children learn most effectively when they are constructing their own knowledge and ideas (constructivism) but that this in turn is more effective when they are engaged in constructing personally meaningful artefacts, such as robots, animations or computer programs.

One project is centred on building computational power directly into LEGO bricks and combining these bricks with traditional LEGO materials to construct models/robots. (This is part of a broader study aimed at developing a theoretical framework for understanding the role of physical objects, and especially computationally-enhanced objects, in the learning process.) (24)

The development of the Programmable Brick has enabled children to build their own autonomous robots. The programme can be downloaded to the brick, which is then incorporated into the model to create a robot that is independent of the computer. By using specialised bricks and other parts such as gears and pulleys, and by adding light and touch sensors, children can create robots that move independently and that react to their surroundings in a variety of ways – they can create “things that think”!

In most educational computer programmes children control and manipulate objects that exist in the computer. Most forms of educational technology are designed for children to act as users. However, the Programmable brick was “designed for designers”, so that children could use it to work through problems and to develop their own ideas. (25) It reverses the more usual pattern, which has children controlling worlds in the computer, and instead puts them in a position to control computers in the world. (26)

The brick is capable of interacting with the physical world of the children, enabling them to become designers and inventors. The capabilities of the Programmable Brick, allied to the power of computers, enables children to become involved in a new range of design and experimental activities that was not possible until now. It also permits them to work at a level of sophistication, which was previously only possible at third level.

The developers of the Programmable Brick do not see it merely as an aid to constructing autonomous models. Its capabilities for reacting to the environment through sensors allow for the possibility of children developing scientific instruments and designing scientific experiments.

It also makes it possible for children to extend the use of computing into their own personal worlds, in the spirit of an area of research known as “ubiquitous computing”. (27) Ubiquitous computing aims at the integration of computers into the world at large, with computation being embedded in a broad range of everyday objects. Researchers contrast the complexity of our environment and the nature of our diverse interaction with it, with the narrowness of our range of interaction with computers – usually confined to sitting before a screen manipulating keys and mouse.

Children would now be able to attach a miniature computer to a door and programme it to automatically turn on a light as someone entered. In one project a pupil made a device to measure how far a pet hamster travelled each night on an exercise wheel.

The aim of these activities is not merely to make interesting robots that perform complex actions or exhibit ‘behaviours’. The developers believe that the real power of these activities lies in changing how children think about computers and how they react to them, and in enabling children to develop new ways of thinking. In this way ‘things that think’ become ‘things to think with’.

“In our work, we are interested in things that think, not because they might accomplish particular tasks more cheaply or easily or intelligently, but because they might enable people to think about things in new ways. That is, things that think are most interesting to us when they also act as “things to think with.” We believe that Programmable Bricks act in just that way, enabling children to perform new types of explorations and experiments and to engage in new types of thinking. (28)

Top of Page

Logo and LEGO/Logo

The Programmable Brick is an extension of earlier work with LEGO/Logo. Logo was developed in the early 1960s as a programming language for children. In its earliest forms it involved programming a simple mechanical robot, called a ‘floor turtle’. The turtle was connected to a computer by a cable. As computers became more powerful and more widespread the floor turtle changed to a ‘screen turtle’, which was more accurate, allowing children greater scope for creating more complex geometric shapes.

LEGO/Logo involved programming a mechanical object, using a modified version of Logo. In this case, however, the children built their own robots or machines. The robot was back ‘in the world’ as distinct from on the screen. However, there were two major restrictions with LEGO/Logo.

First there was the limiting factor that the model was connected to the computer with wires. This presented a practical difficulty, where children wanted to construct independent, mobile robots, and a conceptual difficulty, in making it difficult for children to see their constructions as autonomous, when they were still physically connected to the computer.

Second there was the difficulty of accommodating multiple activities. The sequential nature of Logo forced programmers to describe actions in sequence, making it difficult to control several actions at once. This restricted children who wanted to either control more than one model or more than one part of the same model simultaneously.

