Girls and Technology – Overcoming Myths and Malpractice1
Presented at the 2002 Alliance For Girl Schools
Girls and Technology Conference
© May 2002 Gary S. Stager
It is indeed an honor to speak at this conference and share my experiences and expectations with such an august audience. My qualifications for this conference could be based on my two decades of work with technology and kids, the work I did in the early days of school laptop computing right here in Australia or the fact that I am the parent of two teenage girls. I originally suggested that this talk be titled, “I’m not sure why Dale Spender hates me,” based on my experience as Ms. Spender’s human piñata at an MLC dinner and the ironic fact that she went on to quote me extensively in one of her books.
The theme of this conference, girls and technology, implies a problem. Neither girls nor technology are the problem. If a problem does exist, it is with the men and women commonly identified as educators and to a lesser extent, parents. It is the intellectual timidity, professional indolence, imagination gap and what Seymour Papert calls, idea aversion that prevents us from meeting the needs of all digital age children. The greatest number of victims of such idea aversion may be girls since for reasons real and imagined. The prevailing myths that girls don’t like computers; girls need different technology; girls should learn to criticize technology; girls have adequate access and ample role models; school leaders are qualified to make technological decisions; and schools should be used as social sieves lead to the creation of pedagogical decisions ultimately detrimental to girls themselves.
Microcomputers and the global information infrastructure offer unprecedented opportunities for expanding the learning community and for children to engage with powerful ideas. The choice is between an increasingly irrelevant system of schooling or the realization of John Dewey’s dream for a learning environment in which children can achieve their full creative and intellectual potential. Computational and communication technology may be used as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression or as a tool for oppression. The first option makes schools better places for teachers and kids to learn, the second will hasten the demise of school’s monopoly on education.
It would be a shame if we missed the chance to revolutionize the learning environment if we were simply ignorant. It would be a sin to ignore the remarkable possibilities demonstrated right under our noses in order to preserve some quaint notion of 19th century education. We know how the combination of elevated expectations, respect for epistemological pluralism, a dash of creativity and ubiquitous can produce a learning renaissance because we’ve seen it in schools a tram-ride away.
The most important educational technology innovation in the past two decades began at Methodist Ladies’ College in 1989 when David Loader, a giant in girls’ education, committed his school to the proposition that every child should own a personal laptop computer. This was never intended as a stunt, experiment or project. David noticed that computers were getting more portable and affordable while anticipating that such a bold investment would pay great dividends for educators concerned with making schools what James Britton would describe as, “more hospitable to the intentions of children.”
Six years before the World Wide Web, Loader shared these provocative thoughts with his school community.
Apparently the sun cannot rise in present schools…
Unlike David Suzuki who dismisses computers as information processors, we see knowledge not so much as being processed but as being constructed in the classroom. John Dewey’s observation that the content of the lesson is the less important thing about learning, is relevant (here). – David Loader
Almost every child, on the first day he sets foot in a school building, is smarter, more curious, less afraid of what he doesn’t know, better at finding and figuring things out, more confident, resourceful, persistent and independent, than he will ever be again in his schooling – John Holt
This was the shot heard ‘round the world. Soon after laptops were delivered to MLC, impressive student LogoWriter projects inspired teachers to rethink their notions of curriculum, assessment, scheduling and most importantly, the under-appreciated learning abilities of their students. Humanities teachers demanded long uninterrupted blocks of time to accomplish interdisciplinary collaborative projects. French teachers ventured into the uncharted waters of maths classrooms, boatloads of educators from around the world visited Kew and the idea of Marshmead was born.
Steve Costa, was patient zero – the first teacher in history to teach a class of girls each equipped with a laptop. Steve’s extraordinary teaching abilities coupled and willingness to share his talents with colleagues has made his classroom one of the most visited in the world. Not only did Steve Costa possess the confidence and courage to invent the future, he has demonstrated a remarkable focus over the past thirteen years. He has not been seduced by the latest technological fad or gimmick, but has continued to help students maximize the potential of their minds and computers by remaining committed to the hard fun of programming in Logo (MicroWorlds). Steve’s work continues to inspire me. What he and his girls have accomplished is remarkable. If there were any justice, Mr. Costa would appear on an Australian postage stamp. He is arguably one of the most important teachers in this nation’s history.
I am delighted that Steve Costa and David Loader will keynote a conference in Maine, USA this August between Alan Kay, the inventor of the personal computer, and Seymour Papert, the educator who predicted thirty-five years ago that every child would have a personal computer. Maine has built upon the foundation laid by these educational giants by passing a law requiring the provision of an iBook computer and 24/7 net access for every seventh and eighth grade student in the state.
This however is not an all-male history lesson. Many female teachers at MLC and Coombabah State Primary School in Queensland helped the world rethink the role of computers in schools. Merle Atherton, a quiet humanities teacher two years from retirement, embraced Logo and laptops with enormous enthusiasm and inspired countless colleagues to enjoy thinking about thinking. She was given an “in-school sabbatical” so she could work in classrooms alongside her colleagues.
