School of Computer Science

Summaries of Marvin Minsky's essays for the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) project
Last updated: 7 Nov 2010; 28 Sep 2011
Installed (by Aaron Sloman): 7 Nov 2010

Message sent to CAS (Computing At School) on 7 Nov 2010

Marvin Minsky is one of the "greats" of computing in the last six decades.

With Seymour Papert he helped to develop some of the ideas now found in
the SCRATCH learning/teaching environment (indirectly inspired by the great
(but flawed) work of Jean Piaget, with whom Papert studied for a while).

Minsky's essays may be of interest to some CAS members trying to understand
what learning is and how teachers can help it to happen. All the essays are
available via his web page (along with other things relevant to computing
education, and other topics).

The essays are all very readable (and may be found controversial -- intentionally!):


    What makes Mathematics hard to learn?
    Students need Cognitive Maps of their Subjects
    Bringing Mathematics to Life
    The Impoverished Language of School-Mathematics.
    Mentors and Communities
    Emphasizing Novelty rather than Drudgery?
    Negative Expertise

    = Note added 24 March 2008 =

     The U.S. Department of Education has issued a 90-page report proposing 45
     improvements in math education. This report makes almost all the mistakes
     that I complained about in this memo.   Its most emphatic recommendation:

       "A major goal for K-8 mathematics education should be proficiency with
       fractions (including decimals, percents, and negative fractions), for such
       proficiency is foundational for algebra and, at the present time, seems to
       be severely underdeveloped. Proficiency with whole numbers is a necessary
       precursor for the study of fractions, as are aspects of measurement and

     The report says almost nothing about using computers except to suggest that
     learning to program may bring some benefits "if students' programming is
     carefully guided by teachers so as to explicitly teach students to achieve
     specific mathematical goals."
     Warning: the full report is likely to make your mind throw up. See it at


    Effects Of Grade-Based Segregation
    The 50-minute hour
    Children have different Cognitive Styles


    Role Models, Mentors, and Imprimers and Thinking
    Thinking about Thinking about Ways to Think
    How do children acquire self-images?
    Finding Mentors in Network Communities


    Questioning "General" Education
      "It is better to solve one problem five different ways, than
      to solve five different problems one way."
        - George Polya:
    A Theory of Human Self-Critical Thinking
    Abilities, Talents, and Mental Resources
    Horizontal vs. Vertical Specialties
    Some predicaments "brainy" children face.
    How can we help Self-Critical Thinking develop?


    Education and Psychology
      "But if "good thinking" is one of our principal goals, then
      why don't schools try to explicitly teach about how human
      Learning and Reasoning work?  Instead we tacitly assume that
      if we simply provide enough knowledge, then each child's
      brain will `self-organize' appropriate ways to apply those
      facts.  Then would it make sense for us to include a subject
      called "Human Psychology" as part of the grade-school
      curriculum?  I don't think that we can do this yet, because,
      few present-day teachers would agree about which "Theories
      of Thinking" to teach."

      "So instead, we'll propose a different approach: to provide
      our children with ideas they could use to invent their own
      theories about themselves!  The rest of this essay will
      suggest some benefits that could come from this, and some
      practical ways to accomplish it -- by engaging children in
      various kinds of constructive, computer-related projects."

    1. Why we can't yet include  "Psychology" in the Primary School Curriculum.
    2. Some deficiencies of behavior-based theories.
    3. Teaching Cybernetics instead of Psychology
       Other Suggestions for Cybernetics Projects
       (Several examples presented.)
    4. How it can help to think of oneself as a Machine

He invites comments from readers.
See Also:
    Comments on MacTaggart Lecture by Eric Schmidt (Google) Edinburgh Festival 2011

Maintained by Aaron Sloman
School of Computer Science
The University of Birmingham