However, despite these restrictions, this new second generation of construction kits did allow the building and control of machines. Where the traditional LEGO kit enabled children to build structures this new generation of kit, with the addition of gears, motors, sensors and Logo programming, enabled them to build mechanisms.

Top of Page

The Programmable Brick

Work continued on developing the technology, to overcome the problem of connecting wires, and Fred Martin developed what he called the “Braitenberg Brick”. This involved embedding some technology into specialised LEGO bricks. Each electronic brick had a specific function and the bricks could be connected to create ‘creatures’ that exhibited different behaviours. They were named “Braitenberg Bricks” because the imaginary vehicles created in Braitenberg’s book Vehicles inspired them. (29) Braitenberg’s vehicles were created from the imaginary connection of simple electronic components and named after the behaviours or emotions they imitated.

The Programmable Brick was the next development from the Braitenberg Brick. Dedicated bricks with specialised functions were replaced by a brick with full computing power. The aim was to produce something that would allow:

(i) Multiple activities. If the brick could support a variety of activities it would be more likely to appeal to the interests and experiences of a greater number of people.

(ii) Multiple input/output modalities. Output devices such as motors and lights, and input devices such as light and touch sensors would allow the brick to connect to more things in the world and each new device would greatly expand the possible applications as it could be used in combination with the others.

(iii) Multiple processes. Children often wanted to control several parts of their model simultaneously. Therefore, if the brick could support parallel processing, programs could be written to control multiple outlets and monitor multiple inputs at the same time.

(iv) Multiple bricks. If bricks could communicate with each other they could share data or children could create groups or ‘colonies’ of interesting robots or creatures. (30)

This third generation of construction kits, made possible by the Programmable Brick, enables children to branch out from structures and mechanisms and create behaviours. Since the Programmable Brick receives data from light and touch sensors, children can now build ‘creatures’ that react to contact with objects or to exposure to changes in light intensity.

The Programmable bricks being used in the present project can control three motors and receive inputs from three sensors simultaneously. LEGO Dacta has developed a graphical programming language, called Robolab, which allows children to write parallel processing programs. The program is downloaded from the computer to the brick via an infrared tower attached to the computer and an infrared receiver built into the brick. The brick becomes an integral part of the LEGO model/robot, the only restrictions being imposed by its size, weight and the necessity for a certain level of access to the brick.

In order to programme a model it is necessary to establish a line-of-sight from the infrared tower to the infrared receiver and in order to run the programs there must be access to the buttons, which activate the brick and run the programs. As the brick is powered by batteries – these constitute the bulk of its weight – access will occasionally be required to change them. This question of access only arises if the brick is enclosed within the model.

Our initial experimentation has shown that the size, weight and access requirements of the brick are important design considerations for children to bear in mind when planning their models.

Early research work with the Programmable Brick has shown that children’s projects tend to fall into three broad categories – active environments, autonomous ‘creatures’ and science experiments. (31)

Active environments involve making aspects of the environment react to people e.g. devising a sensor which would detect a person entering a room and turn on a light, or detect a person leaving the room and turn off the light.

Autonomous ‘creatures’ are now possible with the removal of connecting wires. Children generally tend to create robots that exhibit behavioural reactions to certain sensor stimuli. In some cases children have studied real animals and tried to create creatures that mimic the behaviours of the real animals.

This has created a whole new area of thinking for children, where they are confronted by the blurring of the boundaries between animals and machines, the emergence of complex behaviour from simple components and the whole question of intentionality.

Children tend to view the creatures they build at different levels. On a mechanistic level, they examine how different parts of the model make other parts move; on an informational level they investigate how information travels to and from the Programmable Brick and at a psychological level they attribute intentionality and even personality to the creatures they have built.

” Which is the correct level? That is a natural, but misleading, question. Complex systems can be meaningfully described at many different levels. Which level is “best” depends on the context: on what you already understand and on what you hope to learn. In certain situations, for certain questions, the mechanistic level is the best. In other situations, for other questions, the psychological level is best. By playing with Electronic Bricks, students can learn to shift between levels, learning which levels are best for which situations.(32)

Personal science experiments of a complex nature are now brought within reach of children. It is hoped that the Programmable Brick will enable children to undertake new types of scientific experiments investigating aspects of their own lives, their environments, or even their own bodies and behaviour.

