Problem

“Defund the police” is an in-artful term that fails as a “brand” because it requires explanation. It is already being used as a weapon against those calling for justice and peace by cynical Republicans and others who never considered the complex system of racism and cruelty that allows the government to brutalize African Americans with impunity.

That said, I am in agreement with those calling for police defunding, police abolition, and prison abolition. The percentage of cash-strapped municipal budgets allocated to police forces is outrageous and unsustainable. Of course, those funds could be put to better use elsewhere. Nearly 54% of the Los Angeles city budget is spent on policing and California cities have relatively skimpy budgets! (Not to mention that the LAPD has a terrible record of race relations, police brutality, and patrols in a fashion where cops can’t discern store owners and from looters.)

I reject the excuse that long stressful shifts should cause the sorts of psychosis that leads police officers to kneel on a man’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. If long shifts are a problem, then it is justification for ending overtime, a hustle police officers engage in to boost their income substantially at the expense of taxpayers and public safety. Accessible and affordable mental health services should be available to the entire community, including peace officers sworn to protect and serve.

We are on the cusp of monumental decisions. The need for social justice and a weak economy are going to require major redistribution of public resources. If not defunded completely, the police (and military) are going to need to be scaled back in both mission and budget.

Two experiences have led me to this point. The first was the 3 1/2 years I spent working inside a troubled prison for teens where we created a radically different schooling experience. When we put the needs, talents, curiosity, creativity, interests, and expertise of the kids ahead of an arbitrary curriculum and treated them like colleagues, not a single student needed to leave the classroom for disciplinary reasons a single time. Not once in more than three years! This was in a facility Amnesty International cited for state-sponsored torture of children. When we treated children with dignity, high expectations, and humanity, they demonstrated learning superpowers and were delightful to spend time with. This experience also leaves me highly reluctant to “lock her up” or “throw away the key,”

About a year ago, I listened to an amazing Chris Hayes podcast, Thinking about how to abolish prisons with Mariame Kaba, in which the activist made a convincing case for seemingly nutty idea, getting rid of prisons – not reforming them, but eliminating the entire prison industrial complex. I was unaware that this was plausible, let alone a movement until I listened to the common sense arguments advanced in this conversation.

Executed properly, this is a moment for serious systemic change. In the recent CNN-SSRS poll, 84% of Americans say that the current protests are justified. This is not 1968 or even just a few years ago. Fellow Americans of good conscience favor doing something differently, perhaps radically differently – now. They just don’t know what that might look like or how to wrap their head around alternative scenarios.

I began thinking about this challenge when an old colleague posted a pro-Police/anti-protestor meme and justified it by saying that we should stop complaining about the police because when his wife’s wheelchair gets stuck in the yard, he calls the police and they help lift her to safety. Would George Floyd or the 75 year-old man trampled by Buffalo police accept that tradeoff? Must we?

I truly believe that there are millions of people who wish to do the right thing and join together to create a more perfect union based on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This requires us to stop building systems focused on the extreme worst of human potential. Folks just need help imagining that things need not be as they seem. Each of has an obligation to help paint that picture in order to make the world a better place. 

Here is my first (lame) attempt at doing so.

Solution

Let Richard Scarry be your guide. There are lots of different jobs and helpers in Busy Busytown. Some people help old ladies across the sidewalk, others direct traffic. Some even remind their fellow critters to stay off the grass. When someone is sick or injured, other helpers rush to scene to, well, help. Others clean up litter and make sure that street lights work. New jobs are created to feed hungry people and play games with little critters afterschool. New houses and apartments are built and properly maintained so everyone in Busytown enjoys a comfortable place to sleep.

There are helpers who help you deal with stress or stop taking drugs. Every mommy and daddy in Busytown has a job that pays a living wage and health insurance. They even have enough money left over to take their children on vacation sometimes. And yes, in Busy Busytown, there are even helpers who will help lift your wife’s wheelchair. They just won’t be carrying an assault rifle, pepper spray, or swinging a baton.


A challenge for educators

Which educational practices can you imagine abolishing in schools? I am sure you can think of ineffective, grossly expensive, distracting, or miseducative “traditions” most people take for granted. Can you imagine school without:

  • Grades?
  • Tests?
  • Homework?
  • Tracking?
  • Silent lunch?
  • Discipline problems?
  • Bullying?
  • Competition?
  • School segregation?
  • Charter schools?
  • Algebra II?
  • Football?

If so, this is your moment. What is your plan for doing the right thing?


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.

 

My colleague, friend, and mentor Seymour Papert used to teach through parables. Here is my lame attempt at maintaining that tradition. No need to thank me. You are quite welcome!


Everyone in the kingdom of Isteeville goes about their lives with a happy-go-lucky attitude and nary a care in the world. Everything is fine.  In Isteeville, there are good schools and terrible ones, but no one seems to notice. There is an easy solution™ for every problem, as long you pay no attention to funding disparities, lack of resources, or the systemic racism that bestow very different experiences upon kids.

Every year or two a popular blogger invents a clever acronym or catch phrase to excite the kingdom for a short time. A band of agile salespeople and consultants who, like 54-year-old bees, have pollinated many a startup with “edu” or “mentum” in their name, change their corporate polos for the next innovation season. Their whispers about FFL spread via Ploink, the new new new new post-social network. Flippety-Floppety Learning enthusiasts descend upon the Land of the Open Sewer (now a tourist destination.) Just in the nick of time, a new command is bellowed from the leader’s Segway, “Every child deserves Flippety-Floppety Learning! We must scale this innovation at once! “

Any distinctions between teaching and learning have been forgotten long ago. Many Post-It Notes will now be affixed to walls. Masters degree programs scramble to offer new courses on Flippety-Floppety Learning. EdD students write dissertations based on asking a dozen of their colleagues their opinions of FFL. While a minority of villagers debate the origins of FFL, the industrious set out to quickly publish the first Flippety-Floppy Learning Handbook for teachers. That book will be celebrated for its breezy tone and refusal to be bogged down by pesky bibliographic references or recognition of similar efforts in the past.

