May 2016

I spent this morning in the company of extraordinary women. First, I was delighted to attend the National Center for Women in IT keynote address “Intersectionality & Diversity in Computing: Key Dilemmas and What to Do About Them.” by one of my sheroes, Professor Melissa Harris-Perry. Next, I attended a talk by Mimi Ito about how the intersection of youth and digital culture were converging with traditional opportunities to create greater social capital, particularly among underserved populations. At the end of her session, my friend Cynthia Solomon (recipient of the NCWIT Pioneer Award last night), raised an important issue. She expressed concern about how Minecraft charges users and therefore makes it inaccessible to poor children. Dr. Ito agreed about the financial barrier to participation and said that important people, such as herself, were asking Microsoft, the owners of Minecraft, to make the software free. The audience was pleased with that response.

This might surprise you, but I disagree. Schools, teachers, and kids should pay for software.

Software does not grow on trees. It is created by artists, programmers, writers, designers, and engineers who need and deserve to feed their families, just like the humble teacher. The continuous devaluing of software, along with other media, profits no one in the short-term and giant corporations in the long-run. This phenomena not only harms the earning potential of creators, but ensures that educators will be deprived of high quality tools and materials. Sorry, but you get what you pay for.

I know what you’re thinking. We’re just poor teachers. Our budgets are slashed to the bone. We fundraise for crayons. Software is ephemeral. We should not have to pay for it like when we happily purchase “real” things; flash cards, interactive white boards, or that hall pass timer that reminds kids to poop faster.

There have only been a handful of truly innovative software programs ever created for learning (MicroWorlds, The Zoombinis, Geometer’s Sketchpad, Rocky’s Boots, LogoWriter, Inspire Data, My Make Believe Castle, Broderbund’s Science Toolkit) over the past three decades. That development pipeline has rusted over while software becomes “free.”*

Inspired by Dr. Harris-Perry’s address, I suggest that we are looking at the Minecraft cost issue from the wrong perspective. The problem is not that Minecraft (or even better more educative software) isn’t free, but that schools are so poorly funded they cannot afford to pay for what they need.

Fix the funding system! Make Silicon Valley pay their fair share of taxes! Give teachers discretionary funds for classroom activities! Change the tax code to allow teachers to deduct classroom materials from their income tax! Don’t destroy the handful of creative companies who create great materials for children.

Don’t tell me that you’re preparing kids for S.T.E.M. jobs while demanding free software!

The High Cost of Free

Aside from the vulgarity of Donors Choose, the most unattractive example of teacher dependency and low self-esteem is the desire to become corporate certified. What’s next? Should teachers where festive holiday sweaters affixed with corporate sponsor logos like NASCAR drivers or Happy Meals? If not, then why the rush to advertise your corporate affiliation on your blog, Twitter profile, or CV?

Google is not your friend. They are a giant corporation selling users and their data to other corporate customers. That doesn’t bother me 10 percent as much as the spectacle of educators begging for corporate affection.

Go ahead. Name a single educational idea or value Google has added to educational practice. Cheap, free, and easy are not powerful ideas. There is nothing progressive in using cloud-based versions of office software or denatured half computers in the form of Chromebooks. Why should any educator care what Google thinks about teaching or learning?

Google certification is particularly embarrassing. I do not understand why any “professional” educator would parade around in an “I can use The Google and type a memo” sash. Such educators are uncompensated evangelists and walking billboards for Google, perhaps at their own peril.

The price of integrity must be more than “free” photo storage or use of a Web-based word processor.

Don’t believe me? Read Maria Schneider’s Open Letter to YouTube, “Pushers” of Piracy. Really read it. Read it again. Think about it. Share it.

Ms. Schneider is neither a crank or Luddite. She is a spectacularly talented composer who earned the first ever Grammy Award for an Internet crowd-funded project. In her article, she details how Alphabet/Google/YouTube profits from piracy, protects pirates, demonizes artists, and strong-arms creators into entering self-destructive business arrangements. Like other corporate bullies. Alphabet/Google/YouTube hides behind lobbyists while portraying themselves as martyrs.

Teachers need to stand with creators, not Google. If teachers do not view themselves as “content creators,” then they should be reminded that there are powerful corporate interests who would like to replace them with YouTube videos and a Web-based comprehension quiz.

Don’t stand with Google! (or any other company)
Schmoozing with salespeople does not and should not define you as an educator. Stand with and on the shoulders of other great educators. Be content to be a customer, never the product or a prop.


