A colleague recently asked for advice for parents wishing to opt-out their children from school assigned homework.
This is what we did. Every person we have shared this strategy with found it to be successful. In most cases, teachers not only agree with our stance, but aren’t quite sure why they assign homework in the first place.
 
Dear Teacher X,
We are concerned by the lack of evidence supporting the use of homework and the toll the practice is taking on our child and family. Homework needlessly reduces ___’s time for free play, relaxation, independent reading, exercise, practicing his/her instrument, and healthy family interaction. There is no reason for my child to work a second unpaid shift when he/she returns home from school. I object to the imposition of homework into what might otherwise be domestic tranquility.
 
The daily checking of homework robs valuable instructional time that could be used for more authentic learning experiences, such as project work. Homework may also have a deleterious effect on a child’s affection for school and is unfair to children with diverse lives outside of the classroom.
 
I understand that you may be required to assign homework – perhaps even the amount of it kids get per night. Such policies contradict any argument that homework is intended for reinforcement purposes. In other words, if some kids may benefit from different levels of “practice” or “reinforcement,” then it makes no sense for every student to be assigned the same homework.
 
Therefore, we propose the following. Each night when ____ comes home from school we will survey the assigned homework. If we believe that it has any merit, our child will complete just enough exercises or problems to demonstrate understanding of the concept. Once that is completed to our satisfaction, we will sign the incomplete work and have our child return it to you unfinished.
 
We hope you will respect our decision and not punish our child in any way, shape, or form for the actions of his/her parents. Please feel free to share this letter with your principal.
 
You might find these articles interesting.
Say the word and I will buy you one of the books making the case against homework.
 
Have a great school year!
Sincerely,
Parent
 

Check out our books by educators for creative educators.

From the archives…

Back-to-Rule

We must address behavior and not technology

© 2001 Gary S. Stager
Published in the November 2001 issue of District Administrator Magazine

Parent: Are you going to wear your new hat today?
Child: No because fifth graders are not allowed to wear hats to school
Parent: Why can’t fifth graders wear hats?
School administrator: Because sixth graders can’t wear hats
Parent: OK, now I understand better. May I ask, “why can’t sixth graders wear hats?”
School administrator: Gangs!
Parent: Do we have gang problems?
School administrator: No, because we don’t let sixth graders wear hats.

The preceding dialogue (experienced by my own family) typifies the wacky rule making increasingly found in American schools. Back-to-school time often coincides with the arbitrary banning of toys, apparel and assorted nick-knacks from our classrooms and playgrounds. It seems as if instinct takes over whenever administrators encounter something kids care about. The reflexive impulse is to forbid these objects from the educational environment.

There are several reasons for taking a deep breath and exercising caution before enforcing the next pog embargo.

We risk alienating children from school and missing potential curriculum connections.

As the world becomes more complex, violent and distinct from the life of the school, educators should look for opportunities to establish closer relationships with their students. Arbitrarily banning objects embraced by children needlessly erects barriers between teachers and students, school and the real-world. Baseball cards may be used to explore powerful ideas in probability, statistics, graphing, sorting and geography. Pogs, and Pokemon cards are excellent manipulatives for sorting, pattern recognition. Virtual pets could be used to explore life cycles, emotions and causal relationships. Hotwheels cars may be used in physics experiments. Even the social equity issues often used to justify prohibition may be explored when children feel that their teachers respect their world. Positive relationships with caring adults will outlast the latest fad.

It’s not good to be a hypocrite

Do unto others as we would have done onto us. If as Seymour Papert asserts, “laptops are today’s prime instrument for intellectual work,” then we should not forbid kids from access to non-violent tools so important to our own work. One school that requires every student to own a laptop banned tamagotchis (handheld programmable virtual pets) from school by enforcing their policy prohibiting electronic devices on campus.

You just can’t keep up

As media spin-offs, high-tech devices and toys proliferate, it will be impossible for school leaders to keep up with all of them in order to enforce subsequent bans. High-tech devices allowed today may integrate prohibited technologies in the future. Convergence will bring increasing power to kids and headaches for administrators. What happens when the book bag contains a laptop, the laptop contains a cell phone or sneakers contain a laptop and a cell phone?

New learning technologies will emerge

Laptops, programmable toys and handheld devices are becoming more affordable, powerful and therefore ubiquitous. Disallowing such devices at school will impoverish the learning environment. While Mr. Dette’s fondness for nostalgia would earn us extra credit for using a slide rule in his physical science class, he never punished us for using a calculator.

This year schools from coast-to-coast are banning Palm and similar handheld computers. An article in Wired News quotes Alan Warhaftig, a coordinator of the nonprofit organization Learning in the Real World (an organization critical of digital technology in education).

“I know when I’m in a faculty meeting that is boring me to tears, I will read The New York Times on AvantGo and look like I’m (concentrating) on the meeting,” said Warhaftig. I say, “duh?” Imagine if kids could vote with their feet. Would classrooms begin to be more reflective of their needs?

Mr. Warhaftig goes on to reveal his belief in the supremacy of the school over the learner when he went on to say, “The magic in the classroom is getting kids to concentrate.”[i]

Surely the availability of powerful personal computation and communications devices offer benefits that outweigh concerns of distracted students.

