My friend Chris Lehmann has been well-recognized fir his work as the Principal of Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. He is a smart, talented progressive educator who loves the kids and teachers he works with. It might surprise many of our colleagues that although we share a quite similar world view, we disagree on strategy and tactics. I am not some radical ideologue. I truly appreciate the constraints within Chris operates and the compromises required in an urban public school system where those said to represent the public, don’t give a damn about the kids and teachers in the public school.
That said, Chris just wrote a blog post with which I disagree in more ways than I can articulate in one blog post. I crave dialogue. I wish there was a great deal more of it in discussions of education policy, teaching, and learning. I have suggested to Chris that he and I write a column in the spirit of Deborah Meier’s brilliant “Bridging Differences.” Perhaps such a Bridging Differences Jr. could elevate the quality of thinking about schooling and build some bridges by demonstrating the enormity of the span between even progressive educators.
Before you read my late night response, please take a few minutes to read Chris’ blog post, “Curriculum Design – Putting the Horse Before the Cart.” You may think to yourself, “How could Gary possibly disagree?”
I too think deeply and often about these issues, but view the scenario you describe quite differently. We could discuss and debate these issues at great length and I believe others would profit from those discussions.
With each passing day, I focus more on my mantra of, “Less us. More them!” To me, that doesn’t just mean thinking about what I will let students do, but having the confidence to not predict how every child will participate, what they will learn, or most importantly – how I will choreograph the class.
When I allow for maximum serendipity, the learning is more diverse, complex, creative, intimate, surprising, and meaningful. This approach also allows for some students to take more time, engage in multiple perspective making, and for others to exceed my expectations. It’s also a whole lot more fun to teach in such a manner.
Most importantly, whether working with preschoolers or adults (I’m doing both regularly these days), I strive to start from the experience of each learner and do as little of what we traditionally think of “teaching” as possible. As the brilliant educators of Reggio Emilia and Piaget teach us, “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” There is no amount of curricular planning that can substitute for experience.
In a professional development context, I prefer to spend the time with teachers engaged in rich learning experiences, rather than doing “the work” of teachers. I ask teachers to take off their teacher hat and put on their learner hat when I want them to learn something.
Besides, genetic epistemology might suggest that it is impossible for you to transfer a set of knowledge to new colleagues without them engaging in a personal construction of meaning.
It was a joy to spend four days teaching in Costa Rica earlier this month precisely because I don’t speak Spanish. As a result, I had to shut-up. That made me a better teacher! I prepared the environment, set open-ended prompts, and maintained the learning momentum of my students by asking a question, spending a few seconds demonstrating something, pairing a student who possessed a skill or understood a concept with a peer who needed to learn something “just in time,” or with a simple gesture. I never feel the need to know everything or to manage a classroom.
This does NOT mean that my standards are not set extremely high. I am continually frustrated by how students and teachers are prone to not finishing a task or when the smallest unit of time applied to school improvement is a year or more. A kid is only six or sixteen once. We need a greater sense of urgency in serving THEM, even if it inconveniences US.
Seymour Papert was fond of saying, “Love is a better master than duty” and “nothing beautiful is forced.” Coercion is toxic to learning. I try to free myself and my students from coercion.
It is the primary role of an educator to create a productive context for learning and to be a researcher responsible for understanding the thinking of each child through careful observation and interaction. In that case, assessment is unobtrusive. It is merely how the teacher records what knowledge the student reveals through action, dialogue, or artifact.
There is clearly a role for curricular planning, but even in that context, less is more. Good prompt setting is a critical skill. (see http://stager.org/articles/goodpbl.pdf)
Good prompts benefit from 1) brevity 2) ambiguity and 3) immunity to assessment. When there is a good prompt (or personal motivation), appropriate materials, sufficient time, and a supportive culture, including a range of expertise, you can solve problems bigger than yourself.
What if teachers designed projects where the entire “plan” fit on one side of a playing card? The goal, materials, sufficient scaffolding, and additional challenges or embellishments can fit on a card. Create a deck of such project ideas organized around say the five big ideas of the subject you’re teaching and then have kids tackle some number of those projects.
All of this is quite anathematic to “backward design.” Design is a treatment model. It is something done to a student with or without her consent. The hope is that treatment results in a behavior desired by the teacher. Learning is the result of a complex set of experiences and constructions made inside of each learner. Backward design offers the illusion of agency as long as every gets to the point I preordained, regardless of the quality of the objective or road towards satisfying it.
I taught veteran teachers to use Understanding by Design (origin of backward design) when it was first published in the late 1990s. I quickly tired of its machinations and anemic examples of projects.
Gary S. Stager, Ph.D. is the coauthor of Invent to Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and founder of Constructing Modern Knowledge.