Schools hire guitar playing convocation speakers to project YouTube videos in which teachers sing the song they wrote about FFL during their faculty meeting. Grad school professors teach their students to tweet reasons they love Flippety-Floppety Learning to those who have yet to be bitten by the FFL bug. Districts find money in the sofa cushions to employ Flippety-Floppety Learning Coaches. Conference programs are full of presentations like, “Everyone Get Flippety-Floppety,”  “Seven Tips for Flippety-Floppety Learning in Your Classroom,” and “Drop and Give Me Twenty: How FFL Can Transform Physical Education.”

Despite its infancy and unproven status as the latest solution in search of a problem, Isteeville will soon be littered with rubrics and calls for Flippety-Floppety Standards. No one is quite sure if FFL is a good idea, but urgent calls go out for ways to measure fidelity to the latest bright idea. Tomorrow, we must commence training teachers how to do it, regardless of merit or being sure what it is, before someone else concocts a new thingy to capture our attention.

A season passes. All of this educator fueled mania sure is swell, but Flippety-Floppety Learning isn’t scaling up quickly enough to satisfy the next round of investors. So, something must be done! 

The kingdom’s elders shout with glee, “Let’s do what we’ve always done!” BUY MORE!

The End


There are a lot of discussions underway about what school will or should look like when face-to-face sessions resume. Sadly, the images of teachers barking commands from meters away at children in cells bolted to the floor six feet apart are as pedagogically toxic as they are medically perilous.

Ann Wang/Reuters – Lovingly borrowed from https://nationalpost.com/opinion/post-covid-19-classrooms-what-if-keeping-your-distance-becomes-the-new-school-normal

It is amazing how school leaders and districts can always seem to find rainy day money to invest in terrible ideas without a second wasted on considering the consequences of such actions. I realize that you are in a hurry to reopen schools, but are you investing for the future or reacting out of panic?

I remember several years back when virtual reality was being hyped by educator members of the Shiny Object Club flitting from one new scheme to another. Folks desperate to justify whatever they thought VR is would ask, “What do you think about virtual reality in schools?” My answer would always be, “Isn’t that redundant?

Surprisingly to some, the online world may provide greater opportunities for intimacy, collaboration, conversation, and learning-by-doing. It is the mechanical stuff long overvalued by school – reading quietly, answering questions, worksheets, quizzes, tests, studying – that are much better suited for the virtual world.

You know who I rarely, if ever, see featured in the articles, books, podcasts, pronouncements, panel discussions or prognostications of the futurists “helping” schools prepare for the “new normal?” Music, art, or drama teachers. Why must the future be so colorless and dystopian?

The simple truth is that band was the only thing we did not have at home that justified my kids going to school. Schools tend to undervalue the things to which they actually add value.

When pressed to defend investment in art, music, drama programs (a justification only ever sought after for things kids enjoy), the affirmative arguments often evoke the words of Dickensian shopkeepers. Students in art and music classes do better on standardized tests or get into better colleges or crush the lesser kids. Even those with nobler objectives argue that art, music, and drama programs motivate kids to stay in school and give them purpose. While certainly true, those reasons are also in service of the system. How about investing in performing arts programs with qualified teachers within the curricular day because what students experience in those classes are the things that make us human, nurture democracy, and sustain civilization? To quote the late NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath, “What was good, is good.”

This is not small stakes. I write this as fiery protests burn in cities across the United States in the wake of the latest racist police officer killing of an African American. It is a safe bet that kids in the high school jazz band or production of “Fiddler on the Roof” are not out looting a shoe store. They may even vote to support school budgets when they become adults.

Today’s feed

I have been battling for public investments in performing arts education for thirty-eight years (a tale for another article), but today I saw something so deeply moving on Facebook, that its importance motivated this article.

One of the world’s finest vocalists, Kurt Elling, shared a video of a high school choir from Boulder, Colorado performing an adapted version of his arrangement of Paul Simon’s American Tune. Despite their social isolation, a work of high-quality art was produced on iPhones by students who learned to sing together in school. The special poignancy of the performance is heightened by today’s milieu. Even if these young people did not learn to sing in school, this is where they learned to sing songs by Paul Simon like Kurt Elling and to be part of something bigger than themselves. It also happens to sound great.

Excalibur (2019-20) Fairview High School Boulder, CO Janice Vlachos, director

A cursory Google search revealed that Fairview high school does not just have a choir, it is blessed with nine of them! It has at least three orchestras and a jazz band as well. They employ multiple art teachers as well. Their community undoubtedly values the arts as an integral part of the educational experience and invests accordingly while other schools share YouTube videos of how there’s music in math (Look, they’re counting!) or math in art (Can you see the triangles?). What this school choir has created is so much more profound than the viral videos of one kid jamming in their room, no matter how talented that kid happens to be.

The music education professionals in this school community have pulled off something impossibly hard as arts teachers are often called upon to do. The result is everything that justifies the future viability of public education.

This investment in kids learning to do something well together, including the cost of arrangers and editors to produce this video, sends students the message that they are loved and much is expected of them. Doesn’t every student deserve that?


Note: Having the audacity to point out that arts programs are under appreciated or underfunded immediately provokes school librarians and teachers of other subjects to exclaim their deprivation.  The race to be the most aggrieved by so many educators is disempowering and counter-productive. We must unite to create and advocate for a modern liberal arts education for every child.


