[April 2016] At last week’s #asugsv Summit, the annual bacchanal where dilettantes, amateurs, libertarians, billionaires, and Silicon Valley mercenaries gather to plot the destruction of public education in plain view, Dr. Condoleeza Rice of 9/11 and Iraqi war infamy shared her expertise on “reforming” public education. Like many simpletons and profiteers, Dr. Rice seeks salvation in dystopian technology and reportedly demonstrated a level of understanding of educational technology similar to her imaginary “mushroom cloud” in Baghdad.
“Technology is neutral,” Rice observed. “It’s how it is applied that matters.” Technology can be used to support a world in which a child’s zip code or color or gender or age doesn’t shape their future—just their commitment to getting an education, she said. (Edsurge – Heard & Overheard at the ASU+GSV Summit. April 19, 2016.)
No. You are profoundly wrong Dr. Rice!
In fact I detailed how wrong you are three years ago. Perhaps you didn’t read my daily brief entitled, “Technology is Not Neutral!” You may read it below…
Larry Ferlazzo invited me to share a vision of computers in education for inclusion in his Classroom Q&A Feature in Education Week. The text of that article is below.
You may also enjoy two articles I published in 2008:
Technology is Not Neutral
Educational computing requires a clear and consistent stance
© 2013 Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
There are three competing visions of educational computing. Each bestows agency on an actor in the educational enterprise. We can use classroom computers to benefit the system, the teacher or the student. Data collection, drill-and-practice test-prep, computerized assessment or monitoring Common Core compliance are examples of the computer benefitting the system. “Interactive” white boards, presenting information or managing whole-class simulations are examples of computing for the teacher. In this scenario, the teacher is the actor, the classroom a theatre, the students the audience and the computer is a prop.
The third vision is a progressive one. The personal computer is used to amplify human potential. It is an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression that allows each child to not only learn what we’ve always taught, perhaps with greater efficacy, efficiency or comprehension. The computer makes it possible for students to learn and do in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. This vision of computing democratizes educational opportunity and supports what Papert and Turkle call epistemological pluralism. The learner is at the center of the educational experience and learns in their own way.
Too many educators make the mistake of assuming a false equivalence between “technology” and its use. Technology is not neutral. It is always designed to influence behavior. Sure, you might point to an anecdote in which a clever teacher figures out a way to use a white board in a learner-centered fashion or a teacher finds the diagnostic data collected by the management system useful. These are the exception to the rule.
While flexible high-quality hardware is critical, educational computing is about software because software determines what you can do and what you do determines what you can learn. In my opinion the lowest ROI comes from granting agency to the system and the most from empowering each learner. You might think of the a continuum that runs from drill/testing at the bottom; through information access, productivity, simulation and modeling; with the computer as a computational material for knowledge construction representing not only the greatest ROI, but the most potential benefit for the learner.
Piaget reminds us ,“To understand is to invent,” while our mutual colleague Seymour Papert said, “If you can use technology to make things, you can make more interesting things and you can learn a lot more by making them.”
Some people view the computer as a way of increasing efficiency. Heck, there are schools with fancy-sounding names popping-up where you put 200 kids in a room with computer terminals and an armed security guard. The computer quizzes kids endlessly on prior knowledge and generates a tsunami of data for the system. This may be cheap and efficient, but it does little to empower the learner or take advantage of the computer’s potential as the protean device for knowledge construction.
School concoctions like information literacy, digital citizenship or making PowerPoint presentations represent at best a form of “Computer Appreciation.” The Conservative UK Government just abandoned their national ICT curriculum on the basis of it being “harmful and dull” and is calling for computer science to be taught K-12. I could not agree more.
My work with children, teachers and computers over the past thirty years has been focused on increasing opportunity and replacing “quick and easy” with deep and meaningful experiences. When I began working with schools where every student had a laptop in 1990, project-based learning was supercharged and Dewey’s theories were realized in ways he had only imagined. The computer was a radical instrument for school reform, not a way of enforcing the top-down status quo.