Balance is the Fabreze of education policy. It is a chemical spray designed to mask the stench of a two year-old tuna sandwich found in the minvan with the artificial bouquet of an April rain dancing on a lily pad.
- Balanced literacy got us systemic phonics.
- Balanced math begot Singapore Math worksheets.
- Balanced standards produced The Common Core.
- Balanced policy debates produced No Child Left Behind and Race-to-the-Top
- A balanced approach to educational technology made computer science extinct in schools and has now taught two generations of children to find the space bar in a computer lab-based keyboarding class.
I could go on.
Balance is elusive. It is fake and lazy and cowardly and sad. Balance is embraced by those who don’t know or can’t/won’t articulate what they truly believe. Balance fills the void left by the absence of alternative models and excellence. It is anonymous.
Educators are told that passion should be tempered. Every pedagogical idea is just fine as long as it is “for the children.” We should just do our jobs and not complain about outrageous attacks on our dignity, paycheck, curriculum, working conditions, or the living conditions of the students we serve.
Balance fills the school day with mandates and directives and lots of interruptions that while offering an illusion of options make it impossible for a learner to focus on anything long enough to become good at it.
Balance teaches children that teachers are helpless pawns in a system they don’t control or cannot understand.
Balance is the absentee parent of incrementalism. As educators take “baby steps” towards what they know is right or righteous they lead a long and meandering hike after which the followers cannot remember the original destination.
“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963)
Educators are to remain neutral and seek consensus at all-costs. Balance programs us to find the silver lining in tornados. There MUST be SOMETHING good in what Bill Gates or Sal Khan or any number of a million corporations with ED or MENTUM or ACHIEVE or VATION in their names happen to be peddling.
The laws of the political universe, and education is inherently political, greet each embrace of “balance” as ten steps in a more conservative direction. There is no balance – just weakness.
I urge you to read one of my favorite passages ever written about “balance” in education. It is from a lesser-known classic, On Being a Teacher,” by the great American educator, Jonathan Kozol. Please take a few minutes to read, “Extreme Ideas.”
As I mentioned in this post, the Long Beach Unified School District is once again threatening to close a terrific school that has rebuilt a community and serves hundreds of children who will be displaced by this destructive, mean-spirited money-grab.
Two years ago, the school faced the same fate – complete with parents not being allowed to speak at public Board meetings and being roughed-up by district security.
A that time , I sent Superintendent Christopher Steinhauser the following questions in a Freedom of Information Act request. The Superintendent and Board Members refused to answer any of my questions.
Since menacing a fine school with community support seems a tradition in Long Beach, I share my two year-old questions below. Feel free to ask any or all of them via email or Twitter.
WOULD YOU BELIEVE THAT THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS SUPERINTENDENT and BOARD MEMBERS PUBLISH NO EMAIL ADDRESSES?
- PLEASE send email messages of support to the Board Secretary at LRodriguez@lbschools.net
- and the Superintendent of Schools, Christopher Steinhauser’s Secretary at firstname.lastname@example.org
- The Superintendent’s Twitter handle is @SuptSteinhauser Feel free to tweet him.
Dear Superintendent Steinhauer:
I am currently writing a number of articles for The Huffington Post and other publications about the New City Public Schools proposed charter revocation You prompt response to the following questions is greatly appreciated.
I know how busy you are, so answering the following questions via email is considerate of your schedule and immune to misquoting.
1) If your recommendation to close the New City Public Schools is realized at the end of August, where will New City Students attend school in September? (please list all possible schools)
2) What is the current enrollment at those schools?
3) What will be the impact on class size and teacher-student ratios
4) How many former New City students in grades 6-8 will be required to attend LBUSD middle schools if K-8 options do not exist?
5) Will LBUSD need to assign additional teaching personnel to schools to accommodate the influx of New City students? Is this budgeted? What are the qualifications of those teachers? Why are they available on such short notice?
5) Please provide the attendance rates over the past three school years for the LBUSD schools likely to enroll former New CIty students.
6) Please provide the vandalism rates over the past three school years for the LBUSD schools likely to enroll former New CIty students.
7) Please provide the incidence of substance abuse over the past three school years for the LBUSD schools likely to enroll former New CIty students.
8) Please provide the crime rates over the past three school years for the LBUSD schools likely to enroll former New CIty students, organized by type of infraction.
9) Please provide the graduation rates for LBUSD students who attended the New City Public Schools prior to 2009.
10) Please indicate the frequency of art instruction at the LBUSD schools likely to enroll former New City students.
11) Please indicate the frequency of music instruction at the LBUSD schools likely to enroll former New City students.
12) How many field trips to LBUSD students enjoy? Please indicate by school likely to enroll former New City students.