Official video of Kurt Elling’s recording of American Tune

The following is the post on Kurt Elling’s Facebook page. It tells the backstory of remarkable high school video (above).

EXCALIBUR’s deeply moving performance of American Tune is emblematic of these times under lockdown. These talented Fairview High School Choirs students from Boulder, CO – isolated from each other – sang into their phones and the finished result is amazing!

Choir director JANICE VLACHOS had commissioned KERRY MARSH to arrange KURT ELLING’s version of American Tune for Excalibur to perform this school year.

JANICE VLACHOS reflected, “The lyrics hit so deep on this one and it was a comfort all year long to us knowing that there have been times the world has felt in turmoil and that we’ve been in this place before. The words ‘it’s alright, it’s alright’, have been soothing to all of us. We sang this song multiple times throughout the year and we were planning on singing it at the last concert, and then coronavirus hit.

“We walked out of school on March 12th and never returned. We were heartbroken on so many levels – the global consequences of the virus and in our own small world of not being able to singing together. We were also saddened to realize we didn’t have a great recording of American Tune. So we recorded it on our phones, and Kerry Marsh mastered it for us beautifully. I often find myself thinking of the lyrics as I’m searching for solace during this time.

Arranger KERRY MARSH notes, “I feel that this is one of the most important arrangements I’ve written thus far in my musical career, frankly. Based on the transcendent recorded version by Kurt Elling, and arranged during the most uncertain time in at least my own lifetime, this prescient Paul Simon composition connects with our modern times in a way that a typical ‘chart description’ is not fit to articulate. Its meaning, as it may relate to the current gaping political divide in the U.S. (mirrored in many countries worldwide, certainly) or certainly the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, will be best communicated by each group that performs it.

“These young musicians (and their director) are absolutely amazing. It was humbling to work on this, and [my partner] Julia Dollison and I shed buckets of tears throughout the process. Really proud of what they’ve accomplished with this and everything else, and confident that this currently messed up world is in very capable hands when these folks take charge.

“As a part of the celebration of their releasing this, I’ve just made this chart available at KerryMarsh.com. Kurt Elling’s version (arranged by Christian Elsässer) was an incredible source of inspiration to work from. Paul Simon’s composition has proved timeless…would that it weren’t so, actually. But these students, in their interpretation of his lyric, provide great hope.

Fairview HS Orchestra director DAVID RUTHERFORD adds this behind-the-scenes perspective:

“Your experience is this: For 7 minutes you watch all their beautiful faces, all together, side-by-side, shining at you with all the love of singing they’re known for. Your heart overflows with the beauty of the music piped through your earbuds. And you smile and say, ‘Beautiful!’

“But think about the experience for each student in the creation of the video. Alone, listening to a click track and accompaniment. No blend. No harmony. Multiple takes because of all the silly imperfections one begins to focus on in a myopic environment like that. Am I in tune? Was I early? How is this vowel? Where is this cutoff? The insecurities never end.

“Then each video is sent off to the producer and engineer, who take all 26 videos and painstakingly line up the sound, which takes literally weeks to do in front of a computer screen. After hundreds of hours, finally, all the consonants are together, the imperfections in pitch have been tweaked out, the entrances and the cutoffs are perfect, and the quality of sound from an iPhone microphone has been processed to become nearly studio quality. Finally the video, after another week, presents those beautiful faces artfully for maximum effect when you watch and listen.

“Again for the students, there was no shared experience here. There was no ensemble. Look at each one of those faces and think about it from their perspective as they sing – the space past that black border is tragically empty.

“So how can they sound so good? Because they remember what it was like to sing together, and they recreate that in their minds. This is a song they had sung all year long – I performed it with them on several occasions. They know how it feels to sing it as an ensemble, to blend their voices into one, and oh my goodness do they know how to connect with an audience. So they sang at an iPhone screen, remembering all this, pretending they were together singing for you….

“Excalibur, thank you for this reminder of just how valuable music is to all of us. The tears on my face are real.”


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, pubisher at Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, 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.

You know what school leaders need right about now? More unsolicited advice. With few exceptions, I have restrained myself from adding to the oh so clever pile of pandemic tips and tricks circulating on the Internet. Since educators are reacting to an unforeseen crisis with continuous challenges and no end in sight, survival requires one to deal in worst case scenarios. Schools bear the brunt of economic adversity, but rarely profit from periods of prosperity. Educational institutions may be slow to change, but they are quick to react.

If cooler heads are to prevail and you wish to come out of the pandemic stronger [insert your favorite cliché], I humbly suggest that school communities begin to plan for the best-case scenario. Here are five realities schools need to ponder, embrace, and address with intentionality and vision.

Any educational experience online needs to combine synchronous and asynchronous elements

Teachers should not be lecturing from bell-to-bell in physical classrooms, nor should they be “presenting” to passive audiences (students) online. “Virtual” courses can be more collaborative, deliberate, and creative than face-to-face encounters where talking-in-class is disruptive. Chatting online during class is not disruptive, tends to be more work related, and often stimulates participation by students who may be prone to hiding in traditional classrooms. The online environment offers the time to engage in substantive projects unencumbered by the constraints of the traditional school timetable.

To teach effectively online, there needs to be a mix of asynchronous and synchronous experiences. This caters to a diversity of learning styles, teaching styles, and content. The online environment affords attentive educators the ability to employ a plurality of pedagogical strategies. I would personally recommend embracing a “less is more” approach and use online teaching as an opportunity to invite students to embrace a variety of learning adventures and share experiences, rather than as a vehicle for content delivery. 

