Pointing in the Wrong Direction
© 2003 Gary S. Stager/District Administration Magazine

Published in the January 2004 issue of 

The good news is that my daughter’s teachers are at last beginning to use computers. The bad news is they are using them to make PowerPoint presentations. Frightening images of my high school algebra teacher with the indelible blue arm from the ceaseless writing and erasing at the overhead projector flashed through my mind during my recent trip to Back-to-School Night.

Monotonous lectures at the overhead are quickly being replaced by the even more mind-numbing PowerPoint-based instruction. While the overhead projector allows a presenter to make changes and annotations on the fly in response to the needs of the audience, a PowerPoint presentation is a fossil created earlier that day — or during another school year — with low expectations for audience engagement.

Allow me to set the scene, a drama familiar to parents of secondary school students. Your child writes his or her daily school schedule for you to dutifully follow during Back-to-School Night. You rush through dinner to attend the PTA meeting, where the details of the latest fundraiser can be revealed. This year you will be inflicting $20 gallon drums of cookie dough on your innocent friends, colleagues and relatives. Next, you run a half-marathon in less than three minutes on a pitch-dark campus in order to make it to your first-period class.

The teacher, a new devotee of PowerPoint, has a problem to solve. The low-bid PC in her classroom is broken and the school district cannot afford an expensive data projector for every teacher. Undeterred by these challenges and buoyed by a motivation to convey critical information to the assembled parents, the teacher does what any good problem solver would do. She prints out the PowerPoint presentation. The teacher carefully hands each parent a copy of her presentation one at a time. This takes approximately four minutes (and uses all of the toner in the hemisphere).

The title page contains her name and contact information, but no details about this particular class because the presentation needs to be generic enough to use all evening. Upon opening the stapled packet one is treated to a couple of dozen slides detailing the teacher’s gum rules, incomprehensible grading system and ways in which students will be punished for breaking any of the innumerable classroom rules. Since the “presentation” was prepared with a standard PowerPoint template, each page is dark and the school will be out of toner for the remainder of the year.

Teachers like the one I describe are well-meaning, but their reliance on PowerPoint undermines their ability to communicate effectively. Such presentations convey little information and reduce the humanity of the presenter through the recitation of decontextualized bullet points. Such presentations require expensive hardware, time-consuming preparation and reduce spontaneity. This eight-minute presentation was a test of endurance. I fear for students subjected to years of teacher-led presentations.

As a service to educators everywhere, I have prepared a one-slide PowerPoint presentation (above) to help them with Back-to-School night.

What’s the point?
Somehow the making of PowerPoint presentations has become the ultimate use of computers in American classrooms. Perhaps we are emotionally drawn to children making sales pitches. Adults see these children playing Donald Trump dress-up and overvalue the exercise as educational. Teachers refer to “doing PowerPoint” or students “making a PowerPoint” and this is unquestionably accepted as worthwhile.

The desire to create a generation of fifth graders with terrific secretarial skills fails on a number of levels. PowerPoint presentations frequently undermine effective communication. The time spent creating PowerPoint presentations reduces opportunities to develop important storytelling, oral communication and persuasive skills. The corporate look of PowerPoint creates an air of false complexity when students are really constrained by rigid canned templates and the use of clip-art. Class size and time constraints frequently deprive students of opportunities to actually make their presentations before an audience.

Kids should be conducting authentic research, writing original ideas and learning to communicate in a variety of modalities. PowerPoint is a poor use of technology and trivializes the development of communication skills.

The irony could cause whiplash. Over the past thirty years, the EdTech community expended sufficient energy to colonize Mars fighting the idea of teaching children to program computers. I cannot think of another single example in education where so much effort was invested in arguing against children learning something, especially ways of knowing and thinking so germane to navigating their world. Now, the very same folks responsible for enforced ignorance, disempowerment, and making computing so unattractive to children are now advocating “Computer Science for All.”*

There seems to be little consensus on what CS4All means, few educators prepared to teach it, no space in the schedule for a new course of study, and yet a seemingly unanimous desire to make binary, algorithm, and compression first grade spelling words. The sudden interest in “coding” is as interested in the Logo community’s fifty years of accumulated wisdom as Kylie Jenner is interested in taking Ed Asner to St. Barts.

So, amidst this morass of confusion, turf battles, and political posturing, well intentioned educators resort to puzzles, games, and vocabulary exercises for say, an hour of code.

