Dr. Gary Stager recently authored Intel’s Guide to Creating and Inventing with Technology in the Classroom. The piece explores the maker movement for educators, policy-makers, and school leaders.

Download a copy here.

Intel cover

There are aspects of the “art of teaching” I have long taken for granted, but are apparently no longer taught in preservice education programs. Classroom centers is one such critical topic. Since I cannot find the seminal book(s) or papers on the importance or creation of centers, I created the following document for the school I work for.


Thoughts on Classroom Centers (v 1.0)
Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Special Assistant to the Head of School for Innovation
The Willows Community School
April 2015

THE CENTER APPROACH

Centers are clearly delineated areas in the classroom where students may work independently or in small groups on purposeful activities without direct or persistent teacher involvement. Centers may be designed by the teacher or co-constructed with students. Deliberate materials are presented in a center to scaffold a child’s learning, or nurture creativity. Such materials may be utilized in both a predictable and serendipitous fashion. Centers afford students with the necessary time to take pride in one’s work, overcome a significant challenge, develop a new talent, or deepen a relationship (with a person or knowledge domain).

“Learning as a process of individual and group construction –

Each child, like each human being, is an active constructor of knowledge, competencies, and autonomies, by means of original learning processes that take shape with methods and times that are unique and subjective in the relationship with peers, adults, and the environment.

The learning process is fostered by strategies of research, comparison of ideas, and co-participation. It makes use of creativity, uncertainty, intuition, [and] curiosity. It is generated in play and in the aesthetic, emotional, relational, and spiritual dimensions, which it interweaves and nurtures. It is based on the centrality of motivation and the pleasures of learning.” (Reggio Children, 2010)

GOALS

  • Minimize direct instruction (lecture)
  • Recognize that students learn differently and at different rates
  • Reduce coercion
  • Honor student choice
  • Increase student agency
  • Make classrooms more democratic
  • Enhance student creativity
  • Build student competence and independence
  • Employ more flexible uses of instructional time
  • Inspire cross-curricular explorations
  • Develop the classroom as the “3rd teacher”
  • Encourage more student-centered classrooms
  • Respect the centrality of the learner in learning
  • Create more productive contexts for learning
  • Supports the Hundred Languages of Children
  • Match a child’s remarkable capacity for intensity
  • Provide opportunities for teachers to sit alongside students
  • Make learning visible
  • Shift the teacher’s role from lecturer to research responsible for making private thinking public – invisible thinking visible
  • Team teaching in the best collegial sense

BENEFITS

  • Increased self-reliance, self-regulation and personal responsibility
  • Shift in agency from teacher to student
  • Development of project-management skill
  • Supports project-based learning
  • Opportunities for “flow” experiences (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991)
  • Intensify learning experiences
  • Encourage focus
  • Expand opportunities for:
    • Creative play
    • Informal collaboration
    • Experimentation
    • Appropriation of powerful ideas
  • Acknowledges the curious, creative, social and active nature of children
  • Matches the individual attention spans of students
  • Reduces boredom
  • Increases student engagement
  • Teachers get to know each student (better)
  • Recognition that quality work takes time
  • Acknowledges the centrality of the learner in knowledge construction
  • Thoughtful documentation of student learning by teachers
  • Minimize misbehavior

CENTER EXAMPLES

Experimentation/laboratory center
A place for experimentation 

Project center
An area where a long-term project may be undertaken and securely stored

Game center
A place where students play games that helps develop specific concepts, logic, or problem-solving skills

Studio center
An art center where children sculpt, paint, animate, draw, etc… with sufficient light and appropriate materials.

Creative play center

  • Dress-up area
  • Puppet theatre
  • Blocks/LEGO/Construction with found materials

Classroom library
A comfortable well-lit area, stocked with a variety of high-interest reading material

Pet center
The class pet to observe, care for, and in some cases, play with

Plant center
Classroom garden to care for

Listening center
A setting where students can listen to recordings or watch a video with headphones

CAUTION

  • Learning centers should neither be chores or Stations of the Cross. Flexibility, student choice, and actions that do not disturb classmates are hallmarks of the centers approach.
  • Centers should not be managed with a stopwatch. “Fairness” is not a priority, except if there are scarce materials.
  • Learning center use should not be used as a reward or punishment.

TIPS FOR PREPARING A CENTER

  • Create clear and concise prompts, questions to ponder or project ideas. Place these prompts on index cards, a single sheet of paper, or in a binder.
  • Less is more! Do not clutter up a center or overwhelm a learner with too many options.
  • Keep prompts simple and not overly prescriptive. Allow for serendipity.
  • Rotate out “stale” materials – things that students no longer show interest in
  • Assign classroom roles for tidying-up centers
  • Place louder centers away from quieter areas in the classroom.
  • Provide safety materials and instruction when appropriate at centers

 

REFERENCES

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Reprint ed.). NY: Harper Perennial.