Online education is an opportunity to realize the rhetorical slogan that “everyone is a teacher.” Students should meet together online to collaborate, share resources related to the class, provide feedback on each other’s work, and reduce the load of teachers. Classes and schedules can be more flexible. Students might be able to move freely between “sections” of the same course, or even lurk in other classes. Online education, if done well, can be more progressive and democratic than traditional classroom-based instruction.

Network-based communication platforms are not a rationale for more meetings

I am concerned by the amount of time colleagues are spending in online meetings with colleagues and administrators since the COVID-19 crisis began. Refrain from the temptation of using conferencing systems for unnecessary meetings. Do not use the fact that you cannot physically see teachers as justification for more report writing and bookkeeping. The fatigue teachers are experiencing online is real and adversely affects students.

Schools need to begin sustained conversations answering the question, “Why do the kids show up?”

I have long told educators that while I do not have a crystal ball, I am confident that in the future, schools will not enjoy the monopoly on children’s time that you currently enjoy. Stated differently, “Kids in the very near future will not spend as much time in school as they do today.” The way I know that my prediction is 110% correct is that every politician on earth says the exact opposite. “We need a longer school day and school year,” they proclaim.

That stance is on the wrong side of history. During the agrarian age, kids stayed home with their families. When parents went off to work, kids went off to school. The pandemic has allowed parents to realize that things need not be as they seem. They may already work from home, full or part-time. During the pandemic, parents accepted a large responsibility for educating their own children. If for no other reason than tiring of dragging a teenager out of bed before sunrise to schlep to a school they don’t love, parents will recognize in the very near future that 7-10 hours per day at school, 180 days/year, just doesn’t make sense.

That is why school communities need to take seriously the question, “Why do kids show up at our school?” It certainly is not to read Chapter 3, take a quiz, or suffer “Silent Lunch.” Educators need to come to grips with questions of “How do we gain the greatest benefit from being co-located in the same physical space at the same time?” “What can students learn and do without direct instruction via TV, the Internet, with community members, or with peers?” “Which content from our morbidly obese curriculum can be eliminated once and for all?” “Do we need to have a standardized timetable or group children by similar levels of incompetence?” “Can schools and students have more flexible schedules?” “Are there new subjects we should offer?” “How can we teach critical knowledge domains that only require ten days of instruction in a semester-based school?” “Why can’t students work at their own pace?”

When you honestly engage in this process of critical reflection, you may find that the future viability of schooling, and indeed your school, is paradoxically rooted in the activities and disciplines routinely devalued in the current system. Band, studio art, lab-based science, drama, field trips, and sustained collaborative projects in which students make something are the sorts of learning experiences that justify school. You might also remember that school exists to democratize access to high quality experiences, especially of the sort that may only exist in a school.

Leave the Internet alone

One lesson of the pandemic is that the Internet kept working and working brilliantly. It did not need your clever IT personnel’s help or permission. Tens of millions of students and teachers around the world were able to teach, learn, and communicate effortlessly when freed from the heavy hand of school network policies and protocols. There is not a day that I work in a school, anywhere on earth, where I do not encounter a novel way in which the school’s IT department has interfered with an ability to work, teach, or learn, often without warning or justification. The list of ways in which IT personnel have concocted to disable school computers could fill a library. It is too often that the technology a school purchases works perfectly until the IT folks work their magic and turns a $1,200 computer into a $27 piece of sculpture. One hypothesis few ever consider when pondering why teachers don’t use computers, is that the computers at school may not work. That is not the fault of the technology, but of leadership.

I am not advocating for violating the law or putting children at risk. There are common-sense and inexpensive ways of achieving those objectives. I am asking that the paraprofessionals managing devices and school networks be relieved of their unilateral authority to impose absolute power over the teachers they serve. Their actions should only be to enhance and expand student agency, not curtail it. The default answer should switch from “no” to “yes.”

Think of it this way. When you remodel your kitchen, you do not wake up every morning forever to find the contractor making a cup of coffee. When they finish the plumbing, cabinets, flooring, and paint, they leave. Your school no longer employs full-time telephone operators, electricians, or furnace operators. You might rethink the value proposition in IT staff. 

The richest nation in the history of the world can afford a laptop and cello for every student!

The pedagogical pluralism, curricular flexibility, and limitless potential of distributed learning discussed above are only possible when every student has their own personal laptop with 24/7 Internet access. The issues related to attendance, participation, access, and equity being raised during this emergency bout of distributed learning are because adults have made a conscious decision to deprive children of modernity’s primary instrument for intellectual work, creativity, and communication.

The notion that every American child does not have a personal laptop in 2020 is as unconscionable as hospitals being short of masks and PPE. A personal computer is mission critical for learning forty years/two generations after microcomputers began entering your schools.

Fifty years ago, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon advocated for every child to have a computer they could program. Thirty years ago, I helped Australian colleagues implement 1:1 computing across the curriculum in countless schools. Twenty years ago the State of Maine provided a laptop for every 7th and 8th grader, preceded by Henrico, County Virginia. The Eastern Township School District of Quebec rolled out tens of thousands of student laptops around the same time. More than three million children in the developing world received laptops as part of the One Laptop Per Child initiative. Doctoral dissertations began being published in 1992 demonstrating the commonsense efficacy of 1:1 computing in schools. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one of the first New Orleans schools to reopen was an early “laptop school.” Their community was able to stay in contact as a result of every student being interconnected via their laptop and the Internet.

It has always been the case that you can provide every student with a personal laptop for use anytime anywhere, for 2-5% of their per-pupil spending. There is no rational justification for building walls between students and the world in which they live.

“Only inertia and prejudice, not economics or lack of good educational ideas stand in the way of providing every child in the world with the kinds of experience of which we have tried to give you some glimpses. If every child were to be given access to a computer, computers would be cheap enough for every child to be given access to a computer.”

