On Christmas Eve (2016), the world lost one of its most profound thinkers when learning theorist, Dr. Edith Ackermann, left us at age 70. Anyone blessed with even the most casual encounter with Edith embraced her as a mentor, collaborator, and friend. She bestowed boundless respect upon anyone trying to make the world more beautiful, just, or creative. Edith’s grace danced into a room like a cool breeze awakening its occupants and setting their sights towards what truly matters.
Edith was a giant among learning theorists, even if under-appreciated and a best kept secret. Her work focused on the intersection of play, design, childhood, and technology. She worked closely with Jean Piaget, Seymour Papert, and Ernst von Glasersfeld – three of the most important experts on learning ever. Her insights were invaluable to the LEGO Company, MIT students, architects, and educators around the world.
Edith was always there to help me clarify my thinking and to take an idea one stop past my anticipated exit. She was a pal with whom you could walk arm in arm discussing almost anything, laugh boisterously, and gossip quietly. We disliked many of the same ideas and people, but Edith was just much better at hiding her disdain.
Perhaps, Edith’s remarkable perspective came from being an outsider. Despite the profound impact she had on innumerable students and colleagues, I never got the sense that the testosterone-oozing world of MIT afforded her the respect or security she so richly deserved.
Shamefully, I do not know much about Edith’s history or personal life; yet another painful reminder that we should do everything possible to know our friends better. Therefore, I will share some thoughts about her work and what she meant to me.
I don’t remember when I first met Edith. I think it was in 2000 when Seymour Papert sent me to sub for him as the keynote speaker at a conference held at the Piaget Archives in Geneva. Papert failed to tell the organizers that 1) he wasn’t coming or 2) that I was his replacement. The entire story is a hilarious comedy of errors that I’ll share another day.
Edith and I attended many EuroLogo (now Constructionism) Conferences and worked together 15+ years ago in Mexico City leading a workshop as members of the MIT Media Lab’s Future of Learning Group. Several years ago, I invited Edith to be a guest speaker at my 2014 Constructing Modern Knowledge institute. I set aside concerns that her Swiss accent, quiet demeanor, and brilliant intellect would not work in a room full of predominantly American educators. Her unrivaled genius made the risk worthwhile.
Edith’s wisdom, passion, humanity, and generosity of spirit made her an immediate favorite of the very educators who others treat as low-skill labor in need of a 7-step plan for raising achievement. The next year, Edith spent most of the institute with us interacting informally with participants and appearing on a panel discussion with two of my other heroes, David Loader and Deborah Meier. Last summer, despite her ongoing battle with Cancer, Edith Ackermann spent all four days of CMK helping each of us make meaning out of our individual and collective experiences.
Edith taught us so much.
One powerful idea she shared was that “Making is a way of seeing.” Edith had a gift for bringing into focus what others miss. She invited us to “lean in,” not in the vulgar career climbing form advocated by Sheryl Sandberg, but as a way of becoming one with nature, the community, ideas, beauty, and one’s soul.
I would like to share three very special memories of Edith Ackermann at Constructing Modern Knowledge.
After nine years of effort, I managed to convince Reggio Children President Carla Rinaldi to participate in Constructing Modern Knowledge. Edith and Carla were old friends who greeted each other with great love and respect. Their mutual affection was truly touching. During the institute, I stole a little time to show Carla and Edith how Tickle (an iOS dialect of Scratch) could be used to bring drones and a variety of robots to life. They appreciated the technological wizardry for a split second and then became preschoolers imagining how the different toys could play, communicate and love one another. Both experts were so in tune with the inner lives of children that they were able to wear the spirit of childhood play with great ease and abundant joy.
A tacit theme of Constructing Modern Knowledge involves creating the conditions by which each participating educator may think about how their particular learning experience connects with their own priory experience and future classroom practice. Superficially, our speakers may seem to have nothing to do with one another or the sorts of project work undertaken by CMK attendees. In 2015, I invited two National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters, 86 year-old pianist Barry Harris and 89 year-old saxophonist Jimmy Heath, to perform a masterclass at CMK. Edith not only understood immediately why I invited them to perform at an event about learning and making, but she was thrilled to spend time with Barry Harris whose music she knew. Edith had also watched videos of Barry teaching. Just take a look at the joy with which she approached this encounter.
I work all year organizing Constructing Modern Knowledge and try to steal an hour to indulge a passion of mine, taking great friends and colleagues to Cremeland, an “al fresco” roadside stand in Manchester, New Hampshire known for its fabulous fried fish and ice cream. The first year Edith joined the CMK team, I took her and a couple of colleagues for our secret lunch at Cremeland. You order food at one window, eat at picnic tables in the parking lot, and then return to a window at the opposite end of the building for decadent ice cream.
There is always a bit of chaos when a group of people are ordering from an unknown menu through a tiny window, but throw Edith’s Swiss accent into the mix and watch hilarity ensue.
Server: Can I take your order?
Edith: I’ll have the haddock platter.
Server: Hot Dog?
Server: Hot Dog?
Server: Hot Dog?
Edith: NO! Haddock not Hot Dog!
