Problem

“Defund the police” is an in-artful term that fails as a “brand” because it requires explanation. It is already being used as a weapon against those calling for justice and peace by cynical Republicans and others who never considered the complex system of racism and cruelty that allows the government to brutalize African Americans with impunity.

That said, I am in agreement with those calling for police defunding, police abolition, and prison abolition. The percentage of cash-strapped municipal budgets allocated to police forces is outrageous and unsustainable. Of course, those funds could be put to better use elsewhere. Nearly 54% of the Los Angeles city budget is spent on policing and California cities have relatively skimpy budgets! (Not to mention that the LAPD has a terrible record of race relations, police brutality, and patrols in a fashion where cops can’t discern store owners and from looters.)

I reject the excuse that long stressful shifts should cause the sorts of psychosis that leads police officers to kneel on a man’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds. If long shifts are a problem, then it is justification for ending overtime, a hustle police officers engage in to boost their income substantially at the expense of taxpayers and public safety. Accessible and affordable mental health services should be available to the entire community, including peace officers sworn to protect and serve.

We are on the cusp of monumental decisions. The need for social justice and a weak economy are going to require major redistribution of public resources. If not defunded completely, the police (and military) are going to need to be scaled back in both mission and budget.

Two experiences have led me to this point. The first was the 3 1/2 years I spent working inside a troubled prison for teens where we created a radically different schooling experience. When we put the needs, talents, curiosity, creativity, interests, and expertise of the kids ahead of an arbitrary curriculum and treated them like colleagues, not a single student needed to leave the classroom for disciplinary reasons a single time. Not once in more than three years! This was in a facility Amnesty International cited for state-sponsored torture of children. When we treated children with dignity, high expectations, and humanity, they demonstrated learning superpowers and were delightful to spend time with. This experience also leaves me highly reluctant to “lock her up” or “throw away the key,”

About a year ago, I listened to an amazing Chris Hayes podcast, Thinking about how to abolish prisons with Mariame Kaba, in which the activist made a convincing case for seemingly nutty idea, getting rid of prisons – not reforming them, but eliminating the entire prison industrial complex. I was unaware that this was plausible, let alone a movement until I listened to the common sense arguments advanced in this conversation.

Executed properly, this is a moment for serious systemic change. In the recent CNN-SSRS poll, 84% of Americans say that the current protests are justified. This is not 1968 or even just a few years ago. Fellow Americans of good conscience favor doing something differently, perhaps radically differently – now. They just don’t know what that might look like or how to wrap their head around alternative scenarios.

I began thinking about this challenge when an old colleague posted a pro-Police/anti-protestor meme and justified it by saying that we should stop complaining about the police because when his wife’s wheelchair gets stuck in the yard, he calls the police and they help lift her to safety. Would George Floyd or the 75 year-old man trampled by Buffalo police accept that tradeoff? Must we?

I truly believe that there are millions of people who wish to do the right thing and join together to create a more perfect union based on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This requires us to stop building systems focused on the extreme worst of human potential. Folks just need help imagining that things need not be as they seem. Each of has an obligation to help paint that picture in order to make the world a better place. 

Here is my first (lame) attempt at doing so.

Solution

Let Richard Scarry be your guide. There are lots of different jobs and helpers in Busy Busytown. Some people help old ladies across the sidewalk, others direct traffic. Some even remind their fellow critters to stay off the grass. When someone is sick or injured, other helpers rush to scene to, well, help. Others clean up litter and make sure that street lights work. New jobs are created to feed hungry people and play games with little critters afterschool. New houses and apartments are built and properly maintained so everyone in Busytown enjoys a comfortable place to sleep.

There are helpers who help you deal with stress or stop taking drugs. Every mommy and daddy in Busytown has a job that pays a living wage and health insurance. They even have enough money left over to take their children on vacation sometimes. And yes, in Busy Busytown, there are even helpers who will help lift your wife’s wheelchair. They just won’t be carrying an assault rifle, pepper spray, or swinging a baton.


A challenge for educators

Which educational practices can you imagine abolishing in schools? I am sure you can think of ineffective, grossly expensive, distracting, or miseducative “traditions” most people take for granted. Can you imagine school without:

  • Grades?
  • Tests?
  • Homework?
  • Tracking?
  • Silent lunch?
  • Discipline problems?
  • Bullying?
  • Competition?
  • School segregation?
  • Charter schools?
  • Algebra II?
  • Football?

If so, this is your moment. What is your plan for doing the right thing?


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. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary.

 

There are a lot of discussions underway about what school will or should look like when face-to-face sessions resume. Sadly, the images of teachers barking commands from meters away at children in cells bolted to the floor six feet apart are as pedagogically toxic as they are medically perilous.

Ann Wang/Reuters – Lovingly borrowed from https://nationalpost.com/opinion/post-covid-19-classrooms-what-if-keeping-your-distance-becomes-the-new-school-normal

It is amazing how school leaders and districts can always seem to find rainy day money to invest in terrible ideas without a second wasted on considering the consequences of such actions. I realize that you are in a hurry to reopen schools, but are you investing for the future or reacting out of panic?

