Educators, citizens, and policy-makers would benefit from remembering two salient truths.

  • We stand on the shoulders of giants.
  • “Every problem in education has been solved somewhere.” (Bill Clinton)

For those reasons, I have finally finished curating a seminal collection of progressive education texts for an anthology entitled, “Dreams of Democratic Education: An Anthology for Educators Wishing to Stand Between Children and the Madness.” The eBook contains full texts by Ferrer, Dewey, Patri, The School of Barbiana, Malaguzzi, Papert, Lakoff, and a guy named Stager.

This 785 page eBook (in PDF format) is now available for download via this web page.

We hope to be able to help organize book clubs, discussions, and courses built upon the eBook’s contents in the future.


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.

Originally appeared in The Huffington Post on 10/19/2010

Shouldn’t people bold enough to call themselves “school reformers” be familiar with some of the literature on the subject?

Most of the school leaders who signed last weekend’s completely discreditedmanifesto,” are unqualified to lead major urban school districts. Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein are not qualified to be a substitute teacher in their respective school districts. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could not coach basketball in the Chicago Public Schools with his lack of credentials. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that they advocate schemes like Teach for America sending unprepared teachers into the toughest classrooms armed with a missionary zeal and programmed to believe they are there to rescue children from the incompetent teachers with whom they need to work. In public education today, unqualified is the new qualified.

The celebration of inexperience and lack of preparation is particularly disconcerting when it comes to education policy. When you allow billionaires, ideologues, pop singers and movie viewers to define reform, you get Reform™.

Reform™ narrowly defines school improvement as children chanting, endless standardized testing preparation, teacher bashing and charter-based obedience schools who treat other people’s children in ways that the rich folks behind Reform™ would never tolerate for children they love.

If that were not bad enough, Reform™ advances a myth that there is only one way to create productive contexts for learning. It ignores the alternative models, expertise and school improvement literature all around us. Public education is too important to society to allow the ignorant to define the terms of debate. Great educators stand on the shoulders of giants and confront educational challenges with knowledge, passion and intensity when afforded the freedom to do so. There are a great many of us who know how to amplify the enormous potential for children, even if we are ignored by Oprah or NBC News.

Reading is important for children and adults alike. Therefore, I challenged myself to assemble an essential (admittedly subjective) reading list on school reform. The following books are appropriate for parents, teachers, administrators, politicians and plain old citizens committed to the ideal of sustaining a joyful, excellent and democratic public education for every child.

In A Schoolmaster of the Great City: A Progressive Education Pioneer’s Vision for Urban Schools, school teacher and principal Angelo Patri identifies and solves every problem confronting public education. This feat is all the more remarkable when you learn that the book was published in 1917!

Recently deceased Yale psychologist Dr. Seymour Sarason published forty books on a wide range of education issues well into his eighties. A good place to start is The Skeptical Visionary: A Seymour Sarason Reader. You have to admire a guy who published a book with the title, The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform: Can We Change Course Before It’s Too Late, twenty years ago! Books written in the 1990s, And What do YOU Mean by Learning, Political Leadership and Educational Failure and Charter Schools: Another Flawed Educational Reform? remain quite timely and instructive.

No serious citizen or educator concerned with the future of education can afford to ignore the role of technology in learning. Jean Piaet’s protegé, Seymour Papert, began writing about the potential of computers to amplify human potential in the mid-1960s. His view is a great deal more humane and productive than using computers to quiz students in preparation for standardized tests. All of Papert’s books and papers are worth reading, but I suggest you start with The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.

Want to see what sustainable scaleable school reform looks like where children are treated as competent? The Big Picture: Education Is Everyone’s Business by Dennis Littky with Samantha Grabelle describes urban high schools with small classes, consistent student teacher relationships and an educational program based on apprenticeship. Students don’t go to “school” on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They engage in internship experiences in the community in any field that interests them. The other days of the week, the curriculum is based on whatever the students need to learn to enhance their internships. This is not vocational. It prepares students for university or any other choice they make. The Big Picture model has spread across the United States with impressive results.

The biography of Big Picture Schools co-founder Dennis Littky, Doc: The Story Of Dennis Littky And His Fight For A Better School, by Susan Kammeraad-Campbell may be the first school reform thriller. The book chronicles how Littky transformed a failing school and was wrongfully fired the second political winds changed. Anyone interested in “reforming” public education would be well advised to read this exciting page-turner.