American educators don’t hold the patent on stupidity. While on a recent working tour of Australia I read a newspaper article announcing that the Western Australia (state) Principals Association was urging a ban on Harry Potter trading cards BEFORE THEY ARE RELEASED. Why even wait to see if kids like the things, let’s ban them just in case!

Some technologies make our students and staff safer

Cell phones are perhaps the most often banned legal devices in American schools. Aside from the obvious convenience they afford, cellular phones have become lifesaving tools. In both Columbine and the terrible terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, cell phones preserved life, called for help or offered comfort for family members. My childrens’ high school has unilaterally banned cell phones from the campus as have many schools across the country.

I adamantly believe that a school has no right whatsoever to jeopardize the safety of my daughter who is forced to wander a dark locked campus at 10:30 PM after drama practice. The payphones and vending machines are often more secure then the children. As a parent, it is I who should have the right to locate my child and have her call for help in case of an emergency.

Reducing classroom distractions is often cited as the rationale for this rule, but this is nonsense. If you walk into Carnegie Hall or an airplane, a polite adult asks that you please turn off your phone for the comfort or safety of those around you. Why can’t teachers do the same?

If a student disrupts the learning environment then that action should be punished in the same way we address spitballs, note passing or talking in class. It is irrational to have different rules for infractions involving electronic devices. We must address behavior, not technology. This approach will make our schools more caring, relevant, productive and secure. Our kids deserve nothing less.

[i] Batista, Elisa. “Debating Merits of Palms in Class.” Wired News. Aug. 23, 2001. http://www.wired.com/news/wireless/0,1382,45863-2,00.html

This time of year, the “news” is full of heartwarming back-to-school tales of good citizens buying school supplies for needy classrooms. Pop-music footnotes, Katy Perry and Pharrell the Plagiarist have both engaged in selfless acts of corporate shilling philanthropy shameless publicity to help students get school supplies. Donors Choose has created a social media platform where teachers can beg crowdfund for crayons and Kleenex. (Read my article about Donors Choose)

Ain’t it swell that school supply supplying is bigger and better than ever?

HELL NO!

I will not help teachers commit suicide by supporting these feel good attempts to turn basic public school funding into an act of charity. Each time educators normalize deprivation and substitute charity as social justice withheld, they will find themselves with fewer classroom resources. Such actions also spurn greater public school privatization and devaluing of teachers.

Q:      You know who should pay for school supplies?

A:      Tax payers!

Perhaps corporations and pop stars could begin paying their fair share of taxes so that Katy Perry isn’t forced to enrich Bain Capital’s Mitt Romney’s Staples.

But, but, but, but, but… teachers spend a fortune on classroom supplies that their students need. Right, I get it. I do too. I spent $1,000 the first month I taught 4th grade. That’s not the point.

First of all, teachers should be able to deduct those costs off their income taxes. Second, public schools should be adequately funded. Third, teachers should stop contributing to consumerism and ask what their kids really need.

Yes, I’m going there. Every time a teacher requires 4 of these, 3 of those… a specific brand of pen, or an official notebook they contribute to needless family strife and exacerbate inequality.

When you require a Trapper Keeper (the Volvo of notebooks) or ban the Trapper Keeper (the three-hole punched incubus), you do not “teach organizational skills” as much as you teach compliance, reinforce prehistoric educational practices, and place a needless financial strain on your students’ families. It’s a freakin’ notebook for God’s sake. If a teacher is concerned with enforcing whether a student writes on one of both sides of a paper, or cares about the brand or color of their notebook, they should seek professional help.

Parents should stop worrying about this nonsense and expect public schools to be adequately funded and stocked with necessary supples – as is required by law and practice.

We are the richest nation in the history of the world. We can afford a cello and laptop for every child. It is a sin to beg for pencils.

So, let’s review. I salute the folks who wish to contribute to public education. Volunteering, contributing to organizations like Access Books, bring a performance to school, or pay for things kids might love are a much better idea. Every time a school wastes a second fundraising for basic supplies, a billionaire replaces a teacher with a YouTube video

The following videos are a good representation of my work as a conference keynote speaker and educational consultant. The production values vary, but my emphasis on creating more productive contexts for learning remains in focus.

  • For information on bringing Dr. Stager to your conference, school or district, click here.
  • For biographical information about Dr. Stager, click here.
  • For a list of new keynote topics and workshops by Dr. Stager, click here
  • For a list of popular and “retired” keynote topics by Dr. Stager, click here.
  • For family workshops, click here.
  • To learn more about the range of educational services offered by Dr. Stager, click here.

View Gary Stager’s three different TEDx Talks from around the world

Watch Gary Stager: My Hope for School from Gary Stager on Vimeo.
This clip is part of the documentary Imagine It 2


2016 short documentary featuring Dr. Stager from Melbourne, Australia.



Learning to Play in Education: Joining the Maker Movement
A public lecture by Gary Stager at The Steward School, November 2015

Dr. Gary Stager Visits the Steward School, 2015

A Broader Perspective on Maker Education – Interview with Gary Stager in Amsterdam, 2015

 Choosing Hope Over Fear from the 2014 Chicago Education Festival


This is What Learning Looks Like – Strategies for Hands-on Learning, a conversation with Steve Hargadon, Bay Area Maker Faire, 2012.


