Marvin Minsky & Gary Stager

One great joy of my life has been getting to know and work with so many of my heroes/sheroes. Even greater satisfaction comes from sharing those people with my fellow educators, via books, presentations, and the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute.

Over dinner thirty years ago, one of my mentors, Dan Watt dropped some wisdom on me when he said, “writing is hard.” Writing is hard. I find sitting down to write is even harder. The reward of writing is your work being read by others, especially when readers report thinking differently as a result. Even the “hate mail” I received as a magazine columnist and editor made the agony of writing worthwhile.

While proud of many things I have written, three pieces stand out as enormous honors. Being asked by the science journal of record, Nature, to author the obituary of my friend and mentor, Dr. Seymour Papert, was a difficult challenge and great privilege. Learning later that the great Alan Kay recommended me for the assignment took my breath away. I will remain forever grateful for his confidence in my ability to eulogize our mutual friend in such an august journal.

On two other occasions, I have been invited to contribute to books by my heroes. A few years ago, the prolific progressive author and educator, Herb Kohl, asked me to write a response piece to the great musician, David Amram, for the book, The Muses Go to School: Inspiring Stories About the Importance of Arts in Education. My fellow contributors include Bill T. Jones, Bill Ayers, Whoopi Goldberg, Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Lisa Delpit, Maxine Greene, and others. Many readers may be unaware of my music studies and the fact that my career began as a public school arts advocate. Sharing anything, let alone a book, with the remarkable Herbert Kohl remains a source of enormous pride. This is an important book that should receive greater attention.

I first met Artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, in the late 1980s. I cannot say that I spent a great deal of time with him over the subsequent decades, but anyone who ever encountered Marvin can testify to the impact that I had on them, perhaps down to the molecular level. The fact that Marvin agreed to spend time leading a fireside chat with any interested educator at the first eight Constructing Modern Knowledge institutes continues to blow my mind. I will forever cherish his wit, wisdom, friendship, and generosity.

Inventive Minds: Marvin Minsky on Education is a brand new book based on essays by Dr. Marvin Minsky, one of the great scientists, inventors, and intellectuals of the past century. Our mutual friend, Dr. Cynthia Solomon, a hugely important figure in her own right, edited a text in which important essays by Minsky were assembled and responded to by an amazing collection of Marvin’s friends. One of Marvin’s proteges, Xiao Xiao, illustrated the book. The contributors to this book include:

  • Co-inventor of the Logo programming language, Cynthia Solomon
  • Father of the personal computer, Alan Kay
  • Legendary computer science professor, author, and pioneer of the Open Courseware movement, Hal Abelson
  • Former Director the MIT Media Laboratory, Walter Bender
  • Artificial intelligence pioneer and MIT professor, Patrick Henry Winston
  • Software engineer, inventor, and executive, Brian Silverman
  • Software engineer, Mike Travers
  • Haptics engineer and scientist, Margaret Minsky
  • Me

I can’t speak for my contribution, but am confident that Inventive Minds will stimulate a great deal of thought and dialogue among you and your colleagues. Buy the book and enjoy some great summer reading!


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

Long ago, a wise friend told me that 90% of education research is bullshit. As I mature, I realize that estimate is far too modest. Social media and the nonsense masquerading as education journalism have become inundated with a flaming brown paper bag full of articles out to prove that phonics[1]and penmanship instruction[2]are crucial 21stCentury skills[3], class size does not matter[4][5], constructivism is a failed pedagogical strategy[6], there are no learning styles[7], not everyone “needs to code,”[8]all kids need to be above the norm[9][10], and that standardized testing is objective, reliable, and valid[11].

If you believe any of these things, then I would love to tell you that the Common Core State [education] Standards were “written by the nation’s governors.” No seriously; they expect us to believe that crap. I for one would love to see Chris Christie’s notes from his curriculum development meetings. “Time for some BrainPop on the GW Bridge!”

When brightly colored infographics and Venn diagrams with nothing in the intersection of the rings fail to convince you to panic, the purveyors of hysteria wave their interactive white board pen and recite the magic word, “SCIENCE!”

SCIENCE is the new FINLAND!

Wish to justify the curious epidemic of learning disabilities, just yell, “SCIENCE!” Want to medicate kids when your curriculum fails to sedate them? SCIENCE! Care to cut salaries and slash electives? SCIENCE will prove that playing the bassoon will never get you a high-paying job at Google passing out t-shirts at tradeshows like the niece of your mom’s hairdresser. (Someone should set that last paragraph to music. Lin-Manuel, call me!)

