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Computing as a Matter of Course

THE Hennigan School in the ethnically mixed Jamaica Plain section of Boston has been germinating the classroom of the future for eight years. Called Project Headlight, the experiment is a joint venture of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, International Business Machines (IBM), and the Boston public schools.

According to Seymour Papert, the MIT mathematician who conceived the project, the Hennigan School has become a fountainhead of information about how children and teachers can incorporate computers into the daily task of learning.

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The keynote of Project Headlight, says Dr. Papert, who is best known for developing the computer language Logo, is its integration of computers and normal classroom work. The tendency in many schools, he notes, has been to isolate the machines into little in-house ``computerlands,'' with special teachers. ``That,'' he says, ``is fundamentally opposed to our approach here.''

On a typical day at Hennigan, Joanne Ronkin's fourth-grade class is brainstorming about how to develop computer games that will teach players something about the solar system. Yasmin Kafai, a postdoctoral fellow at the Media Lab and the current director of Project Headlight, is helping to steer the discussion. Ms. Kafai, who has written a thesis on children as designers of computer games, says the process of design and creation will take months. ``The process is the main thing,'' she says. ``That's where the learning takes place.''

Games, Kafai notes, present some basic dilemmas for the young programmers, such as how to control the movements of two or more figures - space explorers, perhaps, or aliens - on the screen. The kids will have to produce Logo instructions 10 or 11 pages long. They will also have to develop promotional materials for their games, test them on third graders, and consult with fifth graders who have already experienced the design process.

After a quarter of an hour of discussion, Mrs. Ronkin's class empties into the central area of the Project Headlight wing, where dozens of computer terminals are arranged in two large circles at each end of the open expanse. The children, many of whom have already spent two or three school years using the machines daily, quickly log on and begin their preliminary programming. Forty-five minutes later they are back in the classroom entering findings in their project notebooks.

At the other end of the computer area, some fifth graders are absorbed in their projects. Jean, whose class is also studying the solar system, is working at the computer writing a myth about a tussle between Jupiter and Mars over who would control Earth. Rhyshonda is developing a program to color an egg she produces on the screen. ``Other people just use the same numbers, but I like to experiment - that's fun,'' she says.

Other activities in this project-rich environment include the telecommunications endeavors of Gilda Keefe's fourth-grade bilingual class. Her class, made up of native Spanish speakers, is using electronic mail to correspond with students and teachers in Costa Rica, Peru, Switzerland, and Hawaii.

The children have gathered information about environmental concerns - such as wetlands protection - and are sharing that information with their overseas friends. ``It's wonderful for children in learning about the world,'' says Mrs. Keefe.

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For all the expansive activities going on at the Hennigan School, Project Headlight has run up against limitations. Though IBM has stuck with the project since its beginning, Papert and his colleagues have never had enough equipment to fulfill their original dream of having computers in the homes of participating teachers and students, as well as in their school setting. Also, Papert acknowledges that participation in Project Headlight is no guarantee of a student's academic success down the line.

LIKE most urban districts, Boston's schools are beset by social ills and funding shortfalls. The middle schools, where students go after finishing fifth grade, can be a particular problem. ``They often go from a good learning experience to a bad one,'' says Papert.

But the broader issues of school reform aside, Project Headlight has been a boon to the Hennigan School, according to Eleanor Perry, who has been principal of the school for seven years. Not only are children given extraordinary learning opportunities, but teachers also have a tremendous support system through their MIT colleagues. Papert and Kafai emphasize that they never try to impose ideas on the teachers, that it's always a collaborative effort.

Only about 250 of Hennigan's 700 students can participate in the project. That can generate some jealousies, teachers say, but the school as a whole still benefits. Mrs. Perry notes that her students, whether they're in the project or not, always take the honors in citywide testing on computer skills.

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