Using Computers as Creative Tools
The debate about technology’s place in classrooms might vanish if the machines are used to expand students’ self-expression
Be sure to read to bottom!


A version of this column appeared in the March 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine.

I recently attended attended Apple Computer CEO Steve Job’s keynote address at the annual Macworld Conference in San Francisco. Amidst the demonstrations of OS X, the launch of the sexy new Titanium Powerbook and the obligatory race between a Pentium IV and Macintosh G4 (you can guess which won), Jobs said some things that I believe will be critically important to the future of computing.

Quotations from the CEOs of Gateway and Compaq decrying the death of the personal computer were rebuffed by Jobs who not only asserted that the PC is not dead, but that we are entering a new age of enlightenment. Steve Jobs declared that the personal computer is now “the digital hub for the digital lifestyle.”

While everyone is excited about new handheld organizers, video cameras, cell phones and MP3 players, these devices not only require a personal computer for installing software, backing up files and downloading media – they are made more powerful by the PC. The personal computer is the only electronic device (at least for the foreseeable future) capable of multimedia playback, supercomputer-speed calculations and massive data storage. Most importantly, the personal computer is required for those who wish to create, rather than be passive recipients of bits generated by others.

Jobs discussed how video cameras are cool, but iMovie makes them much more powerful. Boxes full of videotapes are no longer lost in the attic, because you can easily produce edited movies shareable with friends, relatives and the world. Jobs then launched iDVD, Apple’s stunning new technical breakthrough that allows anyone to create their own DVDs in minutes. Think about what this could mean in a classroom! Class plays, science experiments and sporting events could be shared with the community and playable with state-of-the-art quality on the home television. Video case studies of best practice can be used in teacher education complete with digital quality audio/video. Zillions of digital photos and scanned images of student work can be assembled as portfolios stored on one disk and viewed anywhere.

A company representative from Alias Wavefront was brought to the stage to demonstrate their software package, Maya. Maya is the 3D graphics tool used by George Lucas to make the most recent Star Wars film and by all of last year’s Oscar nominees for best special effects to work their artistic magic. The quick demo showed how a flower paintbrush could be chosen and with the wave of the mouse flowers could be drawn in 3D on the computer screen. These were no ordinary flowers though. The software knew to make each flower slightly different from the others, as they would appear in nature. The software also knew how they would behave if wind were to be added to the scene. Clouds drawn knew to move behind the mountains. Until now, Maya required a specially configured graphics workstation. It now runs on a Macintosh G4. While the software is currently too expensive for most kindergarten classrooms, it occurred to me that the world will be a much cooler place when five year-olds can use Kid-Pix-level fluency to create with the same tools as George Lucas. Perhaps then they will stop blowing up their Kid-Pix creations and express themselves through film.

Jobs argued that iMovie makes video cameras more powerful and iDVD enhances the value of both the video camera and DVD player. Therefore, the personal computer not only powers digital devices, but empowers our lives. This is a profoundly liberating and enabling vision for society.

As I left the auditorium I thought, “Steve Jobs really gets it!” However my admiration for his vision and desire for the new “toys” was quickly tempered by thoughts regarding the imagination gap guiding the use of computers in schools. Not once did Jobs compare the PC to the pencil or refer to it as a tool for getting work done. No standards for computer-use were offered. Instead, he challenged us to view the computer as a way of inspiring a renaissance of human potential.

Just Make Something
The personal computer is the most powerful, expressive and flexible instrument ever invented. It has transformed nearly every aspect of society, yet schools remain relatively untouched. Rather than be led by technological advances to rethink models of schooling, schools and the software industry have chosen to use computers to drill for multiple-choice tests, play games and find answers to questions available in reference books via the Internet. While the Internet is an incredibly powerful and handy reference tool, it’s real potential lies in its ability to democratize publishing and offer unprecedented opportunities for collaboration and communication. The dominant practice is to restrict or forbid this openness through filtering software, acceptable-use policies and overzealous network administrators. When the paradigm for Internet use is “looking stuff up” it should come as no surprise that kids are going to look at inappropriate content.

The results of this imagination paralysis are too numerous to mention. The hysteria over Internet use, growing disenchantment with schooling and calls to reduce tech funding are clearly the consequences of our inability to create more explicit, creative and public models of computers being used by children to learn in magnificent ways. The recent dubious report, Fool’s Gold, by the Alliance for Childhood, takes aim at school computer-use by illustrating the trivial and thoughtless ways computers are used in schools. A moment of candor requires us to admit that most of their criticisms are valid. Schools do use computers in dopey ways. However, that is not a legitimate argument for depriving kids of the opportunity to learn and express themselves with computers. It is however an indictment of the narrow ways in which schools use technolology. Experts advocating the use of handheld devices as “the perfect K-12 computer” so that students may take notes or have homework assignments beamed to them are cheating our young people out of rich learning adventures.