Aside from the ISIS-like fanaticism defending phonics or penmanship systems, two recent “studies” reveal the quality of SCIENCE rushing through the body education like sugar-free gummy bears. “Study Shows Classroom Decor Can Distract From Learning,” about the value of bare walls on kindergartener’s recall, and “Kids perform better during boring tasks when dressed as Batman.” No, seriously. Those are real. Someone undoubtedly earned an EdD and parking space at Southern North Dakota Community College for such drivel.

The mere stench of SCIENCE associated with such studies goes unchallenged and serves as fantastic clickbait for a myriad of school discipline conventions. (Seriously, this is a real thing.) Why doesn’t anyone ask why babies are taking bubble tests or should be subjected to ugly classrooms? Surely, the National Science Foundation is funding replication studies to determine if five-year-olds dressed as Superman or Queen Elsa are more easily tricked into wasting their formative years on meaningless tasks? [12]

It just isn’t sufficiently SCIENTIFIC for children to enjoy happy, healthy, creative, productive, and playful childhoods. Move along young Batman. Nothing to see here. Wet your pants again? You might be dyslexic.

SCIENCE is only ever used to sustain the mythology or comfort of adults. The only time educators are ever asked to provide “evidence” is to justify something kids like – laptops, recess, band, making things…

The burden of proof is quite different for defending the status quo. What was the last time you heard anyone ask for evidence to support homework, 42-minute class periods, Algebra II, AP classes, textbooks, worksheets, times tables, interactive white boards, or the countless forms of coercion, humiliation, and punishment visited on students daily?

You know where else you find very little actual science? In Science class where the vast majority of the curriculum is concerned with vocabulary memorization or historical reenactments and very few students do science by engaging in the habits of a scientist.

At a recent gathering, three generations of people shared what they remembered from their high school science classes. The most vivid memories consisted of starting fires, causing explosions, noxious fumes, throwing test tubes out a window while exclaiming, “I’m Zeus,” or killing things (plants, the class rat, time). In SCIENTIFIC terms, 0.000000003% of the official science curriculum is retained after Friday’s quiz.

Another way of providing nutrients to the sod of education rhetoric is to sprinkle highfalutin terms like, metacognition, everywhere. This form of scientism takes a little understood concept and demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of it as a vehicle for justifying more memorization, teacher compliance, or producing the illusion of student agency. Don’t even get me started about the experts incapable of discerning the difference between teaching and learning or the bigshots who think learning is a noun.

Free advice: Forbes, the McKinsey Group, anyone associated with Clayton Christensen, TED Talks and EdSurge are not credible sources on education reform, pedagogy, or learning theory even if they accidentally confirm our own biases once in a while. They are libertarian hacks hell-bent on dismantling public education. It is also a good rule of thumb to steer clear of any source containing “ED,” “topia,” “mentum,” “vation,” “mind,” “brain,” “institute,” or “ology” in their title.

When you get right down to it, many of the questionable educational practices seeking justification from SCIENCE seek to promote simplistic mechanical models of complex processes that are in actuality much harder to distill or even impossible to comprehend. To those seeking to justify phonics instruction, a simple input-output diagram is preferable to the more likely hypothesis that reading is natural. Learning is not the direct result of having been taught.

Note: This is a deliberate provocation intended to challenge a phenomenon in education rather than engage in a hot-tempered battle of dueling research studies. Don’t bother to ask me for evidence to support my claims since I’m trading in common sense and honestly do not care if you agree with me. Seriously.

Of course, there are studies widely available to validate my outrageous blather, but I am under no obligation to identify them for you unless you grant me a cushy tenure track position, medical insurance, and a pension. If this article upsets you, my powers of persuasion are inadequate to change your mind anyway.

Endnotes:

[1]If everyone learns to read through the direct instruction of a fixed sequence 43 different sounds, how do you explain students learning to read in China, Japan, Israel or any other language without phonemes?

[2]These studies always “prove” the importance of medieval chores by pointing to test score increases (memorization). How many children are misdiagnosed with learning disabilities for confusing the ability to express themselves (writing) with the way in which they use a pencil (writing)? If penmanship is so precious, teach it in art class as a craft or as a PE activity prior to the prehistoric high school IB exams.

[3]I refrain from citing the pernicious and ubiquitous “studies” I mock with such utter contempt because I do not wish to give them any more oxygen.