I wish I had 0101 cents for every educator who has told me that her students “do a little Scratch.” I always want to respond, “Call me when your students have done a lot of Scratch.” Coding isn’t breaking a code like when you drunken insurance salesman go to an Escape Room as a liver bonding exercise. The epistemological benefit of programming computers comes from long intense thinking, communicating your hypotheses to the computer, and then either debugging or embellishment (adding features, seeking greater efficiency, decorating, testing a larger hypothesis).

Fluency should be the goal. Kids should be able to think, write, paint, compose, and dance with code. I recently met a team of sixth grade girls who won a contest for creating the “best app.” It was pretty good. I asked, “What else have you programmed?” and received blank stares. When I asked, “What would you like to program next?” the children all turned to look at the teacher for the correct answer. If the kids were truly learning to program, they would be full of independent ideas for what to do next.

Children have a remarkable capacity for intensity and computer programming is an intellectual and creative outlet for that intensity. When I learned to program in a public middle school in 1975, I felt smart for the first time in my life. I could look at problems from multiple angles. I could test strategies in my head. I could spend days thinking of little more than how to quash a bug in my program. I fell in love with the hard fun of thinking. I developed habits of mind that have served me for more than four decades.

So, for schools without a Mr. Jones to teach a nine-week mandatory daily computer programming class for every seventh grader, I have a modest proposal that satisfies many curricular objectives at once.

Whether your goal is literacy, new literacy, computer literacy, media literacy, coding, or the latest vulgarity, close reading, my bold suggestion offers a little something for everyone on your administrative Xmas list.

Give the kids a book to read!

That’s right. There are two very good books that teach children to program in Scratch using a project-approach. The books are completely accessible for a fifth grader. (or older) Here’s what you do.

  • Buy a copy of one of the recommended books for each student or pair of students.
  • Use the book as a replacement text.
  • Ask the students to work through all of the projects in the book.
  • Encourage kids to support one another; perhaps suggest that they “ask three before me.”
  • Celebrate students who take a project idea and make it their own or spend time “messing about” with a programming concept in a different context.

There is no need for comprehension quizzes, tests, or vocabulary practice since what the students read and understand should be evident in their programming. Kids read a book. Kids create. Kids learn to program.

There is a growing library of Scratch books being published, but these are the two I recommend.

Super Scratch Programming Adventure! : Learn to Program by Making Cool Games is a graphic novel filled with Scratch projects.

Scratch For Kids For Dummies by Derek Breen is a terrific project-based approach to learning Scratch.

If per chance, thick books scare you, there are two excerpted versions of Derek Breen’s Scratch for Kids for Dummies book, entitled Designing Digital Games: Create Games with Scratch! (Dummies Junior) and Creating Digital Animations: Animate Stories with Scratch! (Dummies Junior). Either would also do the trick.

Shameless plug

Sylvia Martinez and I wrote a chapter in this new book, Creating the Coding Generation in Primary Schools.

* There are a plethora of reasons why I believe that Computer Science for All is doomed as a systemic innovation, but I will save those for another article.

Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.

The story of a boy’s academic pursuits in New Jersey and education’s lack of progress since then…

© 2001 Gary S. Stager/Curriculum Administrator Magazine
Published in the July 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator

I recently received a sad email informing me that Paul Jones, my first and only computing programming teacher, had passed away. Mr. Jones taught at Schuyler Colfax Junior High School in Wayne, New Jersey for thirty-seven years. If a monument to honor great achievements in educational computing is ever erected, it should surely include a statue of Mr. Jones.

Around 1976 I got to touch a computer for the first time. My junior high school (grades 6-8) had a mandatory computer-programming course for seventh and eighth graders. I only had the course once since I was in the band. In a twist familiar to schools across the land, kids less inclined to creative and intellectual pursuits got to take double the number of courses in those areas!

In the 1970s the Wayne Township Public Schools in New Jersey believed it was important for all kids to have experience programming computers. There was never any discussion of preparation for computing careers, school-to-work, presentation graphics or computer literacy. This was not a gifted course or a vocational course. This “mandatory elective” (a concept unique to schooling) was viewed as a window onto a world of ideas – equal in status to industrial arts, home economics and the arts.

To young adolescents transitioning out of trick-or-treating Mr. Jones was scary in a Dr. Frankenstein sort of way. Rumors abounded about him talking to his computer and even kissing it goodnight before going home at the end of the day. The truth was that this guy could make computers do things! To kids who never imagined seeing a computer – let alone controlling one, having such power within our reach was pretty heady stuff.