It’as if schools have forgotten what computers do best. Computers are best at making things – all sorts of things. Educational philosophers including Dewey, Piaget, Papert, Vygotsky, Gardner have been telling us forever that the best way to learn is through the act of making things, concrete and abstract. The PC is an unparalleled intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression yet schools seem ill-equipped or disinclined to seize that potential.

Kids can now express their ideas through film-making, web broadcasting, MIDI-based music composition and synchronous communication. They can construct powerful ideas (even those desired by the curriculum) through robotics, simulation design and computer programming.

While there is much rhetoric about kids making things with computers, those projects tend to reinforce old notions of teaching. Hyperstudio book reports or databases containing the pets owned by classmates are not what I have in mind. Kids should make authentic things borne of their curiosity, interests and reflecting the world in which they live.

I cannot imagine that the critics of public education and the investment in educational technology would object to kids using computers in such authentic, deeply intellectual and creative ways. Rather than creating unproductive standards for computer use, educational computing organizations should be building, documenting and sharing compelling models of how computers may be used to inspire joyful learning throughout the land.

Seymour Papert has proposed that we “view the computer as material.” This material may be used in countless wonderful and often unpredictable ways. Teachers are naturally gifted with materials of all sorts and the computer should be part of that mix. This change in focus should reap rewards for years to come.

We can do good and do well by exercising a bit more creativity. We can neutralize our critics and move education forward if we shift our focus towards using school computers for the purpose of constructing knowledge through the explicit act of making things. Children engaged in thoughtful projects might impress citizens desperate for academic rigor. Emphasizing the use of computers to make things will make life easier for teachers, more exciting for learners and lead schools into this golden age. [Emphasis 2016]

Scanned PDF of the original article 

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

The ISTE Problem
ISTE’s vague standards and an exclusionary “seal of alignment” make one wonder whose side the group is on.
Published in the February 2003 issue of District Administration

Educational Conference or Boat Show?(2007)

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.

  1. The Piagetian idea that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.”
  2. Xenophon’s admonition that “nothing beautiful can ever be forced.”
  3. Schools have a sacred obligation to introduce children to things they don’t yet know they love.
  4. Computational technology makes complexity accessible to children and allows them to solve problems their teachers may never have anticipated.
These four ideas come together in a desire to make school the best seven hours of a kid’s life where she may become good at doing things and experience the satisfaction accompanying working towards continuous progress in areas that matter to her. The future viability of school depends on identifying the types of experiences we want our children to have much of the time. These experiences must benefit from being co-located in the same space at the same time and are rewarded by the participation of students. (152 words – oops!)

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.

Casap slide

 

Back-to-school…

Three little words that I have dreaded since 1968. I remain haunted by the hideous nature of my own school experience. Each back-to-school commercial and increasingly premature retail display fills me with dread. As a parent, “Back-to-School Night,” was too often a torturous affair filled with the recitation of gum rules, awful presentations, and assorted violations of the Geneva Convention.

However, I look forward to going back to school tomorrow. This is my second year as the Special Assistant to the Head of School for Innovation at The Willows Community School in Culver City, California.

The Willows is a lovely twenty-one year-old PK-8 progressive independent school filled with truly happy children and terrific educators who know each child. The school is filled with play, the arts, and inquiry. The kids crack me up and my colleagues are genuinely interested in collaboration. Their willingness to learn and try things differently creates a context in which I can do good work on behalf of the kids we serve. I am truly grateful for their generosity of spirit and hospitality. The school is a lovely place for kids to learn because it is a great place for teachers. This also results in virtually zero faculty turnover.

Happy & school need not be contradictory terms.

My responsibilities at The Willows include teacher mentoring, curriculum design, professional development, working with groups of kids, and organizing special events. Much of what I do consists of wandering into classrooms, asking, “Hey, whatcha doing?” and then suggesting, “Why don’t you try this instead?”

On any given day my work might include recommending Australian fiction, integrating Romare Beardon into the curriculum, turning the kindergarten “bee unit” upside down, teaching math or programming to 2nd graders, brainstorming project ideas with teachers, participating in a learning lunch, or organizing a Superheroes of the Maker Movement event. I help out with the school’s extensive “making” opportunities and even enjoy meetings. One rewarding aspect of the job is when I excite a teacher about trying some nutty idea and then sell the administration on supporting that R&D. I adore being an advocate for teachers.

My calendar is plenty full and I do not need to work in a school on a regular basis. Few of my peers on the “circuit” do so. But, I love to teach, particularly to teach teachers, and I cherish having a canvas on which to paint my ideas for making schools more hospitable to the intentions of children. I am not willing to give up on schools because that’s where the kids are.

The Willows has viewed Constructing Modern Knowledge as a critical piece of their extensive professional learning portfolio. Each year, between 6 and 10 Willows educators participate in CMK. This builds community around shared experiences and brings cutting-edge ideas and expertise back to the school. Several young teachers who attended CMK for the first time this past July have been eager to seek my advice on everything from classroom decor to writing prompts to project ideas for the coming school year.