[4]See the amoral work of John Hattie. He also determined that desegregation doesn’t matter for student achievement. Basic concepts of right and wrong are of no consequence for such purveyors of SCIENCE!

[5]Bill Gates loves larger classes too (except for his children) – https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/02/bill-gates-big-idea-to-fix-us-education-bigger-classes/71797/

[6]Constructivism is not a pedagogical trick, it is a scientific learning theory. Those who doubt constructivism are like flat earthers or climate change deniers. Science has nothing to do with their beliefs.

[7]Go ahead; argue that humans do not learn differently. The anti-learning styles crowd confuses teacher intervention with learning.

[8]Addressed this issue in this podcast.

[9]Hillary Clinton promised to close all schools below average – https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/12/23/hillary-clinton-may-want-to-close-every-public-school-in-america-according-to-math/?utm_term=.623a9f0ad161

[10]No Child Left Behind demanded that all schools meet norm-reference standards by 2014 – [10]https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/10/11/354931351/it-s-2014-all-children-are-supposed-to-be-proficient-under-federal-law

[11]See all education policy

[12]My friend Alfie Kohn does a fantastic job dismantling the quality of such “SCIENCE” in this article. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/06/05/the-education-question-we-should-be-asking/


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

The following is a non-exhaustive collection of resources intended to inform educators interested in open education, open plan classrooms, and other forms of learner-centered environments. It only recommends resources found on the Internet. You should of course read John Holt, Loris Malaguzzi, Herb Kohl, A.S. Neill, Lillian Weber, Jonathan Kozol, Paulo Friere, David Perkins, David Hawkins, James Herndon, John Dewey and many others… Consider this an introduction to open education.

Vintage Videos from the 1970s


A documentary on open education and open plan schools.


A Southern United States community commits to open education in an old public primary school.
This video blows my mind.


Herbert Kohl, a pioneer of open education featured in this documentary on the early days of whole language and open education.

A Seminal Book

The Open Classroom by Herbert Kohl
This short book launched the open education movement in the United States

But how do they learn to read?

Reading by Frank Smith
A seminal text on natural approaches to literacy

But how do they learn math/maths?

Seymour Papert’s Mathland

Constance Kamii Videos

Double-Column Addition

Multiplication of Two-digit Numbers

Multidigit Division

Making Change – The difficulty of constructing “tens” solidly

Constance Kamii Direct vs Indirect Ways of Teaching Number Concepts at Ages 4-6
A comprehensive lecture explaining Piagetian ideas showing that although number concepts cannot be taught directly, they can be taught indirectly by encouraging children to think.

Kamii Games for Developing Number Sense


Constance Kamii and Lillian Katz “Defending the Early Years” panel

Other FABULOUS Inspirational Videos with Implications for Open Education


I remember seeing this live when it aired in 1991. There is rarely any coverage of education this sensible on television.


The late Bev Bos – “Starting at Square One”


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

In August 2018, I delivered the opening keynote address at the Constructionism Conference in Vilnius, Lithuania. When invited to speak at the conference nearly eighteen months earlier, I felt pressured to share the topic of my address quickly. Since I do some of my best work as a wiseass, I offered the title, “Making Constructionism Great Again.” Over the ensuing months, my tongue-in-cheek title began resonating and formed the basis for what I believe to be one of my favorite keynotes ever. (Sadly, I will unlikely ever give the presentation again. Therefore, I will not have the opportunity to improve upon my performance)

Despite the title I selected, I accepted the sober challenge of making an important contribution to the conference. After all, this is a community I care about, a topic I have dedicated my adult life to, in the home of my ancestors. Due to a family emergency, the speaker scheduled before me had to fly home and my talk got moved earlier in the schedule at the last minute. That meant that some of the people I hoped would hear my message, missed it. I rarely write a speech with specific audience members in mind, but I did in this case.

A bit of background

The Constructionism Conference is held every two years, almost always in Europe. The conference prior to Vilnius was in Thailand, but that was the only time the conference was outside of Europe. For close to three decades, the conference was called, EuroLogo, and was a biennial event celebrating the use of the Logo programming language in education. In 2008, the long-time organizers of the conference worried that interest in Logo was waning and that shifting the emphasis to constructionism (1) would broaden the appeal and attract more participants. It has not. Communities begin to die when they become self-conscious. There is nothing wrong with “preaching to the converted.” There are quite successful institutions that preach to the converted. Its members find strength, nourishment, and purpose in gathering.