Reggio Children. (2010). Indications – Preschools and infant toddler centres of the municipality of Reggio Emilia (L. Morrow, Trans.). In Infant toddler centers and preschools of Instituzione of the municipality of Reggio Emilia (Ed.): Reggio Children.

This time of year, schools scramble to select a book for their entire faculty to read over the summer. Although it would be nice if everyone read the same book as a basis for common dialogue and for teachers to read more than one book about learning each year, I just assembled a list for the (DK-8) school where I serve as the Special Assistant to the Head of School for Innovation. Based on our overarching goals of action, reflective practice, progressive education, learning-by-making, energetic classroom centers, creativity, and collegiality, I recommended the following books for this summer. If a school community was to read one book (besides Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom) , I would recommend David Perkins’ book, Making Learning Whole.

If you wish to give your faculty (K-12 in any configuration), a list of selections to choose from, I recommend the following in no particular order.
  1. Perkins, David. (2010) Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform EducationA clear and concise book on how to teach in a learner-centered fashion. 
  2. Gandini, Lella et al… (2015) In the Spirit of the Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia, Second EditionA beautiful and practical book aimed at early childhood education, but equally applicable at any grade level. 
  3. Littky, Dennis. (2004) The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s BusinessAimed at secondary education, but with powerful ideas applicable at any level. This may be the best book written about high school reform in decades. 
  4. Tunstall, Tricia. (2013) Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of MusicOne of the finest books about teaching and learning I’ve read in the past decade. This lessons in this book are applicable across all subject areas. 
  5. Papert, Seymour. (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the ComputerA seminal book that situates the maker movement and coding in a long progressive tradition. This is arguably the most important education book of the past quarter century. 
  6. Little, Tom and Katherine Ellison. (2015) Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools  A spectacular case made for progressive education in the face of the nonsense masquerading as school “reform” these days. 

The last book was not recommended for faculty at my school, but it is well worth reading!

You could also indulge yourself in the richest professional learning event of your life by participating in Constructing Modern Knowledge 2015. Limited space is still available.

The Best Invention and Tinkering Books, plus other cool stuff – including toys and kits

The following is an attempt to share some of my objections to Common Core in a coherent fashion. These are my views on a controversial topic. An old friend I hold in high esteem asked me to share my thoughts with him. If you disagree, that’s fine. Frankly, I spent a lot of time I don’t have creating this document and don’t really feel like arguing about the Common Core. The Common Core is dying even if you just discovered it.

This is not a research paper, hence the lack of references. You can Google for yourself. Undoubtedly, this post contains typos as well. I’ll fix them as I find them.

This critique shares little with the attacks from the Tea Party or those dismissed by the Federal Education Secretary or Bill Gates as whiney parents.

I have seven major objections to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

  1. The CCSS are a solution in search of a problem.
  2. The CCSS were implemented in a remarkably undemocratic fashion at great public expense to the benefit of ideologues and corporations.
  3. The standards are preposterous and developmentally inappropriate.
  4. The inevitable failure of the Common Core cannot be blamed on poor implementation when poor implementation is baked into the design.
  5. Standardized curriculum lowers standards, diminishes teacher agency, and lowers the quality of educational experiences.
  6. The CCSS will result in an accelerated erosion of public confidence in public education.
  7. The requirement that CCSS testing be conducted electronically adds unnecessary complexity, expense, and derails any chance of computers being used in a creative fashion to amplify student potential.

The CCSS are a solution in search of a problem

The professed rationale for the Common Core is based on several patently ridiculous assumptions. These include:

  • There is a sudden epidemic of bad teaching in American schools.
  • There has never been a way for parents to know how their children are doing in school.
  • Curriculum varies widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction across the United States.

I am no apologist for the current state of public (or private) education in America. There is a shortage of imagination, love, and commitment to knowing every child in order to amplify her potential. However, there is abundant scholarship by Linda Darling-Hammond, Diane Ravitch, Gerald Bracey, Deborah Meier, and others demonstrating that more American kids are staying in school longer than at any time in history. If we control for poverty, America competes quite favorably against any other nation in the world, if you care about such comparisons.

Parents have ample ways of knowing how their children are doing; from speaking with them, meeting with teachers, looking at their work, and the excessive number of standardized tests already administered to American school children. Some places in America spend as long as several months per school year on testing, not including practice tests or the test-prep curriculum.