Gary Stager “This is Our Moment “ – Conferencia Anual 2014 Fundación Omar Dengo (Costa Rica)
San José, Costa Rica. November 2014

 

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Gary Stager – Questions and Answers Section – Annual Lecture 2014 (Costa Rica)
San José, Costa Rica. November 2014

TEDx Talk, “Seymour Papert, Inventor of Everything*


Ten Things to Do with a Laptop – Learning and Powerful Ideas
Keynote Address – ITEC Conference – Des Moines, Iowa – October 2011


Plenary Talk at Construtionism 2014 Conference
Vienna, Austria. August, 2014

 


Children, Computing and Creativity
Address to KERIS – Seoul, South Korea – October 2011

 


Gary Stager’s 2011 TEDxNYED Talk
NY, NY – March 2011

 


Gary Stager Discusses 1:1 Computing with leading Costa Rican educators
University of Costa Rica – San José, Costa Rica – June 2011

 

Progressive Education and The Maker Movement – Symbiosis or Mutually Assured Destruction? (approx 45:00 in)
FabLearn 2014 Paper Presentation
October 2014. Stanford University

Keynote Address: Making School Reform
FabLearn 2013 Conference.
October 2013. Stanford University.

Making, Love, and Learning
February 2014. Marin County Office of Education.


Gary Stager’s Plenary Address at the Constructionism 2010 Conference
Paris, France – August 2010

 


Gary Stager Excerpts from NECC ’09 Keynote Debate
June 2009 – Washington D.C.

For more information, go to: http://stager.tv/blog/?p=493

 


Dr. Stager interviewed by ICT Qatar
Doha, Qatar – Spring 2010

 


Learning Adventures: Transforming Real and Virtual Learning Environments
NECC 2009 Spotlight Session – Washington, D.C. – June 2009
More information may be found at http://stager.tv/blog/?p=531

 

© 2009-2016 Gary S. Stager – All Rights Reserved Except TEDxNYED & Imagine IT2 clip owned by producers

I cannot believe that for the third straight year, a piece of garbage masquerading as education “research” is once again being passed around like social media dysentery. Worst of all, well-meaning, yet ultimately gullible educators seem compelled to “debate” such nonsense. Since teachers are terminally nice and all dissent is viewed as defect, it doesn’t take much for people to find the silver lining in this bag of manure.

I hate sharing this article with you because it makes me feel like a hypocrite, but I hope readers will consider not considering such baloney in the future.

They have the audacity to call this child abuse a “theory.” Never mind the scientific standards required for a crackpot idea to rise to the level of a theory..

The Bare Walls Theory: Do Too Many Classroom Decorations Harm Learning? (2014)

Every single assumption in this nonsense must be challenged.
  1. It’s the teacher’s classroom, not the students’ learning environment.
  2. Learning is apparently equated with being able to regurgitate facts and propaganda on command.
  3. Kindergartners should take ANY tests, let alone standardized ones.
  4. The classroom is a factory where efficiency must squelch wonder, whimsy, thinking, or even daydreaming.
  5. The purpose of kindergarten or any grade is to be taught.
  6. Learning is the direct result of having been taught.
  7. Medical science should be ignored. Children need to cast their eyes as far as possible, as often as possible for healthy vision development.
  8. Racism is OK. No affluent white parent would tolerate their young children spending seven hours each day in a prison cell pretending to be a classroom.
  9. There is no role for beauty in education. There is no place for celebrating the creativity, ingenuity, and personal expression of children.
  10. Learning is to be “distraction free.” Schools are to be antisocial. Knowledge is not socially constructed.
  11. Any kid has ever read a poster to “reinforce learning they can be useful to helping students retain.” (that quote was a comment from a teacher justifying the practice online)
  12. Kindergartners can or should read any signs.
  13. NBC doesn’t hate public education.
At the recent Constructing Modern Knowledge institute, Carla Rinaldi, President of Reggio Children (largely considered one of the world’s wisest educators) said that we need to learn AS A GROUP, not in a group.
 
How about a world in which teachers behave as each child’s colleague and collaborator? What if you assumed that everyone (kid and teacher alike) want to be in the classroom together? What if you delighted in the company of children?
 
Educators should really think before sharing such mean-spirited anti-child crap. Some ideas are so demonstrably vile and stupid that they are hardly worthy of “debate.”
So many lessons in this one article about the new principal of Stuyvesant High School in NYC…
  1. As I often tell friends, if you’re not on track to be a principal by age 35, you are screwed. Education is at least as ageist a field as any other.
  2. Selective high schools are bad for democracy.
  3. What the hell is the “High School of Teaching, Liberal Arts and the Sciences?” They left out lunch and P.E. in the school’s name. Again, I remind you that children of privilege attend schools named for poets, Dead Presidents, and trees.
  4. Nothing trumps an educator of color super dedicated to test-prep.
  5. Of course the current Principal of the vulgar Stuyvesant is going to head a military boarding school. That’s what Stuyvesant creates.
  6. WOWEE!!!! A former teacher becomes a principal!!!! There must be a shortage of 7-11 night managers with Broad training.
  7. 4% of Stuyvesant students are children of color in NYC!

http://www.wsj.com/articles/eric-contreras-a-former-teacher-named-principal-of-stuyvesant-high-school-1469419202

May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The High Cost of Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

I like Sphero and am impressed by their ability to execute as a company. Their customer service is terrific and their ability to attract the Star Wars license, publicity, and this recent New Yorker profile are unprecedented.
Sphero makes terrific toys. However, companies and reporters would be well-served by speaking with educators who understand learning and have paid some dues before making grand pronouncements about education. Simply comprehending the differences between teaching and learning would be a welcome first step.
 