In my humble opinion, the problem lies within the fact that the European Logo community, and this is a generalization, focused more narrowly on the fascinating mathematical or computational aspects of the Logo programming language separate and apart from its more radical use as an instrument of school reform, social justice, and epistemology. Logo’s father and inventor of “constructionism,” Dr. Seymour Papert was a noted mathematician and computer scientist who did invent the first programming language for children, but limiting the enormity of his vision to that would be like one of his favorite parables about the blind men and the elephant.

To me, the Constructionism/EuroLogo community has been focused on what is measurable and earns academic credit for those seeking job security in university systems proud of their ongoing medieval traditions. Although I have great friends who I love, respect, and adore within this somewhat dysfunctional family, I am never sure what they make of the loud American kid who works with thousands of teachers each year and doesn’t give a damn about publishing journal articles read by 3.1415927 people.

I go to the Constructionism Conference every two years because it is important to sustain the community and ideally to help it mature. If it became more popular or influential along the way, that would be a bonus. This speech was intended as a bit of unsolicited tough love, but love nonetheless. In fact, love is a big theme in this address. That is one of the most important lessons I learned from Seymour Papert and this Constructionism Conference was the first since his death.

I hope you will watch

Thankfully, I grabbed the SD card out of the video camera sitting in the theatre pointed at the stage following the talk so there is a video documenting a talk I am proud of and wish I could give many more times. The audio quality isn’t perfect and there is no camera work (except for a couple of quick edits I made). That said, if you want to understand who I am and why I do what I do, I hope you will watch this video. It was quite an emotional experience.

If you wish to listen to it while deep sea folk dancing, please WATCH from about the 46 minute mark. You need to see, hear, and feel what great teaching and learning look like.

(1) For those of you interested in learning more about constructionism, you could read our book, Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom or Edith Ackermann’s splendid papers, her Constructionism 2010 paper, Constructivism(s): Shared roots, crossed paths, multiple legacies or Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism: What’s the difference?


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

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It’s time to beef-up your classroom making library

Here’s a chance to spend your Amazon gift cards and brighten your classroom with kids learning by making. The following is an assortment of recent discoveries to inspire independent reading, making, tinkering, and engineering in your classroom. There are beautiful project books filled with how-to advice, fun picture books, and several books intended to help kids learn to sew. If you want to engage in eTextile, wearable technology, or soft circuits projects, knowing your way around a needle and thread is a good idea.

While these books are recommended for independent student reading, there are lots of ideas for whole classroom projects and reading aloud.

An ingenious picture book, with plenty of information, for kids of all ages in a style similar to the classic The Way Things Work.

The Smithsonian Maker Lab book series are the sort of gorgeous DK books kids love.

I’m a giant fan of Jane Bull’s books. All of them. Buy them all, but this newish volume contains clever STEMy project ideas.

Lovely and clear book for motivated 10-14 year-olds interested in really understanding circuitry. Best of all, the book takes a project-approach.

This new book/LEGO combo by the evil Klutz geniuses contains plans for terrific inventions utilizing simple machines. Get the Klutz LEGO Chain Reacti0ns book and Crazy Contraptions book too! These are perennial favorites.

Super cute. Super clear. Super fun! Platform agnostic intro to stop-acti0n movie making with LEGO.

Glossy little trade paperbacks complete with fun projects, factoids, and historical notes for girls and boys. Get the entire series for your classroom library.

Glorious picture book filled with making, tinkering, and coding about a girl and the doll she upgrades to be her new friend.

Maker projects for outside by DK.

Soon-to-be-released DK project book.

Kids should learn to sew for eTextile and wearable computing projects!
Two bonus recommendations for good measure!

The cutest, most infectious read-aloud/read-along book ever!

An excellent introduction to the vast wonders of SNAP! programming.

 

 


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

I’m thrilled to announce that our publishing company, Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, has released a new and expanded second edition of our book, Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. The new book is available in softcover, hardcover, and Kindle editions.

Co-author Sylvia Martinez and CMK Press Art Director Yvonne Martinez put the finishing touches on the new book

Sylvia Martinez and I are enormously proud of how Invent To Learn has inspired educators around the world since we published the first edition. Our decision to emphasize powerful ideas over technology ensured that very little of the book became dated. In fact, the first edition of  Invent to Learn continues to sell at the age of 129 (in tech book years) and is available or currently being translated into seven languages. The book is quite likely the most cited book about the maker movement and education in scholarship and conference proposals.