MacArthur Genius Deborah Meier has forgotten more about effective teaching and urban school reform than today’s entire generation of “reformers” ever knew. Meier is often considered the mother of the small school movement and her work as the founder of the Central Park East Schools and Mission Hill in Boston remain influential inspiration for parents and educators committed to the preparation of learners with the habits of mind required for a healthy democracy. Her book, In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization, is a masterpiece sharing the wisdom developed over more than a half century of teaching and school leadership. You should also read Meier’s weekly online discussion with Diane Ravitch, the Bridging Differencesblog.

The Schools our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” is but one of the many terrific books by Alfie Kohn in which he challenges conventional wisdom on sacrosanct topics like homework, grades, standardized testing and rewards with clarity and evidence. His books are fearless and make you think. His articles are collected at Alfiekohn.com. Alfie’s small book, The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools should be on the kitchen table of every parent and teacher. If you’re tired of reading, you may watch two terrific Kohn lectures on the DVD, No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning.

Dr. Theodore Sizer was a school principal, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and unofficial leader of the high school reform movement over the past twenty-five years. His intellect, calm demeanor and practicality led to the creation of the Coalition of Essential Schools and a template by which any secondary school could improve from within. The first book in his “Horace trilogy,” Horace’s Compromise, tells the story of American high schools, warts and all, through the eyes of a fictional English teacher, Horace Smith. This book and the two that follow share Horace’s epiphanies about the shortcoming of American high schools, their strengths and how he and his colleagues can make their school better. The organization Sizer founded, The Coalition of Essential Schools, continues to inspire such local reform efforts one school at a time.

National Book Award-winning author, educator and civil rights activist has been giving voice to the poorest children in our nation and the injustice they face since the 1960s. All of Kozol’s books are equal-parts profound, infuriating and inspirational, but the tender and beautifully written, Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope, reminds us why we should care about public education.

Herbert Kohl has shared his insights as a teacher and teacher educator in dozens of brilliant books. His recent anthology, The Herb Kohl Reader: Awakening the Heart of Teaching, should whet your appetite for reading many more of his books.

There is no more fierce or tireless critic of the higher tougher meaner standards and accountability movement than Susan Ohanian. The book she co-authored with Kathy Emery, Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? engages in the old-fashioned “follow the money” journalism we keep waiting for from news organizations. This book will help you understand how we got to reform being defined and advanced by billionaire bullies.

Right before he died last year, respected scholar, Gerald Bracey published, Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality – Transforming the Fire Consuming America’s Schools. This book disembowels many of the premises and data used to justify the high-stakes accountability rhetoric and school reform strategies currently being advanced. It’s a must read!

Not With Our Kids You Don’t! Ten Strategies to Save Our Schools by Juanita Doyon is a short must-read book for parents tired of their schools being turned into little more than Dickensian test-prep sweatshops. The book was written by a fed-up mom, turned activist from Washington who has upended her state’s political establishment in defense of the sort of high quality education Americans came to expect before No Child Left Behind.


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.

America once again is in mourning over the 18th or 19th school shooting of 2018. Surely, common sense gun safety legislation is necessary, but educators also need to look in the mirror and ask why kids feel so alienated and aggrieved by schooling that they choose to shoot up their classmates and teachers.

Earlier tonight, I tweeted, “Can we please cool it with the irrational mean-spirited bullshit about banning cellphones in schools? They quite possibly saved lives today.” Immediately, I received a supportive response about the pedagogical potential of cell phones. With all due respect, this issue is much simpler and more fundamental than whether cell phones have a place in the curriculum,

There are two reasons why schools should stop banning cellphones.

  1. It is wrong to be arbitrarily mean to children. If learning is to occur, educators need to do whatever they possibly can to lower the level of antagonism between adults and children.
  2. The school has no right whatsoever to endanger my child or cut her off from communication. 

This has nothing to do with standards, teaching, or curriculum. It is a simple matter of human decency or common sense.

Then I remembered that I wrote about this very issue in the long-defunct Curriculum Administrator Magazine back in its November 2001 issue. For those of you playing along at home, that is nearly 17 years ago.

In 2001, I wrote the following in my column, Back to Rule:

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.

Read the rest of the column for other examples of callous authoritarian school assholery and then be extra nice to some kids.

Thankfully, NYC students are no longer being robbed to store their cellphones outside of their schools

You might also be interested in my 2014 column, Why the NYC Schools Must End the Student Cellphone Ban.

Hello World is a free, glossy, well-edited magazine for educators published by the Raspberry Pi Foundation. Gary Stager has written two featured articles in the first four issues of the publication.

His latest article, Professional Development Gets Personal, shares lessons learned over a decade of Constructing Modern Knowledge.