The article’s ad-hominem attacks on Logo in favor of C for god’s sake shows just how profoundly misguided the “Coding” newbies happen to be. History does not begin with them. Every thought they have, no matter how unimaginative or unoriginal is not automatically superior to the work done by those of us who have taught kids and teachers to program for decades. David Ahl told me that Creative Computing Magazine had 400,000 subscribers in 1984. Thirty years ago, my friend and Constructing Modern Knowledge faculty member, Dr. Dan Watt, sold more than 100,000 books of Learning with Logo. Tens of thousands of educators taught children to program in the 1980s and then again after laptops were introduced in the 1990s. This was not for an hour, but over sufficient time to develop fluency.
 
It takes real balls for every other startup company, politician, and Silicon Valley dilettante to advocate for “coding” with a macho certainty suggesting that learning to program is a novel idea or accomplished in an hour.

Sphero is hardly the first programmable robot. My friend Steve Ocko developed Big Trak for Milton Bradley in the late 1970s. Papert, Resnick, Ocko, Silverman, et al developed LEGO TC Logo, the first programmable LEGO building system in 1987. (Watch Seymour Papert explain the educational benefits in 1987)

Apologies to The New Yorker, but balls don’t teach kids to code. Kids learn to code by teaching balls. Find yourself a copy of Mindstorms, 35 years-old this year, and you’ll understand.
 

Sphero

Sphero is a fun toy that may be programmed IN Logo – the best of both worlds. Tickle for iOS is a version of Scratch (and Scratch is Logo) whose secret sauce is its ability to program lots of toys, several made by Sphero.

 
Logo turns 50 years-old next year. Let’s see what Silicon Valley creates that children learn with for more than 50 days.

Tickle (Scratch/Logo) for iOS and Bluetooth devices

Related articles:

Professional learning opportunities for educators:

Constructing Modern Knowledge offers world-class hands-on workshops across the globe, at schools, conferences, and museums. During these workshops, teachers learn to learn and teach via making, tinkering, and engineering. Computer programming (coding) and learning-by-making with a variety of materials, including Sphero and Tickle. For more information, click here.

Progressive Education and The Maker Movement – Symbiosis or Mutually Assured Destruction

Published paper of keynote address at 2014 FabLearn Conference at Stanford University by
Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Constructing Modern Knowledge
21825 Barbara Street Torrance, CA 90503 USA
gary@stager.org

Download PDF version

Keywords: Progressive education, education reform, mathematics education, constructionism, educational computing, maker movement

 

Abstract

In this paper, the author shares three societal trends that validate and vindicate decades of leadership by constructionist educators. The growing acceptance of learning-by-making represented by the maker movement, a newfound advocacy for children learning computer programming, and even the global education crisis, real or imagined, are evidence of predictions and efforts made by constructionists being realized. The paper also asserts that the survival of progressive education and the maker movement are mutually dependent. This conference offers a brief opportunity for celebration before returning to the “hard fun” required to harness the momentum of these trends and improve the learning ecology.

 

Paper

Three societal trends afford members of the constructionism community with cause for optimism. While two of these trends are positive and one negative, their trajectory is towards a greater acceptance of constructionist learning by formal and informal communities of practice. Recognition of the symbiotic relationship between progressive education, its learning theory constructionism, and the long-term survival of what has come to be known as “the maker movement” is critical for the long-term survival of each. Progressive education and the maker movement are at a crossroads when both rely on the other for relevance and acceptance.

The general population has begun to recognize that knowledge is a consequence of experience and that technology can play a role in the construction of knowledge. This revelation is an act of constructionism in and of itself. Despite our decades of paper writing, conference attendance and teacher training, people unfamiliar with the term are constructing constructionism without being taught. Such “popular constructionism,” is manifest in explosive growth of the global maker movement and a revaluing of children learning to program. Such progress is accompanied by a backlash by the formal system of schooling, just as Seymour Papert predicted nearly a quarter century ago. (Papert, 1991)

 

THE MAKER MOVEMENT

At Constructionism 2012, there were concerns expressed about the maker movement that to be candid, smacked of elitism. While it may be true that the moms, dads, and teachers advocating for making may lack a scholarly vocabulary for expressing principles of constructionist learning, they are not hostile to that information. The popularity of Maker Faire, Hour of Code, Scratch, and books like, “Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” are proof of a desire to learn more about learning. It is also the case that academics in the constructionism community would benefit from learning what members of the maker movement know and can do. The elements of community organization and creative spirit of the maker movement are to be admired.