Joan Taylor’s world-class Community Education department played an enormous role in the organization of holiday computer camps, global conferences and professional opportunities for teaching staff. The holiday computer camps provided parents with a creative child-care service and benefited the school in two important ways. The first benefit of the camp was as a “strongly suggested” prerequisite to attending the school as a new student. Four days of project-based computer use, the arts and a bit of sport provided adequate preparation for new children to succeed when they joined existing classrooms. Another benefit of the camps was that members of the teaching staff served as counselors. More “expert” teachers would lead robotics or Logo classes and less experienced teachers would apprentice. The casual nature of the camp allowed teachers to gain new knowledge and develop increased levels of consequence. Apprentices often replaced the experts in subsequent camps.
Community education also provided a venue for teachers interested in learning basic computing skills or finding out how to use computers for administrative tasks. This way the school could dedicate its professional development resources to using computers in ways that reformed education and benefited kids.
Merle and Joan are unsung heroes in the history of school computing.
I remember bringing some student projects back to the USA from MLC. When I shared them with one of America’s most accomplished computing-using teachers he remarked, “Oh, that’s what it looks like when the kids have time.” The ability to learn and work anywhere anytime is an obvious, yet important rationale for laptop use.
MLC was a magical place during the early nineties. Every aspect of schooling was open for discussion and reconsideration. I spent as long as three months at a time at the school with a brief to do anything I thought would contribute to educational excellence. I worked with teachers and kids in classrooms, consulted with staff, created the holiday computer camps, built a LogoExpress system to facilitate telecommunications from home and within school and had constant access to the principal. When I expressed concern over the gap between classroom reality and the rhetoric proclaiming the school’s commitment to constructionism, the principal supported my desire to take dozens of teachers away for intensive residential professional development sessions, fondly remembered as pyjama parties. After all, constructionism is something you DO as well as believe. You cannot be a constructionist who subcontracts the construction. “Do as I say, not as I do,” will no longer cut it.
Not all was perfect, even during these halcyon days. I remember needing a small bit of electronic tinkering done while at MLC and saying, “I’ll just get a girl to solder this for me.” My colleagues looked nervously around the room before someone said, “our girls don’t solder.” Concern for gender equity apparently ended at the point where students use tools, learn about electronics or perform actual service to the school community. The school musical theatre production hired professional musicians to provide accompaniment rather than utilizing talented student musicians. Ted Sizer, Deborah Meier and others write elegantly about the benefits of students assuming more responsibility for sustaining the intellectual culture and accepting responsibility for the operation of their school. We need to work harder
Soon after the pioneering efforts of MLC, two other groups of laptop schools emerged. The “marketeers” were schools more concerned with the marketing and publicity benefits of “doing laptops” than with reforming schools while nearly every other school found laptops in its future by inertia. The “marketers” and their “neighbours “ lacked the vision of the pioneer schools and found that they could differentiate themselves by embracing less empowering uses of computers and cynical assessment schemes like the International Baccalaureate. Some principals became more concerned with schmoozing hardware vendors and rising software version numbers than with educational innovation.
I am most disappointed at how little impact the laptop volcano has had on the structure of schooling. I assumed ten years ago that any educator with common sense would recognize the need for new school environments incorporating multiage, learner-centred, interdisciplinary learning. The creation of fantastic alternative learning environments at Marshmead and Clunes are evidence of a failure to bring about substantive school reform in traditional schools. The need for a school to build a new campus in order to be more learner-friendly suggests the institution’s incapacity for self-correction.
Perhaps I was naïve, but in the early nineties I had the following expectations for today’s schools.
The easy stuff
Schools would feature:
Basic productivity tool fluency
Electronic publishing of student work
Electronically-mediated parent/teacher communication
Teachers using the computer for personal productivity/school paperwork
Every child and teacher would have a personal computer
We would stop referring to computers as technology
I.T. would cease to exist as a school subject
The hard stuff
Kids would be:
All laptop owners
Writing powerful computer programs
Freely communicating online
Conducting scientific investigations with probeware
Publishing in a variety of convergent media
|The hard stuff
School leaders would be:
Using computers in personally powerful ways
Supporting the imaginative use of emerging technology
Participating in the professional development they impose on teachers
No longer using computers to quiz or test students
The really hard stuff
Principals would no longer be able to get their photo in the newspaper just for standing next to a kid and a computer
School would be learner-centered and educators would be able to articulate what that means
School leaders would spend less time making computer deals and more time collaborating with other learners
Students would be able to program and construct their own software tools
The supremacy of curriculum would be abandoned & no one would speak of delivery
School leaders would join the community of practice
Kids would collaborate with other kids and experts around the world
|The really really hard stuff
Multi-age interdisciplinary “classrooms” would be widespread
External forms of assessment would be replaced by more effective humane forms of authentic assessment
Kids would spend less time in school
Schools would stop viewing the needs of children as an impediment to the enterprise
There would be far fewer technology coordinators in schools
The advent of the World Wide Web in the mid-nineties allowed schools never particularly committed to constructionism to embrace a vehicle for reinforcing the primacy of curriculum and instruction. Despite the unrivaled power of the net to democratize publishing and offer unprecedented opportunities for collaboration, it has been assimilated by schools in the name of curriculum delivery and the status quo. Throw in the incredible expense of networking and the disasters caused by the unprecedented authority given to the non-educators running school technology infrastructures and the results were bound to be disappointing. It seems to many that the golden days of Australian school computing may be sadly behind us.