Download the complete issue

 

Read Gary’s PD Article

 

Download Issue 1 of Hello World

Read Gary Stager’s profile of Seymour Papert

 

 

 

 

 

 


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.

We are excited to announce that the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute will be returning for an 11th year, July 10-13, 2018. Discount early-bird registration is now open!

Constructing Modern Knowledge 2018 Guest Speakers
Reggio Children President Carla Rinaldi • TV’s Paul DiMeo • Author/Historian James Loewen • MIT Professor Joseph Paradiso • Inventor Eric Rosenbaum

Sylvia Martinez and I created Constructing Modern Knowledge more than a decade ago to build a bridge between the learner-centered ideals of progressive educators and the modern knowledge construction opportunities afforded by new technological material. CMK 2017 was such an extraordinary success, that the summer institute tradition will continue next summer. Checkout recent project videos and read participant blog posts to appreciate why you can’t afford to miss Constructing Modern Knowledge 2018.

“For four days, throughout the ups and downs, I had a bounce in my step and a smile on my face. I still wear a large smile and speak excitedly when asked about CMK. If this is what learning can feel like, surely we all deserve to learn this way.”Kelly Watson. 5th grade teacher. Geelong, Australia.

The following is a wrap-up report on the exciting 10th anniversary Constructing Modern Knowledge institute this past July. Where else can you imagine that Alfie Kohn or Peter Reynolds just drop by?


K-12 educators from around the world gathered recently in Manchester, New Hampshire to learn about learning by learning themselves. The 10th annual Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute, July 11-14, was the place where educators could spend four days working on personally meaningful project development combining code, cutting-edge technology, and timeless craft traditions. For a decade, CMK has demonstrated the creativity and competence of educators while challenging accepted notions of what is possible in classrooms today.

Digital arcade game

Participating educators learn to program microntrollers, design their own software, fashion wearable computers, make films, invent fanciful contraptions, bring history to life, 3D print their creations, embed Raspberry Pi computers in working machines, and much more. Each year, teachers with little or no computing or engineering experience create projects that two years earlier might have garnered them a TED Talk and five years ago might have resulted in an advanced engineering degree. When you liberate the learner lurking inside of teachers, they create the conditions for amplifying the potential of each student.

Constructing Modern Knowledge begins with a process of sharing ideas for what people would like to make. Then they then enjoy the luxury of time to pursue what might seem impossible. This year’s dozens of CMK projects included “Fitbit” sneakers that change color to indicate the number of steps you have walked (or run), digital carnival games, a helium balloon-powered drone, an automatic LEGO sorting machine and a fully programmable greenhouse. An accomplished faculty supports CMK participants, but most projects were created by educators with little or no previous experience with the technology used and they learned to invent such magnificent projects without coercion or any instruction. Constructing Modern Knowledge models the Piagetian adage, “Knowledge is a consequence of experience.” Participants at CMK take off their teacher hats and put on their learner hats to experience what learning could be in 2017.

Ayah Bdeir taking a photo of her audience

Unlike conferences where you sit through a series of lectures, CMK is about action. However, each day is punctuated by a conversation with an accomplished expert or thought leader. The past ten institutes have featured a remarkable assortment of educational visionaries, technology pioneers, and experts as guest speakers in fields your high school guidance counselor never imagined. We pride ourselves in offering educators opportunities to spend time with their heroes, rather than listen to them from afar.

Neil Gershenfeld & colleagues describe the next 50 years in 10 minutes

This year’s guest speakers included MacArthur Genius Award-winning educator Deborah Meier speaking about democracy and education, MIT Professor Neil Gershenfeld and his colleagues projecting a vision for the next 50 years of “making things,” and MaKey MaKey co-inventor Eric Rosenbaum teasing the future of Scratch. littleBits Founder and CEO, Ayah Bdeir, shared her remarkable life story and the values that make littleBits such a spectacular success. Our participants were inspired by Ayah’s presentation and delighted in sharing their work with her.

Deborah Meier & Alfie Kohn explore projects

In addition to our guest speakers and visit to the MIT Media Lab, the 10th anniversary of Constructing Modern Knowledge was celebrated by authors Alfie Kohn and Peter Reynolds visiting the institute. Participants in our pre-institute Introduction to Learning with Electronics workshop began the day learning with the new littleBits Code Kit!

Best-selling artist/author Peter Reynolds takes a project for a spin

Team discounts allow schools and universities to build community around the CMK experience and better implement what was learned in the coming school year.

“Constructing Modern Knowledge is the best “conference” you will attend as an educator searching for answers or strategies for progressive education.” Maggie Barth. School leader. North Dakota.