As we assert in our book, (Martinez & Stager, 2013) Papert is not only the “father” of constructionism, but of the maker movement as well. In “Computer as Material: Messing About with Time” (Papert & Franz, 1987) and earlier, “Computer as Mudpie,” (Papert, 1984) Papert described a new role for the computer as part of a continuum of construction materials, albeit one imbued with protean qualities. (Papert, 1980)

“If you can use technology to make things you can make a lot more interesting things. And you can learn a lot more by making them. This is especially true of digital technology.” (G. S. Stager, 2006)

Papert not only provided the basis for constructionism as a learning theory, but also played a pivotal role in predicting, inventing, and advocating for the constructive technology now being popularized by the maker movement. Long before his involvement in the development of programmable LEGO robotics kits or being an advocate for one-to-one computing, made the case for such innovations and even expressed the importance of hardware extensibility.

In 1970, Papert and Solomon described the sophisticated technological needs of young children engaged in making things with computers.

“The school computer should have a large number of output ports to allow the computer to switch lights on and off, start tape recorders, actuate slide projectors and start and stop all manner of little machines. There should also be input ports to allow signals to be sent to the computer.

In our image of a school computation laboratory, an important role is played by numerous “controller ports” which allow any student to plug any device into the computer… The laboratory will have a supply of motors, solenoids, relays, sense devices of various kids, etc. Using them, the students will be able to invent and build an endless variety of cybernetic systems.” (Papert & Solomon, 1971)

Neil Gershenfeld, one of the leaders of the personal fabrication movement who predicted much of the current maker movement, recounts how Papert viewed the inability of children to construct their own computers as a “thorn in our flesh.” (Gershenfeld, 2005) The availability of the $35 Raspberry Pi and its offspring the Beaglebone, Yun, Gallileo, and other low-cost Linux computers, all with an ability to interface with the world, removes that thorn. Each of these tiny computers are capable of running Scratch, Snap!, Python, and Turtle Art. They also feature a range of inputs and outputs for extensibility. Scavenging for peripherals to use with such a computer, customizing it, and programming it to solve personally important problems is consistent with both maker and constructionist ideals. The computer hardware industry and leaders in the educational computing world have spent decades deriding Papert’s claims that children should build, program, maintain, and repair their own computers, not merely to reduce costs, but as an expression of agency over an increasingly complex, technologically sophisticated world. Emerging technology, like the Raspberry Pi, is resonant with the maker ethos of “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it,” (Jalopy, Torrone, & Hill, 2005) and ideals expressed by Seymour Papert long ago.

Papert’s colleagues or former students created many of the favorite technologies of the maker movement, including Scratch, Makey Makey, the Lilypad, and LEGO robotics. The FabLab and FabLab@School efforts to spread learning through digital fabrication also acknowledge Papert’s inspiration.

 

Making Megachange?

Modern making is a brew of new technologies, computation, and timeless craft traditions. The artificial boundaries between disciplines blur and enrich each other.

“So, too, the mega-change in education that will undoubtedly come in the next few decades will not be a “reform” in the sense of a deliberate attempt to impose a new designed structure. My confidence in making this statement is based on two factors: (1) forces are at work that put the old structure in increasing dissonance with the society of which it is ultimately a part, and (2) ideas and technologies needed to build new structures are becoming increasingly available.” (Papert, 2000b)

Attend a Maker Faire and you will marvel at the ingenuity, creativity, passion for learning, and desire to share knowledge on display. Maker Faire provides a venue for collaboration, showing-off, and sharing personal inventions. The creation of shareable artifacts is a basic tenet of constructionism. (Ackermann, 2001) Maker Faires, Make Magazine, and web sites like instructables.com provide unprecedented venues for sharing technological project ideas and products.

Look in any direction at a Maker Faire and you will discover children and adults learning and creating together “samba school style.” (Papert, 1980) Kids like Super-Awesome Sylvia, Joey Hudy, Quin Etnyre, Caine Monroy, and Schuyler St. Leger embody Papert’s belief in “kid power.” (Generation_WHY, 1998; Papert, 1998) These, and other children, are beloved heroes, legends, and leaders of the maker movement, not because they are cute, but due to their demonstrable talent, knowledge, and expertise. Like in a samba school, these young experts value their interaction with elders because they share a common goal of continuous growth.

There were one hundred officially sanctioned Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires around the world in 2013. These events attracted over 530,000 participants. Attendance increased 64% since 2012 and 335% since 2011. “Maker Faire organizers are influencing local education initiatives, encouraging hands-on learning in Science, Technology, Math, Science (STEM) and Art (STEAM) curricula.” 27% of Maker Faire organizers in 2013 were museums and many Maker Faire organizers are creating or expanding community-based makerspace-type facilities where the community may learn together outside of a school setting. (Merlo, 2014)

Those explosive numbers only tell part of the story of the explosive growth in making and its influence on winning hearts and minds for constructionism. Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires are official events sanctioned by Maker Media resulting from a formal application process. Countless other events led by local hackerspaces, clubs, scout troops, plus school-based maker days and Invent to Learn workshops are doing an impressive job of laying the groundwork for a rise in the appeal of constructionism.

Parents in highly competitive independent schools are becoming champions of constructionism based on the benefits of making they witnessed in their own children. Such parental enthusiasm gives lie to the notion that parents want joyless schools focusing on increasing test scores and provide much needed support for educators sympathetic to constructionism, but beaten down by the status quo. After parents at The American School of Bombay participated in a half-day “Invent To Learn” workshop with their children, they began demanding that classroom practice change to incorporate more making.