Top of Page

Diversity of Learning Styles and Interests

One of the fundamental prerequisites for a successful project, within the constructionist paradigm, is that pupils should make a strong personal connection with their project and that it should be meaningful to them.

Different people have different interests, and projects, especially long-term projects, should be able to accommodate the diversity of interests within a class or group. It is important that teachers should not have preconceived ideas about what the project should look like and how it should develop. In this regard it is also important that teachers should be aware of the range of possibilities, though it is likely, and desirable, that pupils themselves, in the course of the project, will push out the bounds of the perceived range of possibilities.

Just as different people have different interests they also have different styles of working. Some like to work to a plan, others like to experiment with the materials and let the project emerge from the experimentation. Some pupils prefer group work while others prefer to work individually. A successful project will be able to accommodate all these working styles to the extent that each pupil feels comfortable enough to work in the style best suited to her/him. (33)

Constructionism sees one aspect of the relationship between the teacher and pupils as that of a community of teachers and learners, where the teacher must be prepared to learn from pupils and to allow pupils to learn from each other. Therefore the teacher becomes an active participant in the project. I feel that it is important for the success of the project that the teacher also can make a personal connection with the project activities.

Some people express concerns that the equipment and construction involved may lead to a gender bias and that, though boys and girls participate enthusiastically, the concern is that boys may have a stronger personal involvement in the project and therefore have a richer learning experience.

In introductory workshops (34) the exploration of ‘Kinetic Art’ proved an effective way of allowing some participants to personalise their projects. This involves using art and craft materials to enhance the creative and aesthetic aspects of the structures, and to combine these materials with the LEGO construction parts and mechanisms to create moving sculptures. It was found that those who used ‘Kinetic Art’ had enhanced personal involvement with the structures but that this in no way diminished the sophistication of their use of the LEGO materials.

This is offered as just one possible alternative route towards enhancing personal involvement for everyone. However teachers would need to be aware of the diversity of interests, skills and approaches of their pupils and be willing to explore alternative approaches to promote personal involvement among all pupils.

Top of Page

Project-Based Learning

The diversity within projects, and of approaches to project work, help to accommodate the diversity of pupils’ learning styles. Furthermore project-based learning has been strongly supported by Howard Gardner. (35) Gardner put forward a theory of multiple intelligence, (36) which posited that each child has several types of intelligence, such as musical intelligence, linguistic intelligence and logico-mathematical intelligence. He saw project-based learning as a means of personalising education and thereby creating a learning environment that enhances each child’s multiple intelligences. Gardner’s theory is strongly supported by many researchers, including Perkins, (37) who produced extensive research-based evidence that the use of project-based learning, together with focusing on teaching for transfer and developing higher-order cognitive skills, could considerably improve education.

Extensive research has been conducted on project-based learning and the main benefits, as reported by participating teachers, (38) have been:

  • (i) Increased motivation. Pupils were willing to devote extra time to projects and there was participation from even the most reluctant students.
  • (ii) Increased problem-solving ability. Project-based learning environments tend to encourage pupils to engage in posing and solving complex problems.
  • (iii) Improved information literacy. Project-based learning provides an authentic and motivating context for improving information literacy, which is defined as knowing when there is a need for information; finding, evaluating and organising the information and using it effectively to address the problem.
  • (iv) Increased resource management skills. Improvements are noted in pupils’ ability to organise projects, manage time and equipment, and complete tasks on time, all of which are essential skills on the road to becoming an independent learner.
  • (v) Increased collaboration. Most projects involve group work and aspects of group work, such as peer tuition, student evaluation, information sharing and collaborative learning, contribute to a collaborative learning environment. Such an environment is now seen as the optimum one to promote learning. (39)

On this final point, this type of project offers the potential, through collaborative work and the judicious use of technology, to both broaden and deepen the scope for development of each pupil. Collaborating with other pupils who have already mastered certain skills, and having the technology open up new possibilities for higher order thinking, extends the boundaries of potential development. This is what Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development. (40) According to Vygotsky’s theory the zone of proximal development is the difference between the functions and activities which the child can perform working independently, and those which she/he can perform with the assistance of others. These others can be parents, teachers or peers who have mastered certain functions. For Vygotsky, the larger this zone the greater the potential for learning. In order to create this zone it was necessary to have a joint activity to create a context for the interaction between the child and the ‘others’.