– Papert, S. and C. Solomon (1971). Twenty Things to do with a computer. Artificial Intelligence Memo # 248. Cambridge, MA, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Preparedness for the next crisis, interest in expanding educational opportunities, or demonstrating respect for children and the milieu in which they live requires an immediate embrace of 1:1 computing for everybody’s child.

Your Move

Today’s headlines (April 30, 2020) contemplate hundreds of thousands of school layoffs, states and districts are quickly becoming insolvent, and parents may be less than thrilled by the quality of digital worksheets their traumatized children have been served during this crisis. Today, every educator, particularly every school leader, has a choice to make as to whether they will scramble to reconstruct the system circa 2019 or offer a more humane, creative, modern, and progressive context for learning that prepares children for an uncertain future. If you have ever aspired to leave the campsite better than you found it, this is the time to step up.

Related Reading:


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, pubisher at Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, 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.

There’s no shortage of articles, web sites, top 1,000 app lists instructing educators what to do during the pandemic and when school returns to “normal.” All of that “help” may be counter-productive. You deserve a break.

If you’re not feeling up to reading, cooking, playing an instrument, or coding right now, watch an episode of Encore! on Disney+ and you will be remember what school can and should mean to children. Keep a box of tissues nearby and your closest friend on speed dial first.

Here are some of the books that ground, focus, and inspire me. I hope you’ll find some beauty, peace, grace, or meaning from any of these recommendations.


Painting Chinese: A Lifelong Teacher Gains the Wisdom of Youth

The great Herb Kohl’s gorgeous meditation of a lifetime of learning and teaching.


Wonder Art Workshop: Creative Child-Led Experiences for Nurturing Imagination, Curiosity, and a Love of Learning

Skip the stuff about “brain research” and dig into the large assortment of beautiful and magical art experiments. Super fun and creative!


The Book of Learning and Forgetting

This book by the great psycholinguist Frank Smith may be my favorite exploration of learning. It was always a favorite text of my graduate students too.


Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope

While not Jonathan Kozol‘s most popular or best known books, this is my favorite of his many masterpieces. Ordinary Resurrections is poignant and poetic while giving voice to the most innocent and vulnerable members of our society. This book is timeless and life-changing.


Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music

Read quickly past the fanboy stuff about the remarkable conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, and learn about one the most profound pedagogical approaches on earth, El Sistema. You will be moved by the what’s possible when teachers believe in the capacity of each learner and refuse to acknowledge obstacles. In my humble opinion, this one of the best education books of the past decade. Author Tricia Tunstall also coauthored a notable follow-up, Playing for Their Lives: The Global El Sistema Movement for Social Change Through Music.


The Inner Principal: Reflections on Educational Leadership

I challenge you to name a more candid, open, or philosophical book ever written by a school administrator, especially one as accomplished as David Loader.


The Muses Go to School: Inspiring Stories About the Importance of Arts in Education

The likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Phillip-Seymour Hoffman, Rosie Perez, and Bill T. Jones share the testimony to the critical importance of public school arts education with response pieces by amazing educators including Deborah Meier, Lisa Delpit, Bill Ayers, Diane Ravitch, Maxine Greene, and yours truly (clearly a clerical error).


The Long Haul: An Autobiography

Myles Horton’s tales of founding and sustaining the Highlander Folk School, an Appalachian retreat where students included Martin Lutther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Pete Seeger. Oh yeah, We Shall Overcome was composed there too. This book not only tells the important story of an unknown piece of American history, but offers much wisdom and inspiration for all teachers.


Idea Makers: Personal Perspectives on the Lives & Ideas of Some Notable People

Notable scientist, mathematician, and computer scientist Stephen Wolfram book of insightful essays about great mathematicians, scientists, and technologists, many of who he knew personally.


The Children

Pulitizer Prize winner David Halbestram’s monumental history of the American civil rights movement and the remarkable role played by courageous young people. This book reminds all of us of each person’s power to change the world.


Books I love to read aloud with kids

Field Trip to the Moon (PK-2)

Harold and the Purple Crayon (PK-2)

Homer Price (2-5)

I still love this book and its sequel!


Apprentice with the world’s greatest musicians!

Ever dream of taking piano, bass, vibes, voice, drum, guitar, saxophone, or trumpet lessons from one of the world’s finest musicians? Care to understand jazz or Brazilian music? Wish you could develop your own voice with the help of one of the world’s most acclaimed vocalists?

Check out the complete Open Studio course catalog!

Perhaps you don’t play an instrument and just enjoy watching great artists explain their craft? That’s cool too.

Well, Open Studio is not only the gold standard by which all other online music education programs are measured, but it has cracked the code in teaching impossibly complex and intimate concepts online.

Check out the multitude of offerings at every conceivable skill level.

Speed up, slow-down, control multiple perspectives, guided practice sessions, office hours…


Summer is a great time for kids to read entire series of books.

Here are some great ones you won’t find in your school curriculum or approved by the Texas State Textbook Commission, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pearson!

Horrible Histories (grades 4-9)

Collect them all! They’re gorey, bloody, irreverent, gross, and filled with historical facts shared in an entertaining fashion.


The Time Warp Trio series (grades 2-5)

Jon Scieszka’s zany time travel adventure in which three buddies explore great moments in history.


Guys Read series (grades 5-8)

Seven volume anthologies of high-interest short stories with each book featuring a different literary genre.


Books to keep kids active

Jane Bull is the author of countless colorful, clever, fabulous, and fun craft books published by DK. Highly recommended!

New York City Street Games

This out-of-print, but still available gem, teaches youts to play all da clasic sports your grandparents played on the streets of NYC. There is a great documentary, narrated by Ray Romano on the same subject.


Books for learning to program in Scratch

Here is an article I wrote featuring my favorite books to help kids learn Scratch programming.