Now, kindergarteners could build, program and choreograph their own robot ballerinas by utilizing mathematical concepts and engineering principles never before accessible to young children. Kids express themselves through filmmaking, animation, music composition and collaborations with peers or experts across the globe. 5th graders write computer programs to represent fractions in a variety of ways while understanding not only fractions, but also a host of other mathematics and computer science concepts used in service of that understanding. An incarcerated 17 year-old dropout saddled with a host of learning disabilities is able to use computer programming and robotics to create “gopher-cam,” an intelligent vehicle for exploring beneath the earth, or launch his own probe into space for aerial reconnaissance. Little boys and girls can now make and program wearable computers with circuitry sewn with conductive thread while 10th grade English students can bring Lady Macbeth to life by composing a symphony. Soon, you be able to email and print a bicycle. Computing as a verb is the game-changer.
Used well, the computer extends the breadth, depth and complexity of potential projects. This in turn affords kids with the opportunity to, in the words of David Perkins, “play the whole game.” Thanks to the computer, children today have the opportunity to be mathematicians, novelists, engineers, composers, geneticists, composers, filmmakers, etc… But, only if our vision of computing is sufficiently imaginative.
1) Kids need real computers capable of programming, video editing, music composition and controlling external peripherals, such as probes or robotics. Since the lifespan of school computers is long, they need to do all of the things adults expect today and support ingenuity for years to come.
2) Look for ways to use computers to provide experiences not addressed by the curriculum. Writing, communicating and looking stuff up are obvious uses that require little instruction and few resources.
3) Every student deserves computer science experiences during their K-12 education. Educators would be wise to consider programming environments designed to support learning and progressive education such as MicroWorlds EX and Scratch.
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In addition to being a veteran teacher educator, popular speaker, journalist, author, and publisher, Gary is co-author of the bestselling book called the “bible of the maker movement in schools”, Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. He also leads the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute and is Publisher at CMK Press.
I just received the following email from my nephew, a conscientious and excellent student currently enrolled at an East Coast university costing $68,000/year – before textbooks, etc…
The subject line in the email was PISSED
Since I know how much you love Pearson…
I’m taking a math course and an accounting course this term, each requires the completion of weekly online homework assignments. In order to gain access to these assignments, each student must make an account using a course ID so that our scores will automatically be sent to the professors, and purchase access to the e-books online. The accounting textbook is McGraw-Hill, and the math book is Pearson.
Each e-book will cost me $100, only because we are required to use these websites for our homework. I’m literally buying homework.I thought Pearson’s death-grip on my throat was over, but alas…
It is worth noting that all of my nephew’s other coursework thus far has been project-based and authentic.
OF COURSE, a required math course and math-adjacent “Accounting,” rely on the same-old shitty “answer the odd numbered questions” alternative to an actual productive education experience. This is not a small point.
As Seymour Papert told me, [paraphrase] “If you are not concerned that not a single progressive development in education has had an impact on ‘math,” it means ultimately that no matter what else your school does to make education relevant, there is some part of the day or week where you introduce coercion, irrelevance, and misery into the system.” This coercion is corrosive and ultimately undermines any other learner-centered efforts. As I like to say, “the weeds will always kill the flowers.”
The Atlantic featured a really good piece of reflection on the lost art of teaching by the great magician Teller, half of Penn and Teller.
“The first job of a teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject. That doesn’t have to be done by waving your arms and prancing around the classroom; there’s all sorts of ways to go at it, but no matter what, you are a symbol of the subject in the students’ minds.”
This fits nicely with my oft-repeated statement, “Schools have an obligation to introduce children to things they don’t yet know they love.”
Americans have a nutty notion that experts are bad teachers. My experience is quite to the contrary. You become an expert by obsessively focusing on often tiny, yet continuous growth. That precision and focus is easy converted into an ability to explain a learning process.