This became a private joke between us and when I gave the CMK faculty and speakers t-shirts with chalkboards printed on them, Edith wrote, “Haddock, not hot dog,” on hers.
Au revoir dear Edith…. We love you and will miss you more than you could ever know.
For further reading…
- Constructivism(s): Shared roots, crossed paths, multiple legacies
- Cultures of creativity and modes of appropriation: From DIY (Do It Yourself) to BIIT (Be In It Together)
- The Craftsman, The Trickster, and The Poet “Re-Souling” The Rational Mind
- Minds in Motion, Media in Transition Growing up in the digital age: Areas of change
- Amusement, Delight, and Whimsy: Humor Has Its Reasons that Reason Cannot Ignore
- Microgravity Playscapes – Play in Long-Term Space Missions (Edith Ackermann coauthor)
- Programming For The Natives: What is it? What’s In It For The Kids?
- Systematic Creativity In The Digital Realm
- LEGO Learning Foundation Future of Learning Whitepaper (Edith Ackermann coauthor)
- To Know is to Relate: The Art of Distancing in Human Transactions (1997)
- More papers by Edith Ackermann
Constructionism 2010 Talk – Constructivism(s): Shared roots, crossed paths, multiple legacies
Dear Dr. Williams:
Thank you so much for being the first ISTE executive or board member to address the sad state of affairs expressed by my old friend and mentor David Thornburg. It is disappointing that David’s proposal was rejected. Dr. Thornburg is a pillar of educational computing.
I am grateful to David for bringing attention to ISTE’s non-existent response to the life and death of Seymour Papert. It is worth noting that the father of our field, Dr. Papert, was never invited to keynote ISTE or NECC; not after the publication of his three seminal books, not after the invention of robotics construction kits for children, not after 1:1 computing was borne in his image in Australia, not after Maine provided laptops statewide, not when One Laptop Per Child changed the world. This lack of grace implies a rejection of the ideas Papert advocated and the educators who had to fight even harder to bring them to life against the tacit hostility of our premiere membership organization.
One would imagine that a conference dedicated to linoleum installation would eventually have the inventor of linoleum to address its annual gathering. Last year (2015), ISTE rejected my proposal to lead a session commemorating the 35th anniversary of Papert’s book Mindstorms and the 45th anniversary of the paper he co-authored with Cynthia Solomon, “Twenty Things To Do with a Computer.” See the blog post I wrote at the time.
Such indifference was maddening, but the failure of the ISTE leadership to recognize the death of Dr. Papert this past July, even with a tweet, is frankly disgraceful. After Papert’s death, I was interviewed by NPR, the New York Times and countless other news outlets around the world. I was commissioned to write Papert’s official obituary for the prestigious international science journal Nature. Remarkably, unless I missed it, ISTE has failed to honor Dr. Papert in any way, shape, or form. I have begged your organization to do so in order to bring his powerful ideas to life for a new generation of educators. These actions should not be viewed as a grievance or form of attention seeking. ISTE’s respect for history and desire to provide a forum for the free exchange of disparate ideas are critical to its relevance and survival.
Dr. Papert himself might suggest that ISTE is idea averse. In its quest to feature new wares and checklists, it neglects to remind our community that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Earlier this year, I was successful in convincing NCWIT to honor Papert’s colleague, Dr. Cynthia Solomon, with its Pioneer Award. If only I could be so persuasive as to convince ISTE to honor the “mother of educational computing” before it’s too late. As we assert in our book, Invent To Learn, without Papert and Solomon there is no 1:1 computing, no Code.org, no CS4All, no school robotics, no maker movement.
In light of Papert’s recent passing, and the remarkable 50th anniversary of the Logo programming language in 2017, I submitted two relevant proposals for inclusion on the 2017 ISTE Conference Program.
- Papert Matters: Celebrating the Life of the Father of Educational Computing
- Logo at 50: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas
You guessed it. Both were rejected.
Anniversaries and deaths are critical milestones. They cause us to, pause, reflect, and take stock. In 2017, there are several major conferences, including one I am organizing, focused on commemorating Papert and the 50th birthday of Logo. Sadly, ISTE seems to be standing on the sidelines.
It is not that I have nothing to offer on these subjects or do not know how to 1) write conference proposals or 2) fill an auditorium. As someone who has worked to bring Papert’s powerful ideas to life in classrooms around the world for 35 years and who worked with Papert for more than two decades, I have standing. I edited ISTE’s journal dedicated to the work he began, was the principal investigator on Papert’s last major institutional project, gave a TEDx talk in India on his contributions, and am the curator of the Seymour Papert archives at dailypapert.com. I worked in classrooms alongside Seymour Papert. Last year, 30 accepted ISTE presentations cited my work in their bibliographies.
I am often asked why I don’t just give up on ISTE. The answer is because educational computing is my life’s work. I signed the ISTE charter and have spoken at 30 NECC/ISTE Conferences. It is quite possible that no one has presented more sessions than I. For several years, I was editor of ISTE’s Logo Exchange journal and founded ISTE’s SIGLogo before it was killed by the organization. I have been a critical friend for 25 years, not to harm ISTE, but to help it live up to its potential.