Footnote
* Next time you are told that “The Cloud is free,” ask how much money your school/district is paying to employ IT personnel who guard, monitor, secure, or block it. How much does all that extra bandwidth cost? What can’t children do or learn while waiting for “The cloud” to have the functionality of a 5-10 year-old PC?

I am a teacher because I delight in being in the company of nutty kids.
 
Today, I was at a school in Tasmania where I last worked nearly 20 years ago. The campus has 714 flights of stairs and my giant classroom was at the top of them. I was a bit nervous because they wanted me to work with 70 or so 6th and 7th graders on redesigning their school.
 
Since form follows function, I decided that we should spend a good deal of time thinking about the status quo and the future of learning. We did this through outrageous videos, polling, data analysis, and experimenting with my favorite unsolved number theory problem. I introduced them to Big Picture Schools, Frank Gehry preparing architects without instruction, and my friend Pete Nelson, the Treehouse Master (since that’s not a career school prepares you for). I asked them to think of wild, but not silly, ideas about the future of schools. They broke up into teams to design and build models of future learning environments.
 
The moment to begin had arrived and a kid sat alone at my table at the front of the room. At first I assumed he was a naughty kid forced to sit alone at the front of the room, but he just chose to. I could tell that the kid was listening, but he was also drawing continuously on any surface he could find. The kid seemed truly loved by the teachers I spoke with.
 
He wasn’t big on collaboration or brainstorming. So, I handed him a copy of The Language of School Design and asked him to look through it for interesting ideas he could share with his class later in the day. He inserted bookmarks as quickly as I could tear paper scraps for him. At one point in the chaos, he asked if I had headphones he could wear to listen to music.
 
I immediately thought of my great friend Peter Reynolds‘ stories of how a math teacher observed him drawing and invited Pete to make math films. Peter often talks about how that single kind gesture changed his life and made him the successful artist, author, and animator he is today.
 
So, I emailed Pete with the subject: Kid in Tasmania needs your help…
 
I asked if he would speak with the kid via email or Skype.
 
Pete wrote back right away and agreed to chat with the kid. He told me to say Howdy. When I showed the message to the kid, he literally jumped in the air and asked if he could show the email to all of his friends. I had asked a librarian to get me copies of books Pete wrote or illustrated so I could show the kid. He was already quite familiar with Pete’s work.
 
During a discussion of how we might improve education in the future, my young friend made a quite articulate case for teachers to respect kids who draw all of the time (paraphrasing, but he used the words drawing and respect).
 
Throughout the day, the kid asked me on several occasions if it was time to present his research to the class.
 
As the day was winding down, I inserted two slides into my deck:
  1. The best time of the day is… (open doorway animation)
  2. MaX Time!!!!!! (and it was time for the kid to share his architectural findings)
He was neither nervous or embarrassed by my Fozzie Bear-like introduction and managed to find some of the pages he bookmarked in order to tell us why he thought those architectural ideas were worthy of consideration.
 
At the end of the day, he shook my hand and said, “Thank you ever so much for everything today.”
 
It doesn’t get any better than that.


After six hours of working with the hordes of kids, I was driven to the primary school campus to lead a wearable electronics workshops for 30 or so kids and their parents. But, that’s a whole other set of stories…

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Since I know nothing about NCAA basketball, I’ll congratulate Villanova and tell a personal anecdote about my connection to the team.

Five or so years ago, I got hired to do a keynote at an education conference held at Villanova. I arrived several hours early, just in time to realize that I would be speaking in their basketball arena and following a speech by their (apparently beloved and talented) basketball coach.

I thought to myself, “How the hell am I supposed to follow a god-like basketball coach on his home court?”  I crafted an opening joke that I still think is a killer. I may have even tested the joke on friends before my time to speak.

I opened my keynote address by saying, “I’d like to dedicate this presentation to all of the kids who had special gym.”*

Man, did that joke bomb!


* I had special gym for a couple of years during elementary school

I just received the following email from my nephew, a conscientious and excellent student currently enrolled at an East Coast university costing $68,000/year – before textbooks, etc…

The subject line in the email was PISSED

Since I know how much you love Pearson…

I’m taking a math course and an accounting course this term, each requires the completion of weekly online homework assignments. In order to gain access to these assignments, each student must make an account using a course ID so that our scores will automatically be sent to the professors, and purchase access to the e-books online. The accounting textbook is McGraw-Hill, and the math book is Pearson.