“Fitbit” sneakers

You don’t want to miss


Veteran teacher educator, speaker, and journalist Gary Stager, Ph.D., is the founder and CEO of Constructing Modern Knowledge. He is the co-author of Invent To Learn – Making Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, called the “bible of the maker movement in schools.”

One seventh grader’s journey includes learning math through Scooby Doo
©2001 Gary S. Stager/Curriculum Administrator Magazine


A version of this was published in the August 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine

 

At our annual family dinner to celebrate the end of another school year each of our children reflected upon the lessons learned and the obstacles overcome during the previous ten months. Our seventh-grade daughter, who will be referred to by the top-secret code name of Miffy, shared with us a new pedagogical strategy and use of educational technology not yet conceived of  during my school years. What was this innovation? Was it project-based learning, multiage collaboration, constructionism, online publishing, modeling and simulation? No, it was Disney films.

Yup, that’s right. Disney films (and several others too). The following is a partial list of the films shown this year during class time by my daughter’s teachers.

1st period Science 2nd period Math 3rd/4th period Language Arts 6th period Physical Education (rainy days) 7th period Social studies 8th period Band
Mulan
The Lion King
Babe Angels in the Outfield*
Young Frankenstein
Mighty Joe Young Little Giants* Babe
The Nightmare Before Christmas Aladdin The Big Green* Charlotte’s Web Rocky & Bullwinkle
Contact Cinderella The Sandlot* The Lion King II A Touched by an Angel episode dealing with racism & prejudice The Emperor’s New Groove
The Andromeda Strain The Little Mermaid Planet of the Apes Aladdin Remember the Titans Grease
MTV videos Mighty Joe Young The Road to Eldorado Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
VH1 videos The Nightmare Before Christmas Dinosaur Mr. Holland’s Opus
Scooby Doo
The Nightmare Before Christmas
[The list is based on what my daughter could remember at the end of a school year. So, it is likely to be incomplete.]

I know by now that you must be marveling at the interdisciplinary nature of The Nightmare Before Christmas. You may also be wondering why there were no movies shown during fifth period. That’s because they don’t show movies during lunch.

Now I’m as fond of wasting time and goofing-off as the next guy, but Miffy was able to remember watching at least 34 films having no educational value whatsoever in one school year. In case you were thinking that they could be studying film criticism or visual storytelling you should know that they only watched half of most films because the periods are too short. Others were watched over several days.

This remarkable waste of class time occurred in a school where requests for meaningful projects, hands-on experiments, field-trips, drama and other productive learning experiences are abandoned because of an oft-repeated “lack of time.” Sure the standardized tests and top-down curricular pressures wreak havoc with creating a productive context for learning, but we can’t blame this one on Princeton or the President. Somewhere along the line educators determined that the demanding curriculum was elastic enough for the illegal showing of countless commercial films.

My Daughter the Rodeo Clown

Miffy also told me that due to the SAT-9 exams, “Career Day” had been cancelled. I’m not sure which part of that statement is most tragic, so let’s state it in the form of a standardized test question.

Which is most pathetic?

  1. a) Canceling Career Day because of SAT-9 testing
  2. b) Career Day
  3. c) The school’s remedy for having cancelled career day

The ingenious remedy chosen was to spend much of the last week of school watching a series of instructional videos called, “Real Life 101.” While hardly as educational as Mulan, these shows turned out to be far more entertaining. The audience was repeatedly reminded, “you don’t need a college degree for this career, but it wouldn’t hurt! ”

The hosts of the series, Maya, Megan, Zooby and Josh (there always seems to be a Josh) introduced exciting career options for the high-tech interconnected global economy of the 21st century. The career options included the following: Snake handler, projectionist, naval explosive expert, skydive instructor, rafting instructor, diamond cutter, roller coaster technician, exterminator, auctioneer, alligator wrestler and my personal favorite growth industry – rodeo clown!

Actual Career Day worksheet used in the Torrance, CA Unified School District

You can’t make this stuff up! The worksheet that followed the Career Day substitute asked each child to rank these careers in order of preference and write a few sentences explaining their number one choice.

If I wanted my children to watch television, I’d let them stay home. At least at home they could watch something educational like “Behind the Music: The Mamas and the Papas”or learn about Beat poetry from the “Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. ”  At least then they would have a chance to learn something more than the unfortunate lessons being modeled by their schools.


Notes: *My kid explained that all of these films share the same plot about a group of fat kids working hard together to win the big game. Somewhere in there’s a lesson for us all.

About the author

Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He is also the curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, The Daily Papert. Learn more about Gary here.