For decades, David Thornburg and I have spoken at ISTE/NECC at our own expense. This is just one way in which I know that we are both committed to what ISTE can and should be. I have also written for ISTE’s Learning and Leading with Technology.
It would be my pleasure to discuss constructive ways to move forward.
Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
CEO: Constructing Modern Knowledge
Co-author: Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom
PS: Might I humbly suggest that ISTE hire or appoint a historian?
Join Dr. Gary Stager in a free Twitter Chat about computer programming in schools December 7, 2016. Learn more here.
The following videos are a good representation of my work as a conference keynote speaker and educational consultant. The production values vary, but my emphasis on creating more productive contexts for learning remains in focus.
- For information on bringing Dr. Stager to your conference, school or district, click here.
- For biographical information about Dr. Stager, click here.
- For a list of new keynote topics and workshops by Dr. Stager, click here
- For a list of popular and “retired” keynote topics by Dr. Stager, click here.
- For family workshops, click here.
- To learn more about the range of educational services offered by Dr. Stager, click here.
View Gary Stager’s three different TEDx Talks from around the world
2016 short documentary featuring Dr. Stager from Melbourne, Australia.
Learning to Play in Education: Joining the Maker Movement
A public lecture by Gary Stager at The Steward School, November 2015
A Broader Perspective on Maker Education – Interview with Gary Stager in Amsterdam, 2015
Choosing Hope Over Fear from the 2014 Chicago Education Festival
This is What Learning Looks Like – Strategies for Hands-on Learning, a conversation with Steve Hargadon, Bay Area Maker Faire, 2012.
Gary Stager “This is Our Moment “ – Conferencia Anual 2014 Fundación Omar Dengo (Costa Rica)
San José, Costa Rica. November 2014
Gary Stager – Questions and Answers Section – Annual Lecture 2014 (Costa Rica)
San José, Costa Rica. November 2014
TEDx Talk, “Seymour Papert, Inventor of Everything*”
Ten Things to Do with a Laptop – Learning and Powerful Ideas
Keynote Address – ITEC Conference – Des Moines, Iowa – October 2011
Plenary Talk at Construtionism 2014 Conference
Vienna, Austria. August, 2014
Children, Computing and Creativity
Address to KERIS – Seoul, South Korea – October 2011
Gary Stager’s 2011 TEDxNYED Talk
NY, NY – March 2011
Gary Stager Discusses 1:1 Computing with leading Costa Rican educators
University of Costa Rica – San José, Costa Rica – June 2011
Progressive Education and The Maker Movement – Symbiosis or Mutually Assured Destruction? (approx 45:00 in)
FabLearn 2014 Paper Presentation
October 2014. Stanford University
Keynote Address: Making School Reform
FabLearn 2013 Conference.
October 2013. Stanford University.
Making, Love, and Learning
February 2014. Marin County Office of Education.
Gary Stager’s Plenary Address at the Constructionism 2010 Conference
Paris, France – August 2010
Gary Stager Excerpts from NECC ’09 Keynote Debate
June 2009 – Washington D.C.
For more information, go to: http://stager.tv/blog/?p=493
Dr. Stager interviewed by ICT Qatar
Doha, Qatar – Spring 2010
Learning Adventures: Transforming Real and Virtual Learning Environments
NECC 2009 Spotlight Session – Washington, D.C. – June 2009
More information may be found at http://stager.tv/blog/?p=531
© 2009-2016 Gary S. Stager – All Rights Reserved Except TEDxNYED & Imagine IT2 clip owned by producers
Sphero is hardly the first programmable robot. My friend Steve Ocko developed Big Trak for Milton Bradley in the late 1970s. Papert, Resnick, Ocko, Silverman, et al developed LEGO TC Logo, the first programmable LEGO building system in 1987. (Watch Seymour Papert explain the educational benefits in 1987)
- The Invent To Learn Guide to Block Programming
- Programmable toys for controlling with the iPad
- The Secret Key to Girls and Computer Science
- Legislators Finally Admit the Obvious
- President Obama Discovers Coding – Yippee!
Professional learning opportunities for educators:
Constructing Modern Knowledge offers world-class hands-on workshops across the globe, at schools, conferences, and museums. During these workshops, teachers learn to learn and teach via making, tinkering, and engineering. Computer programming (coding) and learning-by-making with a variety of materials, including Sphero and Tickle. For more information, click here.
Progressive Education and The Maker Movement – Symbiosis or Mutually Assured Destruction
Published paper of keynote address at 2014 FabLearn Conference at Stanford University by
Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Constructing Modern Knowledge
21825 Barbara Street Torrance, CA 90503 USA
Keywords: Progressive education, education reform, mathematics education, constructionism, educational computing, maker movement
In this paper, the author shares three societal trends that validate and vindicate decades of leadership by constructionist educators. The growing acceptance of learning-by-making represented by the maker movement, a newfound advocacy for children learning computer programming, and even the global education crisis, real or imagined, are evidence of predictions and efforts made by constructionists being realized. The paper also asserts that the survival of progressive education and the maker movement are mutually dependent. This conference offers a brief opportunity for celebration before returning to the “hard fun” required to harness the momentum of these trends and improve the learning ecology.