I invented Murray’s Law to describe the current state of school computing. Murray’s Law combine’s Moore’s Law and Murphy’s Law to state that every 18 months schools will purchase computers with twice the processor power of today and do things twice as trivial with those computers. Things need not be, as they seem. I will share glimpses of the opportunities some of your schools may be missing during this presentation.
MLC was clearly on the right side of history. Rather than give long-winded educational rationales for portable computers I suggest that the reason your school should provide laptops is because it’s training wheels for the adults in the school. It is inevitable that every kid will have her own full-featured portable computer, although it may not look like a laptop. Embracing laptops gives your teachers a few years to prepare for that eventuality on their terms.
I am not a cyber-utopian. I want children to have the widest possible range of high-quality experiences regardless of the medium. However, computers do offer new things to know and new ways to know new things. They can be intellectual prosthetic devices that enable people to learn and express themselves in unprecedented ways. For at-risk students the computer may provide the first opportunity to experience the satisfaction of having a wonderful idea.
For girls’ schools, the computer offers rare opportunities for young women to invent their futures. Such schools will be successful only when they embrace constructionism, computers and put the needs of learners ahead of those held by curriculum designers. The women charged with the education of girls need to model the most fearless, creative and intellectually-rich use of computers if they are to inspire girls to be their very best.
Myths We Need to Overcome
#1 Girls Don’t Like Computers
Girls use computers in all sorts of ways ignored by schools. They use the technology to sustain and establish relationships via instant messaging, a technology needlessly prohibited by many schools. They publish web pages about bands and television shows they love. They share music and rip MP3s. Girls even play video games when those games are more playful and less violent.
We need to look for opportunities to build software environments and computer activities that engage girls. Many more peer-to-peer products need to be developed.
#2 Children Use Computers in School
Some of your schools have gone to great expense in order to produce glossy brochures exclaiming, “We have computers!” What may been news in 1979 is no longer newsworthy. That race has been won. What do your girls DO with those computers?
It is not your job to sort children, to decide which ones will have certain opportunities. It is your job to ensure that all children are exposed to the widest possible range of possibilities within a supportive caring environment.
Unless every girl has the opportunity to explore robotics, programming, MIDI composition, digital filmmaking, multimedia web publishing in a culture that values these activities, we cheat them of a thorough and efficient education. While computers should be transparent across all disciplines, it is outrageous how few comprehensive secondary schools offer computer science as a serious course of study. Few girls even know that this is an option as avocation or vocation. IT or ICT classes are just dressed-up computer literacy and outdated business studies courses. They lack rigor and don’t reflect the state of computing.
According to a recent study conducted by the Australian government, 44% of all children spend less than 40 minutes per week and 66% of all children spend less than one hour per week using a computer in school.2 Similar levels of inadequate access would be found in the USA as well. The major implication of this limited access is that many girls will just not use computers at all. Scarcity is a major obstacle to use. It is just not worth it for a girl to fight for an extra few minutes of computer time. 1:1 laptop computing certainly helps overcome this problem.
#3 Girls Need Different Technology
The myth that girls that girls need “pink” technology is unfounded. They need more imaginative examples of how computers and related technology might be used. Girls don’t dislike LEGO robotics and programming. It is just that their mothers and grandmothers do not buy LEGO for them. Their mothers don’t buy much software either.
Girls don’t need purple bricks. They do need project ideas that don’t result in trucks. Time and time again we have seen that girls are quite imaginative competent programmers and engineers when inspired to engage in such activities.
Girls play computer games in ways that attempt to push the boundaries of the rules – to manipulate them. Boys study the rules and try using them to get ahead, to vanquish opponents. I have seen many young girls “play” with the genre of Expanded Books by clicking on words in silly sequences in order to get the computer to say funny things. Their willingness and desire to manipulate systems should make girls the best computer users, not the most at-risk.
Since it is increasingly difficult for companies to earn a profit producing software for children, even less is created for girls. That which is created for girls insults their intelligence and merely pretties up either trivial tasks like coloring or is related to petty chores like storing addresses or diary entries.
There have been a few notable attempts to produce software for girls, but these efforts have borne little fruit. In the late 1980s, SEGA assembled all of their female engineers, artists, authors, programmers and game designers in one building in the hopes that all of this “girl power” would inspire the creation of hit videogame software for girls. It did not.
Brenda Laurel’s company, Purple Moon, was dedicated to producing software for girls and spent unprecedented funds on research into gender play patterns. The problem was that by the end of the research there was no money left to make quality software that offered compelling experiences for girls. I remember my daughter calling Purple Moon technical support to complain that her interactive adventure game crashed. She was informed that it didn’t crash, it just didn’t really have an ending. The last hope of Purple Moon was actually based on a terrific concept, a sports game for girls. The company recognized the rise in popularity in soccer among girls and had an opportunity to develop a soccer computer game for girls. Unfortunately, their soccer program told the story of getting ready for the big match, but never actually let the girls play soccer.
All is not bleak. Innovative examples of game software, such as Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) for the Sony PlayStation,allows players to dance on a physical pad and interact with the screen. Girls love DDR and play it until they lose weight and their dance pads wear-out. They just do so at home with friends. The arcade DDR machines are played primarily by boys who engage in a less playful, more competitive version of the activity.
