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…

Click to enlarge image

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.”

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Invent To Learn Workshops for Families

Gary Stager and his Constructing Modern Knowledge teammates love working with children and their parents. These hands-on and minds-on workshops create exciting learning experiences in which parents come to value learning-by-making. The emphasis is on action, creative expression, and hard fun! Parents who participate in these workshops become advocates for classroom making and project-based learning.

AAB_0128Teachers may participate and even bring their own kids. Schools only need to provide a small number of laptop or desktop computers, a projector and screen.

We provide all of the materials necessary for centers featuring the following maker activities:

  • Cardboard construction
  • Wearable computing and e-Textiles (make interactive clothes and jewelry with LEDs, conductive thread and more!)
  • Arduino microcontrollers
  • LEGO WeDo robotics
  • Art, mathematics, and computer programming via Turtle Art
  • Interactive greeting cards
  • Floor turtles
  • Little Bits and other electronic construction kits
  • Hummingbird and Finch robotics construction kits
  • Discounted copies of the book, Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, may be provided, one per family, for an additional fee.

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Check out our book, toy, and kit recommendations for creative families!

book now
photos courtesy of American School of Bombay

Hate to be a killjoy, but I just looked at one of the Code.org activities for programming turtle graphics in App Lab.

As someone who has taught various dialects of Logo to kids and teachers for 34+ years, I was horrified by the missed learning opportunities and design of the activity. My concerns are in lesson/interface design and lost learning opportunities.

https://studio.code.org/s/cspunit3/stage/2/puzzle/1

First of all, you connect any blocks and then hit Next. It doesn’t matter if you solve the actual problem posed or not.

Second and MUCH more importantly, ALL of the power and intellectual nutritional value of turtle geometry is sacrificed in order to teach a much simpler lesson in snapping blocks together in service of “efficiency.”

The power of turtle geometry is well – geometry, also measurement, and number. There are no numerical inputs to the turtle geometry blocks and all of the turns are in 90 degree increments.

The use of Javascript (presumably the blocks were added to the environment for this exercise and are not actual primitives) adds needless and confusing punctuation to the command structure WITHOUT the benefit of allowing users to change the input to FD or LT. Therefore, any opportunity to explore powerful mathematical ideas

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Logo and are celebrating the 35th anniversary of the publication of Mindstorms – Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, it sure would be nice if Code.org would learn some fundamental lessons of children, computers, and powerful ideas instead of depriving kids of an opportunity to learn mathematics while learning computer science.

Discussion:

Since posting the above statement to a CS discussion forum on Facebook, Hadi Partook – founder of Code.org responded as follows.

Gary, the goal of this course isn’t to teach turtle programming. Most of the students in our course sequence would have done that years earlier. This is a high school course to introduce students to JavaScript (including the syntax) and making apps. It begins with a few turtle stages because turtle programming would be familiar to these students as a concept fully explored in our CS Fundamentals courses – including all the geometric glory you mention, and problems that tell you whether you solved them or not. In our high school course the theme isn’t “solving puzzles” because it’s about “making apps,” with just a few turtle examples to carry forward from something students already know.

Hadi, I wish I shared your optimism that kids in your high school courses had experience with turtle geometry. I found the design of this unit clickable with very little nutritional value, especially since its web-based design implies little teacher interaction or scaffolding. If the turtle “blocks” used in the example are merely an exercise in sequencing, then they need no punctuation on them whatsoever. If I desired to change the angle or linear units, there was no way to do so (at least no way obvious to me).
Therefore, from a design perspective, there are several problems with the lesson. They include:
  • Low engagement
  • Limits on student creativity, exploration, and tinkering
  • A missed opportunity for students to learn/use mathematical ideas while learning Javascript
I am NOT asking that the lessons yell at kids for being wrong or test them along the way. That would make things worse.

More than 20 years ago, a graduate student of mine, named Beth, (surname escapes me, but she had triplets and is a very fine high school math teacher) used an early version of MicroWorlds to program her own version of a toolkit similar to Geometer’s Sketchpad. Over time, I ran a similar activity with kids as young as 7th grade. I’ve done my best to piece together various artifacts from my archives into a coherent starting point for this potentially expansive activity. Hopefully, you’ll be able to figure out how to use the tools provided and improve or expand upon them.

Students (middle and high school) will use MicroWorlds EX create their own tool for exploring two-dimensional geometry similar to Geometers’ Sketchpad, Cabri, or GeoGebra. [1]

As students build functionality (via programming) into a tool for creating and measuring geometric constructions, they reinforce their understanding of important geometric concepts. As the tool gets more sophisticated, students learn more geometry, which in turn leads to a desire to explore more complex geometric issues. This is an ecological approach to programming. The tool gets better as you learn more and you learn more as the tool becomes more sophisticated.

Along the way, students become better programmers while using variables, list processing, and recursion in their Logo procedures. They will also engage in user interface design.

Resources:


[1] I would not show commercial models of the software to students until after they have programmed some new functionality into their own tools.

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.