The maker movement and its accompanying “constructible” technology has resuscitated constructionism in a New York City public school started by Carol Sperry and Seymour Papert in the early 1980s. (Papert & Franz, 1987) Without Tracy Rudzitis’ impromptu lunchtime “Maker Space,” where the folding tables and freedom transform the learning experience for middle school students, computing would be dead at “The Computer School.” (G. Stager, 2014) In countless settings, the “neat phenomena” associated with popular maker technologies, such as 3D printing, Arduino, Makey Makey, squishy circuits, wearable computing, and conductive paint have caused schools to revive school art and music programs, otherwise sacrificed on the altar of budget cuts, tougher standards, or global competitiveness.

The publication of the Next Generation Science Standards, authored by the National Academy of Sciences, (Quinn, Schweingruber, & Keller, 2012) includes specific demands for computer science, engineering, tinkering, and hands-on scientific inquiry to be part of the diet of every American. These standards, written by actual scientists, add gravitas to what some might deride as the playful act of making.

“I think the technology serves as a Trojan horse all right, but in the real story of the Trojan horse, it wasn’t the horse that was effective, it was the soldiers inside the horse. And the technology is only gong to be effective in changing education if you put an army inside it which is determined to make that change once it gets through the barrier.” (Papert, 1999)

 

BILLIONAIRES DISCOVER CODING

Since Constructionism 2012, Silicon Valley executives, pop-stars, basketball players, politicians, government ministers, and the President of the United States have called for children to learn to code. (note: apparently computer programming is now called, “coding.”)

If you view programming as an intellectually rewarding activity, then it is surely good news that countless millions of dollars are being spent on initiatives like Code.org, Code Academy, and the creation of computer science instruction via Khan Academy.

Mark Guzdial identifies three reasons for learning to program:

  1. That’s where the future jobs are, in the mix of computing with other disciplines.
  2. The second reason is that a liberal education is about understanding one’s world, and computing is a huge part of today’s world. We ask students to take laboratory sciences (like biology, chemistry, and physics) in order to better understand their world and to learn the scientific method for learning more about their world. The virtual world is an enormous part of the daily lives of today’s professionals. Understanding computing is at least as important to today’s students as understanding photosynthesis.
  3. If you understand something well, you should be able to define its process well enough for a machine to execute it. If you can’t, or the execution doesn’t match the observed behavior, we have a new kind of feedback on our theories.

Regrettably, the impetus behind the current desire for “kids to code” seems more rooted in economic insecurity and foreign job killers than recognition that programming is a good way to understand formal systems, make sense of the world or answer Papert’s timeless question, “Does the child program the computer or the computer program the child?”

The pedagogical approach preferred by the coding proponents appears to be, “kids will go on the Web and figure it out.” In that case, the same paltry percentage of kids is likely to develop programming fluency now than before great wealth and media attention was dedicated to the cause.

Although well intentioned and surely better than another generation of children doing little more with a computer than preparing an occasional PowerPoint presentation on a topic they don’t care about for an audience they will never meet, the advocates of coding seem wholly ignorant that many teachers used to teach children to program during the 1980s. Many of these educators taught Logo and the Logo community developed a great deal of wisdom regarding how, what, why, and when to teach children to program. Dozens of books were written and hundreds of thousands of copies were sold. We danced recursion and acted out procedureality. Now, that knowledge base is largely ignored in favor of catchy slogans and YouTube videos. The constructionism community has a wealth of knowledge to share with coding proponents and a great number of questions as well.

  • Which programming languages are best for children to use and why?
  • Is computational thinking a fancy term for what Alan Kay calls “computer appreciation?” (Kay, 1996) Is this just a way of providing the illusion of computing without sufficient access or actual experience?
  • What are the goals of learning to program?
  • How does computer programming support, enhance or build upon other intellectual processes?
  • What can kids make with a computer?
  • Are computing, coding, and computer science synonymous?
  • What should a child at a particular age be capable of programming and which concepts should they be able to put into use?
  • What sort of teacher preparation is required in order to realize the dream of computer science for all?

We have no idea what children would be capable of if they programmed computers for a sustained period of time. Although we taught tens of thousands of Australian fifth-seventh graders to program in LogoWriter or MicroWorlds between 1989 and 1995, (Johnstone, 2003) schools substituted computing for report writing, note taking, and office tasks by the time those children reached high school. In many cases, computers once an integral learning appendage, were barely used at all as soon as schooling got “serious” and focused on achievement or careers.

In the current coding for all craze, there is little attention given to the proposition that while programming, students may learn other things or explore powerful ideas concurrently. Programming appears to be a means to an end – becoming a programmer, even if that objective is barely defined or the process is trivial.

Coding advocates also send schizophrenic messages. Somehow, the same people can assert that programming is sufficiently difficult that anyone who manages to learn to code will find herself on economic Easy Street and yet, coding is so simple anyone can do it.