The class consisted of mini-tutorials, programming problems on worksheets to kill time while we waited to use the one or two teletypes sitting in the front and back of the room. The scarcity of classroom computers had an unintended consequence, lots of collaboration.

We could sign-up to do more programming or play a computer game after school. This afterschool activity, undoubtedly offered out of the goodness of Mr. Jones’ heart, would allow us extra precious minutes of computer time. Text-based versions of boxing, tennis, football and Star Trek were favorites. Mr. Jones knew how the games worked and would show us the underlying code if we were interested. Mr. Jones did sort of love his computer and his students. Once I knew the odds for each football play the computer never beat me again. I could THINK LIKE THE COMPUTER! This made me feel powerful and laid the foundation for a life of problem solving.

The habits of mind developed in Mr. Jones’ class helped me survive the series of miserable mathematics classes that would greet me in high school. Perhaps Mr. Jones was such a great teacher because he was learning to program too. (This never occurred to me as a kid since Mr. Jones knew everything about computers.)

During high school I would pay an occasional visit to Mr. Jones in order to trade programming secrets. As an adult we had a casual collegial relationship. He may have even attended one or two of my workshops. I do remember that he loved AppleWorks with a passion normally reserved for opera and that he collected Beagle Bros. AppleWorks add-ons like they were Beanie Babies.

Not long after Mr. Jones died I received a charming email from the world’s finest seventh grade social studies teacher, Bob Prail, asking me if I would be interested in applying for Mr. Jones’ teaching job. I was honored to be considered and must admit that the whole “circle of life” angle warmed my heart. However, living with my family 3,000 miles from Schuyler Colfax Jr. High would make the commute difficult. I also feared that the responsibilities assigned to this teaching position were no longer pioneering or designed to expand the thinking of students. I was concerned that the 2001 curriculum for a computing teacher (probably now called something like digital communication technology integration facilitator and cable-puller) would have deteriorated into the mindless computer literacy objectives of mouse-clicking, web bookmarking and word processing plaguing too many schools.

Unnamed sources within the junior high school in question have since revealed that students now spend a considerable amount of time learning to “keyboard.” I don’t know which is worse, disrespecting the talents and culture of kids by pretending that they have never seen a computer before or lowering our expectations by making it impossible for kids to do wondrous things with the most powerful technology ever invented.

As students of Mr. Jones a quarter century ago, none of us HAD ever seen a computer before and yet the curriculum was designed to inspire us to seize control of this mysterious machine. Since we had little idea what was impossible, we thought anything was possible. We felt smart, powerful and creative. Assuming Mr. Jones’ responsibilities while trivializing the intellectual power of computing would dishonor his spirit and diminish his pioneering contributions to the world of powerful ideas.


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.

With all of the problems in the world, I know what you’ve been thinking. “I sure wish there was a new Gary Stager TED Talk to watch.” Well, your prayers to Judge Roy Moore have been answered.

Last Spring, I was headed to Germany to be in-residence at a school where my great friend, colleague, and former student, Amy Dugré, is part of the leadership team. A few weeks before my residency, I received a lovely email from tenth grade students at the International School of Dusseldorf. The letter acknowledged my forthcoming work at the school and kindly invited me to participate in a TEDx event they were organizing. The theme of the TEDx event was identity under the banner of “Who Am I?”

I told the kids that I despise all things TED and especially loathe delivering TED talks(1), but if they wanted me to participate, I would be happy to stand on the red dot and pretend to be an aspiring viral video star. Given the maturity expressed in the invitation, I hoped that my candor would lead the kids to consider reasons why some might not share their enthusiasm for TED.

In the end, the tenth graders’ charm won me over and I accepted their kind invitation.  When asked for the topic of my performance, my inner smartass kicked into gear and I came up with the title, “Care Less.”

In an attempt to further mock the pomposity of TED, I supplied the following abstract.

Any success I may have experienced is attributable to overcoming obstacles needlessly set by others and learning early on that many of the things other care deeply about, simply do not matter at all. This awesome TED talk will explore my epic quest to triumph in a world of needless prerequisites, arbitrary hierarchies, and hegemonic pathways. Caring less about the sort of compliance and schooling traditions imposed on young people may lead them to focus on finding things that bring them joy, beauty, purpose, and authentic achievement.

It is often the case that the germ of my best ideas are borne of wisecracks and this topic was no exception. Spending time in highly competitive private schools where folks too readily accept bourgeois notions of what educational preparation for the “real world” truly means leaves me convinced that I chose the right topic.