Three societal trends afford members of the constructionism community with cause for optimism. While two of these trends are positive and one negative, their trajectory is towards a greater acceptance of constructionist learning by formal and informal communities of practice. Recognition of the symbiotic relationship between progressive education, its learning theory constructionism, and the long-term survival of what has come to be known as “the maker movement” is critical for the long-term survival of each. Progressive education and the maker movement are at a crossroads when both rely on the other for relevance and acceptance.
The general population has begun to recognize that knowledge is a consequence of experience and that technology can play a role in the construction of knowledge. This revelation is an act of constructionism in and of itself. Despite our decades of paper writing, conference attendance and teacher training, people unfamiliar with the term are constructing constructionism without being taught. Such “popular constructionism,” is manifest in explosive growth of the global maker movement and a revaluing of children learning to program. Such progress is accompanied by a backlash by the formal system of schooling, just as Seymour Papert predicted nearly a quarter century ago. (Papert, 1991)
THE MAKER MOVEMENT
At Constructionism 2012, there were concerns expressed about the maker movement that to be candid, smacked of elitism. While it may be true that the moms, dads, and teachers advocating for making may lack a scholarly vocabulary for expressing principles of constructionist learning, they are not hostile to that information. The popularity of Maker Faire, Hour of Code, Scratch, and books like, “Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” are proof of a desire to learn more about learning. It is also the case that academics in the constructionism community would benefit from learning what members of the maker movement know and can do. The elements of community organization and creative spirit of the maker movement are to be admired.
As we assert in our book, (Martinez & Stager, 2013) Papert is not only the “father” of constructionism, but of the maker movement as well. In “Computer as Material: Messing About with Time” (Papert & Franz, 1987) and earlier, “Computer as Mudpie,” (Papert, 1984) Papert described a new role for the computer as part of a continuum of construction materials, albeit one imbued with protean qualities. (Papert, 1980)
“If you can use technology to make things you can make a lot more interesting things. And you can learn a lot more by making them. This is especially true of digital technology.” (G. S. Stager, 2006)
Papert not only provided the basis for constructionism as a learning theory, but also played a pivotal role in predicting, inventing, and advocating for the constructive technology now being popularized by the maker movement. Long before his involvement in the development of programmable LEGO robotics kits or being an advocate for one-to-one computing, made the case for such innovations and even expressed the importance of hardware extensibility.
In 1970, Papert and Solomon described the sophisticated technological needs of young children engaged in making things with computers.
“The school computer should have a large number of output ports to allow the computer to switch lights on and off, start tape recorders, actuate slide projectors and start and stop all manner of little machines. There should also be input ports to allow signals to be sent to the computer.
In our image of a school computation laboratory, an important role is played by numerous “controller ports” which allow any student to plug any device into the computer… The laboratory will have a supply of motors, solenoids, relays, sense devices of various kids, etc. Using them, the students will be able to invent and build an endless variety of cybernetic systems.” (Papert & Solomon, 1971)
Neil Gershenfeld, one of the leaders of the personal fabrication movement who predicted much of the current maker movement, recounts how Papert viewed the inability of children to construct their own computers as a “thorn in our flesh.” (Gershenfeld, 2005) The availability of the $35 Raspberry Pi and its offspring the Beaglebone, Yun, Gallileo, and other low-cost Linux computers, all with an ability to interface with the world, removes that thorn. Each of these tiny computers are capable of running Scratch, Snap!, Python, and Turtle Art. They also feature a range of inputs and outputs for extensibility. Scavenging for peripherals to use with such a computer, customizing it, and programming it to solve personally important problems is consistent with both maker and constructionist ideals. The computer hardware industry and leaders in the educational computing world have spent decades deriding Papert’s claims that children should build, program, maintain, and repair their own computers, not merely to reduce costs, but as an expression of agency over an increasingly complex, technologically sophisticated world. Emerging technology, like the Raspberry Pi, is resonant with the maker ethos of “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it,” (Jalopy, Torrone, & Hill, 2005) and ideals expressed by Seymour Papert long ago.
Papert’s colleagues or former students created many of the favorite technologies of the maker movement, including Scratch, Makey Makey, the Lilypad, and LEGO robotics. The FabLab and FabLab@School efforts to spread learning through digital fabrication also acknowledge Papert’s inspiration.
Modern making is a brew of new technologies, computation, and timeless craft traditions. The artificial boundaries between disciplines blur and enrich each other.
“So, too, the mega-change in education that will undoubtedly come in the next few decades will not be a “reform” in the sense of a deliberate attempt to impose a new designed structure. My confidence in making this statement is based on two factors: (1) forces are at work that put the old structure in increasing dissonance with the society of which it is ultimately a part, and (2) ideas and technologies needed to build new structures are becoming increasingly available.” (Papert, 2000b)
Attend a Maker Faire and you will marvel at the ingenuity, creativity, passion for learning, and desire to share knowledge on display. Maker Faire provides a venue for collaboration, showing-off, and sharing personal inventions. The creation of shareable artifacts is a basic tenet of constructionism. (Ackermann, 2001) Maker Faires, Make Magazine, and web sites like instructables.com provide unprecedented venues for sharing technological project ideas and products.