The new book takes a fresh shot at addressing the three game changers: digital fabrication, physical computing, and computer programming. We include sections on the BBC micro:bit, Hummingbird Robotics, littleBits, and new programming environments for learners. The new Invent to Learn also afforded us with an opportunity to reflect upon our work with educators around the world since the dawn of the maker movement in schools. There is an enormous collection of updated resources and a new introduction. Stay tuned for more online resources to be posted at the Invent To Learn web site.

In crass terms, the new edition of Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom is 25% longer than the original. We even debugged some six year old typos.

I was shocked by how much time and effort was required to create the new edition of Invent to LearnThe second edition actually took longer to write than the original. I think we made a good book even better.

Spoiler Alert

According to Amazon.com, the most underlined passage in Invent to Learn is this.

“This book doesn’t just advocate for tinkering or making because it’s fun, although that would be sufficient. The central thesis is that children should engage in tinkering and making because they are powerful ways to learn.”

One of the greatest honors of my life was having our book reviewed by legendary educator and author of 40+ classic books, Herb Kohl, who wrote the following.

Invent to Learn is a persuasive, powerful, and useful reconceptualization of progressive education for digital times.” (full review)

So, that’s the secret. Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom is really about making the world a better place for kids by helping educators construct a joyous, purposeful, creative, and empowering vision of education that prepares young people to triumph in an uncertain future.

I sure hope that y0u will read our new book and share this exciting news with your colleagues!

There is so much for educators to learn about learning, learn about love, and loving to learn in this remarkable reunion commemorating Art Blakey’s Centennial. (start watching from 25:41)

The Jazz Congress in NYC ended today with a panel discussion featuring approximately thirty of the world’s finest musicians, all of whom played with the great Art Blakey over the course of four decades. For my money, this may be the single greatest gathering of artists ever assembled to honor a common mentor in history. Whether you never heard of Art Blakey or he is indelibly part of your consciousness, this conversation is simultaneously moving, profound, profane, and hilarious.

This video is everything! You owe yourself the two hour experience. I will refrain from saying more so you may construct your own meaning.

This remarkable gathering may be of equal or greater significance than the legendary A Great Day in Harlem photo.


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

Why the tech movement is on life support
January 2005 issue of District Administration Magazine

The educational computing movement, once led by educators inspired by the transcendent power of the personal computer to revolutionize the learning process and transform schools, is near death. The sad state of affairs is based on a profound lack of imagination and issues unrelated to the goal of offering the greatest range of learning opportunities for every child.

My diagnosis transcends the boundaries between private and public, rich and poor schools. There are too few models of excellent practice. This column will attempt to support my strong generalizations while next month’s edition will offer prescriptions for nursing classroom computing back to health.

When many of us first worked with children and computers two decades ago, we were excited by the renaissance of learning demonstrated by all sorts of learners. At-risk kids exhibited extraordinary mathematical intelligence and shy kids found a voice through all sorts of expressive media. Teachers awoke the learner within and collaborated with students on mutually interesting learning adventures.

Why do we celebrate computers most trivial, mundane and incomplete usage?

In the 1960s Alan Kay invented the personal computer with the desire for every child to have a knowledge machine. Nobody could have predicted that in 2005 the computer would be touted as a prop for teachers masquerading as game show hosts or for data disaggregation. The classroom has co-opted the computer, rather than the computer transforming the classroom. So, where are we now?

I recently keynoted a national conference on educational technology. The corridors of the convention center had display boards featuring student work. The majority of samples on display consisted of three or four bubble mind maps. What do plants need? Light, soil and water.

I agonized over asking my audience about these displays since I did not wish to impugn the efforts of teachers or kids, but I was compelled to bring it up. “Is this the best work done with computers in your nation’s schools?” The exhibits were the high-tech equivalent of publishing the first three words of a writer’s outline.

Countless trees have given their lives for innumerable volumes of tech standards. These standards are unimaginative, unnecessary and unenforceable. Ohio’s K-12 technology standards are 350+ pages and list 74 authors.

It requires students to demonstrate that they know how to turn on and off the computer; prioritize and apply appropriate safety measures when working with agricultural and related biotechnologies; calculate quantitatively the resultant forces for live loads and dead loads; etc.

A document so broad and verbose easily descends into self-parody. Teachers are frustrated and confused and any reasonable action plan is impossible. The result of unattainable standards, limited computer access and over-zealous policies: most American students touch a computer for just a few minutes per week in school.