13) What is the percentage of bilingual faculty at the LBUSD schools likely to enroll former New City students?
14) What sort of counseling services are being planned to help former New City students deal with the trauma associated with the charter revocation and transition into the LBUSD schools? Is this budgeted for?
15) How long will it take for the LBUSD to evaluate and develop IEPs, where appropriate for the former New City students joining LBUSD?
16) Do students at other LBUSD schools engage in public juried exhibitions as a form of assessment?
17) How does teacher professional development compare between the New City Public Schools and LBUSD schools?
18) How does time and resources for teacher planning and collaboration compare between LBUSD schools and The New City Public Schools?
19) How do playground facilities compare between The New City Public Schools and the LBUSD schools former NCPS students are likely to attend?
20) Will neighborhood schools accommodate all former NCPS students? If not, will transportation be provided by LBUSD?
21) Please indicate how many times since 2022, that you have visited The New City Public Schools? What was the purpose of those visits?
22) In your professional judgement, why are you recommending revocation of the NCPS charter?
23) If you were handed the keys to The New City Public Schools tomorrow, what would you do differently? What would you add? What would you eliminate?
24) Why does it seem that Long Beach is such a hostile jurisdiction for charter schools? Do you think the demand for parental choice will disappear after you revoke all of the school charters?
25) What are the anticipated financial costs or revenue to be realized by the LBUSD if The New City Public Schools are closed?
25) What is your favorite book about learning?
26) What do you most admire about The New City Public Schools?
27) Why do you believe that The New City Public Schools is failing?
28) What is the role of parents in assessing the quality of their children’s education?
29) Do you have metrics to indicate levels of parental involvement across LBUSD schools? If so, will you kindly share that data?
30) Do you think it is appropriate for LBUSD School Board Meetings to be held during business hours in a tiny venue inaccessible to public transportation? How does this help increase community involvement in education?
31) How many school days are dedicated to standardized testing, practice tests or test-preparation in the LBUSD?
32) What were the 2011-2012 costs of standardized testing, practice tests and test-preparation materials in the LBUSD?
33) How many personnel are dedicated to standardized testing, test preparation, data analysis and other assessment-related activities?
34) What were the 2011-2012 personnel costs related to standardized testing, test preparation, data analysis and other assessment-related activities?
35) How many MacArthur Genius Award recipients have worked with LBUSD schools? Please name them.
36) How many colleagues of Jean Piaget have worked with LBUSD schools? Please name them.
37) Please indicate the number of LBUSD K-8 schools with their own farm.
38) What have The New City Public Schools contributed to real estate values, commerce and quality of life in their geographic areas?
39) I read the Superintendent’s goals for the 2011-12 school year at http://www.lbschools.net/Main_Offices/Superintendent/goals_10-11.cfm Presumably, they are intended to hold you accountable to the children, parents and tax-payers of Long Beach. They seem remarkably vague and easy to achieve. Do you think that The New City Public Schools is held to a higher standard of accountability than you are?
40) El Broad is a benefactor of the LBUSD and a proponent of charter schools. How might you explain to him why a city the size of Long Beach has no charter schools?
41) Does it strike you as odd that the LBUSD School Board would invoke to close schools without any public deliberation, dialogue, debate or request for evidence by the School Board?
I am enormously grateful for your help in organizing the data I requested and sharing your professional opinions with me.
Thank you for your service.
Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
- PLEASE send email messages of support to the Board Secretary at LRodriguez@lbschools.net
- and the Superintendent of Schools, Christopher Steinhauser’s Secretary at email@example.com
- The Superintendent’s Twitter handle is @SuptSteinhauser Feel free to drop him a tweet.
Note… If you enjoy my pubescent tales, I recommend my obituary to Jill Clayburgh in The Huffington Post.
I just learned that actress Marcia Strassman passed away on October 24th at age 66. As a boy of 12-16 when Ms. Strassman played Mrs. Kotter on Welcome Back Kotter, well you can imagine the sort of lust I possessed. There was no more perfect woman – smart, loving, sexy, and in command of every situation, no matter how chaotic. I imagine a few million other boys went, “Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!” for Mrs. Kotter back then.
In 2005, I used my press credentials to cut lines, secure good seats, and meet people like Arianna Huffington, John Dean, Gore Vidal, Lawrence O’Donnell, Douglas Brinkley, David Frum, and Frank Luntz at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Monty Python’s own Eric Idle was going to be interviewed on the big stage at Royce Hall and flashing my press credentials scored me a front-row seat. A few minutes before the program began, a group of VIPs were ushered to my row and seated next to me. I immediately saw a character actress from a million TV shows like Barnaby Jones before I noticed the woman in the track suit who sat down next to me. Omigod! Omigod! Omigod! It was Mrs. Kotter!!! Mrs. Freakin’ Kotter!