Each e-book will cost me $100, only because we are required to use these websites for our homework. I’m literally buying homework.

I thought Pearson’s death-grip on my throat was over, but alas…

Click to enlarge image

It is worth noting that all of my nephew’s other coursework thus far has been project-based and authentic.

OF COURSE, a required math course and math-adjacent “Accounting,” rely on the same-old shitty “answer the odd numbered questions” alternative to an actual productive education experience. This is not a small point.

As Seymour Papert told me, [paraphrase] “If you are not concerned that not a single progressive development in education has had an impact on ‘math,” it means ultimately that no matter what else your school does to make education relevant, there is some part of the day or week where you introduce coercion, irrelevance, and misery into the system.” This coercion is corrosive and ultimately undermines any other learner-centered efforts. As I like to say, “the weeds will always kill the flowers.”

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Invent To Learn Workshops for Families

Gary Stager and his Constructing Modern Knowledge teammates love working with children and their parents. These hands-on and minds-on workshops create exciting learning experiences in which parents come to value learning-by-making. The emphasis is on action, creative expression, and hard fun! Parents who participate in these workshops become advocates for classroom making and project-based learning.

AAB_0128Teachers may participate and even bring their own kids. Schools only need to provide a small number of laptop or desktop computers, a projector and screen.

We provide all of the materials necessary for centers featuring the following maker activities:

  • Cardboard construction
  • Wearable computing and e-Textiles (make interactive clothes and jewelry with LEDs, conductive thread and more!)
  • Arduino microcontrollers
  • LEGO WeDo robotics
  • Art, mathematics, and computer programming via Turtle Art
  • Interactive greeting cards
  • Floor turtles
  • Little Bits and other electronic construction kits
  • Hummingbird and Finch robotics construction kits
  • Discounted copies of the book, Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, may be provided, one per family, for an additional fee.

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Check out our book, toy, and kit recommendations for creative families!

book now
photos courtesy of American School of Bombay

Hate to be a killjoy, but I just looked at one of the Code.org activities for programming turtle graphics in App Lab.

As someone who has taught various dialects of Logo to kids and teachers for 34+ years, I was horrified by the missed learning opportunities and design of the activity. My concerns are in lesson/interface design and lost learning opportunities.

https://studio.code.org/s/cspunit3/stage/2/puzzle/1

First of all, you connect any blocks and then hit Next. It doesn’t matter if you solve the actual problem posed or not.

Second and MUCH more importantly, ALL of the power and intellectual nutritional value of turtle geometry is sacrificed in order to teach a much simpler lesson in snapping blocks together in service of “efficiency.”

The power of turtle geometry is well – geometry, also measurement, and number. There are no numerical inputs to the turtle geometry blocks and all of the turns are in 90 degree increments.

The use of Javascript (presumably the blocks were added to the environment for this exercise and are not actual primitives) adds needless and confusing punctuation to the command structure WITHOUT the benefit of allowing users to change the input to FD or LT. Therefore, any opportunity to explore powerful mathematical ideas

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Logo and are celebrating the 35th anniversary of the publication of Mindstorms – Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, it sure would be nice if Code.org would learn some fundamental lessons of children, computers, and powerful ideas instead of depriving kids of an opportunity to learn mathematics while learning computer science.

Discussion:

Since posting the above statement to a CS discussion forum on Facebook, Hadi Partook – founder of Code.org responded as follows.

Gary, the goal of this course isn’t to teach turtle programming. Most of the students in our course sequence would have done that years earlier. This is a high school course to introduce students to JavaScript (including the syntax) and making apps. It begins with a few turtle stages because turtle programming would be familiar to these students as a concept fully explored in our CS Fundamentals courses – including all the geometric glory you mention, and problems that tell you whether you solved them or not. In our high school course the theme isn’t “solving puzzles” because it’s about “making apps,” with just a few turtle examples to carry forward from something students already know.

Hadi, I wish I shared your optimism that kids in your high school courses had experience with turtle geometry. I found the design of this unit clickable with very little nutritional value, especially since its web-based design implies little teacher interaction or scaffolding. If the turtle “blocks” used in the example are merely an exercise in sequencing, then they need no punctuation on them whatsoever. If I desired to change the angle or linear units, there was no way to do so (at least no way obvious to me).
Therefore, from a design perspective, there are several problems with the lesson. They include:
  • Low engagement
  • Limits on student creativity, exploration, and tinkering
  • A missed opportunity for students to learn/use mathematical ideas while learning Javascript
I am NOT asking that the lessons yell at kids for being wrong or test them along the way. That would make things worse.