The very nature of this terrific student organized event required the TED Talks to be self-indulgent. That makes sharing my talk slightly uncomfortable. I took seriously the opportunity to speak directly to high school students who I hoped would benefit from an adult offering a different narrative from so many of their teachers and parents. I only wish I had the opportunity to give the talk more than once, but that’s the problem with TED Talks. TED is a TV show without any of the benefits of a television studio or taking the show on the road.

I wrote the talk an hour before showtime and delivered it with no monitor or timer in front of me. I’m sure that the performance suffers, but that the message may manage to be worthwhile nonetheless. I hope you or some teenagers find it interesting.

In the final analysis, I’m enormously proud of what I said. I just can’t bear to watch a second of it.


(1) Remarkably, I have now delivered four completely different TED Talks. I spent months before my first TEDx Talk (Reform™) obsessing over the high-stakes chance to go viral and become famous beyond my wildest dreams. The experience made me ill. I then decided I needed to confront my fears and asked to try it again a year later. That time, I spent virtually no time preparing and convinced myself that I didn’t give a damn (We Know What To Do). The audio at the venue was problematic, but the TED experience was less soul crushing. Just when I thought TED Talks were behind me, I was invited to give a third TEDx talk at the American School of Bombay. I have worked at the school since 2004 and felt obligated to oblige. By then, I had abandoned any hope of being a YouTube sensation or being knighted by the Queen and decided to share the legacy of my friend, mentor, and hero, Seymour Papert. People seem to appreciate that talk, Seymour Papert – Inventor of Everything*.

 

Look at what preK-6 Mexican teachers did in my recent PBL 360 workshop in Guadalajara. This was their first experience with engineering, physical computing, and programming. They designed, created, and programmed these “birds” in less than two hours with the Hummingbird Robotics Kit and SNAP!

The prompt was simple…

“Make a Bird. Singing and dancing is appreciated.”

There was no instruction. The entire project was completed in under two hours – roughly the equivalent of two class periods.

My work continues to demonstrate the limits of instruction, the power of construction, and the Piagetian notion that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” There is simply no substitute for experience. Constructive technology and computing amplify human potential and expand the range, breadth, and depth of possible projects. This is critical since the project should be the smallest unit of concern for educators.

Look at these short video clips sharing the teachers’ projects and compare what is possible during an educator’s first or second computing experience with the unimaginative and pedestrian “technology” professional development typically offered. We need to raise our standards substantially.

“You cannot behave as if children are competent if you behave as if teachers are incompetent.” – Gary Stager

The following videos are unedited clips of each group sharing their project. Start listing the plethora of curricular standards satisfied by a single project of this kind.

Operatic Diva Bird from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

The Parrott from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde Robot Pengin from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Three-Function Bird from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Singing Bird with Creepy Eyes from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

About the author

Gary Stager, Ph.D. is the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute for educators, coauthor of Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, and curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, DailyPapert.com. You may learn more about him and reach out here.


The Hummingbirds Robotics Kit is also available from Amazon.com.

I once heard former President Clinton say, “every problem in education has been solved somewhere.” Educators stand on the shoulders of giants and should be fluent in the literature of their chosen field.  We should be reading all of the time, but summer is definitely an opportunity to “catch-up.”

Regrettably too many “summer reading lists for educators” are better suited for those concerned with get-rich quick schemes than enriching the lives of children. Case-in-point, the President of the National Association of Independent Schools published “What to Read this Summer,” a list containing not a single book about teaching, learning, or even educational leadership. Over the past few years, I offered a canon for those interested in educational leadership and a large collection of suggested books for creative educators and parents.

When I suggested that everyone employed at my most recent school read at least one book over the summer, the principal suggested I provide options. Therefore, I chose a selection of books that would appeal to teachers of different grade levels and interests, but support and inspire the school’s desire to be more progressive, creative, child-centered, authentic, and project-based.

Gandini, Lella et al… (2015) In the Spirit of the Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia, Second Edition.
Aimed at early childhood education, but equally applicable at any grade level.  Illustrates how to honor the “hundred languages of children.”

 

 

 


Little, Tom and Katherine Ellison. (2015) Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools
A spectacular case made for progressive education in the face of the nonsense masquerading as school “reform” these days.

 

 

 


Littky, Dennis. (2004) The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s Business.
Aimed at secondary education, but with powerful ideas applicable at any level. Students spend 40% each week in authentic internship settings and the remaining school time is focused on developing skills for the internship. This may be the best book written about high school reform in decades. 