At best, the Common Core State Standards ensure that if a kid moves from Maine to Mobile, they won’t miss the monkey lesson. Such uniformity of instruction based on arbitrary curricular topics is impossible to enforce and on the wrong side of history. As my colleague and mentor Seymour Papert said, “At best school teaches a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the world and yet we quibble endlessly about which billionth of a percent is important enough to teach.” Schools should prepare kids to solve problems their teachers never anticipated with the confidence and competence necessary to overcome any obstacle, even if only to discover that there is more to learn.

The CCSS were implemented in a remarkably undemocratic fashion at great public expense to the benefit of ideologues and corporations

Other once great nations have embraced nutty ideas like national curricula, but such policies were voted upon by legislators willing to raise their hand and be held accountable for their vote. The CCSS is a de-facto national curriculum created by corporate forces and anonymous unaccountable bureaucrats. State education departments and local districts surviving savage cuts in state education funding can hardly afford to reject the Common Core when its implementation brings with it billions of dollars in Federal funding from the Obama administration. Americans would never tolerate a national curriculum. That’s why the Common Core was required as a backdoor vehicle for enforcing instructional uniformity.

CCSS advocates assert that the standards were written by Governors and teachers. This claim is laughable.

The two major forces behind the Common Core, aside from the Federal Department of Education, are Bill Gates and multinational testing/publishing conglomerate, Pearson. The Gates Foundation has spent up to $2.3 billion on astroturf groups lobbying on behalf of The Common Core. (more info here)

While Gates is driven by ideology or a misguided sense of philanthropy, Pearson stands to profit handsomely. They are the largest education publisher in the USA. They also lead in producing and scoring standardized tests. The controversial PARCC test that recently made headlines when they spied on kids’ social media accounts and got government goons to enforce their testing regime. Add test-prep curriculum, worksheets, professional development, and their recent forays into teacher and administrator credentialing, and you quickly see how Pearson controls the entire education ecosystem – profiting at every step of the process they created. Not much imagination is required to see Pearson running publicly funded charter schools created in the rubble created by the Common Core. Heads they win. Tails kids and teachers lose. (Read the Politico Pearson exposé, “No Profit Left Behind”)

The Common Core State Standards only apply to public schools. Neither Bill Gates or President Obama would tolerate sending their children to schools slavishly adhering to this curricular diet intended for other people’s children. Surely the Gates and Obama children will be career and college ready in their lovely schools with art, music, blocks, field trips, well-stocked libraries, and teachers trusted to design curriculum.

The standards are preposterous and developmentally inappropriate

The Common Core State Standards are focused on college and career readiness all the way down to kindergarten!

Please explain Cavalieri’s Principle. I have yet to meet an adult who knows what this is, but it appears in the Common Core High School Geometry Standards.

CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.HSG.GMD.A.2

Give an informal argument using Cavalieri’s principle for the formulas for the volume of a sphere and other solid figures.

Read the voluminous CCSS Math or CCSS English Language Arts standards for yourself.

Thankfully, the CCSS only currently exist for Math and English Language Arts. This means that other subjects in the arts, sciences, and social sciences will not be standardized. However, it also means they are less likely to be taught in CCSS-obsessed schools.

The inevitable failure of the Common Core cannot be blamed on poor implementation when poor implementation is baked into the design

Promoters of the Common Core shrug off criticisms by blaming teachers for poorly implementing the standards. This line of attack is worse than cynical victim blaming. Allow me to explain why.

Let’s stipulate that the Common Core State Standards are a terrific idea. Our nation needs clear enforceable uniform education standards at each grade level.

If that were the case, the CCSS would be rolled-out over twelve years, not all at once. If a curricular topic typically taught in the 9th grade is moved to 7th grade by the Common Core, then many children will not have been taught those concepts, but will still be tested on them. When they inevitably fail to perform well, their teachers will be blamed and in states like New York where teacher pay and job security is tied to test scores, their teachers will be punished for doing what they have been told to do.

Scotland is rolling out a new national curriculum, but they are doing so over twelve years.

Why do you think that the Common Core was in such a hurry to implement a new K-12 curriculum at once?

Standardized curriculum lowers standards, diminishes teacher agency, and lowers the quality of educational experiences

Curriculum should be determined as close to the child as possible in collaboration with colleagues and reflecting the community. It is the height of arrogance to prepare instruction for children you have never met.

Uniform standards standardize (lower) expectations in the name of uniformity. The quality of education suffers when teachers have their curricular discretion challenged and replaced with a list of topics to “cover” at best, or a scripted curriculum (common in urban settings), at worst. The sheer number of Common Core standards makes depth, mastery, passion, curiosity, or other habits of mind less likely to achieve. When does a student get great at something when their education experience is strapped to an ever-accelerating treadmill?