I immediately sent a text message to Sylvia telling her that the woman of my dreams was inches away from me and to ask if she could Google how old Mrs. Kotter was (in 2005). This was pre-iPhone and many years since I was in Jr. High worshipping Ms. Strassman on Welcome Back Kotter. I’m not particularly shy and have engaged in conversation with movie stars, politicians, scholars, and musicians over the years, but this was different. I was afraid that if we made eye contact, I would burst into flames. I stared towards the stage and let the antics of Eric Idle distract me from the love-of-my-life in the seat next to me.
I never saw any of the Honey I Shrunk the Audience’s IQ films, but there is another Marcia Strassman opus I recommend to you.
On the cusp of my third decade of celibacy at nineteen, Marcia Stassman co-starred in one of the strangest, funniest, sexiest, crappy films of all-time, Soup for One. I LOVE that film and can recite lines from it. “You dragged me all the way to the Catskills to tie up Jewish women?”
Soup For One is a 1982 sexually themed romantic comedy that was directed and written byJonathan Kaufer and produced by Marvin Worth. The R-rated film was released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Its tagline is “When you’re looking for love, you find yourself doing some very funny things.”
While the film was not a box office success, mostly due to mixed reviews and the over the top sex scenes (including one involving S/M), it is best remembered for its soundtrack, which was produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of the group Chic, who performed the title track.
Allan, a cable television producer in New York City, is determined to find the perfect woman, and he would even go so far as having a description of what she would look like done on an artist sketch. But before he can encounter the girl of his dreams he finds himself encountering a series of disastrous dating roadblocks. He finally meets Maria, who seems to be his perfect woman, and tries to make the relationship work.
Wikipedia neglects to mention that Allan hunts down Marcia Strassman after seeing her far afar and picking up her diaphragm, which she accidentally dropped in the street. There is a Jewish singles weekend in the Catskills complete with a cow roasted at the Kosher luau. The male leads in the film work at a public access cable station under a Manhattan slaughterhouse. This end of Disco pre-AIDS fairy tale also includes Teddy Pendergrass, Andrea Martin, Anna Deveare Smith, and Christine Baranski. Marcia Strassman should be awarded a posthumous Academy Award for her performance in this masterpiece!
Here is the NY Times review of Soup for One (what do they know?)
Through the miracle of YouTube piracy, you can now watch the entire epic film right here! (until it’s taken down)
Rest-in-peace Marcia Strassman. Thanks for the memories.
Gary Stager on International Ed Comparisons
John Dewey is Ours!
By Gary Stager
Put on your dunce caps! It’s international education comparison season again. I know. I know… Eritrea is kicking our butt in long division. If we don’t get tough quickly, all of our best fast-food jobs will be outsourced overseas.
During this somber season of atonement, assorted windbags take to the airwaves to decry the callous incompetence of American teachers and to label our students as fat, lazy and stupid. We learn that country X focuses on the basics; country Y spends more time on fewer topics; while country Z has a longer school year. Don’t you just love how after careful review of the data, the prescription for American public schools is always more testing, increased sanctions, louder name-calling and longer seat-time?
We know that simplistic proclamations about superior schools far away are incomplete at best, yet we continue to wring our hands about our inferiority. Japan is one of the favorite pedagogical bogeymen, but on a trip to Tokyo I witnessed four people employed to complete every retail transaction and two women required to operate an automatic elevator. I suspect that the four people making change at every department store checkout counter or the two women piloting one elevator did not succeed in calculus class. Like in Houston, students who might lower the average must just disappear.
While others can challenge their validity, the greatest risk posed by the international education comparisons is the underlying assumption that learning is (or should be) uniform. This premise is absurd and destructive for every state engaged in the standardized arms race. No human endeavor can or should be standardized. This is especially true across different cultures with dissimilar needs, goals, motivations, resources and belief systems.
The Stager Perspective
My work in public and private schools across a dozen or so countries entitles me to proclaim myself a scholar on global educational comparisons. My experience and humble analysis leads me to the following conclusion. Schools stink everywhere!
As long as citizens around the world strive to embrace the following myths and practices schools will continue to lose relevance and offer fewer benefits to children.
Artificial curricular hierarchy
The notion that a committee of bureaucrats can prescribe a specific sequence of curricular topics and skills for all learners defies everything we know about learning theory and will always lag behind societal shifts.
Assuming knowledge is static
Just as every learner is different, the nature of knowledge is fluid. Educational success is not measured by recitation and recall.
Testing is not teaching and teaching is not learning
Until we abandon the obsession with quantifying knowledge without even engaging a discussion of, “what we mean by learning,” schools will continue to treat children as rounding errors.