Favorite cookbooks for little kids

Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up

Salad People and More Real Recipes: A New Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up

Fabulous books full of wordless recipes for healthy food

 

 

 

 


Honest Pretzels: And 64 Other Amazing Recipes for Cooks Ages 8 & Up

Little Helpers Toddler Cookbook: Healthy, Kid-Friendly Recipes to Cook Together

The Tickle Fingers Toddler Cookbook: Hands-on Fun in the Kitchen for 1 to 4s

Sesame Street Let’s Cook!

Cookie Monster’s Foodie Truck: A Sesame Street ® Celebration of Food


The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs (#1 bestseller)

The Complete Baking Book for Young Chefs

 


Timeless videos I still love to watch with my grandkids

Here are some of my favorite videos to watch with the toddlers. They’re funny, kind, not scary, and stimulate imagination.

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series

Never disappoints or fails to entertain. The show is pitch perfect for kids and adults to enjoy together. (a real bargain too)


The Little Rascals: The “Complete” Collection

The best available collection of the classic shorts that inspired generations to play, dream, and learn by making – long before there was a maker movement. Trust me. Kids still love these 80 year-old films.


Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: It’s a Beautiful Day

30 classic episodes


If you love card games…

I don’t, but I have given countless sets as gifts to delighted kids and families.

Fluxx

An endless assortment of looney card games where the rules or the objective of a game change with every card!


Here are some magazine articles I wrote about teachers who made a difference in my life.

  1. Me and Mr. Jones (about a 7th grade computing teacher who made me feel powerful)
  2. “Social” Studies (about the two gentlemen responsible for my social activism)
  3. Walking Among Giants (about a late great singer & my junior high music teacher)
  4. A School Story (about collaboration with my high school jazz teacher)

My most recent TED Talk for a high school audience, Care Less, also tells the tale of key mentors in my life.

Either the principal IS a holocaust denier OR a cowardly knucklehead trapped in a zero-tolerance school setting where a misguided quest for “balance” is king.

If he is just an ignoramus (there are plenty of them with jobs), I might ask this hypothetical question. If the principal had refused to allow a debate on “slavery reparations” or “climate change,” would he lose his job?

Oh, and don’t pretend that schools don’t teach about the holocaust. In many cases, the subject receives so much instructional time that students (perhaps teachers too) just zone out. The teaching about the holocaust is just another example of the limits of instruction.

I wrote this article warning about the downside of “balance” 5 years ago. At the bottom of it is a link to an essential book chapter, “Extreme Ideas,” by Jonathan Kozol. I recommend both. I also recommend not contorting yourself into a pretzel to avoid all controversy in the classroom. This serves no one.

Note: If the principal is anti-semitic, a racist, or holocaust denier, then we should discuss his job security within the constraints of the First Amendment.


Leading family learning-by-making workshops in schools around the world is a pure joy. When parents can experience through the eyes, hands, and screens of their children what is possible, they demand a new more progressive educational diet from their school. I have now led three different family workshops at my favorite school in the world. The first one featured a wide range of materials, including: MakeyMakey, littleBits, LEGO WeDo, sewable circuitry, and Turtle Art. Twenty people RSVPd and more than one hundred showed up. The kids ranged in age from preschool to high school.

The next workshop was held the night before Halloween 2018. So, I selected a Halloween theme for our work with the Hummingbird Duo Robotics kits. A few minutes of introduction to the Hummingbird kit and the prompt, “Bring a Spooky ghost, goblin, or monster to life!” was all that was required for 60+ kids and parents to build and program in Snap! spooky creatures in less than ninety minutes.

Last week’s workshop was the best yet. An invitation for thirty grade 3-6 kids and parents to attend a family learning-by-making workshop sold out in no time flat.

Each of these workshops exemplified irrefutable evidence of the efficacy of constructionism and the limits of instruction. However, the most recent workshop possessed a special magic. Last week’s workshop was centered around the BBC micro:bit microcontroller development board. For $30 (Australian/$22 US), each kid would go home with the micro:bit Go kit they used during the workshop.

It is worth noting that while the hosting school has a long tradition of project-based learning and open education, it is not a high tech school and its facilities are not unlike many public primary schools. Furniture, room layout, and projector placement make instruction virtually impossible, even if I were prone to offer step-by-step tutelage, of which I am not. (Kids and parents were working in every nook and cranny of a library and in an adjacent classroom) Besides, the research project that is my work with teachers and students, leaves me convinced that instructionism, the notion that learning is the result of having been taught, is a fool’s errand. Piaget’s belief that “knowledge is a consequence of experience” is central to my work.

Parents brought their own laptops while other families used school laptops. The parents with personal laptops needed to use their phones for Internet access because stupid school Internet implementation doesn’t allow guest Web access. There were more than sixty workshop participants.

This is how the workshop began.


Hi. I’m Gary. This is the micro:bit. It has a 5X5 LED display that can be used to show pictures or display text. It also has two buttons that you can use to trigger actions. The micro:bit also has a temperature sensor, a light sensor, an accelerometer that knows if you move, tilt, or drop it, a compass, and ability to communicate between two or more micro:bits via radio. You can also connect LEDs, motors, buttons, or other sensors to the micro:bit via alligator clips, wire, or conductive thread  if you want to build robots or other cool stuff.

If you program in Scratch, the micro:bit can be used to control a video game you make by pressing the buttons or tilting the micro:bit like a steering wheel. You can even connect the micro:bit to a paper towel tube and make a magic wand to advance a story you program.

We will be using a Web-based programming environment, Microsoft MakeCode, tonight because it uses all of the hardware features of your micro:bit.

