Powerful Ideas

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Seymour Papert told us in the 1960s that education should be about powerful ideas, in Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. This is a short list of ideas, divided into the feeble and the powerful. There are many more.

Feeble Ideas

  • Teaching
  • Facts
  • Dates
  • Right answers
  • Testing
  • Curricula
  • Learned Helplessness, inability to learn on one's own
  • Nationalism
  • Specialization

Powerful Ideas

  • Ideas
  • Children
  • Learning
  • Tools
  • Truth, including how we decide what is true (Epistemology)
  • Reality, including how we decide what is real (Ontology)
  • Ethics, specifically what we should do even if we don't want to, and what to do next
  • Fun
  • Possibility and necessity
  • Fruitful questions
  • Discovery
  • Scientific method--Conjecture, hypothesis, theory, prediction, experiment, observation, error analysis, insight, falsification.
  • Connections
  • Collaboration
  • Gears and linkages
  • Math: Patterns, structures, conjectures, theorems, theories, interconnections, equivalences
  • Logic
  • Programming paradigms
  • Maps (creating and interpreting rather than reproducing)
  • Symbols
  • Human rights
  • Society: politics, government, services, oppression, war
  • Design
  • Unanswerable questions
  • Resilience

What is a powerful idea?

An idea is powerful if it is reusable in generating more ideas, in solving future unanticipated problems?

Bloom's Taxonomy is an attempt to classify types of learning from lower order to higher order. It ranges from simple recall to synthesis and evaluation. But lower order skills can still be powerful?

Jonassen believes that the goal of education is to learn the skills needed for solving real world problems, such problems are ill-structured in that they have conflicting or undefined goals, multiple or no solutions and they are cross-disciplinary.

The idea of non-universals was started by Kay and furthered by Kerr. The idea being that all cultures spontaneously develop some ideas, for example art, but few cultures develop the more complex ideas, for example perspective drawing. The weakness in this analysis is that an idea might be very difficult to spontaneously generate but relatively easy to maintain in a culture. It does not necessarily give a guide as to how much teaching effort is required. It is however a useful way to look at powerful ideas.


  • language
  • communication
  • fantasies
  • stories
  • tools and art
  • superstition
  • religion and magic
  • play and games
  • differences over similarities (?)
  • quick reactions to patterns
  • vendetta, and more

Non universals

  • reading and writing
  • deductive abstract mathematics
  • model based science
  • equal rights
  • democracy
  • perspective drawing
  • theory of harmony (?)
  • similarities over differences (?)
  • slow deep thinking
  • agriculture
  • legal systems