In Memoriam: Edith Ackermann

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On Christmas Day, as my family and a friend’s family were finishing a walk in a forest just outside of Lausanne, I happened to check my messages and saw that Edith Ackermann had passed away.

Edith was a mentor to both Andrew and me. We met her at the MIT Media Lab, where she closely collaborated with my research group. She was on both Andrew and my Master’s thesis committees and on Andrew’s PhD committee ten years later. She came to our house parties in Cambridge and to our wedding. We’ve known her since we were 21- and 22-year old, fresh college grads who were researching how technological tools can support learning.

We last saw her a year and a half ago. We went to the US for three weeks, and the trip was completely packed — we went to TX, CA, and MA for two weddings and a college reunion. Our son was 15 months old. Andrew had a broken foot. Despite all of the craziness, we made seeing her a priority, and we had a lovely dinner together in Cambridge. I am so glad that we got to see her then. At various points we’d talked about meeting in Switzerland but were never able to make it happen.

Edith was a Swiss developmental psychologist. She worked with Jean Piaget at the Université de Genève, where she did her PhD, and then moved to Cambridge to work with Seymour Papert at MIT. She had a subtle understanding of how people learn and think, and I apply what I learned from her every time I step into a teaching or tutoring situation. Here’s an excerpt from a paper she wrote when I was at the lab that still fundamentally shapes my approach to teaching:


1. Teaching can’t ever be direct. Children don’t just take-in what is being said. Instead, they interpret, or translate, what they hear in the light of their knowledge and experience. Willingly or unwillingly, that is, they transform the input to fit their level of understanding, This occurs whether we like it or not. A more radical formulation of lesson 1 would be to say that learning does not occur as a result of teaching or, in Piaget’s own provocative terms ‘whatever you tell a child, you won’t allow her to discover it by herself’.

2. Knowledge is not information to be delivered at one end, and encoded, stored, retrieved, and re-applied at the other end. Instead, knowledge is experience to be constructed through interactions with the world (people and things). To equate knowledge with information—and knowledge construction with information processing—confuses matters when it comes to human learning or teaching.

3. A theory of learning that ignores resistances to learning misses the point. One of Piaget’s main teachings is that children have extremely good reasons not to abandon their current world views in the light of external surface perturbations. And this is so no matter how relevant the suggestions. A good teacher, in this sense, is one that helps learners explore, express, exchange—and ultimately expand— their views, from within [not a sage on the stage, but a guide on the side]

— from CONSTRUCTING KNOWLEDGE AND TRANSFORMING THE WORLD [PDF] by Edith K. Ackermann


A major subtext to this is that all of our interactions as teachers and learners have meaning. The structure and shape of a classroom environment, a top down vs. bottom up approach to learning — all of this indirectly shapes expectations and experience.

I’m grateful to have been one of her many students and to have had so much time with her. We led workshops together in Mexico and Brazil, and one of my favorite Media Lab memories is of discussing the first draft of my Master’s thesis with Edith and my advisor David over tequila in Mexico City (all thesis meetings should be conducted this way). Edith, upon reading my draft, said, “You can write! Oh this is wonderful — we can focus on the ideas and really dig into them. Too many times when I’m on a committee, I have to teach students how to form an argument. But this, this will be fun.” She and David proceeded to invert the entire structure of my thesis, but it was fun to talk about ideas and to learn how to pull them apart into finer, more subtle points. Edith had a gift for finding ideas that lay just below the surface of her students’ work and for helping us develop them. She listened, paid close attention, asked questions, and engaged. She put her research and philosophies of learning into practice with her students and in turn showed us how to be researchers and educators.

Here’s Edith talking about play as a counterpoint to curiosity and working out how they differ — a glimpse of her mind at work:

Edith Ackermann’s Pedagogical Perspective on Tinkering & Making from The Tinkering Studio on Vimeo.

Losing Edith was a hard way to end 2016, but I will remember her with so much affection and gratitude.

© 2016 Anindita Basu Sempere. 
All Rights Reserved
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