Papert, Seymour. (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.
A seminal book that situates the maker movement and coding in a long progressive tradition. This is arguably the most important education book of the past quarter century.  Papert worked with Piaget, co-invented Logo, and is the major force behind educational computing, robotics, and the Maker Movement.


Perkins, David. (2010) Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education.
A clear and concise book on how to teach in a learner-centered fashion by a leader at Harvard’s Project Zero. 

 


Tunstall, Tricia. (2013) Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music.
“One of the finest books about teaching and learning I’ve read in the past decade.” (Gary Stager) Tells the story of how hundreds of thousands of students in Venezuela are taught to play classical music at a high level. LA Philharmonic Conductor Gustavo Dudamel is a graduate of “El Sistema.” The lessons in this book are applicable across all subject areas. 

Check out the CMK Press collection of books on learning-by-making by educators for educators!

Eric Rosenbaum (L) demonstrates the MaKey MaKey to Marvin Minsky (R) at CMK 2012

Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017 is thrilled to announce that Dr. Eric Rosenbaum will be joining our 10th annual summer institute, July 11-14 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Eric, one of the most prolific inventors of creative play materials for learners (MaKey MaKey, Beetleblocks, Singing Fingers, Coloring Cam – to name a few) will provide CMK 2017 participants with a sneak peak at the much-much-anticipated Scratch 3.0 programming environment!

Register for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017

Dr. Rosenbaum will lead a demo and Q&A after a presentation by CMK 2017 guest speaker, Dr. Neil Gershenfeld, Director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms and maker movement pioneer at our very special reception at the MIT Media Lab. Gershenfeld is author of the seminal book, Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop–from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, a book that created the foundation for the modern maker movement.

Eric Rosenbaum and Neil Gershenfeld join littleBits Founder and CEO, Ayah Bdeir, and MacArthur Genius-Award winning educator (and CMK favorite) Deborah Meier as guest speakers at Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017.


About Eric Rosenbaum, Ph.D.

Eric Rosenbaum earned a Ph.D. in the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT Media Lab, where he created new technologies at the intersection of music, improvisation, play and learning. He is currently the Senior Front End Engineer Scratch in the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group and worked recently with the with Google Creative Lab and NYU Music Experience Design Lab. Eric’s projects include the MaKey MaKey invention kit, the Singing Fingers app for finger painting with sound, the Glowdoodle web site for painting with light, Coloring Cam app for using your camera and the world as a coloring book, MmmTsss software for improvising with looping sounds, and a Scratch-like language for creating interactive behaviors in the virtual world of Second Life.

One of his latest projects is the creation of Beetle Blocks, a visual programming language for creating 3D designs you can print. This will be Eric’s third year at Constructing Modern Knowledge.

Eric Rosenbaum on the faculty of CMK 2012

Eric holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Technology in Education from Harvard University. He also holds a Masters degree and Ph.D. in Media Arts and Sciences from MIT Media Lab, for which he developed Jots, a system to support reflective learning in the Scratch programming environment.

Learn more about Eric here.

Register for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017


About Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017

Constructing Modern Knowledge, July 11-14, 2017 is a minds-on institute for educators committed to creativity, collaboration and computing. For ten years CMK has been viewed as the gold standard of professional learning events at the intersection of learning-by-doing, cutting-edge technology, and progressive education.

Participants will have the opportunity to engage in intensive computer-rich project development with peers and a world-class faculty. Inspirational guest speakers and social events round out the fantastic event. Rather than spend days listening to a series of speakers, Constructing Modern Knowledge is about action. Attendees work and interact with educational experts concerned with maximizing the potential of every learner.

While our outstanding faculty is comprised of educational pioneers, bestselling authors and inventors of educational technologies we depend on, the real power of Constructing Modern Knowledge emerges from the collaborative project development of participants.

Each day’s program consists of a discussion of powerful ideas, mini tutorials on-demand, immersive learning adventures designed to challenge one’s thinking, substantial time for project work and a reflection period.

Register for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017

I have often wondered why educators are so darn excited about Google. They get “Google Certified,” attend Google conference sessions, mourn when features change or Google loses interest in a platform they LOVE(d). Google loving teachers attend summits that are a cross between an Amway convention and cult meeting. Districts trust their communications and document storage to a company they know harvests their data (and that of their students) just to save a few bucks on an email server. School leaders have never met Mr. Google or any of his designees, but trust them anyway.