Perhaps the least understood development in software for girls was the enormous late ‘90s success of Mattel’s Barbie Fashion Designer software. Regardless of how you feel about Barbie, this software title sold more copies than any other piece of “girls” software ever. The industry observed the breakthrough sales of this product and wrongly attributed its success to the fact that Barbie was on the box. This simply is not true.
There has been unsuccessful Barbie software on the market for nearly twenty years and there were other Barbie titles next to Fashion Designer. So, why did FD sell so well? I would argue that its commercial success had far less to do with Barbie than with constructionism. Barbie Fashion Designer allowed girls an opportunity to use their computers to make something cool – in this case clothes you could design, print and dress your doll in. Constructionism trumps even Barbie. This is a lesson we would do well to heed.
#4 There is More to Technology than Notebook Computers
It would be a great mistake to suggest that the latest PDA gizmo or thin-client is superior to a full-featured notebook computer. Many of these devices are intended for professionals with a specific job to do. Kids need better computers than most executives. I am quite unimpressed with those who can turn word processing and web surfing into a nine-year scope and sequence chart.
School computers may be used to do work and to learn. Work consists of writing, calculating, researching and presenting information. Learning consists of being immersed in the constructive processes with a reasonable chance of leading to the construction of a larger theory or bigger question. Microsoft Office is OK for doing work. MicroWorlds Pro is superior for learning.
“These days, computers are popularly thought of as multimedia devices, capable of incorporating and combining all previous forms of media – text, graphics, moving pictures, sound. I think this point of view leads to an underestimation of the computer’s potential. It is certainly true that a computer can incorporate and manipulate all other media, but the true power of the computer is that it is capable of manipulating not just the expression of ideas but also the ideas themselves. The amazing thing to me is not that a computer can hold the contents of all the books in a library but that it can notice relationships between the concepts described in the books – not that it can display a picture of a bird in flight or a galaxy spinning but that it can imagine and predict the consequences of the physical laws that create these wonders. The computer is not just an advanced calculator or camera or paintbrush; rather, it is a device that accelerates and extends our processes of thought. It is an imagination machine, which starts with the ideas we put into it and takes them farther than we ever could have taken them on our own.”3
Those who make claims that schools should use such devices rather than notebooks probably have little experience using computers in creative ways and are probably more concerned with cost than benefit to children. We learn by constructing knowledge in a social context. Such construction is dependent on full-featured computers capable of making all sorts of wondrous things and sharing those things with others. Serendipity should be the goal. It is arrogant and misguided to put too much stock in what we think kids might do with technology. I embrace the wondrous inventions that enliven classrooms and stimulate even greater inquiry.
Software is another cause of confusion. Some educators are impressed by false complexity, software loaded with confusing features, tools and menus. The logic suggests that hard-to-use, expensive, or corporate software must be superior to the silly stuff developed specifically for kids. New need not mean better and pretty need not mean deep. We should endeavor to use as few software packages as possible, if of course those packages are sufficiently flexible, so that students may develop fluency. MicroWorlds use pays dividends after students have ample time to allow the software to become second nature. Jumping from software package to software package may impress adults, but it will cheat students of the benefits paid by fluency.
#5 We Have Good Role Models for Girls
One of the most effective ways to learn is through apprenticeship. Children learn a great deal, with little effort, from spending quality time engaged in authentic activities with adults. These adults inspire, teach and motivate through their example. It makes sense that if we want girls to be competent engaged computer users, then the women in their lives need to be competent engaged computer users. Most of the women known to children are teachers and yet they are among the weakest users of computers in society.
The critical shortage of teachers with demonstrable levels of computer fluency makes it difficult for girls to see the value of computing in their reflection. Carol Gilligan’s research suggests that during the early years of adolescence when girls begin to shape their identity, they also begin to see women marginalized by society. Teachers have a responsibility to be much better high-tech role models, computer clubs for girls need to be created and a public campaign must be waged to attract girls to hobbies and vocations involving computer technology.
#6 Girls Should Study Technology Criticism
Dale Spender once told a room full of educators that schools need to teach girls to criticize technology since for a number of reasons, including that women were being “routinely raped and molested online.” This hysterical proclamation was made prior to the widespread availability of the World Wide Web.
While we should be cautious to ensure the safety of all children, we do not need to raise irrational concerns. Reactionary criticism of “technology” (whatever that means) is like criticizing the weather. You will lead a rather unfulfilling life.
While it may be useful to be knowledgeable of the benefits and consequences of emerging technologies, criticism requires little intimate knowledge of the subject and renders the critic a spectator. Girls cannot afford to remain spectators in the use of the most powerful instruments of science, art and commerce ever invented. If girls wish to lead happy productive lives they will need to learn to cut code, to master the instruments of so much influence. We must move beyond hoping that our daughter will marry Bill Gates to a day in which our daughters compete successfully against him. This is a necessity if computers and software are to ever become more attractive and convivial for the majority gender.
#7 School Administrators are Qualified to Make Important Technology Decisions
School administrators like the marketing benefits associated with standing next to a group of kids and a computer, yet few have ever done anything imaginative with a computer. Unprecedented budgetary and educational discretion have been placed in the hands of technology directors who often have little knowledge of or concern for the learning needs of children. This abdication of responsibility has cost schools billions of dollars and squandered all sorts of good will and opportunity to innovate.