Look in any direction at a Maker Faire and you will discover children and adults learning and creating together “samba school style.” (Papert, 1980) Kids like Super-Awesome Sylvia, Joey Hudy, Quin Etnyre, Caine Monroy, and Schuyler St. Leger embody Papert’s belief in “kid power.” (Generation_WHY, 1998; Papert, 1998) These, and other children, are beloved heroes, legends, and leaders of the maker movement, not because they are cute, but due to their demonstrable talent, knowledge, and expertise. Like in a samba school, these young experts value their interaction with elders because they share a common goal of continuous growth.
There were one hundred officially sanctioned Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires around the world in 2013. These events attracted over 530,000 participants. Attendance increased 64% since 2012 and 335% since 2011. “Maker Faire organizers are influencing local education initiatives, encouraging hands-on learning in Science, Technology, Math, Science (STEM) and Art (STEAM) curricula.” 27% of Maker Faire organizers in 2013 were museums and many Maker Faire organizers are creating or expanding community-based makerspace-type facilities where the community may learn together outside of a school setting. (Merlo, 2014)
Those explosive numbers only tell part of the story of the explosive growth in making and its influence on winning hearts and minds for constructionism. Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires are official events sanctioned by Maker Media resulting from a formal application process. Countless other events led by local hackerspaces, clubs, scout troops, plus school-based maker days and Invent to Learn workshops are doing an impressive job of laying the groundwork for a rise in the appeal of constructionism.
Parents in highly competitive independent schools are becoming champions of constructionism based on the benefits of making they witnessed in their own children. Such parental enthusiasm gives lie to the notion that parents want joyless schools focusing on increasing test scores and provide much needed support for educators sympathetic to constructionism, but beaten down by the status quo. After parents at The American School of Bombay participated in a half-day “Invent To Learn” workshop with their children, they began demanding that classroom practice change to incorporate more making.
The maker movement and its accompanying “constructible” technology has resuscitated constructionism in a New York City public school started by Carol Sperry and Seymour Papert in the early 1980s. (Papert & Franz, 1987) Without Tracy Rudzitis’ impromptu lunchtime “Maker Space,” where the folding tables and freedom transform the learning experience for middle school students, computing would be dead at “The Computer School.” (G. Stager, 2014) In countless settings, the “neat phenomena” associated with popular maker technologies, such as 3D printing, Arduino, Makey Makey, squishy circuits, wearable computing, and conductive paint have caused schools to revive school art and music programs, otherwise sacrificed on the altar of budget cuts, tougher standards, or global competitiveness.
The publication of the Next Generation Science Standards, authored by the National Academy of Sciences, (Quinn, Schweingruber, & Keller, 2012) includes specific demands for computer science, engineering, tinkering, and hands-on scientific inquiry to be part of the diet of every American. These standards, written by actual scientists, add gravitas to what some might deride as the playful act of making.
“I think the technology serves as a Trojan horse all right, but in the real story of the Trojan horse, it wasn’t the horse that was effective, it was the soldiers inside the horse. And the technology is only gong to be effective in changing education if you put an army inside it which is determined to make that change once it gets through the barrier.” (Papert, 1999)
BILLIONAIRES DISCOVER CODING
Since Constructionism 2012, Silicon Valley executives, pop-stars, basketball players, politicians, government ministers, and the President of the United States have called for children to learn to code. (note: apparently computer programming is now called, “coding.”)
If you view programming as an intellectually rewarding activity, then it is surely good news that countless millions of dollars are being spent on initiatives like Code.org, Code Academy, and the creation of computer science instruction via Khan Academy.
Mark Guzdial identifies three reasons for learning to program:
- That’s where the future jobs are, in the mix of computing with other disciplines.
- The second reason is that a liberal education is about understanding one’s world, and computing is a huge part of today’s world. We ask students to take laboratory sciences (like biology, chemistry, and physics) in order to better understand their world and to learn the scientific method for learning more about their world. The virtual world is an enormous part of the daily lives of today’s professionals. Understanding computing is at least as important to today’s students as understanding photosynthesis.
- If you understand something well, you should be able to define its process well enough for a machine to execute it. If you can’t, or the execution doesn’t match the observed behavior, we have a new kind of feedback on our theories.
Regrettably, the impetus behind the current desire for “kids to code” seems more rooted in economic insecurity and foreign job killers than recognition that programming is a good way to understand formal systems, make sense of the world or answer Papert’s timeless question, “Does the child program the computer or the computer program the child?”
The pedagogical approach preferred by the coding proponents appears to be, “kids will go on the Web and figure it out.” In that case, the same paltry percentage of kids is likely to develop programming fluency now than before great wealth and media attention was dedicated to the cause.