When teachers are not required to make curricular decisions and design curriculum based on the curiosity, thinking, understanding, passion, or experience of their students, the resulting loss in teacher agency makes educators less thoughtful and reflective in their practice, not more. The art of teaching has been sacrificed at the expense of reducing pedagogical practice to animal control and content delivery.

My standards for what children should be able to know and do extend far beyond that which is taught or tested by the CCSS.

The CCSS will result in an accelerated erosion of public confidence in public education

The singular genius of George W. Bush and his No Child Left Behind legislation (kicked-up a notch by Obama’s Race-to-the-Top) was the recognition that many parents hate school, but love their kids’ teachers. If your goal is to privatize education, you need to concoct a way to convince parents to withdraw support for their kid’s teacher. A great way to achieve that objective is by misusing standardized tests and then announcing that your kid’s teacher is failing your kid. This public shaming creates a manufactured crisis used to justify radical interventions before calmer heads can prevail.

These standardized tests are misunderstood by the public and policy-makers while being used in ways that are psychometrically invalid. For example, it is no accident that many parents confuse these tests with college admissions requirements. Using tests designed to rank students mean that half of all test-takers be below the norm and were never intended to measure teacher efficacy.

The test scores come back up to six months after they are administered, long after a child advances to the next grade. Teachers receive scores for last year’s students, with no information on the questions answered incorrectly. These facts make it impossible to use the testing as a way of improving instruction, the stated aim of the farcical process.

I am not willing to give up on public schools because that’s where the children are. Public education is the bedrock of our democracy.

The negative trajectory of technology use required by the CCSS

You will find no greater advocate for the use of computational technology in education than me. However, the requirement that the CCSS assessment exams driving the entire Common Core effort be conducted electronically has a deeply disturbing effect on educational computing.

Instead of using computers to create, program, edit, compose, publish, or collaborate, the Common Core electronic assessment requirement is causing schools, districts, and states to invest exorbitant sums on large numbers of often under-powered “devices” for test-taking and test-prep purposes. Existing computers will be tied up in these assessment activities as well. The security requirements of the CCSS exams are causing schools to lock-down computers in ways deleterious to learning and student empowerment. The fact that lots of “devices” need to be purchased for testing too often results in a diminution in computational power available to children in school. Constructive activities such as nusic composition, filmmaking, computer programming, physical computing, robotics, etc.. are rendered more difficult or impossible when technology purchases are shaped by testing requirements.

There are technical complexities and numerous pain points associated with this online testing as well. Many schools lack adequate network infrastructure to support hundreds or thousands of children being online at once. The testing software is buggy and prone to failure, especially since testing occurs nationwide at approximately the same time (and for longer than a Bar Exam). The testing software itself is awful and plagued by horrendous user-interface issues. Kids are being penalized for not being able to navigate buggy and confusing software, even if they understand the concept being tested. Poor(er) children with less access to computing activities are even more disadvantaged by the awful test navigation. In other words, much of what is being measured by the online Common Core tests will be a student’s ability to work the testing software, not valuable educational content. If you don’t believe me, try one of the online test samples for the PARCC assessment.

One last thing

It is particularly ironic how much of the public criticism of the Common Core is related to media accounts and water cooler conversations of the “crazy math” being taught to kids. There are actually very few new or more complex concepts in the Common Core than previous math curricula. In fact, the Common Core hardly challenges any of the assumptions of the existing mathematics curriculum. The Common Core English Language Arts standards are far more radical. Yet, our innumerate culture is up in arms about the “new new math” being imposed by the Common Core.

What is different about the Common Core approach to mathematics, particularly arithmetic, is the arrogant imposition of specific algorithms. In other words, parents are freaking out because their kids are being required to solve problems in a specific fashion that is different from how they solve similar problems.

This is more serious than a matter of teaching old dogs new tricks. The problem is teaching tricks at all. There are countless studies by Constance Kamii and others demonstrating that any time you teach a child the algorithm, you commit violence against their mathematical understanding. Mathematics is a way of making sense of the world and Piaget teaches us that it is not the job of the teacher to correct the child from the outside, but rather to create the conditions in which they correct themselves from the inside. Mathematical problem solving does not occur in one way no matter how forcefully you impose your will on children. If you require a strategy competing with their own intuitions, you add confusion that results in less confidence and understanding.

Aside from teaching one algorithm (trick), another way to harm a child’s mathematical thinking development is to teach many algorithms for solving the same problem. Publishers make this mistake frequently. In an attempt to acknowledge the plurality of ways in which various children solve problems, those strategies are identified and then taught to every child. Doing so adds unnecessary noise, undermines personal confidence, and ultimately tests memorization of tricks (algorithms) at the expense of understanding.