#8 Schools are Designed to Sort Children
American schools are being destroyed by the over-emphasis on higher-meaner-tougher standards and the quest for high-standardized test scores. California spends nearly $2 billion (US) annually on the administration of a testing scheme non-aligned to the curriculum and which can’t even seem to be scored correctly. Teachers are prohibited by law from looking at the test and receive no more than a score reporting on each child’s results yet are expected to improve practice based on this score.
Some schools spend as much as eleven weeks per year in external assessment in addition to the countless wasted hours of test preparation. Recess is being eliminated in some schools. Science, social studies and the arts have disappeared to make way for more literacy and numeracy based on a pedagogy of yelling louder more often. Students are being tortured by this nonsense and great teachers are being driven out of the profession. Schools are deemed failures and susceptible to takeover while children are kept from progressing to the next grade based on norm-reference tests requiring 50% to fail. This is the cruelest of hoaxes perpetrated on children. The publisher of California’s exam includes teacher instructions in the event that a student vomits on her test booklet.
One principal recently committed suicide as a result of her school’s test scores.
These tests serve no productive purpose and are cheating children of a joyous purposeful learning experience. Citizens of conscience must oppose this wholesale deprivation of educational excellence at every opportunity.
Australian independent schools do not have to play this game, yet they do. Complain all you want about the Department of Education, but your schools have the power to reject or at least influence, the trajectory of these accountability schemes.
This is not the case. In the years since I began working with Australian schools, local girls’ schools have not only capitulated to the VCE, but have embraced the odd little International Baccalaureate. Say what you like about American imperialism, but even we don’t have the audacity to dictate your curriculum.
The greatest tragedy is that local independent schools not only lack the courage to fight this scourge, they actively promote their scores in a most cynical attempt to gain market advantage over the competitors.
I spent some time looking at the web sites of local girls’ schools and was sickened by an animation of a cute little girl with text scrolling over her announcing this school’s test scores. Perhaps the advertisement should say things like, “Our school makes more girls cry and nauseous than any other school.” Or “our girls crushed the dumb girls down the street.” How about, “our school wasted more precious resources on cheap marketing stunts than our competition?”
I often feel like the Great Gazoo when I attend educational conferences. If you don’t remember Gazoo, he was the Martian who inexplicably visited Bedrock in the Flintstones. Terms like set tasks, packets of work, VCE scores, marks, CATs, outcomes or league tables are the words of Dickensian shopkeepers, not people who love children.
Girls deserve schools that do everything possible to create nurturing environments capable of honoring their emotional, intellectual, spiritual and creative needs.
If we believe that children are a blessing entrusted to us, then what we do should be self-evident. The choice of educational direction is not related to education party, region or grade level. We must choose between a belief in constructionism, the notion that learners are central to the learning process, or instructionism, the idea that we can improve education by teaching better. Better teachers will undoubtedly create rich environments in which students feel safe to take risks, explore their curiosity and share their knowledge. However, it is impossible to learn for anyone else no matter how hard you try. Constructionism gives agency to the learner, instructionism to the system/curriculum/teacher. Our goal should be “less us, more them.”
Schools need to do a better job of engaging all learners, listening to them and building upon their natural expertise, knowledge and talent. We need schools in which children are engaged in authentic, personally meaningful tasks in conjunction with adults who can inspire them to greater heights. Abundant computer access and high expectations for the myriad of ways in which computers may be used as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression must be the norm. Adults, particularly women, have a major responsibility as role models who develop and use sophisticated computer users. We need to think less of female students as precious Victorian-era dolls and more as competent citizens who can compute, solder and take responsibility for their own learning. They deserve no less.
1 This is not a scholarly paper. It is intended as a manifesto to accompany a keynote address. This print document cannot reproduce the examples, video clips, anecdotes, humour and passion shared during the conference. The books I love and learned from may be found at http://www.stager.org/books/. A collection of my articles about education may be found at www.stager.org.
2 Real time Computers, Change and Schooling – National sample study of the information technology skills of Australian school students
Merydth, Russel et al.
3 Hillis, Daniel. (1998) The Pattern on the Stone: The Simple Ideas that Make Computers Work.
I’m a curious guy who wonders a lot about the forces and rhetoric influencing education. At the risk of kicking a hornet’s nest and incurring the wrath of being flamed, I wish to raise what I honestly believe to be an important issue. If you are unfamiliar with my work, outspoken opposition to the standards movement, commitment to equity or embrace of computers in education, I humbly ask you to consider the questions posed in this blog post in the spirit with which they are intended – to stimulate thoughtful professional dialogue or at least Google my body of work.
A handful of educators have been blogging now for more than a decade. Countless others have fallen in love with social media. They make conference presentations showing viral YouTube videos and lead Twitter workshops. There is more than an air of grandiosity that accompanies the use of the tools known collectively as Web 2.0. This self-importance is manifest in two ways.
- Frustration that every educator hasn’t joined the PLN/PLC/social network/Twitterverse/blogopshere, because “if they only knew what I know…”
- A few gazillion blog posts and tweets proclaiming the use of Web 2.0 as either already having transformed education or the prediction that it will transform education. A variation on this theme is the threat that social media will destroy, replace or delegitimize formal education.
