Q & A with Dr. Cynthia Solomon

December 06, 2017

Computing pioneer Dr. Cynthia Solomon (@CynthiaSolomon) will deliver the inaugural Seymour Papert Memorial Lecture at CrossRoads 2018. A close collaborator of Papert, the role that she has played in bringing computing experiences to children is comprehensive and includes co-inventing Logo, the first programming language for children. Below is a Q & A between @InfyFoundation and Dr. Solomon. Infosys Foundation USA is grateful to have Dr. Solomon as the inaugural keynote at its annual CrossRoads conference to help introduce Papert’s ideas to new audiences and new applications in education.

Q: What did you collaborate on with Seymour Papert?

A: We envisioned a computer culture that contained a powerful programming language, objects to play with, and ways to talk about the activities. First, we started Logo at Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN) and along with Wally Feurzeig and Dan Bobrow designed a programming language for children with some sample ideas for exploration and expansion. Later, when we formed the Logo Group at MIT, we introduced children to turtle geometry through floor turtles and display turtles (physical and virtual robots).

Q. What is Logo and why does it still matter?

Logo was the first programming language designed for children which contrasts with those programming languages designed for adult learners that could also be used by children.

We seized upon the notion that children liked to play with words and sentences. This computer culture offered a different path for children to do mathematics. In fact, numbers were special kinds of words—and could be taken apart but then concatenated to form new numbers. It was possible to build special arithmetic procedures to manipulate numbers. This was the Logo world before floor turtles and graphics turtles.

Logo encouraged making functions, also called procedures. We made procedures for other procedures. In this way, subprocedures helped to take a big problem and reduce it down to smaller and smaller ones.

Debugging became a major activity relating not only to our programs but ourselves. Children were encouraged to be psychologists--collecting opinion data about what made something hard or easy-- or to be researchers--finding new ways to do things. Debugging tools were key for our procedures and our thinking. Logo grew up in the rich atmosphere of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab where research on program understanding and program debugging was actively pursued under the supervision of Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert.

How one talks to different devices and how one describes what is being done with devices finds its roots in Logo cultures. 

Thinking about bugs, how to avoid them, or how to turn them into features, and naming new features are all fundamental elements of the Logo computer culture. I believe today’s programming environments could benefit from such an approach.

Q: What do you want to talk about during your lecture?

The following paragraphs are taken from Seymour Papert’s paper, "Teaching Children Thinking", which served as the basis for the first Logo Conference held on April 11, 1970 at MIT also called Teaching Children Thinking. This paper was presented at the IFIPS World Congress of Computers and Education, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 1970. Seymour acknowledged that this paper was deeply influenced by Marvin Minsky and me.

“The phrase ‘technology and education’ usually means inventing new gadgets to teach the same old stuff in a thinly disguised version of the same old way.  Moreover, if the gadgets are computers, the same old teaching becomes incredibly more expensive and biased towards its dullest parts, namely the kind of rote learning in which measurable results can be obtained by treating the children like pigeons in a Skinner box.”

“The purpose of this essay is to present a grander vision of an educational system in which technology is used not in the form of machines for processing children but as something the child himself will learn to manipulate, to extend, to apply to projects, thereby gaining a greater and more articulate mastery of the world, a sense of the power of applied knowledge and a self-confidently realistic image of him- or herself as an intellectual agent. Stated more simply, I believe with Dewey, Montessori and Piaget that children learn by doing and by thinking about what they do. And so the fundamental ingredients of educational innovation must be better things to do and better ways to think about oneself doing these things.”

Q.  Your work goes back 50 years. How did your earlier vision of the future turn out? What surprised you?

At the start we had thought our ideas would take hold within a 10-year span. The demise of school as we knew it was predicted.  Project-based, child-centered and child-driven learning would transform classrooms. We believed that every child would have a computer as well as every teacher. We imagined there would be more microworlds like turtle geometry.  The most surprising thing is how powerful computers of today are. Surprise (mixed with disappointment) as we watched new ideas go from lab out into the world only to be cut short due to antiquated evaluation methods.  I believe teachers need more time for “messing about” with new ideas (in the style of David Hawkins) and administrators need to have more in-depth knowledge about new ideas. The state of the world in general is a surprise with war, poverty and ignorance so prevalent.

Q. Who were your inspirations beside Seymour Papert?

There are three major sources from which I took inspiration:

  • Marvin Minsky
  • Margaret Minsky
  • MIT Artificial Intelligence lab.

Marvin Minsky mentored me before I began my collaboration with Seymour. I wanted to learn to program and so I took a job as Marvin’s secretary. A good friend of mine introduced us. When I joined Bolt, Beranek and Newman to work as a Lisp programmer, the Logo ideas had not taken shape. After performing our Muzzey experiment using Logo with 7th graders in place of their math class in 1968-69 Seymour and I left BBN to start a Logo research group as part of the AI Lab. Seymour and Marvin co-directed the lab. Marvin built a 4-voce music box for Logo. He hurried along the development of floor turtles. He continued to look for construction kits like Meccano that could be controlled through Logo.  He continued to advise me as I got involved in different projects. 

Margaret Minsky became a close collaborator of mine when she was 15. We went to Exeter, England for a month and taught children there. She had grown up on Logo. I formed a collegial relationship with her. She also tried out new things and opened me to new possibilities. As it happens this has been a long-lasting collaboration from making Apple Logo, designing a PlayStation of the future at Atari Cambridge Research, extending Logo work to her own research in haptics, using force feedback, and so on. Our collaboration has continued through the decades.

The AI Lab was the third major influence in my life’s work. Logo could not have grown in such a multi-dimensional way without the diverse thinkers in the AI Lab. The hackers, the graduate students, the tech staff all played roles in Logo development. It was rich and raucous. But the prevailing atmosphere was experimentation and verification by building working models. One of the underlying ideas was the Papert Principle. Minsky explains: “… a mind cannot really grow very much merely by accumulating knowledge. It must also develop better ways to use what it already knows.”