Millions upon millions upon millions of dollars are spent annually on teaching seemingly competent adult educators to in the words of President George W. Bush, “use the Google.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. The Google is a swell thing. You type something into a box and related web pages are displayed – just like the search engines that came before it. Google PhotoScan is a little piece of magic for rescuing and preserving family photos. We trust Google a lot and have become reliant on a faceless corporation who can change the terms of service or kill a platform we rely on at the drop of a hat.

One of my favorite tweets of all time was when I asked, “Which should I care less about, Google Wave or Google Buzz?” It turns out that I hit the exacta when Google quickly took both Wave and Buzz behind the barn and shot them Gangnam Style. I get the sense that Google operates like libertarian toddlers who just finished a jumbo box of Lucky Charms cereal right before their community theatre performance of Lord of the Flies.

Mad at me yet? No? OK. Good. Let’s move on.

The one Google thingy that schools really love is Google Docs. Boy, do they love Google Docs.

I have long wondered why? We have had word processors for thirty-five years. Most computers come with a free one adequate for most school applications and there are certainly better “Office” suites available. Many schools already own them.

So, why oh why the love affair with Google Docs? I offer a few hypotheses.

Here are the Top Three Reasons Why Schools Love Google Docs. [Drum roll please…]

  1. Google is cool. The Googleplex has vegan cafeterias, free dry cleaning, massage chairs, AND Ping-Pong tables. I wish our teacher’s lounge had a Pachinko machine and an assortment of herbal teas. That would make me cool too!
  1. Nuthin’ cheaper than free

and the number one answer why schools love Google Docs is….

  1. Collaboration!!!!!!

Collaboration is nice. Schools like nice. Being collaborative is what nice people do when they want to create nice things.

We have been here before

In the late 1980s, collaboration was all of the rage, but back then it was called cooperative learning. Cooperative learning. A school district sent me to a Robert Slavin Cooperative Learning Boot Camp run by Johns Hopkins University. Like any good boot camp, its intent was to beat us down and build us back up again as champions of cooperative learning. Colleagues were immediately separated so they could not question the dogma or rebel in any way. We learned to “jigsaw” boring and irrelevant curricula.

We were taught to create student teams of four kids; always four kids. The teams should be comprised of a smart kid, a dumb kid, a girl, a boy, a Black kid, a White kid, a skinny kid, a fat kid… Each team should stay together with their desks side-by-side for six weeks, always six weeks. If we did this, spelling test scores would improve.

Of course, during that prehistoric era, Google engineers were not even old enough to disrupt their own Waldorf schools. So, sadly there were no Google Docs to create multiplication flash cards or use all of our vocabulary words in a sentence. The word-processed five-paragraph essay in the cloud would have to wait.

TRIGGER WARNING!

Since 90% of what schools do is Language Arts and 98% of what they do with computers is language arts[1], Google Docs is mostly used for writing, but its secret power is collaborative writing.

I am a professional writer. (Not that you can tell from this essay) I am the author of hundreds of magazine articles, about as many blog posts (yeah, big whoop), a 450,000 word doctoral dissertation, countless academic papers, and co-authored one of the best-selling books about educational technology.

All of this qualifies me to say something heretical. (IMHO)

Writing is not collaborative!

(Please take a deep breath before declaring me a big meanie poo-poo head.)

You may write different parts of something and smush them together. You may peer-edit. You may create an anthology or periodical containing writing by several people, but writing is a solo sport. Writing is the result of one person’s internal processes.

Collaboration is more than simply the division of labor. It should not be taught as an isolated skill or coerced. Sadly, like many seemingly good ideas, schools seek to mechanize collaboration by turning natural process into a set of measurable skills and multi-year course of study, easily assessed. Some children win, while others fail.

Teams are created by teachers drawing Popsicle sticks with kids’ names written on them (until the teacher doesn’t like a random pairing and “fixes” it.) Students sense the capricious nature of this process and waste precious class time working the refs to get assigned teammates they like. Working with people with whom you are compatible is a logical idea frequently squelched by school “collaboration.”

Back in the halcyon days of Cooperative Learning™, a reporter for the long-defunct Electronic Learning Magazine asked Seymour Papert an intentionally softball question, “What do you think of Cooperative Learning?” Papert replied, “I think it is a profoundly bad idea to force children to work together.”

Oooh! Snap!