  • Go to MakeCode.com
  • Click on micro:bit
  • Click on New Project
  • Drag the Show Icon block from the Basic blocks into the Start block.
  • Select the heart shape
  • Now, we want to transfer the program we created to the micro:bit. The micro:bit works like a USB flash drive. Put a program on it and it runs until you put a new program there.
  • Click Download
  • Find the downloaded file you created, the one that ends in .hex in your downloads folder
  • Drag that file onto the microbic drive in your file explorer or Finder
  • Watch the yellow light on the micro:bit flash to indicate that the transfer is underway.

Voila! There’s a heart icon on your micro:bit!

  • Click on the Input blocks
  • Drag out an On Button blockChoose Button A
  • Make the program show you a Pacman icon when a user clicks the A button on the micro:bit
    Drag out another On Button block
  • Program the B button to Show String (some text you type as a message)
    Download your new program and copy it to the micro:bit

Heart displays

  • Click the A button and see Pacman. Click the B button and display your message!
  • Connect your battery box to the micro:bit and disconnect the micro:bit from the computer. Look!
  • The program runs as long as it has power!
  • Come get your micro:bit kit and a list of project ideas you might try.

90 minutes later, we needed to tell kids and parents to go home. (I am reasonably confident that I wrote more of my two minutes worth of instruction above than I actually said to the kids).

About 1/3 of the participants were girls and many boys were accompanied by mothers and grandmothers. There were plenty of Dads participating as well. Once one kid or family team made a breakthrough, I would signal that to other kids so they knew where to look or ask questions if they were struggling or curious.


Scenes from the workshop

Observations
Many teachers in workshop settings really struggle with the mechanics or concept of finding their downloaded file and clicking-dragging the file onto the micro:bit. Not a single child had any difficulty performing the process of copying a file from one drive to another. I have long been critical of the clumsy way in which MakeCode handles the process of downloading programs to the micro:bit and the way in which the Arduino IDE uploads programs to its board. The fact that upload and download are used arbitrarily is but one indicator of the unnecessarily tricky process. The fact that not one primary school student had such difficulty the first time they encountered physical computing makes me less anxious about the process.

Several kids were very clever and had working understanding of variables despite not having school experience with such concepts. This once again proves that when a teacher acts as a researcher. they discover that kids know stuff or harbor misconceptions . Such information allows for adjusting the learning environment, testing an intervention, or introducing a greater challenge. Some students had little difficulty constructing equations, despite the ham-fisted MakeCode interface. A few kids just wanted the micro:bit to perform calculations and display the result.

Conditionals proved equally logical to lots of the 8-12 year-olds. (It was interesting chatting with parent/student teams because it was often difficult to predict if you needed to engage in one or two conversations at the same time. A clever kid didn’t always mean that their parent understood what was going on or vice versa.)

There is much written about iterative design in education. Iterative design is swell for designing a new toothpaste tube based on customer interviews, brainstorming, pain points, etc. It is terrible for learning history or playing the cello. Iteration is about fixing something; making it right. I am much more excited about activities, such as computer programming in accessible languages, that lead to generative design. Show a kid a couple o blocks and they immediately have their own ideas about what to do next. The degree of difficulty of projects increase as kids experience success. If they are successful, they naturally find a new challenge, embellish their project, or test another hypothesis. If unsuccessful, debugging is necessary. Debugging is one of the most powerful ideas justifying computer use in education.

New prompt ideas emerged. While working with kids, I improvised the challenge to make a thermometer that showed a smiley face for warm temperatures and a sad face for colder temperatures. That was then substituted for a too difficult challenge in my list of suggested prompts.

When chips are cheap as chips, all sorts of new things are possible. You can leave projects assembled longer than a class period. You can use multiple micro:bits in one project. If you build something useful, you never have to take it apart. Giving every child the constructive technology to keep is a game changer! I will reconvene the students who attended the workshop next week to answer questions and see what they’ve been up to. Perhaps, this experience will lead to another article.

In less than the time of two traditional class periods (90 minutes), young children demonstrated a working understanding of computing concepts covering a breadth and depth of experiences many kids will not enjoy over twelve years of formal schooling. All of this was accomplished without coercion, assessment, sorting, worksheets, or more than a couple of minutes worth of instruction. A commitment to student agency and use of good open-ended constructive technology with extended play value allows a beautiful garden to bloom.

Resources


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 Chapter Four of our new book, Invent to Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, we discuss the importance of prompt setting as a basis for project-based learning. I argue that “a good prompt is worth 1,000 words.” Projects are not the occasional dessert you get as a reward after consuming a semester’s worth of asparagus, but that the project should be a teacher’s “smallest unit of concern.

Last week, Sylvia Martinez and I completed a successful four-city Texas Invent to Learn workshop tour. Each workshop featured an open-ended engineering challenge. This challenge, completed in under two hours, was designed not only to introduce making, engineering, tinkering, and programming to educators with diverse experience, but to model non-coercive, constructionist, project-based learning.

Presented with what we hope was a good prompt, great materials, “sufficient” time, and a supportive culture, including a range of expertise, the assembled educators would be able to invent and learn in ways that exceeded their expectations. (We used two of our favorite materials: the Hummingbird Bit Robotics Kit and Snap! programming language.)

A good time was had by all. Workshop participants created wondrous and whimsical inventions satisfying their interpretation of our prompt. In each workshop a great deal was accomplished and learned without any formal instruction or laborious design process.

What’s your point?
Earlier today, our friends at Birdbrain Technologies, manufacturers of the Hummingbird Bit Robotics Kit, tweeted one of the project videos from our Austin workshop. (Workshop participants often proudly share their creations on social media, not unlike kids. Such sharing causes me to invent new workshop prompts on a regular basis so that they remain a surprise in subsequent events.)