My pal Will Richardson asked me to respond to news that the Florida legislature (ground zero for destructive education policies) has passed a bill allowing high school students to substitute “coding” courses for foreign language requirements. (see Florida Senate approves making coding a foreign language)

If you are a toddler learning English as a second language between binge watching seasons of Glitter Force, it’s easy to see how “coding” in a programming language and literacy in a foreign language are equivalent.

For adult legislators entrusted with governance, this policy means two things:

  1. They have no idea what computer coding is.
    • When policy makers say that students should “understand” technology or refer to technology as a “basic skill,” they reveal a profound ignorance of computer science and have reduced a powerful intellectual pursuit to the level of a bicycle safety assembly or “don’t copy that floppy” poster.
  2. They are finally willing to admit that they don’t give a rat’s ass about teaching foreign language.
    • This may also be a tacit recognition that high school foreign language instruction is mostly torturous and unsuccessful.

When Will tweeted me about the news, a fellow twitterit asked, “Why music can’t satisfy foreign language requirements?” While, there is no greater advocate for music education than myself, this newfound willingness to substitute one discipline for a completely unrelated required course is an admission that all course requirements should be abolished. There is so little consensus on what matters. And that may be a very good thing.


Related articles:

The Atlantic featured a really good piece of reflection on the lost art of teaching by the great magician Teller, half of Penn and Teller.

 

“The first job of a teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject. That doesn’t have to be done by waving your arms and prancing around the classroom; there’s all sorts of ways to go at it, but no matter what, you are a symbol of the subject in the students’ minds.”
– Teller

 

This fits nicely with my oft-repeated statement, “Schools have an obligation to introduce children to things they don’t yet know they love.”

Americans have a nutty notion that experts are bad teachers. My experience is quite to the contrary. You become an expert by obsessively focusing on often tiny, yet continuous growth. That precision and focus is easy converted into an ability to explain a learning process.

 

 Read Teaching: Just Like Performing Magic
With Teller and the Criss Angel of Chicago, David Jakes

With Teller and the Criss Angel of Chicago, David Jakes

Using Computers as Creative Tools
The debate about technology’s place in classrooms might vanish if the machines are used to expand students’ self-expression
Be sure to read to bottom!


A version of this column appeared in the March 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine.

I recently attended attended Apple Computer CEO Steve Job’s keynote address at the annual Macworld Conference in San Francisco. Amidst the demonstrations of OS X, the launch of the sexy new Titanium Powerbook and the obligatory race between a Pentium IV and Macintosh G4 (you can guess which won), Jobs said some things that I believe will be critically important to the future of computing.

Quotations from the CEOs of Gateway and Compaq decrying the death of the personal computer were rebuffed by Jobs who not only asserted that the PC is not dead, but that we are entering a new age of enlightenment. Steve Jobs declared that the personal computer is now “the digital hub for the digital lifestyle.”

While everyone is excited about new handheld organizers, video cameras, cell phones and MP3 players, these devices not only require a personal computer for installing software, backing up files and downloading media – they are made more powerful by the PC. The personal computer is the only electronic device (at least for the foreseeable future) capable of multimedia playback, supercomputer-speed calculations and massive data storage. Most importantly, the personal computer is required for those who wish to create, rather than be passive recipients of bits generated by others.

Jobs discussed how video cameras are cool, but iMovie makes them much more powerful. Boxes full of videotapes are no longer lost in the attic, because you can easily produce edited movies shareable with friends, relatives and the world. Jobs then launched iDVD, Apple’s stunning new technical breakthrough that allows anyone to create their own DVDs in minutes. Think about what this could mean in a classroom! Class plays, science experiments and sporting events could be shared with the community and playable with state-of-the-art quality on the home television. Video case studies of best practice can be used in teacher education complete with digital quality audio/video. Zillions of digital photos and scanned images of student work can be assembled as portfolios stored on one disk and viewed anywhere.