Collaboration should be natural

Cooperation and collaboration are natural processes. Such skills are useful when the creative process benefits from interdependence. The best collaboration mirrors democracy when individual talents, knowledge, or experiences are contributed to produce something larger than the sum of its parts.
Work with your friends. Work with people you trust. Work with people who have different skills or expertise. If that doesn’t produce the result you desire, you will find others to collaborate with. That is how you learn to collaborate. You may teach it, but the students will not stay taught.

Honestly, I could not care less about whom my students (kids or adults) choose to work with. The only reason to assign group size is scarcity of materials (we have to share). Even in those largely avoidable scenarios, it hardly matters if group size varies a bit. The main consideration is inactivity by some members when a group is too large.

Collaboration is both selfish and selfless. You give of yourself by sharing your talent and expertise, but the collaboration should benefit you as well.

Collaboration should be fluid

One of the great joys of Constructing Modern Knowledge derives from the range of collaboration on display at my annual institute. At the start, participating educators suggest a vast array of project ideas ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Participants identify which project they wish to work on and commence collaboration. If a person loses interest, becomes inspired by another project, or is incompatible with a teammate, they are free to join a different project or start a new one. Some people move effortlessly between multiple project teams; learning even more.

When projects are shared at the end of four days, three to five person teams have created the majority of projects, some may have a dozen or more collaborators, and we often discover delightful projects created by someone who quietly sat in the corner and worked alone.

I have been fortunate to learn a great deal about what I know about learning from some of the world’s best jazz musicians. Those who are expert at what they do, like musicians, artists, and scientists, pursue greatness by working tirelessly on what bugs them. That continuous and indefinite attention to detail makes them incredibly good at articulating how it is that they do what they do. In other words, they are great teachers.

The very fine jazz pianist and educator Peter Martin recently interviewed saxophonist Branford Marsalis and vocalist Kurt Elling about their remarkable collaboration, “Upward Spiral” (recording and tour). Marsalis and Elling are both highly accomplished A-list artists with their own working bands and artistic concepts. Yet, they have decided to spend a couple of years putting “their thing” on hold to create something new, wondrous and collaborative in the best, most natural, sense of the word. The music they create together on stage is transcendent and not to be missed.

During Peter Martin’s podcast, my old friend Branford Marsalis shares his profound concept of collaboration and juxtaposes it against the version so often practiced in schools. There is much to be learned here.

“The whole idea of a collaboration (to me) is that nobody gets to do what is that they do. The modern interpretation of collaboration is I know what you do. You do know what I do. Let’s get a head start and run real fast and collide into one another and whatever spills out over the side is the collaboration.” – Branford Marsalis

True collaboration is great. It’s even better than a free word processor.


Notes:
[1] I pulled those figures out of my bum, but I have been doing so for decades and no one has been able to disprove this completely fabricated assertion.



Gary Stager is the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute for educators July 11-14, 2017, coauthor of Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, and curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, DailyPapert.com.

Register today for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017!

Blocked Web sites, IT staff that exist to hinder staff, and restrictive policies make integrating technology too hard to overcome
By Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Originally published in District Administration Magazine – December 2002

I recently spent a week teaching in a wonderful school. The school sits on a gorgeous sprawling campus. The principal is well read and charming. The students were delightful and the teachers generous with their hospitality. Every student has his or her own laptop. I was engaging the children in activities I love, and yet I found the overall experience excruciating. Why? Because of an information technology staff run amok.

The unchecked policies, practices and prior restraint exercised by the school’s information technology team made it impossible for me to teach effectively. It seemed as if a surprise lurked behind every mouse click and URL. Despite the school’s enormous investment in computers and networking, very little of it actually worked in the ways one would expect

Non-educators implemented policies prohibiting teachers from-downloading and uploading files, regardless of their content. IP settings needed to be changed when a user switched from an Ethernet to wireless connection. The streaming of QuickTime or RealMedia ties was prohibited regardless of their educational value. Student work could not be published online because the school’s “extranet” has yet to go live. I think extranet is some meglamaniac’s synonym for the Internet

I face similar frustrations at every school I visit–anywhere in the world. I need to beg a network technician for the magical network password, secret IP settings or request an act of Congress to make a presentation. Teachers enrolled in Pepperdine University’s prestigious Online Masters in Educational Technology are routinely denied access to their own coursework by ridicolous filters that ban .edu domains.

It is worth noting that none of these obstacles protect children from the real or imagined threat of pedophiles from Turkmenistan or inappropriate Web content. These obstructions are the creation of control freaks eager to maintain authority they neither earn or deserve. The payroll and morale costs are inestimable.