This scenario goes something like this. Kids estimate in lots of different ways. Let’s teach them nine or ten different ways to estimate, and test them along the way. By the end of the process, many kids will be so confused that they will no longer be able to perform the estimation skill they had prior to the direct instruction in estimation. Solving a problem in your head is disqualified.


These articles do a pretty good job of supporting my arguments above:

© 2015 Gary S. Stager
All Rights Reserved

In addition to the popular minds-on/hands-on Invent to Learn workshops already offered by Constructing Modern Knowledge, I’m pleased to announce a brand new set of exciting, informative, and practical workshops for schools, districts, and conferences for 2015. Family workshops are a fantastic way to build support for learning by doing in your school.

For more information, email learning@inventtolearn.com. Please include type (workshop, keynote, consulting, etc.), approximate dates, location, and any additional details. We’ll get back to you ASAP!

New Workshops

PBL with littleBits™ new tiny dingbat

littleBits are incredibly powerful snap-together electronic elements that allow learners of all ages to create a wide array of interactive projects. Arts and crafts meet science and engineering when littleBits are available for pro typing or creating super cool new inventions. In addition to knowledge construction with littleBits, participants will explore the following topics.

  • What makes a good project?
  • Effective prompt setting
  • Project-based learning strategies for exploring powerful ideas
  • Less Us, More Them

Wearable Computing new tiny dingbat

An LED, battery, and conductive thread can bring principles of electronics and engineering to learners of all ages. Interactive jewelry, bookmarks, and stuffed toys become a vehicle for making powerful ideas accessible to a diverse population of learners. More experienced participants may combine computer science with these “soft circuits” or “e-Textiles” to make singing suffer animals, animated t-shirts, jackets with directional signals, or backpacks with burglar alarms with the addition of the Lilypad Arduino or Flora microcontroller. Design, STEM, arts, and crafts come to life in this fun and exciting workshop! 

Reycling and Robotics
new tiny dingbat

This workshop uses the incredible Hummingbird Robotics Kit to show how a powerful and easy-to-use microntroller designed for the classroom, common electronic parts (motors, lights, sensors) may be combined with recycled “found” materials and craft supplies to create unique interactive robots from Kindergarten thru high school.  Scratch and Snap! programming brings these creations to life. No experience is required to become a master robotics engineer! Cross-curricular project ideas will be shared.

Introduction to Microcontroller Projects and Arduino Programming
new tiny dingbat

The Arduino open-source microcontroller is used by kids, hobbyists, and professional alike. Arduino is at the heart of interactive electronics projects and is perfect for classroom settings, but can seem intimidating to the initiated. This workshop introduces the foundational electronics, cybernetics and computer science concepts critical to learning and making with Arduino. The Arduino IDE programming environment will be demystified and other environments better suited for children, including Ardublocks and Scratch, will be explored. Strategies for teaching with Arduino will be shared.



new tiny dingbatMaking and Learning in the Primary Years 

Young children are natural inventors, tinkerers, and makers. This workshop builds upon the natural inclinations of young children by adding new “technological colors” to their crayon box. littleBits, Scratch, Turtle Art, Makedo, Makey Makey, Hummingbird robotics kits, LEGO WeDo, soft circuits and more can all enrich the learning process. Timeless craft traditions and recycled junk combine with emerging technology to create a greater range, breadth, and depth of opportunities for learning by doing. Strategies for effective scaffolding, classroom organization, and the use of exciting new technologies in a developmentally appropriate fashion will be discussed. Participants in this workshop will learn how such modern knowledge construction projects are wholly consistent with the best early childhood traditions and support current standards. Dr. Stager is a certified preschool thru eighth grade teacher and an expert in the Reggio Emilia approach.

new tiny dingbatBuild and Program a Truly Personal Computer with the Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi is a ultra low-cost Linux-based computer the size of a deck of playing cards that costs less than $40. It is capable of running open-source productivity software, like Open Office and Google Docs, plus programmed via Scratch, Turtle Art, or Python. You can even run Arduino microcontrollers, power a home-entertainment center, or run your own Minecraft server! Old USB keyboards. mice, TVs or monitors are recycled and repurposed to assemble your complete personal computer. Each participant in this workshop will setup, use, and program their Raspberry Pi in addition to discussing how it might be used across the curriculum. (materials fee applies)

Ah, balance!

Balance is the Fabreze of education policy. It is a chemical spray designed to mask the stench of a two year-old tuna sandwich found in the minvan with the artificial bouquet of an April rain dancing on a lily pad.