Don’t shoot the messenger, but I have a very serious question to ask.
In this era of heightened educational “accountability,” why are there so few, if any, demands being made for evidence of Web 2.0′s efficacy in schools?
I have my own hypotheses, but I would prefer to read some of yours.
Cameras should play an essential role in any classroom. They need to be freely accessible and abundant. Cameras can tell stories, document learning adventures and produce images for inclusion in student projects. Today, still and video cameras are converging with each doing the other quite well and inexpensively.
The following are my current favorite cameras at all price points and for use by kids of all ages.
Killer still camera with HD video
The Nikon 1 V1 is somewhere between a point-and-shoot and DSLR. It is mirrorless, works great in low light, shoots up to 60 frames per second (capture a balloon popping) and records beautiful HD video, with slow-motion available. It’s a solid camera with really fine compact lenses. The battery life is terrific. The 30-110mm lens isn’t much bigger than the 10-30mm one and my photos at a Jets game look like I work for Sports Illustrated.
This is the camera for the teacher you love most (yourself)
For Chubby Little Fingers
While supplies last, you can buy a waterproof and rubberized Kodak Playsport Zx5 video camera. This camera takes a licking and keeps ticking. It shoots stills and HD video. The quality is not as good as the other cameras I recommend, but this camera fits in your pocket, is waterproof and has a battery life capable of recording an hour or so of video for $95! I’ve bought several of them.
The tiny $!51 Canon PowerShot ELPH 110 16.1MP Digital Camera with 3-Inch TFT LCD takes great photos and records 1080P HD video. Unlike the other cameras, this one has a flash if that’s something you like. Every classroom should have a few of these babies!
For the Daredevil
If you need a classroom monkeycam or to strap a rugged high-definition video camera onto an underwater skateboard, then you need the $250 GoPro HD Hero2 Edition. This tiny camera is designed for extreme activity and is capable of time lapse photography as well.
Dear colleagues and friends of progressive education,
It is time for us to stop arguing against high-stakes testing. Americans LOVE the idea of high-stakes as long as it means that their kid beats someone else’s kids at school.
We are losing both the battle and the war of ideas.
I humbly suggest that we replace high-stakes testing with the term, constant testing.
Parents, policy-makers and taxpayers are likely unaware that kids in some jurisdictions spend dozens of days each school year taking standardized tests. That doesn’t include the costs or time wasted on endless test-prep. This practice is obviously unsustainable, excessive and nonsensical.
This subtle rhetorical shift to constant testing has the potential to move public opinion in our direction.
The first step in improving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (S.T.E.M.) in our classrooms is to find evidence of its existence.
S.T.E.M. currently suffers from the Sasquatch Syndrome. People have heard of S.T.E.M. just like they have heard of Bigfoot, but they’ve never actually seen either.
Two years ago, I taught Masters level Elementary Math and Science methods courses. One night, I asked the class of preservice teachers currently student teaching what I thought was an innocent question. I asked, “Tell me about how science is approached in your school?” The students looked around nervously for a moment and then shared observations like the following:
- We are supposed to do science after testing season.
- The science teacher is on maternity leave.
- Nobody knows where the key to the science materials is.
- Our school is focusing on numeracy and literacy.
- Science is supposed to happen on Mondays, but we have had a lot of holidays.
You get the idea…
Not a single student teacher working in several dozen Southern California elementary schools could cite a single incident of science being taught. Forget about engineering or computer science.
After all, it’s not like little kids are curious or enjoy exploring the world around them. You couldn’t possibly teach reading or language arts in a scientific context, right?
On October 12, 2012, MSNBC host and former West Wing writer, Lawrence O’Donnell, dedicated his “Rewrite” commentary to the sorts of changes he believes would make presidential debates more informative, thoughtful and effective.
Once you endure the first few minutes of a clip from the fictional West Wing, O’Donnell makes a quite compelling case that the current debate format favors superficiality over substance and is a poor predictor of a candidate’s success as President of the United States. O’Donnell is making the case that the President must be deliberate, collaborative and well-informed. The pop-quiz format of the debates reward memorization and superficiality.
In school terms, the debates measure the wrong things and focus on inauthentic tasks. This misdirects resources and distracts teachers from sound pedagogical practices.
I won’t tell you O’Donnell’s recommendations, but most if not all could be applied to matters of curriculum and assessment. You should watch for yourself!
I hold Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige of Lesley University (aka: Matt Damon’s mother) in great esteem, but was alarmed by her recent contribution to The Answer Sheet in the Washington Post. Dr. Carlsson-Paige makes a critical error all-too common among progressive educators. She confuses modernity with an attack on childhood.
I have asked the Valerie Strauss, editor of The Answer Sheet, for an opportunity to write a full rebuttal. In the meantime, here are the comments I whipped together and published on the web site, along with a stray one or two.
Dr. Carlsson-Paige is correct that most “educational” software is crap, but she jumps to some conclusions that I find quite disappointing and wrong. Her intergenerational panic conflates a great number of issues and will alarm parents well-conditioned to overreacting.