The potential of this type of project for creating a zone of proximal development are further enhanced if we accept Papert’s assertion that the computer, used as a cognitive tool, supports the learner in undertaking complex tasks, and thus emulates the behaviour of an expert. (41) Therefore the computer can be considered as an expert partner in the learner’s construction of knowledge. The computer or the Programmable Brick, therefore, could be added to the list of ‘others’ (above), with whom the child can interact to increase her/his potential for development.

Top of Page


The “Empowering Minds” project, developed in the spirit of constructivism and constructionism, has the potential to develop new ways of implementing our child-centred, experiential learning-based curriculum.

It comes at a time when the Revised Curriculum, which has broadly re-affirmed the principles of the 1971 curriculum, is about to be implemented in schools. Research has shown that the widespread acceptance of the principles of the 1971 curriculum did not always translate into practical actions to implement them and has identified the obstacles to implementation.

If implementation is to be more successful this time, training will be needed to help teachers translate their attitudinal acceptance of the principles, into practical action in the classroom, and funding will be needed to address some of the other identified obstacles.

However, new pressures have emerged in recent years, to influence the work of teachers in the classroom. Parents’ groups and business interests now exert more influence on educational policy than previously. If these groups cannot be convinced of the efficacy of child-centred, as distinct from subject-centred, education then the pressure for clearly-timetabled subjects and concentration on ‘the basics’ will surely force teachers back into a more traditional, didactic style. The individual teacher or individual school is, professionally, very isolated and will increasingly find it difficult to resist pressure from its own immediate community.

The Empowering Minds project also coincides with – indeed it is part of – the IT 2000 initiative to develop the nature and extent of the use of computer technology in schools. It would seem to have great potential to generate new ways of using computers as educational tools, new ways of looking at computers and computing and new ways of putting children into the role of designers and inventors.

Traditionally, the school has been the last institution to be influenced by any new form of technology and others have defined the uses of the technology before it reached the classroom. Perhaps it is time to reverse this trend with computers, and to let our children define some of the uses for themselves and, who knows, perhaps develop computer use in ways that might be applicable outside education.

Changes in society in general, and in the work place in particular, are taking place at an ever-accelerating rate. Knowledge is becoming increasingly provisional – we only know something to be true until someone proves otherwise. In this climate of change the most important skill to be learned is the ability to learn, and the ability to know how to react to situations we have never prepared for, nor even foreseen.

In such circumstances it is, perhaps, in its scope for developing new ways of learning and new ways of looking at learning, that this project has the greatest potential.

Finally, I return to the question I pondered in the introduction. How would Seymour Papert view constructionism being used to implement this unique, and culture-specific curriculum, referred to by the Minister for Education and Science. I would not presume to answer for him.

However, I suggest that one answer, from a teachers’ point of view, might lie within a combination of constructivism’s active child, learning in the active social and cultural environment of Vygotsky.