Rows of uncomfortable desks nailed to the floor, bells, grades, age segregation, decontextualized content, sorting by similar levels of incompetence and zero-tolerance policies must give way to more flexible learning environments.
Communication is weak
Parents, still largely unwelcome educational partners, find it increasingly difficult to receive timely answers to simple questions despite enormous investments in data aggregation and school-to-home accountability systems.
It doesn’t ultimately matter if you agree with my hypothesis about the ill-health of schools and schooling. What you must celebrate is that the American ideal is for every child to enjoy a free and excellent K-12 education, followed by unparalleled opportunities for higher education. While our practice does not always measure up to our rhetoric, our democratic ideals are noble and our schools have served many children well. Rather than waste our energy worrying about global competition we should rededicate ourselves to helping every child reach their potential as a well-rounded human with a thirst for knowledge and creative expression.
How much more abuse are public school educators willing to accept? Where is all of the nation-strangling reform-stopping teacher union power that demagogues rail against at election time?
When is enough enough? How can we expect you to stand between defenseless kids and the madness when you won’t even defend your paycheck, pride, or liberty? Deborah Meier is fond of saying, “Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions.”
America doesn’t need fewer unionized teachers it needs more. We don’t need weaker unions, we need to replace the Vichy leadership and get tough. We needsmore strikes too. How many kids have to die in Philadelphia schools before teachers walk out?
- You want to steal my pension? Shut the sucka down.
- You want to deny me due process rights? I hope you know how to work the ditto machine
- You want to slash the school budget to a dangerous level? The kids and I will be in the street.
- You want me to spend several months each year proctoring standardized tests? I’ll be in my car.
- Want to replace teachers with YouTube videos? I’ll trip over the power cord.
I know, most of you reading this are Americans. Ronald Reagan taught you that going out on strike makes Jesus weep and the evil doers win.
I”ve been working across Australia for decades and have gained a different perspective on teachers and protest. When a state minister of education said something that offended teachers, they shut the system down.
I know. I know. Strikes are “not allowed.” Standing up for what’s right wipe away our patina of martyrdom, However, a wise Aussie colleague of mine said that withholding one’s labor is a fundamental human and civil right. Otherwise, we are just slaves.
With more than three decades of experience inspiring educators around the world to create learning environments worthy of each child’s potential, Gary Stager is poised to bring unique and diverse expertise to your school, district, or event. Contact Gary with booking enquiries
Preparing Schools for their Students’ Future
Having taught everything from preschool through the doctoral level in some of the world’s most innovative schools, Gary brings unrivaled insights into planning, curriculum development, evaluation, technological fluency, and advocacy to schools committed to preparing students to solve problems their teachers never anticipated.
In-School Residency and teacher mentoring:
Invite Gary to mentor your teachers in their classrooms
- Models best practices in project-based learning, constructionism, thematic unit development, and learning-by-doing
- Teaches children to use computers in intellectually powerful and creatively expressive ways
Entertaining, provocative, and informative talks, complete with examples of what real students can do today in order to help educators envision what they might do someday.
Click here for a sample list of Gary’s workshop and keynote topics.
All workshops and presentations are customized for each unique audience.
What makes Gary Stager unique and worthy of your investment?
- Helps schools bring the energy, creativity, and technology of the maker movement in K-12 classrooms
- Pioneering work in 1:1 computing, robotics, and teaching children programming
- Mentors teachers in their own classrooms
- Leads in-school residencies where best practices are modeled on the teacher’s own turf
- Expert in “The Reggio Emilia Approach”
- Popular leader of parent, family, and community workshops
- Creates immersive educator institutes
- Specialist in consensus building and learning environment design
- Like S.T.E.A.M? Gary earned a Ph.D. in Science and Math Education and a Grammy Award
About Gary Stager, Ph.D.
Gary Stager is one of the world’s leading experts and advocates for computer programming, robotics and learning-by-doing in classrooms. In 1990, Dr. Stager led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools and played a major role in the early days of online education. In addition to being a popular keynote speaker at some of the world’s most prestigious education conferences, Gary is a journalist, teacher educator, consultant, professor, software developer, and school-based innovator. An elementary teacher by training, he has taught students from preschool through doctoral studies. Gary is the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute for educators. Dr. Stager’s latest book, Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom was published in May 2013 by Constructing Modern Knowledge Press. The book brings the excitement and revolutionary game-changing technologies (3D printing/ of the maker movement fabrication, computer science and physical computing) to K-12 classrooms. Learn more here.