She identifies the drop in creativity (citation would have been nice) in children between kindergarten and sixth grade). Could this not be due to the dramatic changes in schooling that Carlsson-Paige rightly rails against, such as the narrowing of curriculum, endless test-prep, drill & practice and lack of arts education? Perhaps, technology has slowed the decline in creativity, however that is measured, being caused by school. Children building and LEGO programming robots, making movies, composing music, designing worlds in Minecraft, sewing wearable computers, playing with Squishy Circuits (conductive and non-conductive clay), programming their own video games, collaborating with others over great distances are demonstrable evidence of childhood creativity.
It is quite possible that school has a greater prophylactic impact on creativity than the Internet.
It is hideously simplistic to privilege one media over another, especially when decrying the death of creativity or loss of innocence. For example, nobody ever questions the cognitive value or impact on creativity of a kid holding a Hotwheels car and saying, “Vroom Vroom,” over and over again for hours at a time. We value that activity, right? Do we have any evidence that it is more beneficial than a toy with batteries or Internet connection? Does a wooden toy increase creativity more than one made of plastic? If drawing with a crayon is better than drawing with your finger on a screen, why is it so? How do we know? Is drawing with a crayon better for childhood development than drawing with chalk?
If a child was shown a photo of Mom and Dad on a screen or able to video chat with them (as is possible in the real world of the child), would that somehow be worse than carrying a physical photo? Would a cherished video clip of mother and child harm a child’s ability to develop resilience?
What role are parents playing in the overregulation of children’s play through overprotection and over-scheduling? What is the impact of homework on play? What has silent lunch and the end of recess done to children’s creative development?
Why not evaluate the quality of the activity rather than superficial aspects of the medium?
Television is passive, but Dora the Explorer may have value beyond its tranquilizing effect. Surely, there are incredibly engaging ways in which computers can and are used by children. Educators should do much better job of bringing those rich modern experiences to children.
How can having the ability to answer any question you wonder about instantly be bad for children? If you make simple things easy to do, you make complexity possible.
In my humble opinion, we visit great violence on the development of young people by dishonoring or ignoring the world and milieu in which they live. Nostalgia is no substitute for reason.
I enjoyed a lovely lunch today in the Republic of Užupis. In between bites of pizza, I couldn’t help but think of how many teachers are busily assembling the class rule and penalty documents for distribution on the first day of school.With each passing year, these reams of paper begin to resemble the US tax code in size, scope, severity and arbitrariness.Welcome back kids! Here’s the list of ways we expect you to screw-up and be punished over the next 180 days. If you do not bring this document back to school tomorrow, signed by a parent, the cycle of punishment will begin with all due haste!
Don’t strain your back hanging the laminated set of class rules used for decades. Why not consider adopting the Constitution of Užupis for class governance?
Constitution of The Republic of Užupis
- Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, and the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone.
- Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof.
- Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.
- Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
- Everyone has the right to be unique.
- Everyone has the right to love.
- Everyone has the right not to be loved, but not necessarily.
- Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown.
- Everyone has the right to be idle.
- Everyone has the right to love and take care of a cat.
- Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.
- A dog has the right to be a dog.
- A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need.
- Sometimes everyone has the right to be unaware of their duties.
- Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation.
- Everyone has the right to be happy.
- Everyone has the right to be unhappy.
- Everyone has the right to be silent.
- Everyone has the right to have faith.
- No one has the right to violence.
- Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance.
- No one has the right to have a design on eternity.
- Everyone has the right to understand.
- Everyone has the right to understand nothing.
- Everyone has the right to be of any nationality.
- Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.
- Everyone shall remember their name.
- Everyone may share what they possess.
- No one can share what they do not possess.
- Everyone has the right to have brothers, sisters and parents.
- Everyone may be independent.
- Everyone is responsible for their freedom.
- Everyone has the right to cry.
- Everyone has the right to be misunderstood.
- No one has the right to make another person guilty.
- Everyone has the right to be individual.
- Everyone has the right to have no rights.
- Everyone has the right to not to be afraid.
- Do not defeat
- Do not fight back
- Do not surrender
The motto of Užupis, “Don’t Fight! Don’t Win! Don’t Surrender!” would be swell for your school as well. This web site has a terrific tour of Užupis I recommend reading it.
As you begin another school year, my best advice comes from the great American philosopher Gerald Norman Springer, “Take care of yourselves and each other!”
Will Richardson wrote a nice blog post, “The Thin Value of Proposition,” in which he argues that the true value in education is the relationship between teachers and students. Good point.
“By taking the burden of lesson planning and assessment creation for all students at once away from the teacher, administrators can empower teachers to individualize instruction for every student.”
Tony,I would argue that the mess we’re in is largely the result of twenty years of thinking like you describe. Reducing teachers to technicians who may make decisions about individualizing instruction for each student is impossible since agency to make larger decisions has been steadily robbed from teachers, along with an ability to fight the forces deskilling them. Teachers incapable of deciding what to teach will be less capable of determining how to teach. There is no pedagogical change or dramatic shift in student outcomes possible without an ability to change the intellectual diet provided for children.