Conducting surveys must not be confused with educating children. Pennsylvania recently published the results of an exhaustive study of how computers were used in its classrooms. If we stipulate to the principle of NCLB, “you teach what we test,” then Pennsylvania, like most states, teaches very little with computers.

All five of the student survey questions are concerned with seat-time, communication and information retrieval. The dominant paradigm for classroom computer use seems to be finding answers to simple objective questions and then displaying the “research” in four slide presentations.

Our public school systems are littered with Potemkin Villages labeled “schools of the future.” In far too many cases, hanging plants and carpet represent the future. Most of these schools are indistinguishable from schools 100 years ago, except for the addition of computers and an increasingly vocational curriculum.

It is easy to sell this mirage. The November 2004 issue of Wired features an ultra-groovy account of IBM’s top- secret design for a school of the future. In it children sit at desks, arranged in rows while responding like rats in a Skinner box to multiple-choice questions displayed on high-tech blackboards. The school also hopes to take attendance via handprint scanners. Yippee!

We can do better. We must.

Gary Stager, gary@stager.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.

Letting the Sunshine In
We need to decrease class size and increase expertise now
November 2005 issue of District Administration Magazine

It’s hard to improve schools and make them more receptive to the needs of each student, but it is not impossible. Unlike finding a cure for cancer, there are things we know about creating more productive contexts for learning. Ted Sizer knows how. Deborah Meier knows how. Herb Kohl, Howard Gardner, and Seymour Papert know how. Dennis Littky, the “comeback kid,” who has led successful school innovation for decades, demonstrates in this issue that he knows how. Best of all, these folks have written books sharing their wisdom and experience with anyone willing to read. Plus, nearly every community has a brilliant educator or 12 who know how to make things better for kids.

There is no excuse to not learn from such innovators and do something. Inaction is a sign of retarded professional growth and a symptom of neglect. One of my students just reported that she could not do an assignment the “right” way. I replied that if you can’t do it right, do it wrong. In the words of that great philosopher Nike, “Just do it!”

Now what is it? Schools are incredibly complex organisms, where would I start?

Most educational leaders, and even some enemies of public education, agree that class size matters. The importance of class size is inextricably linked to the need for students to have complex intimate relationships with adults. Whether you call this mentoring, apprenticeship, internship, parenting, teaching or living in a community, it should be our primary objective and first step along the road to progress.

The Pete Wilson approach to class size reduction is not what I have in mind. Decreeing smaller class sizes from on high without adequate personnel, resources or physical space is mischievous. Smaller class sizes crammed into broom closets with under-qualified teachers delivering the same old curriculum does not represent improvement.

If you cannot arrange outside internships for every student, you still need to increase access to expertise.

Our students cannot wait for us to reduce class size by producing three times the number of certified teachers and building tens of thousands of new schools. We need to do it now, but how?

Dennis Littky’s Big Picture schools have solved this dilemma. You reduce class size by increasing the number of adults interacting with children. The Big Picture schools view the world and its inhabitants as experts whose students may learn from. Occasionally, these experts mentor students in traditional school subjects, but more often they open a much wider world of knowledge–skills, experiences, concepts and perspectives–for their interns. If you cannot imagine letting students learn outside of the classroom two days each week, let Littky’s success suspend your disbelief.

If you cannot arrange for outside internships for every student, you still need to reduce class size and increase access to expertise. This is accomplished by opening the doors to your classrooms to competent committed members of your community. Volunteers may work as teacher’s aides, but can offer so much more. They can share their passion, skills and life’s work with interested students. They can ask good questions of children engaged in project work. At the very least, classroom visitors make an invaluable contribution to your students by listening and engaging in conversation.

Every child has the right to spend quality time with as many adults as possible. Schools need to rebuild such relationships lost over the past few decades.

There are countless ways you may identify adults to “co-learn” in your classrooms, but you need to keep your eyes open and your head above paperwork. I recently had the privilege of leading a workshop for a group of principals from “troubled” schools. One principal told me that he was from a school that shared a name with a famous university. I asked if his school did anything with the university, he said, “No.” How can you complain about a lack of resources, class size and an expertise shortage if your school is next to a university?

If we are serious about parental involvement, we need to involve them-perhaps on their terms to share what they love. Parental involvement has reduced parents to ATM machines or homework police in way too many cases.

We cannot afford to insulate our students from the world and the adults in our world from our students. Let’s open the doors to our schools today.

Gary Stager, gary@stager.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.