 

An old colleague, Dr. Warren Buckleitner, has been reviewing children’s media products and toys for decades. He organizes industry events about the design of products for kids while maintaining a romantic optimism that the next great app is just around the corner. However, he often feels compelled to use Dr. Seymour Papert as a negative example to support a corporate community that Papert held in great repute. It’s a neat rhetorical trick, but Warren and I have discussed what I find to be a disrespectful view of Papert in the past. This morning, I awoke to find the Children’s Technology Exchange newsletter in my inbox. The latest issue dedicates a page to something Dr. Buckleitner calls “Seymour Syndrome.”

So, I decided to set the record straight by clearing up some confusion about issues raised in his essay. (I deleted the table of content links and all of the non-relevant content in the newsletter email below in order to respect the paywall and intellectual property rights. For more information, or to subscribe to his fine publications, go to http://reviews.childrenstech.com/)

Dear Warren,

Your latest discussion caught my eye. Aside from a persistent Papert animus and fondness for negative alliteration, your critique, “Seymour Syndrome” has some bugs in it.

  1. Papert’s lifework can hardly be reduced to the foreword in Mindstorms.
  2. Dr. Papert would dislike most of the crappy “products” you feel compelled to share with the world as much, if not more so than you do. (see Does Easy Do It? Children, Games and Learning)
  3. There is not a millimeter of daylight between Piaget and Papert. (see Papert on Piaget)
  4. Piaget’s work wasn’t about hands-on, it was focused on learning through concrete experiences. That’s not the same thing. (See The Conservation of Piaget: The Computer as Grist to the Constructivist Mill or even Ian’s Truck.)
  5. Papert was not Piaget’s student. Papert had earned two mathematics Ph.D.s by the time Piaget hired him as a collaborator.
  6. What is considered “getting kids to code” today is a denatured view of Papert’s vision about democratizing agency over computers.
  7. I’m not sure what a direction variable is, but 1) kids play games and sing songs using syntonic body geometry (like the turtle) from a very early age and 2) lots and lots of kids can use RIGHT and LEFT to learn directionality long before they’re eight or nine years-old.
  8. Papert’s “gear” story is a metaphor. His life’s work was dedicated to creating the conditions in which children could fall in love with powerful ideas naturally and with lots of materials, technologies, and experiences. His book, The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer, discusses the importance of sharing learning stories.
  9. Papert wasn’t “led to Logo.” He, along with Wally Feurzig and Cynthia Solomon invented Logo. The fact that you’re still talking about it 50 years later points to at least its durability as an “object to think with.” (Here is a video conversation about Logo’s origins with two of its inventors.)
  10. Scratch can be considered Papert’s grandchild. I’m glad you like it.
  11. Most of the products you review make “exaggerated” claims about their educational properties. Why should this one be any different? Why blame Papert? (Dr. Papert wrote an entire book of advice for parents on avoiding such products and substituting creative activities instead. See The Connected Family – Bridging the Digital Generation Gap)
  12. The current CS4All, CSEdWeek, Hour-of-Code efforts are almost entirely “idea averse” (a great Papert term) and could really stand to learn a few things from Dr. Papert.

BTW: Thanks for your review of the CUE robot. It was helpful. Imagine if these toys had the extended play value of a programming language, like Logo? I’ve been using and learning with Logo for close to 40 years and have yet to tire of it. I sure wish you could have seen me teach Logo programming to 150 K-12 educators last week in Virginia. It was magnificent.

Happy holidays!

Gary

PS: I wonder why so many people feel so comfortable calling Dr./Professor Seymour Papert by his first name? Nobody calls Dewey, “John,” or Piaget, “Jean.”

On December 7, 2017 at 8:31 AM Children’s Technology Review wrote:

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RECOGNIZING SEYMOUR SYNDROME
See page 4 Recognizing “Seymour Syndrome”  Seymour Papert was a gifted individual. I mean no disrespect to his legacy by this article. I’ve seen how his ideas about children and coding have misled well-intentioned adults in the past.  Fast forward 40 years, and history is repeating itself. From reading Seymour Papert’s 1980 book, Mindstorms, we learn that he was fascinated by gears as a child. “Playing with gears became a favorite pastime. I loved rotating circular objects against one another in gearlike motions and, naturally, my first ‘erector set’ project was a crude gear system.” Papert wanted every child to have such mindstorms, which led him to Logo; an early programming language. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, many educators suffered from “Seymour Syndrome” — meaning an idealistic optimism that coding was the key to a better future. There was a rush to enroll children in coding camps. I know this because I was one of the teachers. I started calling all the hype “Seymour Syndrome” people trying to get young children to code, before they can understand what is going on. Today’s market has once again flooded with commercial coding-related apps, robots and games being sold with the promise that they can promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Cubetto is one of these. The symptoms are in the marketing materials that name-drop Montessori, and claim that time with this rolling cube will  “teach a child to code before they can read.” Cubetto’s coding means finding six AA batteries and plotting out the course of a slow moving rolling cube on a grid. You do this by laying direction tiles on a progress line and pressing a transmit button.  I shudder to think that teachers are spending time attempting to “teach” children how to “code” thinking that this actually as something to do with “teaching” children how to “code” to fulfill a STEM objective. Students of child development know that preschool and early elementary age children learn best when they are actively involved with hands on, concrete materials. Papert’s teacher — Jean Piaget called the years from 3 to 7 “concrete operations” for a reason. The motions of the cube should be directly linked to the command, or better yet, the child should be in the maze, for a first-person point of view. ‘ Good pedagogy in the early years should be filled with building with blocks, playing at the water table filling and emptying containers, moving around (a lot) and testing language abilities on peers. If you want to use technology, get them an iPad and let them explore some responsive Sago Mini apps. Spend your $220 (the cost of a Cubetto) on several a low cost, durable RC vehicles that deliver a responsive, cause and effect challenge. Let the direction variables wait until the child is eight- or nine-years of age, when they can use a program like Scratch to build an entire program out of clusters of commands. As far as the “coding” part, save your pedagogical ammo for materials that match a child’s developmental level.

LITTLECLICKERS: PROJECTION MAPPING
Do you like to play with shadows? If so, you’ll love projection mapping. That’s when you use a computer projector to create a cool effect on a ceiling or building. Let’s learn some more.   1. What is projection mapping? According to http://projection-mapping.org/whatis/ you learn that it’s simply pointing a computer projector at something, to paint it with light. You can play a scary video on your house a Halloween, or make Santa’s sled move across your ceiling during a concert. The possibilities are endless. Visit the site, at www.littleclickers.com/projectionmapping


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About the author

Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He is also the curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, The Daily Papert. Learn more about Gary here.

Pointing in the Wrong Direction
© 2003 Gary S. Stager/District Administration Magazine

Published in the January 2004 issue of 

The good news is that my daughter’s teachers are at last beginning to use computers. The bad news is they are using them to make PowerPoint presentations. Frightening images of my high school algebra teacher with the indelible blue arm from the ceaseless writing and erasing at the overhead projector flashed through my mind during my recent trip to Back-to-School Night.

Monotonous lectures at the overhead are quickly being replaced by the even more mind-numbing PowerPoint-based instruction. While the overhead projector allows a presenter to make changes and annotations on the fly in response to the needs of the audience, a PowerPoint presentation is a fossil created earlier that day — or during another school year — with low expectations for audience engagement.

Allow me to set the scene, a drama familiar to parents of secondary school students. Your child writes his or her daily school schedule for you to dutifully follow during Back-to-School Night. You rush through dinner to attend the PTA meeting, where the details of the latest fundraiser can be revealed. This year you will be inflicting $20 gallon drums of cookie dough on your innocent friends, colleagues and relatives. Next, you run a half-marathon in less than three minutes on a pitch-dark campus in order to make it to your first-period class.

The teacher, a new devotee of PowerPoint, has a problem to solve. The low-bid PC in her classroom is broken and the school district cannot afford an expensive data projector for every teacher. Undeterred by these challenges and buoyed by a motivation to convey critical information to the assembled parents, the teacher does what any good problem solver would do. She prints out the PowerPoint presentation. The teacher carefully hands each parent a copy of her presentation one at a time. This takes approximately four minutes (and uses all of the toner in the hemisphere).

The title page contains her name and contact information, but no details about this particular class because the presentation needs to be generic enough to use all evening. Upon opening the stapled packet one is treated to a couple of dozen slides detailing the teacher’s gum rules, incomprehensible grading system and ways in which students will be punished for breaking any of the innumerable classroom rules. Since the “presentation” was prepared with a standard PowerPoint template, each page is dark and the school will be out of toner for the remainder of the year.

Teachers like the one I describe are well-meaning, but their reliance on PowerPoint undermines their ability to communicate effectively. Such presentations convey little information and reduce the humanity of the presenter through the recitation of decontextualized bullet points. Such presentations require expensive hardware, time-consuming preparation and reduce spontaneity. This eight-minute presentation was a test of endurance. I fear for students subjected to years of teacher-led presentations.

As a service to educators everywhere, I have prepared a one-slide PowerPoint presentation (above) to help them with Back-to-School night.