  • Balanced literacy got us systemic phonics.
  • Balanced math begot Singapore Math worksheets.
  • Balanced standards produced The Common Core.
  • Balanced policy debates produced No Child Left Behind and Race-to-the-Top
  • A balanced approach to educational technology made computer science extinct in schools and has now taught two generations of children to find the space bar in a computer lab-based keyboarding class.

I could go on.

Balance is elusive. It is fake and lazy and cowardly and sad. Balance is embraced by those who don’t know or can’t/won’t articulate what they truly believe. Balance fills the void left by the absence of alternative models and excellence. It is anonymous.

Educators are told that passion should be tempered. Every pedagogical idea is just fine as long as it is “for the children.” We should just do our jobs and not complain about outrageous attacks on our dignity, paycheck, curriculum, working conditions, or the living conditions of the students we serve.

Balance fills the school day with mandates and directives and lots of interruptions that while offering an illusion of options make it impossible for a learner to focus on anything long enough to become good at it.

Balance teaches children that teachers are helpless pawns in a system they don’t control or cannot understand.

Balance is the absentee parent of incrementalism. As educators take “baby steps” towards what they know is right or righteous they lead a long and meandering hike after which the followers cannot remember the original destination.

“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963)

Educators are to remain neutral and seek consensus at all-costs. Balance programs us to find the silver lining in tornados. There MUST be SOMETHING good in what Bill Gates or Sal Khan or any number of a million corporations with ED or MENTUM or ACHIEVE or VATION in their names happen to be peddling.

The laws of the political universe, and education is inherently political, greet each embrace of “balance” as ten steps in a more conservative direction. There is no balance – just weakness.

I urge you to read one of my favorite passages ever written about “balance” in education. It is from a lesser-known classic, On Being a Teacher,”  by the great American educator, Jonathan Kozol. Please take a few minutes to read, “Extreme Ideas.”

balance

Thinking and learning are strong proud words. When educational publishers or policy-makers seek to modify such terms, (re: design thinking, discovery learning, computational thinking…), the result seems less than the individual parts.

We get “design thinking” without any design; “computational thinking” without computation; “discovery learning” where the only acceptable discoveries are the ones the teacher (or textbook) already anticipated.

Increases in agency or student empowerment remain rhetorical and pedagogical progress, illusory.

I am too often reminded of the Sir Joshua Reynolds quote hanging all over Thomas Edison’s laboratories, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”

Piaget teaches us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” Schools and teachers serve students best when the emphasis is on action, not hypothetical conversations about what one might do if afforded the opportunity.

Papert was sadly correct when he said, “When ideas go to school, they lose their power.”

Let’s say that the lessons IDEO employees gleaned from designing the latest toothpaste tube could actually be applied to education (a preposterous supposition, but let’s roll with it). By the time those ideas move from the latest blog post or conference workshop to the classroom, kids are left with an elaborate process in which brainstorming and affixing Post-It notes to walls becomes a means to solving hypothetical problems or PowerPoint reports about a topic they care little about for a non-existent audience.

Actions taken by the system, like school or classroom redesign or schedule redesign may be fantastically beneficial, but are too often conflated with the benefits of learning by being designing something personally meaningful. In other words, the adults may have learned something by being designers, but are depriving youngsters of that same quality of experience. At a time when learning is too often viewed as the direct causal result of having been taught, system-level design becomes conflated with student learning. Arranging ceiling lights in the shape of constellations to reinforce the STEM focus of the school is hardly the same as students learning science by being scientists. Doing science leads to richer learning experiences and is profoundly different from being taught about it in a room with pictures of scientists on the wall or carpet tiles arranged in fractal patterns.

Image credit: https://flic.kr/p/cL9Gi

Image credit: https://flic.kr/p/cL9Gi

Teachers, and by extension students, become consumed by hitting all of the steps in the “design process” and remembering those stages at the expense of deeper experiences in creativity, design, engineering, or computing. I am alarmed by how many schools celebrate that they allow kids to choose a topic to write a report about (paper, blog post, or PowerPoint) and then confuse such coercive, traditional, and inauthentic experiences with remarkable feats of empowerment or school reform.

It is sad and dangerous to give folks the illusion of agency without actual power or meaningful options.

A couple weeks ago, I received an email from a New York Times reporter asking to interview me about Mayor Bill DiBlasio’s promise to end the ban on student cellphones in New York City public schools.. I replied immediately via email and called the reporter to tell her I was unavailable for a few hours, but that I provided my views on the subject via email from my iPhone. She agreed to call me later that day.

Alas, that call never occurred and my views didn’t make the article.

So, instead of wasting 144 words, I’ll share them below.

While there may be educational benefits of phone access, there are three primary reasons why the ban needs to be lifted.

1) it is unproductive to be arbitrarily mean to children. Schools would be well-served by lowering the antagonism level between children and adults.