“Equity demands access to a greater range of intellectual & creative experiences, not merely access to same crap rich White boys don’t need either.” – Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
A response to the plethora of articles spouting hooey similar to this article – Saving Computer Science from Itself
(Regrettably, I will undoubtedly be compelled to write more on this topic in the future. In the meantime, here is my answer to the “should we teach kids to code” argument)
As someone who has taught countless children (from preschool) and their teachers to program across the curriculum for 34 years, I disagree with lots of the arguments in this article. I agree that we have done an awful job of defining CS AND reaching any rational consensus of why it is critical that every child learn computer science.
The larger argument I would like to make is that this is not a matter of opinion.
Programming gives children, every child, agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world. Computer science is a legitimate science; perhaps the most significant advancement in science of the past century. It is foundational for all other science. THEREFORE, IT MUST BE TAUGHT AND USED WELL BY EVERY CHILD. Computer science gives kids access to complexity and provides an authentic context for learning the crummy mathematics content we dispense to defensless children.
One might also discuss the terrible (or nonexistent) job we do of teaching ANY science to children (below secondary grades). Oh yeah, add art, instrumental music, civics, mathematics, and history to that list as well.
The difference between Computer Science and all of the other stuff we don’t bother to teach is the vehemence with which nearly two generations of educators have fought to democratize computer science and keep it out of the classroom. There are countless examples of far less relevant and less fun bullshit we fill kids’ school days with.
Furthermore, ISTE cannot be trusted to play any leadership role in this effort. They have disqualified themselves from having any voice in discussions about the future of computing in schools. I signed the ISTE charter, edited their last computer science journal for several years, and have spoken at the last 28 of their conferences. I even co-authored the cover story for the last issue of their magazine, “Learning and Leading with Technology.” However, ISTE’s self-congratulatory pathetic “standards” for educational computing do not contain the word, “programming,” anywhere. There are no powerful ideas they embrace, just some mindless notion of “technology good.”
I’ve written about ISTE before:
Refreshing the ISTE Technology Standards
Senior Editor Gary Stager interviews Don Knezek, CEO of ISTE, on the revised National Educational Technology Standards(NETS). Plus: Stager’s perspective.
Published in the June 2007 issue of District Administration
Why not ask the Wolfram brothers or Seymour Papert about the value of children programming? Why are we relying on the “vision” of politicians or tech directors whose primary concerns are about plumbing and getting Math Blaster to run on Chromebooks connected to an interactive whiteboard?
The UK example is exactly NOT what we should be doing. Their curriculum (scope, sequence, content) makes no sense and bares very little resemblance to computer science. Like other “Coding” or ill conceived computer science curricula written by government committee, the UK curriculum doesn’t even need a computer. AND when you make a hierarchical curriculum, IF needs to be in 2nd grade while THEN gets introduced in a subsequent year. The only way you become good at computer science is by revisiting ideas and techniques in lots of projects – just like in any other medium.
Puzzles are not CS. An hour of “code” is not CS. Using Scratch for a few sessions or storyboarding are not CS.
There is no length to which people will not resort to deprive children of learning to program computers.
Oh yeah, the issues of efficacy, equity, etc you mention have been studied for decade. We know what to do.
I could go on….
Gary Stager’s work and educational philosophy are based on four ideas.
- The Piagetian idea that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.”
- Xenophon’s admonition that “nothing beautiful can ever be forced.”
- Schools have a sacred obligation to introduce children to things they don’t yet know they love.
- Computational technology makes complexity accessible to children and allows them to solve problems their teachers may never have anticipated.
The slide below is being passed around the Internet by well-meaning educators.
However, such “don’t do this, do that” statements from startup-culture and Silicon Valley education “experts” almost always reveal their profound ignorance of how learning occurs and children develop.
Neither question is developmentally appropriate, although the first (bad one) at least includes a chance for play, fantasy, and imagination. The latter is designed to train workers to be cogs in a system dominated by the good folks at companies like Google.
I engage frequently in conversations such as the one below. These interactions take place online and face-to-face.
Well-intentioned educator: We need to teach children to make mistakes.
Me: Really? We need to teach mistake making?