What’s the point?
Somehow the making of PowerPoint presentations has become the ultimate use of computers in American classrooms. Perhaps we are emotionally drawn to children making sales pitches. Adults see these children playing Donald Trump dress-up and overvalue the exercise as educational. Teachers refer to “doing PowerPoint” or students “making a PowerPoint” and this is unquestionably accepted as worthwhile.

The desire to create a generation of fifth graders with terrific secretarial skills fails on a number of levels. PowerPoint presentations frequently undermine effective communication. The time spent creating PowerPoint presentations reduces opportunities to develop important storytelling, oral communication and persuasive skills. The corporate look of PowerPoint creates an air of false complexity when students are really constrained by rigid canned templates and the use of clip-art. Class size and time constraints frequently deprive students of opportunities to actually make their presentations before an audience.

Kids should be conducting authentic research, writing original ideas and learning to communicate in a variety of modalities. PowerPoint is a poor use of technology and trivializes the development of communication skills.

The irony could cause whiplash. Over the past thirty years, the EdTech community expended sufficient energy to colonize Mars fighting the idea of teaching children to program computers. I cannot think of another single example in education where so much effort was invested in arguing against children learning something, especially ways of knowing and thinking so germane to navigating their world. Now, the very same folks responsible for enforced ignorance, disempowerment, and making computing so unattractive to children are now advocating “Computer Science for All.”*

There seems to be little consensus on what CS4All means, few educators prepared to teach it, no space in the schedule for a new course of study, and yet a seemingly unanimous desire to make binary, algorithm, and compression first grade spelling words. The sudden interest in “coding” is as interested in the Logo community’s fifty years of accumulated wisdom as Kylie Jenner is interested in taking Ed Asner to St. Barts.

So, amidst this morass of confusion, turf battles, and political posturing, well intentioned educators resort to puzzles, games, and vocabulary exercises for say, an hour of code.

I wish I had 0101 cents for every educator who has told me that her students “do a little Scratch.” I always want to respond, “Call me when your students have done a lot of Scratch.” Coding isn’t breaking a code like when you drunken insurance salesman go to an Escape Room as a liver bonding exercise. The epistemological benefit of programming computers comes from long intense thinking, communicating your hypotheses to the computer, and then either debugging or embellishment (adding features, seeking greater efficiency, decorating, testing a larger hypothesis).

Fluency should be the goal. Kids should be able to think, write, paint, compose, and dance with code. I recently met a team of sixth grade girls who won a contest for creating the “best app.” It was pretty good. I asked, “What else have you programmed?” and received blank stares. When I asked, “What would you like to program next?” the children all turned to look at the teacher for the correct answer. If the kids were truly learning to program, they would be full of independent ideas for what to do next.

Children have a remarkable capacity for intensity and computer programming is an intellectual and creative outlet for that intensity. When I learned to program in a public middle school in 1975, I felt smart for the first time in my life. I could look at problems from multiple angles. I could test strategies in my head. I could spend days thinking of little more than how to quash a bug in my program. I fell in love with the hard fun of thinking. I developed habits of mind that have served me for more than four decades.

So, for schools without a Mr. Jones to teach a nine-week mandatory daily computer programming class for every seventh grader, I have a modest proposal that satisfies many curricular objectives at once.

Whether your goal is literacy, new literacy, computer literacy, media literacy, coding, or the latest vulgarity, close reading, my bold suggestion offers a little something for everyone on your administrative Xmas list.

Give the kids a book to read!

That’s right. There are two very good books that teach children to program in Scratch using a project-approach. The books are completely accessible for a fifth grader. (or older) Here’s what you do.

  • Buy a copy of one of the recommended books for each student or pair of students.
  • Use the book as a replacement text.
  • Ask the students to work through all of the projects in the book.
  • Encourage kids to support one another; perhaps suggest that they “ask three before me.”
  • Celebrate students who take a project idea and make it their own or spend time “messing about” with a programming concept in a different context.

There is no need for comprehension quizzes, tests, or vocabulary practice since what the students read and understand should be evident in their programming. Kids read a book. Kids create. Kids learn to program.

There is a growing library of Scratch books being published, but these are the two I recommend.

Super Scratch Programming Adventure! : Learn to Program by Making Cool Games is a graphic novel filled with Scratch projects.

Scratch For Kids For Dummies by Derek Breen is a terrific project-based approach to learning Scratch.

If per chance, thick books scare you, there are two excerpted versions of Derek Breen’s Scratch for Kids for Dummies book, entitled Designing Digital Games: Create Games with Scratch! (Dummies Junior) and Creating Digital Animations: Animate Stories with Scratch! (Dummies Junior). Either would also do the trick.