A Not-So-Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future
© 2004 Gary S. Stager
Published by the NECC Daily Leader conference newspaper on June 22, 2004
The computer is not just an advanced calculator or camera or paintbrush; rather, it is a device that accelerates and extends our processes of thought. It is an imagination machine, which starts with the ideas we put into it and takes them farther than we ever could have taken them on our own.” (Daniel Hillis, 1998)
This is an incredibly dark period for education. Perennial challenges are now accompanied by name-calling and public policy based on “getting tough” with third graders. Perhaps decision-makers just don’t know what learning in the digital age could look like. They need to see how kids not only learn old things in new ways, but construct personal understanding of powerful ideas in a rigorous computationally-rich fashion. Computers are today’s dominant intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression.
Computers offer kids the means of production for learning via previously off-limit domains, including: music composition, filmmaking, robotics, computer science, journalism and engineering.
If only there were a place where compelling models of new educational practice could be shared… Welcome to NECC!
A few years ago, educators ceased talking about computing and started talking about technology. Suddenly computing, this remarkable invention of 20th century ingenuity, capable of transforming every intellectual domain, was dead without so much as an obituary. Conference speakers soon spoke of computers being just technology – like a zipper or Pez dispenser. This rhetorical shift liberated educators from learning to use computers, rethink the nature of curriculum or change practice to embrace the expansive opportunities afforded by computing. Information became the focus, not what kids do with computers.
In the mid-1970s my junior high required every 7th grader to learn to program a computer in nine weeks. The feelings of intellectual elation I experienced programming are indescribable. I didn’t know what was impossible so everything was possible. The computer amplified my thinking and the habits of mind I developed in Mr. Jones’ class serve me every day.
Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak enjoyed similar experiences. Imagine how the world would be different if some smart adults had not procured a mainframe and some terminals and said to Gates and Wozniak, “See what you can figure out. Have fun. Lock up when you’re done.”
How do your children’s school computing experiences compare? Do all students have access to creative tools anytime anyplace? Does the school culture inspire a thirst for knowledge and support authentic project-based work?
We’ve lowered standards when twelve year-olds in my junior high are NOW being taught to find the return key in a mandatory keyboarding class. Someday they may be “taught” to surf a filtered locked-down crippled Web incapable of downloading, rich media or collaboration all in the name of preparing them for the future. Some future.
Adults talk of how kids know so much about computers, how they are so competent, confident and fluent. Then those kids come to school and are treated like imbeciles or felons. Kid power is a gift to educators. We need to build upon those gifts and channel their students in directions they might not know exist. If kids came to school readers, we wouldn’t grunt phonemes at them. We would read better literature.
When many of us first attended NECC, we viewed the personal computer as not only a window on the future, but a microscope on the past. We knew how all sorts of learners exceed our wildest expectations when equipped with computers and constructionist software. Personal experience illuminated how the existing pencil-based curriculum was failing kids. Optimism filled the air.
Look around and you might conclude that the state-of-the-art includes: classrooms as game shows; data mining to justify standardized testing; reading as a winner-take-all race; and hysterical network security. “Technology” is being touted as a way to centralize control and breathe life into the least effective teaching practices of yore.
Widespread consensus is hard to achieve, especially on complex matters like education. Nonetheless, the educational computing community seems to have decided that our children should look forward to a future filled with testing and Microsoft Office instruction. Tests about Microsoft Office could achieve two national goals.
NECC attendees are pioneers entrusted with helping schools realize the potential of the imagination machine and as Gladwell suggests serve as the 10th Fleet in revolutionizing the context for learning. Go home and share the fabulous ideas you collect here in the Big Easy, but remember that the kids you serve expect big things from you and it won’t be easy.
Laptop Schools Lead the Way in Professional Development
Gary S. Stager is a teacher educator and adjunct professor at Pepperdine University. He has spent the past ten years working with a dozen Australian schools in which every student and teacher has a laptop computer.
Educational reform is too often equated with plugging students into anything that happens to plug in. Technology-rich Australian schools lead the way in helping teachers use technology thoughtfully.
Many educators believe that technology alone will lead to innovation and restructuring in schools. Unfortunately, they either do not include staff development in the equation, or they provide programs that do little more than ensure that teachers are able to unjam the printer or use one piece of canned instructional software.
Having developed a number of professional development models for a dozen schools in Australia and more in the United States, I believe computer-related staff development should immerse teachers in meaningful, educationally relevant projects. These activities should encourage teachers to reflect on powerful ideas and share their educational visions in order to create a culture of learning for their students. In brief, teachers must be able to connect their computer experience to constructive student use of computers.
In 1989, Methodist Ladies’ College, an independent pre-K-12 school with 2,400 students, embarked on an unparalleled learning adventure. At that time, the Melbourne school made a commitment to personal computing, LogoWriter, and constructivism. The governing principle was that all students, grades 5-12, should own a personal notebook computer on which they could work at school, at home, and across the curriculum. Ownership of the notebook computer would reinforce ownership of the knowledge constructed with it. Approximately 2,000 Methodist Ladies’ College students now have a personal notebook computer.