I am enormously grateful to the founding Head of The Willows Lisa Rosenstein for having the flexibility, vision, and sense of humor required to make me part of their team. As a keynote speaker, consultant, teacher educator, author, and clinician, I spend 1/3 – 1/2 of each year on the road. When I’m home, I rush back to The Willows. My travel provides diverse experience, an ability to identify patterns, and experience that I hope benefits our school.

A great part of working at The Willows is I get to be an educational leader, not computer boy. I am unconstrained by the edtech ghetto while getting to use technology the way I always have to amplify human potential and to provide learners with opportunities that would not exist without access to computation. I relish the chance to help fourth grade teachers create a 3D thematic tableau outside of their classroom window and prefer it to the trivia consuming too much of what is know currently as educational technology. That said, The Willows is a leader in the continuous use of constructive, creative, computationally-rich technology from PK -8.

Aside from the children I have the pleasure of hanging out with and the great colleagues I work with, the greatest joy associated with my job at The Willows is sharing an office with my friend, former student, and colleague Amy Dugré, Director of Technology. Amy is a spectacular educator, fine leader, and among the best practicing constructionists working in schools anywhere. I cherish her selflessness, friendship, and support.

Wherever or whatever you teach, here’s to a great new year! Please remember to do the right thing. If you won’t stand between kids and the madness, who will?


Note: You will find no greater advocate for public education than myself. Regrettably, the current political climate makes it impossible for a public school to demonstrate the sort of hiring flexibility that I have experienced at The Willows. What I learn each day, is shared with every school and educator I have the privilege of working with anywhere in the world.

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

Gary was recently interviewed by the National School Boards Association for the June 2015 American School Boards Journal.

Read “The Best Makerspace is Between Your Ears.”

 

 

I’ve been teaching boys and girls to program computers professionally since 1982 when I created one of the world’s first summer camp computing programs. I led professional development at Methodist Ladies’ College in Melbourne, Australia for a few years beginning in 1990. Girls at MLC used their personal laptops to program in LogoWriter across the curriculum. (read about the history of 1:1 computing and programming here). That work led to perhaps as many as 100,000 Australian boys and girls learning to program computers in the early 1990s.

I taught incarcerated kids in a teen prison to program as part of my doctoral research and currently teach programming to K-8 girls and boys at The Willows Community School

Along the way, I’ve found it easy to engage girls and their teachers in computer programming. Ample access to computers. high expectations, and a competent teacher are the necessary conditions for girls to view themselves as competent programmers. Such confidence and competence unlocks the world of computer science and gaining agency over the machine for learners.

That said, there is plenty of evidence that girls view computer science like kryptonite. Mark Guzdial, Barbara Ericson, and others have done a yeoman job of documenting the dismal rates of female participation in school or higher-ed computer science. This reality is only aggravated by the sexism and misogyny commonplace in high-tech firms and online.

Programming is fun. It’s cool. It’s creative. It may not only lead to a career, but more importantly grants agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world. Being able to program allows you to solve problems and answer Seymour Papert’s 47 year-old  question, “Does the computer program the child or the child program the computer?”

Add the ubiquity of microcomputers to accessibility of programming languages like Turtle Art, MicroWorlds, Scratch, or Snap! and there is no excuse for every kid to make things “out of code.”

All of that aside, girls in the main just don’t find computer science welcoming, relevant, or personally empowering. Entire conferences, government commissions, volumes of scholarship, and media decry the crisis in girls and S.T.E.M. Inspiring girls to embrace computer science remains the holy grail. But…

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 5.19.20 PM

The Rolling Spider Minidrone

I found the key!

Drones

Girls love to program drones to fly.

Seriously. Drones.

There is a big in this simple Tickle program intended to fly away and back to its operator. Can you find it? This is an opportunity to reinforce geometric concepts.

There are 2 bugs in this simple Tickle program intended to fly away and back to its operator. Can you find them?
This is an opportunity to reinforce geometric concepts.

I recently purchased an inexpensive small drone, The Parrot Rolling Spider Mini Drone. ($80 US) If flying drones is cool. Programming them to fly is even cooler.

Thanks to a lovely dialect of Scratch called Tickle, you can use an iPad to program a flying machine! Most drones have virtual joystick software for flying the plane in real-time, but programming a flight requires more thought, planning, and inevitable debugging. Programmer error, typos, a breeze, or physical obstacles often result in hilarity.

Earlier this week, I brought my drone and iPad to a workshop Super-Awesome Sylvia and I were leading. Primary and secondary school students from a variety of schools assembled to explore learning-by-making.

Late in the workshop, I unleashed the drone.

Kids were immediately captivated by the drone and wanted to try their hand at programming a flight – especially the girls!

I truly love how such natural play defies so many gender stereotypes. Programming to produce a result, especially control is super cool for kids of all ages. (It’s also worth mentioning that this one of the few “apps” for the iPad that permits actual programming, not just “learning about coding.”)

Primary students program the drone while a boy patiently awaits his turn.

Primary students program the drone intensely while a boy patiently awaits his turn.

look up drone

Secondary school girls track the drone

Can you read this program and predict the drone's behavior?

Can you read this program and predict the drone’s behavior?

 

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.