Shameless plug

Sylvia Martinez and I wrote a chapter in this new book, Creating the Coding Generation in Primary Schools.

* There are a plethora of reasons why I believe that Computer Science for All is doomed as a systemic innovation, but I will save those for another article.

Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.

The story of a boy’s academic pursuits in New Jersey and education’s lack of progress since then…

© 2001 Gary S. Stager/Curriculum Administrator Magazine
Published in the July 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator

I recently received a sad email informing me that Paul Jones, my first and only computing programming teacher, had passed away. Mr. Jones taught at Schuyler Colfax Junior High School in Wayne, New Jersey for thirty-seven years. If a monument to honor great achievements in educational computing is ever erected, it should surely include a statue of Mr. Jones.

Around 1976 I got to touch a computer for the first time. My junior high school (grades 6-8) had a mandatory computer-programming course for seventh and eighth graders. I only had the course once since I was in the band. In a twist familiar to schools across the land, kids less inclined to creative and intellectual pursuits got to take double the number of courses in those areas!

In the 1970s the Wayne Township Public Schools in New Jersey believed it was important for all kids to have experience programming computers. There was never any discussion of preparation for computing careers, school-to-work, presentation graphics or computer literacy. This was not a gifted course or a vocational course. This “mandatory elective” (a concept unique to schooling) was viewed as a window onto a world of ideas – equal in status to industrial arts, home economics and the arts.

To young adolescents transitioning out of trick-or-treating Mr. Jones was scary in a Dr. Frankenstein sort of way. Rumors abounded about him talking to his computer and even kissing it goodnight before going home at the end of the day. The truth was that this guy could make computers do things! To kids who never imagined seeing a computer – let alone controlling one, having such power within our reach was pretty heady stuff.

The class consisted of mini-tutorials, programming problems on worksheets to kill time while we waited to use the one or two teletypes sitting in the front and back of the room. The scarcity of classroom computers had an unintended consequence, lots of collaboration.

We could sign-up to do more programming or play a computer game after school. This afterschool activity, undoubtedly offered out of the goodness of Mr. Jones’ heart, would allow us extra precious minutes of computer time. Text-based versions of boxing, tennis, football and Star Trek were favorites. Mr. Jones knew how the games worked and would show us the underlying code if we were interested. Mr. Jones did sort of love his computer and his students. Once I knew the odds for each football play the computer never beat me again. I could THINK LIKE THE COMPUTER! This made me feel powerful and laid the foundation for a life of problem solving.

The habits of mind developed in Mr. Jones’ class helped me survive the series of miserable mathematics classes that would greet me in high school. Perhaps Mr. Jones was such a great teacher because he was learning to program too. (This never occurred to me as a kid since Mr. Jones knew everything about computers.)

During high school I would pay an occasional visit to Mr. Jones in order to trade programming secrets. As an adult we had a casual collegial relationship. He may have even attended one or two of my workshops. I do remember that he loved AppleWorks with a passion normally reserved for opera and that he collected Beagle Bros. AppleWorks add-ons like they were Beanie Babies.

Not long after Mr. Jones died I received a charming email from the world’s finest seventh grade social studies teacher, Bob Prail, asking me if I would be interested in applying for Mr. Jones’ teaching job. I was honored to be considered and must admit that the whole “circle of life” angle warmed my heart. However, living with my family 3,000 miles from Schuyler Colfax Jr. High would make the commute difficult. I also feared that the responsibilities assigned to this teaching position were no longer pioneering or designed to expand the thinking of students. I was concerned that the 2001 curriculum for a computing teacher (probably now called something like digital communication technology integration facilitator and cable-puller) would have deteriorated into the mindless computer literacy objectives of mouse-clicking, web bookmarking and word processing plaguing too many schools.

Unnamed sources within the junior high school in question have since revealed that students now spend a considerable amount of time learning to “keyboard.” I don’t know which is worse, disrespecting the talents and culture of kids by pretending that they have never seen a computer before or lowering our expectations by making it impossible for kids to do wondrous things with the most powerful technology ever invented.

As students of Mr. Jones a quarter century ago, none of us HAD ever seen a computer before and yet the curriculum was designed to inspire us to seize control of this mysterious machine. Since we had little idea what was impossible, we thought anything was possible. We felt smart, powerful and creative. Assuming Mr. Jones’ responsibilities while trivializing the intellectual power of computing would dishonor his spirit and diminish his pioneering contributions to the world of powerful ideas.


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.