Clashing Cultures
an outline of a presentation to
eurologo '97


Richard Noss & Celia Hoyles
Mathematical Sciences Group,Institute of Education
University of London

It was always unclear whether our community believed that schools could and would change. We had visions of the evolution of new cultures, new expressive power for children, new kinds of pedagogies and new kinds of learning. Some fragments of these visions have become reality, and Logo has played no small part in bringing them about. But not in schools. Schools have, by and large, remained impervious to the possibilities of change. On a systemic level, we have no existence theorems.

There are plenty of simple explanations ranging from the innate conservativism of teachers (simply not always the case), to the high inertia exhibited by schools (more of a description than an explanation). In his recent book, The Children's Machine, Papert likens schools' reactions to change to the behavious of the immune system in response to external threats to the body. All these explanations seek to explain why teachers and schools are so impervious to change, and why — to put it simplistically — Logo has failed to make an impact.

One attempt to understand better how change is handled by schools has centred on "innovation". Indeed, there is an innovations industry which seeks to explain why educational innovations never succeed . On the positive side, there has been a growing appreciation amongst innovators of all complexions that the unit of teacher development should be at least at the school level rather than the individual teacher.

This recognition goes some way to recognising the complexity of educational change. Yet it still adopts a viewpoint which characterises change agents (in this case, the teachers) as thwarted, stymied by habits and routines. Maybe they are. But the mistake is elementary: in viewing Logo as an "innovation", such explanations regard it as an entity which may succeed or fail in bringing about change in the school. School may change, Logo is unchangeable. Like a virus, it may kill or be killed, but it will remain an outside agent acting on the body.

This is the wrong way to think about the problem. Logo is not a thing which may or may not succeed in bringing change in the system. It is itself subject to change: in its entry into a classroom, a school or a system, it is susceptible to being reshaped as much as the system it purports to shape. If we we want to try to understand what happened when Logo entered school, we need to take account of the ways schools change Logo as much as how Logo changes schools. From this, dialectical viewpoint, we may at least understand the complexities of the issue, and offer some alternative to a collapse into hopeless pessimism, or unrealistic optimism. (There is clearly scope for sociological analyses of the problem, but these will not be our focus here).

The empirical core of our presentation will centre on the story of Logo in a single school: this story is based on Chapter 9 of our recent book (Noss & Hoyles 1996). It will trace the transformation of the school's original goals for Logo work as it became appropriated into the school's practices, and how these in turn, reshaped the epistemological parameters of Logo in its image.

A little background and some introductions

Valley primary school had been part of a major Logo initiative in England in the early nineteen-eighties, a period in which there was still considerable freedom from prescriptive curriculum constraints in U.K. primary schools. Many of the children had made enormous strides in their appropriation of programming and mathematics. As these students progressed into their final year in junior school, their parents began to ask questions about the computer provision which would be available upon transfer to secondary school, in particular one — Harston school — to which a cohort of students was bound the following September. Our story opens as a small group of eager and enthusiastic Logo experts aged 11 enter Harston, keen to build on their Logo work, their parents and teachers holding high expectations for their programming and mathematical potential.

Prior to 1985 there had been no institutionalised computer work in Harston before the age of 15 years, when computers were introduced as part of an optional 'computer studies' course. But as a result of pressure from several powerful parents of children at Valley, Peter, the headteacher (principal) of Harston found funding for hardware and software, and set wheels in motion to introduce computers lower down the school.

The two teachers who would be responsible for this were John and Colin. John, the head of mathematics, was very experienced, and although he wasn't particularly dissatisfied with the school's mathematics curriculum, he was prepared to try something new: so he came up with a plan to introduce Logo into mathematics classrooms in a gradual way. Colin, the head of computing and a devotee of BASIC, was keen to join in as well. He already taught some mathematics lower down the school, although he felt under-qualified for the task, and felt, perhaps, that introducing computers into his lessons would bring him nearer his home ground.

Finally, we should introduce Claire, the advisor from the Local Authority (School District). She helped the teachers to begin with Logo in mathematics classes, to organise the Valley children together with those who arrived from other primary schools (who had no Logo background), and to support other teachers in the mathematics department who wanted to join in.

