The WhyPower Project Blog #2 What Would Papert and Piaget Say?

Keeping Academic Focus During the Give-and-Take of Game Development

By: Cliff Zintgraff and James Larkin, DaVinci Minds

In the first post, we introduced the WhyPower project and delivery of integrated math, science and career education.  We talked about how we ran a fundamentally creative process and used academic standards to ground the early design process.  In this post, we talk about the development of WhyPower’s NGLC-funded Power Planner activity.  We want to explore how creativity and academic grounding existed side by side.  What were the issues?  What were the tensions?  Does this mean anything for school reform?

Seymour Papert, Jean Piaget and the Big Idea

Both Papert and Piaget have things to say about big ideas in education.  In fact, the Big Idea is the topic.  In What’s the Big Idea: Toward a Pedagogy of Idea Power, Papert (2000) makes the case that in the effort to apply consistent pedagogy in schools, the very ideas that inspire students are stripped away; or as Piaget would say, their epistemology (meaning) has been removed and the idea disempowered.  Take the case of Michael, a student described by Papert as having a dismal record in school.  Papert presented a rat trap to a group of students including Michael.  Most perceived it as a “violent instrument,” and some joked about extracurricular uses of the rat trap, and about their own experiences trying to catch larger animals.  Michael found the inventiveness of the rat trap to be extraordinary.  Papert found Michael to have a penetrating mind in case after case.  Obviously, “school” was not something that worked for Michael.  Something that did work for Michael was the inventiveness he perceived in a device that traps rodents.

Papert cites other cases: the artistic girl who realizes that fractions are everywhere; the girl who leaps from the Logo language’s setspeed 0 command to realizing how cool it is that zero is a number.  While we might as educators set the stage for such leaps, the students experience intrinsic motivation.  The corresponding lessons learned about math will not be forgotten.  This is the result of the empowered idea

WhyPower:  A Big Idea, and Standards-based Skills

We would love to report that we absorbed the lessons of this paper before our project.  The messier fact is that we read this paper only recently.  Papert’s paper suggests we should not expect students to discover on a schedule.  This is exactly what we do.  We use academic standards to drive the details of the activity being designed.  We do so believing students will learn and retain better when the math lessons are embedded in what we will call, with some hubris, moderately big ideas.  We had the idea that students can make considered choices about power sources.  We also had the idea that students could learn something about fractions, ratios and proportions through an experience-with-context.  Did we make a mistake?  Are we a “would-be reform movement…assimilated to School’s ways of thinking [where] discovery stops being discovery when it is orchestrated to happen on the preset agenda of a curriculum?”  (p. 722). 

The Big Idea, Game Engagement, and Staying Grounded

We suggest that there are small discoveries, and then there are big discoveries.  As we developed the motif for WhyPower’s Power Planner activity, we wanted to set the stage for students to discover science facts about energy sources—coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind and solar—and to discover proportional relationships between the energy sources, for example:  How does the energy source relate to overall cost?  What about when emissions are factored in?  When the cost of land is factored in?  Looking at how this process ran through the Papert/Piaget lens, we can see in hindsight the ebb and flow between the activity getting de-fanged (disempowered) and re-fanged (empowered).  We would run off and try an idea, put together some content, or try a twist on the motif, and when we gathered again, something was missing.  In hindsight, this something-missing feeling was the disempowering of the idea.  We would then re-fang it, doing our best to give students the opportunity for small discoveries, and keeping intact the larger idea that they can catch proportional thinking if they see it in context.

A Beaumont ISD student uses sliders to plan the next week’s relative proportion of energy sources that will power Whyville.

See students in action at

Standards:  Semi-Empowered Ideas for Learning

On the one hand, using a standard on a schedule is exactly what Papert says not to do if you want to encourage discovery learning.  On the other hand, we can recognize a standards category as an idea, and we can ask if it’s an empowered idea or not.  This perspective on standards can help us see the way back to really big ideas.  For an idea to be empowered, some understanding of its power must exist.  Do we narrate for ourselves the power of the ideas we are teaching students?  Or do we just assume everyone gets it?

Perhaps we are moving in the right direction.  Look at characteristic of “mile wide-inch deep” found in many modern standards regimens, vs. the more focused core-concept approach being advanced by education reformers.  By Papert’s reckoning, anything that is a mile wide and an inch deep is fundamentally disempowering—it has no depth.  Asking students to learn a few hundred isolated skills is, for most students, the path to discouragement vs. the path to enlightenment.  On the other hand, if we are moving toward core concepts, we are moving toward big ideas.  This is a move in the right direction.  It is worth noting that this is the direction of the Common Core standards.  Any effort to focus to reduce “mile-wide, inch-deep” and move to core themes and knowledge is a move toward empowerment. 

Big Ideas are Inevitable

We write this blog post with hope, pointing out that a move to core concepts, while perhaps not the end game, is a directionally correct move.  Perhaps rather than curse the existence of standards (something we all do?), we can recognize that standards are the seed of big ideas, and they can be used to ground our creative work in big ideas, and increase the chances that students discover the essence of what they are learning.  While Papert does not think that reform efforts per se will lead to reform, he believes “forces are at work that put the old structure in increasing dissonance with…society,” and that the “ideas and technologies needed to build new structures are becoming increasingly available” (p. 728).

When was the last time you saw the big idea on which a standards category is based narrated in the standard, for all to see?  Why would we not do this?  And, why don’t we create measurement instruments that will try to measure whether students are getting the big idea?  That may be a somewhat large and difficult idea in itself, but it would another step to put the pedagogy of idea power (Papert, 2000) at the heart of project and instructional design.

Next Post

In the final post of the series, we’ll discuss how embedded assessment can play a role in helping students with both the detailed skills and big-idea knowledge of fractions, ratios and proportions.  We will share preliminary research outcomes and some lessons learned for future gaming and simulation implementations.

Check out our updated grantee page at


Papert, S. (2000).  What’s the big idea?  Toward a pedagogy of idea power.  IBM Systems Journal, 39(3&4), 720-729.

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