In 2014, code.org launched “Hour-of-Code” in a massive publicity blitz intended to attract the attention of schools. While this sounds like a work of satire, Hour-of-Code attracted President Obama, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and other cultural icons to record messages supporting the initiative. (Betters, 2014)

The idea of learning anything substantive in an hour seems preposterous. No amount of advertising or cheerleading is likely to result in more schools teaching computer science in a fashion that appeals to a wide variety of children or supports multiple learning styles. Hour-of-Code is an example of what Papert called verbal inflation and reminds us that “When ideas go to school, they lose their power.” (Papert, 2000b) By definition, Hour-of-Code must be trivial. Perhaps the goal of “Hour-of-Code” was never really to teach or even inspire kids to program, but to create the illusion that the very same Silicon Valley moguls seeking to dismantle public education aren’t so bad after all. (ASU+GSV Summit, 2014; Severns, 2013; G. Stager, 2011; Strauss, 2013, 2014) The cost of such an effort is trivial. “We’ve now reached 25 million kids, and the entire Hour of Code cost $1.2 million. That’s 5 cents a child,” said code.org co-founder Hadi Partovi. (Delevett, 2014)

If we stipulate that the motives of the coding advocates are pure, new questions arise when coding is proposed as the purview of schools. Although efforts like code.org would love to infiltrate schools, they are less concerned by where kids learn to code. When a role for coding in school is delineated through governmental policy or curricular statements, the concerns become more even more acute for constructionists.

 

Coding through school-colored glasses

Conservative UK Education Secretary Michael Gove announced in January 2012 that the national ICT curriculum should be scrapped at once because it is “a mess,” “harmful,” and “dull.” (Burns, 2012) Since Gove’s provocative BETT speech several American states, Singapore, and Estonia (Gardiner, 2014) have joined the chorus calling for all students to be taught computer science, even if they have no idea what that means or what is involved in achieving success. The exhaustive Royal Society study commissioned by the UK Government to guide the curricular shift towards every child learning computer science includes thoughts such as, “Computer Science education does not necessarily involve computers.” (Furber, 2012) Progress indeed.

The UK National Curriculum is short on actual examples of what a student might do or make with a computer, but long on vocabulary leaving implementation of the curriculum prone to memorization, not actual computer science. (Berry, 2013; Department of Education, 2013a, 2013b) Regardless of your feelings about the substance of the new UK curriculum, efforts around the world are being met with opposition by the theoretically most “tech savvy” teachers in the system, the existing ICT or computer literacy teachers who are resistant to change. The road ahead seems bleak when you factor in a shortage of qualified teachers, an overstuffed school day, inadequate computer resources and an abysmal participation rate among girls and minorities. (Ericson & Guzdial, 2014; Guzdial, 2006; Guzdial & Reed, 2014) And that doesn’t even include a discussion of why so few students are interested in learning computer science even where it is offered.

In the United States, there are proposals in several states to allow Computer Science to earn Foreign Language course credit. (Edutopia, 2013; Guzdial, 2014) Once again, policy-makers with little understanding of CS hear “language” and think they can check off two boxes at once, foreign language and computer science. Aside from the obvious flaws in this logic, the substitution is as much a symptom of unquestioned curricular heuristics than it is support for high quality computer science offerings. Swapping a subject you have trouble defending for CS is another example of the idea aversion (Papert, 2000b) Papert spoke of.

“Computer science for all” is a laudable objective and a welcome change in direction. The constructionist and maker communities possess a great deal of expertise and wisdom that should play a major role in shaping both policy and pedagogical practice. Without such involvement, this rhetorical effort may do more harm than good.

 

EPISTEMOLOGICAL POLITICS

At the very moment when incredible new technologies emerge with the potential to supercharge learning, increase ways of knowing, amplify human expression, forge strange alliances, and empower each teacher and student, the School system has never been more draconian. This too is part of Papert’s prophetic wisdom.

“I have used Perestroika in the Russian political sense as a metaphor to talk about change and resistance to change in education. I use it to situate educators in a continuum: are you open to megachange, or is your approach one of seeking Band-Aids to fix the minor ills of the education system? The dominant paradigm is the Band-Aid–most reform tries to jigger the curriculum, the management of schools, the psychological context of learning. Looking at the Soviet experience gives us a metaphor to talk about why this doesn’t work. For stable change a deeper restructuring is needed–or else the large parts of the system you didn’t change will just bring the little parts you did change back into line.” (Papert, 1991)

Global trends point towards greater public school privatization, addiction to standardized testing, teacher shaming, union busting, savage urban school closures, the rise of charter schools, national curricula, PISA score competition, the suspension of local democracy via mayoral control of school districts, and sacrificing the art of teaching for the mechanics of curriculum delivery and crowd control. (Crotty, 2014; Ravitch, 2013, 2014) Bill Gates tells us that class size does (Vise, 2011) not matter and that teachers may be replaced by YouTube videos. (Tan, 2013) Propagandistic films intended to stoke parental hysteria like, “Waiting for Superman,” play in theatres and on Oprah. (Ayers, 2010; Guggenheim et al., 2011; Karp, 2010; Miner, 2011)

 

The Rise of Instructionism

In his Perestroika analogy, Papert predicts that constructionism will be met with more instructionism, hopefully until constructionism prevails. One look at the state-of-the-art in educational computing points to a rise in instructionism.

Not only do schools still have computer labs three decades after their creation, but the computers in those labs are increasingly used for computer-assisted instruction, test-prep, standardized testing, and surveillance. Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey said, “Computer programming is quickly becoming an essential career skill. Learning to code is a fantastic opportunity equalizer – if you’re good at it, it can help you achieve your dreams.” He did this while presiding over a scorched-earth “school reform” regime that eliminated Logo programming, art and music in dozens of elementary schools.