2) Parents have legitimate safety fears and a right to contact their child. A child should be able to call for help or report their whereabouts to and from school.

Parasitic businesses prey on kids

Parasitic businesses prey on kids

3) It is unconscionable that poor children in NYC are being shaken down by vans parked outside schools charging kids to store their phones while in school – in many cases more than the cost of lunch.
When I enter a theatre or board a plane, I am asked politely to silence my phone. School should be no different, unless there is an educationally sound reason to use the phone.

Cellphone storage truck parked in front of an NYC Public School

Cellphone storage truck parked in front of an NYC Public School

Dr. Gary Stager is coauthor of the book, “Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom.” He is also a global expert on educational technology and veteran teacher educator.

ARCHIVE

Don’t give up on schools, there is still much to be done

By Gary Stager

District Administration, Aug 2006

Dear Mr. Gates:

I write with great admiration and appreciation of your remarkable philanthropic efforts on behalf of health, poverty and education. Changing the world is a spectacular goal. Congratulations on your plans to dedicate more of your time to charity and on Warren Buffett’s enormous contribution to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts.

I know nothing about infectious diseases, vaccines or sustainable agriculture. I defer to you and other experts on those topics. A recent Business Week cover story, Bill Gates Gets Schooled, was eye opening. That article reports the mixed success of your foundation’s efforts in public school reform and your candid admission of disappointing results. It must be depressing to spend a billion dollars on school reform and all you got was a lousy t-shirt. I humbly share the following recommendations to help guide your future initiatives.

Decide what you believe

You and all your advisors should read Seymour Sarason’s book, What Do YOU Mean by Learning? Sarason makes what should be an obvious observation that discussions of learning, teaching and school reform often fail to discuss what the stakeholders mean by learning. Without such a serious ongoing discussion, failure is predictable.

With all due respect, the Gates Foundation needs to decide what it means by learning and stop funding competing organizations. Investing in the Met Schools (see “Radical Reformer,” November 2005, page 46) and Achieve, Inc., simultaneously is like funding both sides of a war.

Apparently it is rocket science

The Business Week article tells the story of a Denver High School that received Gates Foundation funds. The school was broken up into four smaller schools in an attempt to make schooling more personal and have fewer students fall through the cracks. However, the school’s award-winning choir, a perennial source of pride and excellence, crumbled when students were dispersed to four different schools within the building. Surely, some smart adult could have figured out a plan to move children from one corner of a school to another for choir practice?

It must be depressing to spend a billion dollars on school reform and all you got was a lousy t-shirt.

Schools are complex organisms full of unintended consequences

A recent Los Angeles Times article chronicled how the noble goal of breaking large high schools into small, more personal, learning communities does foster school pride. However, it also may cause those communities to become tribes hostile to one another and result in limited elective options for students.

The impossible is easy, the easy is often impossible

This is my axiom to explain the chaotic nature of schools. It may indeed be easier to build a residential campus in Paris for New York City ninth graders than to hire a French teacher for their neighborhood school.

When seeking clarity, ask yourself a simple question: “Would I proudly send my child to this school?”

Drop the business metaphors

Stop talking about schools as businesses and using terms like efficiency, productivity, supply chain and measurable outcomes. Such metaphors are weak and create needless tension among your “partners” in education.

Drop the school metaphors

The clich?s used by educators to describe their practices and objectives can prove just as stifling and counterproductive as business metaphors. Reflexive mantras like “Sage on the stage” and “You must invest in professional development” fail to acknowledge the complexities of education and provide alibis for failure.

Stop talking about results

Such short-term language may be appropriate for quarterly profit statements, but not education. Learning is messy, individual and natural. Schools do not manufacture widgets, but create an environment in which children and teachers may grow.

If you do wish to focus on results, be honest about what works. Education is notorious for having ideology trump evidence. Your talk of “more rigorous curriculum” and scores directly contradicts research funded by your foundation. The Met/Big Picture schools are wildly successful despite the complete absence of any traditional notion of curriculum. If you want results, build a lot more schools like the Met and let go of the fantasy of one-size-fits-all magical curricula.

You need to meddle

If you pay the bills, then you have a right and responsibility to run the school. A hands-off approach to schools you fund creates confusion among the stakeholders. Your support, insight, expertise and clear expectations must be apparent and consistent.

Work with the living and do no harm

You have acknowledged that it is easier and more effective to build new schools than fix some existing ones. Keep creating great schools where children can flourish and building models others can follow.

Solve the college readiness problem

If you find that preparing poor, urban, rural and minority students for college is too difficult, then build some colleges with open enrollment in those communities to offer opportunities students would otherwise be deprived of.