Educator: Well, we need to teach them to embrace failure.
Me: There is nothing virtuous about failure. You cannot possibly motivate children with the same force you use to punish them. Besides, Papert teaches us that the best projects push up against the persistence of reality. Overcoming obstacles is natural. Failure is the imposition of judgment by others.
Educator: What I mean is that kids should be risk-takers.
Me: It doesn’t seem like a good idea for adults to be encouraging children to take risks. Learning has nothing to do with risk. Risk is potentially dangerous.
Educator: We should encourage tinkering and experimentation.
Me: Why didn’t you say that?
Two years ago, Dr. Leah Buechley delivered a stunning address at Stanford University’s 2013 FabLearn Conference. In her speech, Dr. Buechley challenged MakerEd.org’s slogan, “Every Child a Maker,” in light of the lack of diversity displayed by a commercial entity often associated with its activities, Maker Media. (Note: The non-profit advocacy group, MakerEd.org and the company, Maker Media, share a founder and similar names, but are indeed separate entities regardless of any confusion in the marketplace.)
Dr. Buechley shared stunning statistics on the lack of diversity represented on the cover of Make Magazine (the flagship of the enterprise), the lack of editorial diversity in Make, and the cost of the most popular kits sold by MakerShed, the retail arm of Maker Media.
I highly recommend that you take some time to watch Dr. Buechley’s Stanford Talk.
These are not the words of a cranky critic. Leah Buechley is one of the mother’s of the maker movement (small m). She urged those with enormous capital, influence, and connections to take their mission of “Every Child a Maker” more seriously. A change in behavior needed to accompany this rhetoric in order to truly make the world a better place. Maker Media and its subsidiaries have gained access to The White House, departments of education, and policy-making discussions. With such access comes great responsibility. Every educator and parent has seen the pain inflicted on public education by corporations and other rich white men who view the public schools as their personal plaything.
Earlier this week, I wrote the article, Criminalizing Show & Tell, to tell the outrageous tale of a 9th grade young man who was arrested, cuffed, detained, and suspended from school for bringing his invention to class. He hoped his creativity would gain him support in a school culture hostile to his complexion, name and religious beliefs. In my article, I addressed the steps that must be taken to correct this abuse of power, deprivation of rights, and violation of sound education principles.
Since then, Ahmed Mohammed has become the cause célèbre of the Internet. Why, he got tweeted by @potus AND got his very own hashtag, #istandwithAhmed. What Ahmed has NOT received is an apology from the school district that brutalized him or the police force that wrongfully arrested him. In fact, the school district continued their victim-blaming in a letter to parents and the Irving, Texas police chief thinks that his force handled everything perfectly as well.
But hey, he got a #hashtag! Case closed, right?
I don’t think so.
This morning I awoke to this tone-deaf email from Makershed announcing their Stand with Ahmed clock kit sale. Worst of all, only 3 of the 12 clocks are actually on-sale.
If tasteless isn’t your style, how about sweet?
My social media stream is full of postings like this one.
Hooray! Ahmed is getting lots of presents. Who doesn’t like presents?
A few pesky questions remain:
- Who will buy all the plane tickets Ahmed and his parents need to meet the folks wishing to pose for photos with him?
- Will his school punish him for missing class?
Oh, that’s right. He doesn’t have class because:
- Ahmed was suspended for not bringing a bomb to school.
- The intolerant culture of his school is forcing him to change high schools.
Neither social justice or the right to a high-quality public school education free of brutality and intolerance can be exchanged for exciting cash and prizes.
Ahmed’s growing gift bag of goodies will do nothing to cleanse the Irving, Texas schools and community of its toxicity, xenophobia, Islamophobia, or racism. The misbehaving adults will not have their behaviors addressed.
Where does a fourteen year-old boy go to get his childhood back?
Veteran teacher educator, journalist, and speaker Gary S. Stager, Ph.D. is the co-author of Invent to Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, called “the bible of the maker movement in schools” by the San Jose Mercury News.