Although well intentioned and surely better than another generation of children doing little more with a computer than preparing an occasional PowerPoint presentation on a topic they don’t care about for an audience they will never meet, the advocates of coding seem wholly ignorant that many teachers used to teach children to program during the 1980s. Many of these educators taught Logo and the Logo community developed a great deal of wisdom regarding how, what, why, and when to teach children to program. Dozens of books were written and hundreds of thousands of copies were sold. We danced recursion and acted out procedureality. Now, that knowledge base is largely ignored in favor of catchy slogans and YouTube videos. The constructionism community has a wealth of knowledge to share with coding proponents and a great number of questions as well.
- Which programming languages are best for children to use and why?
- Is computational thinking a fancy term for what Alan Kay calls “computer appreciation?” (Kay, 1996) Is this just a way of providing the illusion of computing without sufficient access or actual experience?
- What are the goals of learning to program?
- How does computer programming support, enhance or build upon other intellectual processes?
- What can kids make with a computer?
- Are computing, coding, and computer science synonymous?
- What should a child at a particular age be capable of programming and which concepts should they be able to put into use?
- What sort of teacher preparation is required in order to realize the dream of computer science for all?
We have no idea what children would be capable of if they programmed computers for a sustained period of time. Although we taught tens of thousands of Australian fifth-seventh graders to program in LogoWriter or MicroWorlds between 1989 and 1995, (Johnstone, 2003) schools substituted computing for report writing, note taking, and office tasks by the time those children reached high school. In many cases, computers once an integral learning appendage, were barely used at all as soon as schooling got “serious” and focused on achievement or careers.
In the current coding for all craze, there is little attention given to the proposition that while programming, students may learn other things or explore powerful ideas concurrently. Programming appears to be a means to an end – becoming a programmer, even if that objective is barely defined or the process is trivial.
Coding advocates also send schizophrenic messages. Somehow, the same people can assert that programming is sufficiently difficult that anyone who manages to learn to code will find herself on economic Easy Street and yet, coding is so simple anyone can do it.
In 2014, code.org launched “Hour-of-Code” in a massive publicity blitz intended to attract the attention of schools. While this sounds like a work of satire, Hour-of-Code attracted President Obama, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and other cultural icons to record messages supporting the initiative. (Betters, 2014)
The idea of learning anything substantive in an hour seems preposterous. No amount of advertising or cheerleading is likely to result in more schools teaching computer science in a fashion that appeals to a wide variety of children or supports multiple learning styles. Hour-of-Code is an example of what Papert called verbal inflation and reminds us that “When ideas go to school, they lose their power.” (Papert, 2000b) By definition, Hour-of-Code must be trivial. Perhaps the goal of “Hour-of-Code” was never really to teach or even inspire kids to program, but to create the illusion that the very same Silicon Valley moguls seeking to dismantle public education aren’t so bad after all. (ASU+GSV Summit, 2014; Severns, 2013; G. Stager, 2011; Strauss, 2013, 2014) The cost of such an effort is trivial. “We’ve now reached 25 million kids, and the entire Hour of Code cost $1.2 million. That’s 5 cents a child,” said code.org co-founder Hadi Partovi. (Delevett, 2014)
If we stipulate that the motives of the coding advocates are pure, new questions arise when coding is proposed as the purview of schools. Although efforts like code.org would love to infiltrate schools, they are less concerned by where kids learn to code. When a role for coding in school is delineated through governmental policy or curricular statements, the concerns become more even more acute for constructionists.
Coding through school-colored glasses
Conservative UK Education Secretary Michael Gove announced in January 2012 that the national ICT curriculum should be scrapped at once because it is “a mess,” “harmful,” and “dull.” (Burns, 2012) Since Gove’s provocative BETT speech several American states, Singapore, and Estonia (Gardiner, 2014) have joined the chorus calling for all students to be taught computer science, even if they have no idea what that means or what is involved in achieving success. The exhaustive Royal Society study commissioned by the UK Government to guide the curricular shift towards every child learning computer science includes thoughts such as, “Computer Science education does not necessarily involve computers.” (Furber, 2012) Progress indeed.
The UK National Curriculum is short on actual examples of what a student might do or make with a computer, but long on vocabulary leaving implementation of the curriculum prone to memorization, not actual computer science. (Berry, 2013; Department of Education, 2013a, 2013b) Regardless of your feelings about the substance of the new UK curriculum, efforts around the world are being met with opposition by the theoretically most “tech savvy” teachers in the system, the existing ICT or computer literacy teachers who are resistant to change. The road ahead seems bleak when you factor in a shortage of qualified teachers, an overstuffed school day, inadequate computer resources and an abysmal participation rate among girls and minorities. (Ericson & Guzdial, 2014; Guzdial, 2006; Guzdial & Reed, 2014) And that doesn’t even include a discussion of why so few students are interested in learning computer science even where it is offered.
In the United States, there are proposals in several states to allow Computer Science to earn Foreign Language course credit. (Edutopia, 2013; Guzdial, 2014) Once again, policy-makers with little understanding of CS hear “language” and think they can check off two boxes at once, foreign language and computer science. Aside from the obvious flaws in this logic, the substitution is as much a symptom of unquestioned curricular heuristics than it is support for high quality computer science offerings. Swapping a subject you have trouble defending for CS is another example of the idea aversion (Papert, 2000b) Papert spoke of.