When schools do invest in personal computers, they are likely to buy iPads incompatible with making; what Alan Kay calls “symmetric creation” (Greelish, 2013) or make even worse decisions. The Australian state of Victoria invested $180 million and eight years of distractions in a Gosplan-like fantasy called Ultranet. (Tomazin, 2014) The Los Angeles Unified School District just pledged to spend as much as $2 billion for iPads for the sole purpose of standardized testing in a procurement process only Putin could love. (Blume, 2014; Smith, 2014)

The sudden epidemic of bad teachers proclaimed by politicians and the public’s growing dissatisfaction with schooling may be signs of the traditional system crumbling. Can we rise above this period of darkness by lighting a path towards megachange?

“Just 100 years ago, John Dewey was saying things about educational change, not very different from what I believe in. He couldn’t get very far. And the reason why he couldn’t get very far is that he had only philosophical arguments. He didn’t have an army. You must have an army, and it’s an army primarily of children and the adults also are a political force in this.” (Papert, 1999)

Constructionism is a stance and therefore inseparable from politics. Papert might say that the current chaos plaguing education is “the last flick of a dying dragon’s tail.” (Papert, 2000a)

 

SYMBIOSIS OR MUTUALLY ASSURED DESTRUCTION?

In a toxic era of high-stakes testing, curriculum narrowing, teacher shaming and public school privatizing, the maker movement represents a ray of optimism in an otherwise bleak environment. Simultaneously, the maker movement is poised to go mainstream only if its leaders recognize the benefits of situating “making” in the context of progressive education. An understanding of constructionism and the embattled history of progressive education are necessary for the maker movement to mature.

Quite simply, progressive education requires the energy, passion, new materials, and technology of the maker movement to increase its visibility, relevance, value, and urgency with policy makers, parents, and educational practitioners. For making to mature into a mature movement supporting more than a boutique industry of occasional “faires,” camps, and parties, the members of its community need to understand more about constructionism as well the historic struggle associated with the implementation of progressive education. The maker movement needs to situate their terrific passion, tools, talents, and intuition in a larger context of learning in a politically charged educational system. Both communities have a great deal to learn from one another and should recognize that they stand on the shoulders of giants. Such open-mindedness and knowledge are the minimum conditions under which each community can endure. In order to transcend minority status, a symbiosis of each community’s powerful ideas is required for the aspirations of each to be embraced and sustained by the larger society.

One dilemma for the maker movement is that its major players want it to be both a cause and a profit-center. At FabLearn 2013, Leah Buechley courageously challenged Make™ to take issues of representation, inclusion, gender, race, cost, and accessibility seriously. (Buechley, 2013) Her most easily addressable criticism of Maker Media, owner of Make Magazine™ and Maker Faire™ was the lack of women and people of color on its magazine covers. That concern has been ignored to date. Buechley also pointed out the high cost of entry into “making.” Except for more expensive technology, such as 3D printers, prices do not seem to be falling quickly enough to bring “making” to underserved or poor populations, young or old.

Buechley rightly described how making and Make™ have been conflated in the mind of the population while Maker Media attempts to create an illusion of public service by placing their educational initiatives in a MakerEd non-profit. However, when the White House wishes to celebrate learning by making and its role in an innovative economy, they hosted a Maker Faire™ not a maker fair.

It should come as no surprise that there is a tension between commerce and changing the world. Maker Media is the 1,000 pound for-profit gorilla that creates a venue for makers to share their ingenuity in a commercial environment where others pay to interact with makers. There is nothing wrong with that. It has fueled the explosive rise in making. However, when one company controls the venue, narrative, access to market, and publishes products that compete directly with the creations of other makers, claims of a social mission need to be taken with a grain of salt. Monopolistic tendencies are incompatible with the democratic ideals of both making and progressive education.

Alas, the futures of the maker movement and progressive education are at a crossroads. While the maker movement currently benefits from media attention and the public’s fascination with cool new tech toys, progressive education has been a political punching bag for generations. It is blamed for educational failures disproportionate to its influence. Without great care, the maker movement may find itself susceptible to similar mocking, derision, or marginalization. Sure, that’s nice as a summer camp arts of crafts project, but what does it have to do with raising test scores. Political and social alliances need to be strengthened between each community or the fate of both will be uncertain at best.

 

FD 100

Papert reminds us that we need to shift our self-concept in order to bring about the change children deserve.

“Now there is an opportunity to become the person whose job is to facilitate rethinking the whole learning environment of the school, the whole structure of education. We are entering a period in which the person who was “the computer teacher” has the chance to become the educational philosopher and the intellectual leader of the school, of the education world.” (Papert, 1991)

It is inadequate to dismiss schools as relics of the past because that is where you will find millions of kids who need us. Fellow travelers in the maker movement and the unlikely allies behind the coding campaign might be just the army we need inside of a cardboard horse, with LED eyes, and synthesized speech all controlled by a tiny microcontroller running Scratch.

Let us spend our days at Stanford celebrating a growing acceptance of our ideas, but then return home to lead and engage in the hard work of improving the learning ecology.

 

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