Seymour Papert & the Power of (Patient) Engagement

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The best healing takes place when the patient or consumer is engaged…

Last Sunday Dr. Seymour Papert passed away at the age of 88. The world lost a great thinker, teacher, and mathematician, but his spirit lives on in many former colleagues and students, including (with gratitude), me. Seymour cut an eccentric figure, with a bushy grey beard, a rumpled tweed jacket, and a thick South African accent. However charmingly quirky, he was the real deal: a visionary, a trailblazer in the world of technology and its application. He spoke softly, but his words quickly cut to the heart of the matter. His ideas about technology and engagement are as critical today as ever.

Seymour was an inventor of the LOGO programming language, a founding faculty member of the MIT Media Lab, and a pioneer in Artificial Intelligence (AI). His ideas continue to shape mainstream culture, from the movie Inside Out (based on a theory  developed by Seymour and his close collaborator, Marvin Minsky) to LEGO bricks. Seymour advised the LEGO company for decades, particularly on their technology-based toys such as Mindstorms.

When I studied with Seymour at the end of the 1990s, he had already retired from teaching, but he agreed to take me on as a graduate student. He proved to be a quirky but life-changing mentor. There was no formal structure for our work. Instead, I would get an unexpected call from his assistant every couple of months: “Seymour will be at Logan airport tomorrow at 3:00 PM—meet him there at Legal Sea Foods to check in.” My graduate study with him was focused on supporting the successes of developing countries in using computers in schools and to boost their economies: I travelled to Peru and Costa Rica to meet with Seymour’s contacts in academia, business, and government, and to plan interventions and derive generalizable lessons based on what I found.

After graduate school I continued to put Seymour’s work into practice through the ed tech startup MaMaMedia, run by another of his students, Dr Idit Harel. MaMaMedia was in some ways a precursor to Minecraft—an online environment in which kids could build and exchange their creations. During this time I travelled to Seymour’s family home in Maine to sort through cartons and stacks of his paper archives to extract decades worth of his manuscripts and digitize them .

Though Seymour focused more explicitly on the education system than on health, his intellect was wide ranging, and I appreciate now, 15 years since I studied with him, how much his ideas continue to influence my own work in health and healthcare. One of his greatest contributions was in defining “Constructionism” – the theory that people learn best by actively doing and interacting, not just passively ingesting facts. Seymour was convinced that, as he put it, “the best learning takes place when the learner takes charge,” and I am equally convinced that the best healing takes place when the patient or consumer displays a level of agency, too.

Seymour also taught by example that it’s OK to color outside the lines. He would forge ahead into new areas, making up words and phrases (like “hard fun” or “kitchen math”) for concepts he developed along the way. Just a few years ago, the idea of empowering healthcare consumers, or rewarding them financially for success, felt similarly “out of bounds.”

In Seymour’s mind, digital technology was a catalyst of change, but never the full story. As he said, “Nothing could be more absurd than an experiment in which computers are placed in a classroom where nothing else is changed.” The very same can be said of the healthcare system, as well as for the day-to-day environments of the patients and consumers around whom it should, I believe, revolve. You can’t just add EHRs to hospitals without healthcare payment reform, or expect that wearables will transform Americans’ behavior without access to green spaces and healthy food.

Many thanks to Seymour Papert for his creativity and fearless spirit—and may we do his memory justice by ushering in a new age of empowered individuals, who, along with their families and caregivers, use technology to improve their own health and wellbeing.

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