Papert used to say that School at best teaches a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the universe, yet we quibble endlessly about which billionth of a percent is most important – the piece we have always taught. Take mathematics for example, the curriculum and pedagogical approach has remained constant since the Inquisition, despite dramatic societal shifts and the revolutionary impact of computers in real mathematics, not the BS served up in school. Teachers can either be experts in the true nature of mathematics, it’s beauty and power or devise little tricks to make a toxic curriculum a tad less poisonous. The result of that decision creates a scenario where we teach “Algebra in Utero,” pushing it down a grade level constantly while NAEP scores remain stagnant.
I want children to have teachers who can see a flower, read a short story or use a newspaper article as the basis for connecting lots of disciplines and powerful ideas at any moment to create rich rewarding learning contexts for children.
I’m in Krakow, Poland right now and am staying across the street from sort of school. I walked by today and heard children singing along to a song being played on the piano by their teacher. I don’t hear a lot of singing in American classrooms these days.
I became an elementary school teacher at the very end of the era when you needed to learn how to play the piano a tiny bit, teach PE, harvest meal worms and make puppets out of Pop-Tart boxes. We were explicitly talked about how if we saw educational value in playing Scrabble for three months, how to identify the educational objectives being met and write them in our plan book.
For generations, THAT was a teacher. Why do we ask so little of them today?
When I walk into classrooms, rich and poor – private and public, around the world today I see a remarkable return to whole class instruction. Gone are the projects, centers and other joyful spaces for becoming lost in one’s own learning. This sad reality may be the result of changing the definition of teaching to the delivery of curriculum and management of classrooms.
The elaborate ruse called differentiated instruction is only necessary because the curriculum is handed down to teachers on stone tablets. If the educators closest to children had the greatest voice in curricular decisions, individualization would be natural.Gary Stager
First, my good friend Chris Lehmann wrote about in “Why I Am Against For Profit Schools,” how the school privatization movement (and I would add the Obama administration) have embraced the rhetoric of personalization and individualization to replace teachers with less expensive drill and practice systems. These integrated “learning” systems reduce education to an endless series of multiple-choice quizzes. (read what I wrote about this idea in 1992, Integrated Learning Systems, The New Slavery) They never have worked and never will.
Since the evidence supporting computerized teaching systems has been weak since WWII, the dystopians and their bankers pushing this idea feel compelled to dress it up in fancy names like “Carpe Diem,” “Flipped Classroom,” “School of One,” “Blast,” “Khan Academy,” etc…. Each of these old wines in new marketing slogans have at their core a desire to reduce the cost of education as low as possible and attempt to do so by replacing qualified educators with 200 terminals, Math Blaster and an armed security guard.
Soon after Chris published his article, our mutual friend Will Richardson wrote “The Thin Value Proposition,” in which he too agrees with Chris and argues that the the value in schooling is the establishment of relationships among teachers and students. I often end my speeches by saying that teachers make memories and when students come back to reminisce, they never speak about the time they raised PISA scores or used all of their spelling words in a sentence, they remember meaningful projects teachers created the context for.
I agree with the arguments made by Chris and Will. They perfectly frame the terms of the conundrum many of us who advocate the use of computers as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression face when more powerful forces wish to use computers as tools of oppression, cost-cutting or antidotes for progressive education. How is it possible to love computers in education and hate the popular implementations of computers in education?
It is questions like this that led me to create The Daily Papert two years ago.
Papert articulated Will’s argument twenty-two years ago.
“It is this freedom of the teacher to decide and, indeed, the freedom of the children to decide, that is most horrifying to the bureaucrats who stand at the head of current education systems. They are worried about how to verify that the teachers are really doing their job properly, how to enforce accountability and maintain quality control. They prefer the kind of curriculum that will lay down, from day to day, from hour to hour, what the teacher should be doing, so that they can keep tabs on it. Of course, every teacher knows this is an illusion. It’s not an effective method of insuring quality. It is only a way to cover ass. Everybody can say, “I did my bit, I did my lesson plan today, I wrote it down in the book.” Nobody can be accused of not doing the job. But this really doesn’t work. What the bureaucrat can verify and measure for quality has nothing to do with getting educational results–those teachers who do good work, who get good results, do it by exercising judgment and doing things in a personal way, often undercover, sometimes even without acknowledging to themselves that they are violating the rules of the system. Of course one must grant that some people employed as teachers do not do a good job. But forcing everyone to teach by the rules does not improve the “bad teachers”– it only hobbles the good ones.”
Papert. S. (1990, July). Perestroika and Epistemological Politics. Speech presented at the World Conference on Computers in Education. Sydney, Australia.
Seymour Papert began giving voice to Chris Lehmann’s concerns as far back as 1968!
“The phrase, “technology and education” usually means inventing new gadgets to teach the same old stuff in a thinly disguised version of the same old way. Moreover, if the gadgets are computers, the same old teaching becomes incredibly more expensive and biased towards its dumbest parts, namely the kind of rote learning in which measurable results can be obtained by treating the children like pigeons in a skinner box.”
Papert S. (1980). Teaching Children Thinking in Taylor, R., Ed., The Computer in School: Tutor, Tool, Tutee. New York: Teachers College Press. pp. 161 -176.
Note: This paper was originally presented in 1970 at the IFIP World Conference on Computers in Education in Amsterdam. The paper was published as an MIT Logo Memo No. 2. Nicholas Negroponte reports that Papert first presented this work in 1968.