Admit that math education is a disaster

Almost nothing done in the past 50 years has helped students be more numerate. Work with Seymour Papert to invent a mathematics curricula that students could love, rather than coming up with tricks to help a few more memorize algorithms irrelevant to their lives and the complex world in which they learn. Computers have a clear role to play in learning about such sciences of complexity.

Show some courage

You are the richest man in the world. That’s like having tenure. You may work without fear! You and Oprah spent two hours on television alerting the public that too many schools are failing too many children. However, you seem reluctant to discuss the underlying causes of poverty, inequitable funding formulas and the resegregation of our nation’s public schools. The Gates-funded Manual Arts High School in Denver that has now closed was destroyed by the resegregation of the school. Civil rights are critical for students and you need to lend your voice to that struggle.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings likes to say, “Schools are the same as they were 25 years ago.” That is demonstrably false. I graduated high school 25 years ago and enjoyed a full-range of electives, three music classes per day, great bands, fabulous plays, no AP courses, little tracking and teachers did not soil themselves over the need to raise scores on deeply flawed standardized tests. The climate of fear, name-calling and punishment paralyzing schools today is a recent phenomena produced by those professing to help.

We will have achieved success when all schools are demonstrably great places where children prefer to be and authentic learning exceeds our expectations. I wish you well in your quest to create such a reality.

Gary Stager on International Ed Comparisons

John Dewey is Ours!

By Gary Stager

District Administration, Apr 2005

Put on your dunce caps! It’s international education comparison season again. I know. I know… Eritrea is kicking our butt in long division. If we don’t get tough quickly, all of our best fast-food jobs will be outsourced overseas.

During this somber season of atonement, assorted windbags take to the airwaves to decry the callous incompetence of American teachers and to label our students as fat, lazy and stupid. We learn that country X focuses on the basics; country Y spends more time on fewer topics; while country Z has a longer school year. Don’t you just love how after careful review of the data, the prescription for American public schools is always more testing, increased sanctions, louder name-calling and longer seat-time?

 While there are always lessons to be learned from beyond our daily context, educational innovations abound in classrooms across America. Yet we ignore them. The cynical political forces that scare the populace with annual Sputnik hysteria play upon an unhealthy fear of foreigners and a neurotic national identity.

We know that simplistic proclamations about superior schools far away are incomplete at best, yet we continue to wring our hands about our inferiority. Japan is one of the favorite pedagogical bogeymen, but on a trip to Tokyo I witnessed four people employed to complete every retail transaction and two women required to operate an automatic elevator. I suspect that the four people making change at every department store checkout counter or the two women piloting one elevator did not succeed in calculus class. Like in Houston, students who might lower the average must just disappear.

While others can challenge their validity, the greatest risk posed by the international education comparisons is the underlying assumption that learning is (or should be) uniform. This premise is absurd and destructive for every state engaged in the standardized arms race. No human endeavor can or should be standardized. This is especially true across different cultures with dissimilar needs, goals, motivations, resources and belief systems.

The Stager Perspective
My work in public and private schools across a dozen or so countries entitles me to proclaim myself a scholar on global educational comparisons. My experience and humble analysis leads me to the following conclusion. Schools stink everywhere!

As long as citizens around the world strive to embrace the following myths and practices schools will continue to lose relevance and offer fewer benefits to children.

Artificial curricular hierarchy
The notion that a committee of bureaucrats can prescribe a specific sequence of curricular topics and skills for all learners defies everything we know about learning theory and will always lag behind societal shifts.

Assuming knowledge is static
Just as every learner is different, the nature of knowledge is fluid. Educational success is not measured by recitation and recall.

Testing is not teaching and teaching is not learning
Until we abandon the obsession with quantifying knowledge without even engaging a discussion of, “what we mean by learning,” schools will continue to treat children as rounding errors.

Barbaric conditions
Rows of uncomfortable desks nailed to the floor, bells, grades, age segregation, decontextualized content, sorting by similar levels of incompetence and zero-tolerance policies must give way to more flexible learning environments.

Communication is weak
Parents, still largely unwelcome educational partners, find it increasingly difficult to receive timely answers to simple questions despite enormous investments in data aggregation and school-to-home accountability systems.

It doesn’t ultimately matter if you agree with my hypothesis about the ill-health of schools and schooling. What you must celebrate is that the American ideal is for every child to enjoy a free and excellent K-12 education, followed by unparalleled opportunities for higher education. While our practice does not always measure up to our rhetoric, our democratic ideals are noble and our schools have served many children well. Rather than waste our energy worrying about global competition we should rededicate ourselves to helping every child reach their potential as a well-rounded human with a thirst for knowledge and creative expression.