Microworlds, Powerful Ideas, and what do we do Monday?

Our next meeting will be via Zoom:
Saturday, December 2, 2023
10:00 am to noon Eastern Time (USA)
Workshop Leaders: Michael Tempel, Michelle Hughes, and Bryan Sanders

The meeting is free and open to everyone. To register, complete this form. We will send you the Zoom link on Friday, December 1. You will also be notified about future meetings. (If you've previously filled out the form, you do not need to do so again. If you're not sure, do it. We'll eliminate the duplication.)

For December 2 workshop we will be focusing on the Powerful Idea of emergence and emergent curriculum. It would be good to read what we've done so far related to this topic. The agenda:
  • what do we mean by emergence and emergent phenomena?
  • what is emergent curriculum? We'll share some examples.
  • a look at programming environments that designed to support explorations of emergence.
The agenda is tentative. The workshop will, itself, be an emergent phenomenon.  If you have been doing work in this areas, please bring your own examples of emergent curriculum and/or explorations of emergence to share with the group.

Here are additional references:
  • Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams by Mitchel Resnick is about emergent phenomena.
  • NetLogo is a programming and modeling environment designed for explorations of decentralized, emergent behaviors.
  • StarLogo Nova and StarLogo TNG are similar programs that use blocks coding.
  • A paper by Mitchel Resnick and Natalie Rusk, The Use of Biological Metaphors in Thinking About Learning: Some Initial Thoughts About “Emergent Learning” discusses the topic in the context of the Computer Clubhouse Project. You can read it here.

The subtitle of Seymour Papert’s 1980 book Mindstorms is “Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas.” Chapter 5 is “Microworlds: Incubators for Knowledge.” We pretty much know what children and computers are. But what are Powerful Ideas, and what are Microworlds?
A Microwold is a streamlined environment constructed to support learning in a particular domain. The Turtle World and a set of kindergarten blocks are two examples.

The term “Powerful Idea” has not been so well defined. Rather than begin by trying to arrive at a definition, we’ll take an “I know one when I see one” approach. We’ll start by accumulating a list of what we think are powerful ideas and then build from there. This method of arriving at a general definition by looking at specific cases is, in itself, a Powerful Idea.

We’ll look at Turtle Geometry and other Microworlds discussed in Mindstorms, and the powerful ideas they can make accessible.  We’ll discuss the constructing of Microworlds and exploring Powerful Ideas as a way to organize teaching and learning in a practical way. This will include:

  • looking at existing Microworlds, projects, and activities with an eye toward highlighting the Powerful Ideas they carry and how we can better engage students with those ideas.
  • extending those Microworlds, projects, and activities with the goal of enhancing their Powerful Ideaness.
  • making connections among different Microworlds, classroom projects, and activities, and with phenomena in the world to highlight how a truly Powerful Idea will appear in many contexts

Here are some of the topics we have discussed so far:




Join the Conversation
We held workshops on this topic in February and March of 2023 and again as part of the 2023 Logo Summer Institute. We presented our work at Constructionism 2023 in October. We will be continuing the discussion by hosting a series of meetings via Zoom during the 2023-2024 school year. We will share ideas and best practices. These meetings are open to anyone who is interested in exploring Microworlds and Powerful Ideas with a focus on activities and projects that are practical and accessible for use in our classrooms. If you would like to be informed about these sessions, give use your name and email address on this form.


  1. Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York: BasicBooks.
  2. Lawler, Robert (1981). Some Powerful Ideas, p. 19. MIT Logo Memo 60, AI Memo 652, Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Available at https://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/6363/AIM-652.pdf
  3. Rieber, L. (2004). Microworlds. In D. Donassen (Ed.), Handbook of research for educational communications and technology (2nd ed., pp. 583-603). Mahwah, N. J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.  Available at https://members.aect.org/edtech/22.pdf
  4. Resnick, Mitchel (1994) Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
  5. Resnick,  Mitchel and Rusk, Natalie (1996) "The Use of Biological Metaphors in Thinking About Learning: Some Initial Thoughts About 'Emergent Learning'" (you may download a copy here)
  6. Sanders, Bryan P. (2021),  Could Minecraft Be a School?: What Are the Transdisciplinary Implications of This Game-based Learning Environment? in Game-based Learning Across the Disciplines (pp.383-393), by Carmela Aprea Dirk Ifenthaler (Editors), Springer