A company representative from Alias Wavefront was brought to the stage to demonstrate their software package, Maya. Maya is the 3D graphics tool used by George Lucas to make the most recent Star Wars film and by all of last year’s Oscar nominees for best special effects to work their artistic magic. The quick demo showed how a flower paintbrush could be chosen and with the wave of the mouse flowers could be drawn in 3D on the computer screen. These were no ordinary flowers though. The software knew to make each flower slightly different from the others, as they would appear in nature. The software also knew how they would behave if wind were to be added to the scene. Clouds drawn knew to move behind the mountains. Until now, Maya required a specially configured graphics workstation. It now runs on a Macintosh G4. While the software is currently too expensive for most kindergarten classrooms, it occurred to me that the world will be a much cooler place when five year-olds can use Kid-Pix-level fluency to create with the same tools as George Lucas. Perhaps then they will stop blowing up their Kid-Pix creations and express themselves through film.

Jobs argued that iMovie makes video cameras more powerful and iDVD enhances the value of both the video camera and DVD player. Therefore, the personal computer not only powers digital devices, but empowers our lives. This is a profoundly liberating and enabling vision for society.

As I left the auditorium I thought, “Steve Jobs really gets it!” However my admiration for his vision and desire for the new “toys” was quickly tempered by thoughts regarding the imagination gap guiding the use of computers in schools. Not once did Jobs compare the PC to the pencil or refer to it as a tool for getting work done. No standards for computer-use were offered. Instead, he challenged us to view the computer as a way of inspiring a renaissance of human potential.

Just Make Something
The personal computer is the most powerful, expressive and flexible instrument ever invented. It has transformed nearly every aspect of society, yet schools remain relatively untouched. Rather than be led by technological advances to rethink models of schooling, schools and the software industry have chosen to use computers to drill for multiple-choice tests, play games and find answers to questions available in reference books via the Internet. While the Internet is an incredibly powerful and handy reference tool, it’s real potential lies in its ability to democratize publishing and offer unprecedented opportunities for collaboration and communication. The dominant practice is to restrict or forbid this openness through filtering software, acceptable-use policies and overzealous network administrators. When the paradigm for Internet use is “looking stuff up” it should come as no surprise that kids are going to look at inappropriate content.

The results of this imagination paralysis are too numerous to mention. The hysteria over Internet use, growing disenchantment with schooling and calls to reduce tech funding are clearly the consequences of our inability to create more explicit, creative and public models of computers being used by children to learn in magnificent ways. The recent dubious report, Fool’s Gold, by the Alliance for Childhood, takes aim at school computer-use by illustrating the trivial and thoughtless ways computers are used in schools. A moment of candor requires us to admit that most of their criticisms are valid. Schools do use computers in dopey ways. However, that is not a legitimate argument for depriving kids of the opportunity to learn and express themselves with computers. It is however an indictment of the narrow ways in which schools use technolology. Experts advocating the use of handheld devices as “the perfect K-12 computer” so that students may take notes or have homework assignments beamed to them are cheating our young people out of rich learning adventures.

It’as if schools have forgotten what computers do best. Computers are best at making things – all sorts of things. Educational philosophers including Dewey, Piaget, Papert, Vygotsky, Gardner have been telling us forever that the best way to learn is through the act of making things, concrete and abstract. The PC is an unparalleled intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression yet schools seem ill-equipped or disinclined to seize that potential.

Kids can now express their ideas through film-making, web broadcasting, MIDI-based music composition and synchronous communication. They can construct powerful ideas (even those desired by the curriculum) through robotics, simulation design and computer programming.

While there is much rhetoric about kids making things with computers, those projects tend to reinforce old notions of teaching. Hyperstudio book reports or databases containing the pets owned by classmates are not what I have in mind. Kids should make authentic things borne of their curiosity, interests and reflecting the world in which they live.

I cannot imagine that the critics of public education and the investment in educational technology would object to kids using computers in such authentic, deeply intellectual and creative ways. Rather than creating unproductive standards for computer use, educational computing organizations should be building, documenting and sharing compelling models of how computers may be used to inspire joyful learning throughout the land.

Seymour Papert has proposed that we “view the computer as material.” This material may be used in countless wonderful and often unpredictable ways. Teachers are naturally gifted with materials of all sorts and the computer should be part of that mix. This change in focus should reap rewards for years to come.

We can do good and do well by exercising a bit more creativity. We can neutralize our critics and move education forward if we shift our focus towards using school computers for the purpose of constructing knowledge through the explicit act of making things. Children engaged in thoughtful projects might impress citizens desperate for academic rigor. Emphasizing the use of computers to make things will make life easier for teachers, more exciting for learners and lead schools into this golden age. [Emphasis 2016]

Scanned PDF of the original article