This lovely video was shared for all of the right reasons. It was viewed lots of times (and counting). Many educators liked or retweeted it, All good!

What’s slightly more problematic is the statement of the prompt inspiring this creation.

“Problem: The Easter Bunny is sick. Design a robot to deliver eggs.”

That was not the exact prompt presented to our workshop participants. This slight difference makes all the difference in the world.

The slide used to launch the invention process

Aren’t you just nitpicking?
Why quarrel over such subtle differences in wording?

  • Words matter
  • My prompt was an invitation to embark on a playful learning adventure complete with various sizes of candy eggs and a seasonal theme. Posing the activity as a problem/solution raises the stakes needlessly and implies assessment.
  • Design a robot comes with all sorts of baggage and limits the possible range of approaches. (I just rejected the word, solutions, and chose approaches because words matter.)

People have preconceived notions of robots (good and bad). Even if we are using a material called a robotics kit, I never want children to cloud their thinking with conventional images of robots.

The verb, design, is also problematic. It implies a front-loaded process involving formal planning, audience, pain point, etc… good in some problem solving contexts, but far from universally beneficial.

The use of problem, design, and robot needlessly narrows and constrains the affective, creative, and intellectual potential of the experience.

A major objective of professional learning activities such as these is for educators to experience what learning-by-doing may accomplish. Diving in, engaging in conversation with the materials, collaborating with others, and profiting from generative design (a topic for future writing) leads all learners to experience success, even in the short time allotted for this activity. Such a process respects what Papert and Turkle called epistemological pluralism. Hopefully, such positive personal experiences inspire future exploration, tinkering, and learning long after the workshop ends.

Our book suggests that good prompts are comprised of three factors:

  • Brevity
  • Ambiguity
  • Immunity to assessment

Such prompt-setting skill develops over time and with practice. Whether teaching preschoolers or adults, I am sensitive to planting the smallest seed possible to generate the most beautiful garden with the healthiest flowers. That glorious garden is free of litter from brainstorming Post-It Notes, imagination crushing rubrics, and other trappings of instruction.

References
Martinez, S. L., & Stager, G. (2019). Invent to learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, second edition (2 ed.): Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press

Turkle, S., & Papert, S. (1992). Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete. Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 11(1), 3-33.


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.

”cmk09″

Buy the book!

This week, I will speak at my 29th ISTE Conference (International Society for Technology in Education, previously NECC) in Denver, Colorado. I have made at least one presentation every year since 1987. I signed the charter that created ISTE, organized one of its SIGs, and edited an ISTE journal for a few years. I was a keynote speaker at the final NECC Conference in 2009 before the conference was rebranded as ISTE. Despite my well-publicized concerns about the direction of the organization (see bottom of post), I attend the conference each year because educational computing is my life’s work and I refuse to abandon the field, no matter how tempting.

In the past, I have expressed my concerns over the quality, relevance, and too-often corporate nature of the ISTE keynote speakers. I have demonstrated the flaws and lack of objectivity in the session selection process and lamented the celebration of corporate interests.

These concerns have often been dismissed as sour grapes. My public statements certainly have not been beneficial to my career or my visibility on the conference program. Despite the popularity of my sessions, the 2013 conference organizers put me in a tiny room and turned away hundreds of educators lined up for my presentation.

For this year’s conference, I proposed two presentations. One, Programming: The New Liberal Art — Why and How to Teach It was accepted.

29 other accepted ISTE 2016 sessions cite my work or collaborations with Sylvia Martinez in their proposals.

The following proposal was rejected – obviously irrelevant

Mindstorms at 35: Examining the State of Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas

The most important book ever written about technology and education, Seymour Papert’s “Mindstorms” is 35 years old. This session led by Dr. Papert’s longtime colleague will review the book’s big ideas and engage the audience in an evaluation of the current state of education in light of Papert’s work.

Longer Description

Nearly 50 years ago, Dr. Papert began calling for 1:1 computing. He invented the first programming language and robotics engineering system for children. In 1970, Papert predicted the maker movement and his entire career was dedicated to creating contexts in which children could encounter and engage with powerful ideas.

Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas is arguably the most important book ever written in the field ISTE represents. This presentation will introduce Papert’s ideas to newcomers and ask veterans to candidly evaluate his predictions in light of the current state-of-practice. 

The presenter will also share video clips and textual excerpts from recently unearthed and overlooked work by Dr. Papert over five decades.

Objectives

  • Review or introduce the powerful ideas contained in Mindstorms
  • Introduce a new generation of educators to the powerful ideas of the father of educational technology, Seymour Papert
  • Challenge teachers, policy makers, tech directors, and administrators to do more with computational technology in order to amplify the potential of each learner
  • Take a good hard look at current practice
  • Explore what Papert had to say about 1:1 computing, the Internet, robotics, engineering, game design, school reform, teaching, and learning over half a century
  • Introduce constructionism to a new generation
  • Honor an intellectual giant never invited to keynote an ISTE or NECC Conference on the 35th anniversary of his seminal book

Session Outline 

  • Explore what made Mindstorms revolutionary
  • Review Papert predictions for what kids might do with computers and how schools would react
  • Discover recently unearthed video and texts shining new light on Papert’s work
  • Discuss the state of educational technology in light of the challenges Papert left for all of us

Supporting Research 

In addition to countless Ph.D. dissertations written about Papert’s work, I would direct you to the following:


Past articles about ISTE:



Gary S. Stager, Ph.D. is a veteran teacher educator, author, speaker, publisher who worked with Dr. Papert for more than 20 years. He was the principal investigator on Papert’s last major institutional research project and is the curator of the repository of Papert documents, The Daily Papert.

His ISTE 2016 session will be held Wednesday, June 29, 8:30–9:30 am in room CCC 110