“Computer science for all” is a laudable objective and a welcome change in direction. The constructionist and maker communities possess a great deal of expertise and wisdom that should play a major role in shaping both policy and pedagogical practice. Without such involvement, this rhetorical effort may do more harm than good.
At the very moment when incredible new technologies emerge with the potential to supercharge learning, increase ways of knowing, amplify human expression, forge strange alliances, and empower each teacher and student, the School system has never been more draconian. This too is part of Papert’s prophetic wisdom.
“I have used Perestroika in the Russian political sense as a metaphor to talk about change and resistance to change in education. I use it to situate educators in a continuum: are you open to megachange, or is your approach one of seeking Band-Aids to fix the minor ills of the education system? The dominant paradigm is the Band-Aid–most reform tries to jigger the curriculum, the management of schools, the psychological context of learning. Looking at the Soviet experience gives us a metaphor to talk about why this doesn’t work. For stable change a deeper restructuring is needed–or else the large parts of the system you didn’t change will just bring the little parts you did change back into line.” (Papert, 1991)
Global trends point towards greater public school privatization, addiction to standardized testing, teacher shaming, union busting, savage urban school closures, the rise of charter schools, national curricula, PISA score competition, the suspension of local democracy via mayoral control of school districts, and sacrificing the art of teaching for the mechanics of curriculum delivery and crowd control. (Crotty, 2014; Ravitch, 2013, 2014) Bill Gates tells us that class size does (Vise, 2011) not matter and that teachers may be replaced by YouTube videos. (Tan, 2013) Propagandistic films intended to stoke parental hysteria like, “Waiting for Superman,” play in theatres and on Oprah. (Ayers, 2010; Guggenheim et al., 2011; Karp, 2010; Miner, 2011)
The Rise of Instructionism
In his Perestroika analogy, Papert predicts that constructionism will be met with more instructionism, hopefully until constructionism prevails. One look at the state-of-the-art in educational computing points to a rise in instructionism.
Not only do schools still have computer labs three decades after their creation, but the computers in those labs are increasingly used for computer-assisted instruction, test-prep, standardized testing, and surveillance. Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey said, “Computer programming is quickly becoming an essential career skill. Learning to code is a fantastic opportunity equalizer – if you’re good at it, it can help you achieve your dreams.” He did this while presiding over a scorched-earth “school reform” regime that eliminated Logo programming, art and music in dozens of elementary schools.
When schools do invest in personal computers, they are likely to buy iPads incompatible with making; what Alan Kay calls “symmetric creation” (Greelish, 2013) or make even worse decisions. The Australian state of Victoria invested $180 million and eight years of distractions in a Gosplan-like fantasy called Ultranet. (Tomazin, 2014) The Los Angeles Unified School District just pledged to spend as much as $2 billion for iPads for the sole purpose of standardized testing in a procurement process only Putin could love. (Blume, 2014; Smith, 2014)
The sudden epidemic of bad teachers proclaimed by politicians and the public’s growing dissatisfaction with schooling may be signs of the traditional system crumbling. Can we rise above this period of darkness by lighting a path towards megachange?
“Just 100 years ago, John Dewey was saying things about educational change, not very different from what I believe in. He couldn’t get very far. And the reason why he couldn’t get very far is that he had only philosophical arguments. He didn’t have an army. You must have an army, and it’s an army primarily of children and the adults also are a political force in this.” (Papert, 1999)
Constructionism is a stance and therefore inseparable from politics. Papert might say that the current chaos plaguing education is “the last flick of a dying dragon’s tail.” (Papert, 2000a)
SYMBIOSIS OR MUTUALLY ASSURED DESTRUCTION?
In a toxic era of high-stakes testing, curriculum narrowing, teacher shaming and public school privatizing, the maker movement represents a ray of optimism in an otherwise bleak environment. Simultaneously, the maker movement is poised to go mainstream only if its leaders recognize the benefits of situating “making” in the context of progressive education. An understanding of constructionism and the embattled history of progressive education are necessary for the maker movement to mature.
Quite simply, progressive education requires the energy, passion, new materials, and technology of the maker movement to increase its visibility, relevance, value, and urgency with policy makers, parents, and educational practitioners. For making to mature into a mature movement supporting more than a boutique industry of occasional “faires,” camps, and parties, the members of its community need to understand more about constructionism as well the historic struggle associated with the implementation of progressive education. The maker movement needs to situate their terrific passion, tools, talents, and intuition in a larger context of learning in a politically charged educational system. Both communities have a great deal to learn from one another and should recognize that they stand on the shoulders of giants. Such open-mindedness and knowledge are the minimum conditions under which each community can endure. In order to transcend minority status, a symbiosis of each community’s powerful ideas is required for the aspirations of each to be embraced and sustained by the larger society.
One dilemma for the maker movement is that its major players want it to be both a cause and a profit-center. At FabLearn 2013, Leah Buechley courageously challenged Make™ to take issues of representation, inclusion, gender, race, cost, and accessibility seriously. (Buechley, 2013) Her most easily addressable criticism of Maker Media, owner of Make Magazine™ and Maker Faire™ was the lack of women and people of color on its magazine covers. That concern has been ignored to date. Buechley also pointed out the high cost of entry into “making.” Except for more expensive technology, such as 3D printers, prices do not seem to be falling quickly enough to bring “making” to underserved or poor populations, young or old.