Top of Page


1.NCTE, (1999). Innovative ICT Projects in Schools, p.5. (back)
2. Ibid. p. (iii). (back)
3.Erik F. Strommen, (1992). Constructivism, Technology, and the Future of Classroom Learning, p.2. . (back)
4.Ibid. p. 3. (back)
5. Ibid. p. 2. (back)
6.Rialtas na hEireann, (1971). Primary school Curriculum: Teachers’ Handbook Part I, p. 18. (back)
7. Ibid. p. 18. (back)
8.Curriculum and Examinations Board, Primary Education: A Curriculum and Examinations Board Discussion Paper, P. 18. (back)
9. Dr. D. Murphy, (1986). The Dilemmas of Primary Curriculum Reform, in Oideas, Fomhar 1986. (back)
10. O. Egan, (1982). Informal Teaching in the Primary School: Effects on Pupil Achievement. In Irish Journal of Education, 1982,xvi,1, (pp. 16-26). (back)
11.N. Bennett, (1976). Teaching Styles and Pupils’ Progress. (back)
12. Dr. P. Hogan, (1986). Progressivism and the primary school Curriculum. In Oideas, Fomhar 1986, p. 37. (back)
13. INTO: Evaluation Committee, (1982). An Examination of the Educational Implications of School Size. Also INTO, (1976). Primary School Curriculum Questionnaire Analysis. (back)
14. Sr. M. Walsh, (1980). A Study of the Implementation of the Curriculum for Irish Primary Schools. Unpublished M. Litt. Thesis, University of Dublin, 1980, esp.p. 89 89. See also N. Keddie, (1975) article in M. Young’s (Ed.) Knowledge and Control, pp. 135-6. (back)
15. Department of Education, (1990). Report of the Review Body on the Primary Curriculum, pp. 17-8. (back)
16. Dr. S. Papert, (1998). Child Power: Keys to the New Learning of the Digital Century. Lecture delivered at 11th Colin Cherry Memorial Lecture on Communication, Imperial College, London, June 1998. (back)
17.Ibid. p. 6. (back)
18.Ibid. p. 8. (back)
19.S.A. Papert, (1991). Situating Constructionism. In I. Harel & S. Papert (eds.), Constructionism. p. 1. (back)
20. S. Papert, (1993). The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. p. 137. (back)
21. Ibid. p. 139. (back)
22. Ruthven (1993), Technology and the rationalisation of teaching, in Keitel & Ruthven (eds.), Learning from computers: mathematics education and technology, pp 187-202. (back)
23. See M. Resnick, (1996). Distributed Constructionism. In Proceedings of the International Conference on the Learning Sciences Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, Northwestern University. (July 1996). (back)
24. For further aspects of this project see M. Resnick, F. Martin, R. Berg, R. Borovoy, V. Colella, K. Kramer, B. Silverman, (1998) Digital Manipulatives: New Toys to Think With. (back)
25. F. Martin (1996). Kids Learning Engineering Science using LEGO and the Programmable Brick. Paper presented at AERA Annual Meeting, New York. (back)
26. M. Resnick, F. Martin, R. Sargent, and B. Silverman (1996). Programmable Bricks: Toys to Think With. In IBM Systems Journal, Vol. 35, No. 3&4, pp. 443 – 452. (back)
27. Ibid. (back)
28. Ibid. (back)
29.V. Braitenberg, (1984) Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology. (back)
30. M. Resnick, F. Martin, R. Sargent, and B. Silverman (1996). Programmable Bricks: Toys to Think With. In IBM Systems Journal, Vol. 35, No. 3&4, pp. 443 – 452. (back)
31. Ibid. (back)
32. M. Resnick,. (1993) Behavior Construction Kits. Published in Communications of the ACM, vol. 36, No. 7 (July 1993). (back)
33. M. Resnick, (1991). Xylophones, Hamsters, and Fireworks: The Role of Diversity in Constructionist Activities. In I. Harel & S. Papert (eds.), Constructionism. p. 1. (back)
34. Ibid. (back)
35. H. Gardner, (1995, November). Reflections on multiple intelligences: Myths and messages. Phi Delta Kappan, 77, (3), 200-209. Reprinted: International Schools Journal, 15, (2), 8-22, European Council of International Schools. (back)
36. H. Gardner, (1993). Multiple Intelligences: The theory in practice. (back)
37. D. Perkins, (1992). Smart Schools: Better Thinking and Learning for Every Child. (back)
38.D. Moursund, T. Bielefeldt, and S. Underwood, (1997). Foundations for The Road Ahead: Project-Based Learning and Information Technologies. Draft Report prepared for the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education (NFIE) by the International Society for Technology in Education(ISTE). (back)
39. K. Wiburg, and B. Carter, (1994). Thinking with Computers. In The Computer Teacher, 22(1), pp. 7-10. (back)
40. L.S. Vygotsky, (1962). Thought and Language. (back)
41. S. Papert, (1993). The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. (back)

Top of Page


Bennett, N., (1976). Teaching Styles and Pupils’ Progress. London: Open Books.