The Looming Crisis
Computer coordinators used to say, “If I do my job, I won’t have a job in two years.” A decade later there seems to be a dozen non-instructional tech coordinators, directors or managers for each of their predecessors.

Haven’t computers become easier to use and more reliable? Shouldn’t professional educators be competent computer users after a generation of bribing, begging, cajoling, tricking, threatening, inservicing and coercing? If so, then why do we have so many support personnel employed by schools? How much do they cost? When will they be unnecessary?

Reasonable people may disagree over the role of Web filtering and schools have a finite budget for bandwidth. However, IT personnel are making insane, expensive and miseducative decisions. There is no greater threat to successful classroom computer use than the actions of the staff employed to support that very use.

The Web is not static. Plug-ins are not a cancer, they add functionality. I am grateful that Web browsers were built with an open architecture allowing them to be extensible. This has accelerated the power of the Web in ways unanticipated by its creators.

The power of the Web is in its ability to democratize publishing and offer students the potential for unlimited audience. This is a critical educational rationale derailed by non-educators. Such policies insult professional educators.

Administrators who give unprecedented budgetary discretion and policy-making control to IT staff are abdicating their responsibilities. School leaders need to summon the courage to face things that plug-in and become conversant in networking issues. They must supervise non-instructional personnel and determine their actual staffing needs. Failure to do so results in an enormous waste of money, teacher dissatisfaction and underutilized technology.

I have been using computers for more than 25 years. I use and maintain a cross-platform wireless network at home. I write computer manuals, program in several languages and yet needed to call for help every few minutes during my recent teaching stint. The average teacher juggling all of her responsibilities with a desire to use computers in the classroom does not have a prayer.

I became a pre-k through 8th grade teacher in the mid-1980s. I was literally in the last teacher education cohort who was expected to learn how to teach science, music, art, physical education, special education, make puppets out of Pop-Tart boxes, create math manipulatives, and fill a classroom with interdisciplinary projects. Teacher preparation was equal parts art and science. Then around 1985, a couple of years after A Nation at Risklegislatures around the world declared, “Teaching ain’t nothin’,” and replaced rich and varied teacher education curricula with Animal Control and Curriculum Delivery.

Today, anyone who has ever been a billionaire or 7-11 night manager can run the US Department of Education or be a superintendent of schools, while well-prepared and experienced educators are met with suspicion and derision. We say that, “we stand on the shoulders of giants,” but ask a room full of school leaders how many of the authors in this reading list they have read and prepare to be stunned by the blank stares. Suggest any teaching practice not sold by Pearson and you’re likely to have a school principal reply, “Oh! You mean like Montessori?” Quite simply, unqualified is the new qualified.

Elementary teaching has been narrowed and departmentalized in ways that make it as ineffective as high school. Truly getting to know each child and to engage them in meaning making through interdisciplinary projects has been the first casualty of the assault on the art of teaching. As teacher agency has eroded through mistrust, prescriptive curriculum, and standardized testing, teachers become less, not more, thoughtful in their practice. When you mechanize teaching and place it under constant surveillance, teaching quality becomes less human, rewarding, joyful, creative, and more compliant.

Over the past thirty years, educators have lost control, freedom, and memory of classic pedagogical practices. During my work in classrooms around the world, I am often struck by how teachers are unaware of teaching practices I have long taken for granted. For example, I just assumed that every teacher knew about classroom centers, could defend their use, and make them a staple of each learning environment. I was wrong. That’s one of the reasons I wrote “Thoughts on Classroom Centers,” although I would still love to find the seminal work(s) on the topic.

Choice Time

While mentioning this lingering question to one of my heroes, Deborah Meier, she suggested I ask Renée Dinerstein. (I intend to) Ms. Dinnerstein is the author of a fine new book, Choice Time – How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2. The book focuses on the critical element of student choice and what they do during learner-centered classroom time. Classroom centers are the magic carpet of choice time.

I just purchased the book and cannot recommend it highly enough. It is a beautiful guide filled with clear and practical advice for teachers without being condescending or treating its readers like imbeciles. The book is not 500 pages of jargon and reproducibles, but rather 165 pages of inspiration intended to rekindle creative teaching in order to create more productive contexts for learning by children. It also helps teachers observe and understand the thinking of each child.

Although it says that the book’s wiscom is intended for PK-2nd grade, I would recomment the book to teachers at any grade level.

The author maintains a web site, investigatingchoicetime.com, intended to extend the inspiration shared in the book.