Buechley rightly described how making and Make™ have been conflated in the mind of the population while Maker Media attempts to create an illusion of public service by placing their educational initiatives in a MakerEd non-profit. However, when the White House wishes to celebrate learning by making and its role in an innovative economy, they hosted a Maker Faire™ not a maker fair.
It should come as no surprise that there is a tension between commerce and changing the world. Maker Media is the 1,000 pound for-profit gorilla that creates a venue for makers to share their ingenuity in a commercial environment where others pay to interact with makers. There is nothing wrong with that. It has fueled the explosive rise in making. However, when one company controls the venue, narrative, access to market, and publishes products that compete directly with the creations of other makers, claims of a social mission need to be taken with a grain of salt. Monopolistic tendencies are incompatible with the democratic ideals of both making and progressive education.
Alas, the futures of the maker movement and progressive education are at a crossroads. While the maker movement currently benefits from media attention and the public’s fascination with cool new tech toys, progressive education has been a political punching bag for generations. It is blamed for educational failures disproportionate to its influence. Without great care, the maker movement may find itself susceptible to similar mocking, derision, or marginalization. Sure, that’s nice as a summer camp arts of crafts project, but what does it have to do with raising test scores. Political and social alliances need to be strengthened between each community or the fate of both will be uncertain at best.
Papert reminds us that we need to shift our self-concept in order to bring about the change children deserve.
“Now there is an opportunity to become the person whose job is to facilitate rethinking the whole learning environment of the school, the whole structure of education. We are entering a period in which the person who was “the computer teacher” has the chance to become the educational philosopher and the intellectual leader of the school, of the education world.” (Papert, 1991)
It is inadequate to dismiss schools as relics of the past because that is where you will find millions of kids who need us. Fellow travelers in the maker movement and the unlikely allies behind the coding campaign might be just the army we need inside of a cardboard horse, with LED eyes, and synthesized speech all controlled by a tiny microcontroller running Scratch.
Let us spend our days at Stanford celebrating a growing acceptance of our ideas, but then return home to lead and engage in the hard work of improving the learning ecology.
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Furber, S. (2012). Shut down or restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools. The Royal Society, London.
Gardiner, B. (2014, March 23, 2014). Adding Coding to the Curriculum. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/24/world/europe/adding-coding-to-the-curriculum.html?_r=0
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Stager, G. S. (2006). An Investigation of Constructionism in the Maine Youth Center. (Ph.D.), The University of Melbourne, Melbourne.
Strauss, V. (2013, January 6, 2013). The Secret E-mails About Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 Million Donation to Newark schools. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/01/06/the-secret-e-mails-about-mark-zuckerbergs-100-million-to-newark-schools/
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Tomazin, F. (2014, April 20, 2014). Plug Pulled on Schools’ Disastrous Ultranet Computer System. The Age. Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/plug-pulled-on-schools-disastrous-ultranet-computer-system-20140419-36xse.html
Vise, D. d. (2011, february 28, 2011). Bill Gates Talks About Teacher Pay, Class Size. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://voices.washingtonpost.com/college-inc/2011/02/bill_gates_talks_about_teacher.html
I just received the following email from my nephew, a conscientious and excellent student currently enrolled at an East Coast university costing $68,000/year – before textbooks, etc…
The subject line in the email was PISSED
Since I know how much you love Pearson…
I’m taking a math course and an accounting course this term, each requires the completion of weekly online homework assignments. In order to gain access to these assignments, each student must make an account using a course ID so that our scores will automatically be sent to the professors, and purchase access to the e-books online. The accounting textbook is McGraw-Hill, and the math book is Pearson.
Each e-book will cost me $100, only because we are required to use these websites for our homework. I’m literally buying homework.I thought Pearson’s death-grip on my throat was over, but alas…
It is worth noting that all of my nephew’s other coursework thus far has been project-based and authentic.
OF COURSE, a required math course and math-adjacent “Accounting,” rely on the same-old shitty “answer the odd numbered questions” alternative to an actual productive education experience. This is not a small point.
As Seymour Papert told me, [paraphrase] “If you are not concerned that not a single progressive development in education has had an impact on ‘math,” it means ultimately that no matter what else your school does to make education relevant, there is some part of the day or week where you introduce coercion, irrelevance, and misery into the system.” This coercion is corrosive and ultimately undermines any other learner-centered efforts. As I like to say, “the weeds will always kill the flowers.”
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.
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.
Check out our book, toy, and kit recommendations for creative families!
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.
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.
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.
Since posting the above statement to a CS discussion forum on Facebook, Hadi Partook – founder of Code.org responded as follows.
- Low engagement
- Limits on student creativity, exploration, and tinkering
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.
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.
- Teacher and student project instructions
- MicroWorlds EX Geometry Toolkit starter template file
- An example of a more elaborate Geometry Toolkit created by Beth
 I would not show commercial models of the software to students until after they have programmed some new functionality into their own tools.