The school made personal computing part of its commitment to creating a nurturing learning culture. It ensured that teachers were supported in their own learning by catering to a wide range of learning styles, experiences, and interests. All involved agreed that personal computing was a powerful idea, one more important than the computers themselves. What students actually did with the computers was of paramount importance. LogoWriter was the schools’s primary software of choice. (MicroWorlds is now used.)
Dozens of Australian schools (called “laptop schools”) are now in various stages of following the lead of Methodist Ladies’ College in computing and are now using some of the professional development models created during my five years of work there.
Staff Development Innovations
Many schools find the task of getting a handful of teachers to use computers at even a superficial level daunting. The laptop schools expect their teachers not only to be comfortable with 30 notebook computers in their classroom, but also to participate actively in the reinvention of their school. In such progressive schools, staff development does not mean pouring information into teachers’ heads or training them in a few technical skills. Staff development means helping teachers fearlessly dream, explore, and invent new educational experiences for their students.
I have employed three staff development strategies – in-classroom collaboration, “slumber parties,” and build-a-book workshopsæin many laptop schools. All three model constructivism by providing meaningful contexts for learning, emphasizing collaborative problem solving and personal expression, and placing the learner (in this case the teacher) at the center of the learning experience. Each school values and respects the professionalism of the teachers by acknowledging the knowledge, skills, and experience each teacher possesses.
Several Australian laptop schools have used the in-classroom model I developed working in the Scarsdale, New York, and Wayne, New Jersey, public schools. This collaborative form of teacher development places the trainer in the teacher’s classroom to observe, evaluate, answer questions, and model imaginative ways in which the technology might be used. The collaborative spirit and enthusiasm engendered by the trainer motivates the teacher, who feels more comfortable taking risks when a colleague is there to help. Implementation is more viable because this professional development occurs on the teacher’s turf and during school hours.
Residential “Slumber Parties”
This approach allows teachers to leave the pressures of school and home behind for a few days to improve their computing skills in a carefully constructed environment designed to foster opportunities for peer collaboration, self-expression, and personal reflection, and to encourage a renewed enthusiasm for learning. These workshops have taken place at hotels, training centers, a monastery with lodging facilities, even at a school. These learner-centered workshops stress action, not rhetoric. The workshop leader serves as a catalyst, and creates opportunities for participants to connect personal reflections to their teaching. These connections are powerful when they come from the teacher’s own experienceæmuch like the types of learning opportunities we desire for students. The slumber parties use three key activities:
- Project brainstorming. Before we are even sure that the teachers know how to turn on their computers, we ask them to identify projects they wish to undertake during the workshop. The projects may be collaborative, personal, or curriculum-related, and they need not relate to the subjects they teach.
- Powerful ideas. Each day begins with a discussion of a relevant education issue or philosophical concern. Topics might include the history of Logo and your role in technological innovation (what the school has already accomplished); process approaches to learning; or personal learning stories. The topic for the final day, “What does this have to do with school?” is designed to help teachers reflect on their workshop experiences and make connections to their role as teachers.
- Problem solving off the deep end. One or two problem-solving activities are planned to demonstrate how teachers can solve complex open-ended problems through collaborative effort. These exercises help the participants to understand that not every problem has only one correct answer and that some problems may have no answers.
Slumber parties are offered on a regular basis. Because the primary goal of the workshops is to support a learning community, teachers and administrators are encouraged to participate in more than one. Participants gain appreciation for the power and expressive potential of LogoWriter. And, they are reminded that their colleagues are creative, imaginative learners like themselves.
Build-a-Book Residential Workshops
The origin for these workshops is based in the book, Build-a-Book Geometry. The book chronicles the author’s experience as a high school geometry teacher who spent an entire year encouraging his students to write their own geometry text through discovery, discussion, debate, and experimentation. It provides an exciting model for taking what teams of students know about a concept and then giving them challenges built upon their understanding or misunderstanding of it. The teacher then uses the responses to elicit a set of issues to which another team will respond, and so on. Throughout the process, each team keeps careful notes of hypotheses, processes, and conclusions, then shares these notes with the other teams during the process of writing the class book.
Healy’s ideas inspired a format that addresses confusing topics through discussion, problem solving, collaboration, and journal writing. Before the workshop, I ask each participant to identify three LogoWriter programming issues that they do not understand or that they need to have clarified. Small teams of teachers spend hours answering the questions and explaining numerous programming (and often mathematical) issues to one another. This exercise stresses the most important component of cooperative learningæinterdependence. When each group has answered all questions to its collective satisfaction, each teacher meets with a member of another team to explain what his or her group has accomplished.