Braitenberg, V., (1984) Vehicles: Experiments in Synthetic Psychology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Curriculum and Examinations Board, (1985). Primary Education: A Curriculum and Examinations Board Discussion Paper. Dublin. Author.

Department of Education, (1990). Report of the Review Body on the Primary Curriculum. Dublin: Author.

Egan, O., (1982). Informal Teaching in the Primary School: Effects on Pupil Achievement in Irish Journal of Education, 1982,xvi,1.

Gardner, H., (1993). Multiple Intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H., (1995, November). Reflections on multiple intelligences: Myths and messages. Phi Delta Kappan. 77, (3). Reprinted: International Schools Journal, 15, (2), 8-22, European Council of International Schools.

Hogan, Dr. P., (1986). Progressivism and the primary school Curriculum in Oideas, Fomhar 1986. Dublin: Stationery Office.

INTO, (1976). Primary School Curriculum Questionnaire Analysis. Dublin: Author.

INTO: Evaluation Committee, (1982). An Examination of the Educational Implications of School Size. Dublin: Author.

Keddie, N. (1975). article in M. Young’s (Ed.) Knowledge and Control. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Martin, F., (1996). Kids Learning Engineering Science using LEGO and the Programmable Brick. Paper presented at AERA Annual Meeting, New York.

Moursund, D., Bielefeldt, T. and Underwood, S., (1997). Foundations for The Road Ahead: Project-Based Learning and Information Technologies. Draft Report prepared for the National Foundation for the Improvement of Education (NFIE) by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

Murphy, Dr. D., (1986). The Dilemmas of Primary Curriculum Reform in Oideas, Fomhar 1986. Dublin: Stationery Office.

National Centre for Technology in Education, (1999) Innovative ICT Projects in Schools. Dublin: Author.

Papert, Dr. S., (1998). Child Power: Keys to the New Learning of the Digital Century. Speech delivered at 11th Colin Cherry Memorial Lecture on Communication, Imperial College, London, June 1998.

Papert, S.A., (1991). Situating Constructionism. In I. Harel & S. Papert (eds.), Constructionism. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Papert, S.A., (1993). The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. New York: Basic Books.

Perkins, D., (1992). Smart Schools: Better Thinking and Learning for Every Child. New York: The Free Press.

Strommen, E.F., (1992). Constructivism, Technology, and the Future of Classroom Learning. Children’s Television Workshop, Bruce Lincoln, Bank Street College of Education.

Resnick, M., (1993) Behavior Construction Kits. Published in Communications of the ACM, vol. 36, No. 7 (July 1993).

Resnick, M., (1996). Distributed Constructionism. In Proceedings of the International Conference on the Learning Sciences Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, Northwestern University. (July 1996).

Resnick, M., (1991). Xylophones, Hamsters, and Fireworks: The Role of Diversity in Constructionist Activities. In I. Harel & S. Papert (eds.), Constructionism. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Resnick, M., Martin, F., Berg, R., Borovoy, R., Colella, V., Kramer, K., Silverman, B. (1998). Digital Manipulatives: New Toys to Think With. MIT Media Lab. To be published in Proceedings of the CHI 1998 Conference.

Resnick, M., Martin, F., Sargent, R. and Silverman, B. (1996). Programmable Bricks: Toys to Think With. In IBM Systems Journal, Vol. 35, No. 3&4.

Rialtas na hEireann, (1971). Primary school Curriculum: Teachers’ Handbook Part I. Dublin: Author.

Walsh, Sr. M., (1980). A Study of the Implementation of the Curriculum for Irish Primary Schools. Unpublished M. Litt. Thesis, University of Dublin. Wiburg, K. and Carter, B. (1994). Thinking with Computers in The Computer Teacher, 22(1).

Vygotsky, L. S., (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press.