Hopes...The plan was that there would be intensive support from Claire and ourselves for one year and then a gradual reduction as the teachers became more familiar with Logo in the classroom and its potential for learning mathematics. Throughout the first year, Claire and we made regular visits to the school working in the mathematics classrooms, helping the children, discussing the curriculum, devising activities and advising the teachers. The following year, Claire took over responsibility for regular school support visiting on a weekly basis, while we took on a rather different role, occasionally visiting to monitor progress, act as trouble-shooters, or try out new ideas. Finally, during the year 1987/88, the school took over the innovation completely with no external support, since by that time a curriculum for the LogoMathematics work had been devised, at least for the first few terms.

...and disappointments. By the end of the third year, the school had decided to remove Logo from mathematics and instead make it one plank (to be shared with word processing) in the school's general provision for 'IT awareness', a UK variant of standard computer literacy courses. The goals of the Logo initiative had been radically transformed, from a medium to explore and learn mathematics, to a piece of curriculum to learn about computers. Was the failure of the LogoMathematics initiative purely a matter of resources, teacher inexperience and new curricular policies? Or were there other, more subtle, factors at work? Does this outcome resonate across borders and educational cultures, particularly those in which computers are being introduced as a separate rather than integrated part of the curriculum?

In our presentation, we will tell the stories of the people concerned: Peter, the headteacher, and how his wish to gain prestige for the school led him first to embrace the Logo work as mathematical, and then to reject it and turn it into something other than mathematics; Colin, the head of computing, who became a Logo "convert", yet who found it increasingly difficult to reconcile Logo and mathematics as compatible rather than competing activities; John, who as head of the mathematics department, had found it hard to cope with the new Logo work, and who wanted — but was unable — to use Logo to develop maths quiz games which "fitted" his curriculum; and Claire, the advisor, who had worked in Valley, and became deeply disillusioned with her inability to shape the Harston teachers' vision in the direction she had had pointed them.

Most telling will be the evidence of the children who we interviewed and watched working some eight years after our first encounter with them as enthusiastic young Logophiles. We will meet Michael, who despite his previous expertise with Logo, found "computer studies" hard and boring; Jane, who looked back on Logo merely an introduction to programming and not a very "grown up" one at that; Lawrence who disliked the imposition of having to write down programs before he ran them (a school rule!) which he contrasted with the Logo work; and Peter, who was disappointed that the excitement of his earlier work at Valley had not continued at Harston.

At its heart, the demise of the Logomathematical work at Harston can be seen as a clash of cultures within the school, re-forming Logo and mathematics within it. From technological cultures, there was a clash of meanings for the idea of "programming"; there were epistemological clashes which saw mathematics in very different ways; from the students' point of view, the rupture in cultures between Valley and Harston led to confusion and tensions, not least the anticlimax of their "thrilling" and "exciting" innovation becoming routine and boring; and from the point of view of the teachers, there were clashes between epistemologies (mathematics versus computing), and pedagogies (delivering the curriculum or changing it). At the same time, there were broader, social and political concerns of competition between schools, parental pressures and local accountability which intersected these tensions and dilemmas in unexpected and sometimes surprising ways.

These tensions predated the introduction of Logo into Harston; Logo brought them to the surface. Yet the initiative did not die. Rather LogoMathematics was reborn as Logo-IT — a shift which suited the inclinations and expertise of the teachers as well resonating with outside policy and equity issues. Resolution was possible — but at a price: Logo as a replacement for BASIC, mathematics once again defined in its original forms, new pedagogies embraced and then rejected.

The school culture strove to make sense of these meanings, much as an individual strives to fit the events of their intellectual and social experience into a coherent, meaningful pattern. Schools, like individuals, are seldom autistic: they have to reconcile the meanings they encounter. And if they cannot do so in the terms laid down for them (e.g. by researchers or advisory teachers), they have little alternative but to reconcile them in some other way.

It is tempting to view this story as a clash of cultures between Logo and the school. In fact, the clash was between ourselves and the teachers, the Valley students and their new school, our epistemologies and theirs. The extent to which Logo is a carrier of a culture is complex: it does so in relation to the aims and aspirations of its proponents. But at the same time, the broader culture acts back on Logo: it is not the artefact it was twenty years ago, and twenty years hence it will stand in the culture as something else. If there is a lesson of the Harston experience it is this: we are not free agents to use Logo as a tool for change in schools. Equally, we cannot take for granted that "the system" is immune. Systems that fight viruses are never quite the same next time. Neither is the virus.


  1. Noss R. & Hoyles C. (1996) Windows on Mathematical Meanings: Learning Cultures and Computers.  Kluwer Academic Press. 1996