Participants explore emerging questions through projectsædesigned by the leaderæthat are intended to use increasingly sophisticated skills. For example, teachers discuss the concept of programming elegance as they review student projects, and they keep careful notes of their programming processes, questions, and discoveries. These collective notes are included in the class book (disk). This disk becomes a valuable personal reference that the teachers can use in their own classrooms.
Teacher assessments of the residential workshops have been extremely positive. And, the quality of the experience makes the cost quite low when compared with the cost of providing an ongoing series of two-hour after-school workshops. Schools routinely spend much more time teaching concepts in bite-size chunks, while leaving real learning to chance.
Suggestions for Success
Following are some guidelines for successful technology implementation.
- Work with the living.
Because schools have limited technological and teacher development resources, those that do exist should be allocated prudently. If energy and resources are focused on creating a few successful models of classroom computing each year, the enthusiasm among teachers will be infectious. Of course, the selection of models must be broad enough to engage teachers of differing backgrounds and subject areas.
- Eliminate obstacles.
It should not be surprising that teachers without sufficient access to computer technology don’t embrace its use. How many workshops must a teacher attend to get a new printer ribbon? How long must a teacher wait to get enough lab time for his or her students to work on a meaningful project? The idea that schools should not buy computers before the teachers know what to do with them must be discarded.
- Stay on message.
Administrators must articulate a clear philosophy regarding how the new technology is to be used and how the culture of the school is likely to change. Communication between teachers and administrators must be honest, risk-free, and comfortable. Administrators must constantly clarify the curricular content and traditions the school values, as well as specify the outdated methodology and content that is to be eliminated. Teachers must be confident that their administrators will support them through the transitional periods.
- Work on the teacher’s turf.
Those responsible for staff development should be skilled in classroom implementation and should work alongside the teacher to create models of constructive computer use. It is important for teachers to see what students can do; this is difficult to accomplish in a brief workshop at the end of a long workday.
- Plan off-site institutes.
Schools must ensure that teachers understand the concepts of collaborative problem solving, cooperative learning, and constructivism. Accordingly, teachers must have the opportunity to leave behind the pressures of family and school for several days in order to experience the art of learning with their colleagues. Off-site residential “whole learning” workshops can have a profoundly positive effect on a large number of teachers in a short period of time.
- Provide adequate resources.
Nothing dooms the use of technology in the classroom more effectively than lack of support. Administrators can support teacher efforts by providing and maintaining the technology requested and by providing access to a working printer and a supply of blank disks.
- Avoid software du jour.
Many educators feel considerable pressure to constantly find something new to do with their computers. Unfortunately, this newness is equated with amassing more and more software. It is reckless and expensive to jump on every software bandwagon. The use of narrow, skill-specific software provides little benefit to students. Choose an open-ended environment, such as MicroWorlds, in which students can express themselves in many ways that may also converge with the curriculum.
- Practice what you preach.
Staff development experiences should be engaging, interdisciplinary, collaborative, heterogeneous, and models of constructivist learning.
- Celebrate initiative.
Recognize teachers who have made a demonstrated commitment to educational computing. Free them from some duties so they can assist colleagues in their classrooms; encourage them to lead workshops; and give them access to additional hardware.
- Offer in-school sabbaticals.
Provide innovative teachers with the in-school time and the resources necessary to develop curriculum and to conduct action research.
- Share learning stories.
Encourage teachers to reflect on significant personal learning experiences. Encourage them to share these experiences with their colleagues and to discuss the relationship between their own learning and their classroom practices. Formal action research projects and informal get-togethers are both effective. Teachers routinely relate that their most beneficial professional development experience is the opportunity to talk with peers.
- Help teachers purchase technology.
Schools should help fund 50-80 percent of a teacher’s purchase of a personal computer. This support demonstrates to teachers a shared commitment to educational progress. Partial funding gives teachers the flexibility to purchase the right computer configuration. Consider offering an annual stipend for upgrades and peripherals.
- Cast a wide net.
No one approach to staff development works for all teachers. Provide a combination of traditional workshops, in-classroom collaborations, mentoring, conferences, and whole-learning residential workshops from which teachers can choose.
Although many administrators dream of providing only a handful of computers in their schools, the reality of what is happening in schools across Australia requires serious consideration. Universal computing is in our future, and staff development programs must be geared to that fact. Modern staff development must help teachers not only embrace the technology, but also anticipate the classroom change that will accompany widespread use.
We must recognize that the only constant on which we can depend is the teacher. Our schools will only be as good as the least professional teacher. Staff development must enhance professionalism and empower teachers to improve the lives of their students. Our children deserve no less.