I remember several years back when virtual reality was being hyped by educator members of the Shiny Object Club flitting from one new scheme to another. Folks desperate to justify whatever they thought VR is would ask, “What do you think about virtual reality in schools?” My answer would always be, “Isn’t that redundant?

Surprisingly to some, the online world may provide greater opportunities for intimacy, collaboration, conversation, and learning-by-doing. It is the mechanical stuff long overvalued by school – reading quietly, answering questions, worksheets, quizzes, tests, studying – that are much better suited for the virtual world.

You know who I rarely, if ever, see featured in the articles, books, podcasts, pronouncements, panel discussions or prognostications of the futurists “helping” schools prepare for the “new normal?” Music, art, or drama teachers. Why must the future be so colorless and dystopian?

The simple truth is that band was the only thing we did not have at home that justified my kids going to school. Schools tend to undervalue the things to which they actually add value.

When pressed to defend investment in art, music, drama programs (a justification only ever sought after for things kids enjoy), the affirmative arguments often evoke the words of Dickensian shopkeepers. Students in art and music classes do better on standardized tests or get into better colleges or crush the lesser kids. Even those with nobler objectives argue that art, music, and drama programs motivate kids to stay in school and give them purpose. While certainly true, those reasons are also in service of the system. How about investing in performing arts programs with qualified teachers within the curricular day because what students experience in those classes are the things that make us human, nurture democracy, and sustain civilization? To quote the late NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Heath, “What was good, is good.”

This is not small stakes. I write this as fiery protests burn in cities across the United States in the wake of the latest racist police officer killing of an African American. It is a safe bet that kids in the high school jazz band or production of “Fiddler on the Roof” are not out looting a shoe store. They may even vote to support school budgets when they become adults.

Today’s feed

I have been battling for public investments in performing arts education for thirty-eight years (a tale for another article), but today I saw something so deeply moving on Facebook, that its importance motivated this article.

One of the world’s finest vocalists, Kurt Elling, shared a video of a high school choir from Boulder, Colorado performing an adapted version of his arrangement of Paul Simon’s American Tune. Despite their social isolation, a work of high-quality art was produced on iPhones by students who learned to sing together in school. The special poignancy of the performance is heightened by today’s milieu. Even if these young people did not learn to sing in school, this is where they learned to sing songs by Paul Simon like Kurt Elling and to be part of something bigger than themselves. It also happens to sound great.

Excalibur (2019-20) Fairview High School Boulder, CO Janice Vlachos, director

A cursory Google search revealed that Fairview high school does not just have a choir, it is blessed with nine of them! It has at least three orchestras and a jazz band as well. They employ multiple art teachers as well. Their community undoubtedly values the arts as an integral part of the educational experience and invests accordingly while other schools share YouTube videos of how there’s music in math (Look, they’re counting!) or math in art (Can you see the triangles?). What this school choir has created is so much more profound than the viral videos of one kid jamming in their room, no matter how talented that kid happens to be.

The music education professionals in this school community have pulled off something impossibly hard as arts teachers are often called upon to do. The result is everything that justifies the future viability of public education.

This investment in kids learning to do something well together, including the cost of arrangers and editors to produce this video, sends students the message that they are loved and much is expected of them. Doesn’t every student deserve that?


Note: Having the audacity to point out that arts programs are under appreciated or underfunded immediately provokes school librarians and teachers of other subjects to exclaim their deprivation.  The race to be the most aggrieved by so many educators is disempowering and counter-productive. We must unite to create and advocate for a modern liberal arts education for every child.


Official video of Kurt Elling’s recording of American Tune

The following is the post on Kurt Elling’s Facebook page. It tells the backstory of remarkable high school video (above).

EXCALIBUR’s deeply moving performance of American Tune is emblematic of these times under lockdown. These talented Fairview High School Choirs students from Boulder, CO – isolated from each other – sang into their phones and the finished result is amazing!

Choir director JANICE VLACHOS had commissioned KERRY MARSH to arrange KURT ELLING’s version of American Tune for Excalibur to perform this school year.

JANICE VLACHOS reflected, “The lyrics hit so deep on this one and it was a comfort all year long to us knowing that there have been times the world has felt in turmoil and that we’ve been in this place before. The words ‘it’s alright, it’s alright’, have been soothing to all of us. We sang this song multiple times throughout the year and we were planning on singing it at the last concert, and then coronavirus hit.

“We walked out of school on March 12th and never returned. We were heartbroken on so many levels – the global consequences of the virus and in our own small world of not being able to singing together. We were also saddened to realize we didn’t have a great recording of American Tune. So we recorded it on our phones, and Kerry Marsh mastered it for us beautifully. I often find myself thinking of the lyrics as I’m searching for solace during this time.

Arranger KERRY MARSH notes, “I feel that this is one of the most important arrangements I’ve written thus far in my musical career, frankly. Based on the transcendent recorded version by Kurt Elling, and arranged during the most uncertain time in at least my own lifetime, this prescient Paul Simon composition connects with our modern times in a way that a typical ‘chart description’ is not fit to articulate. Its meaning, as it may relate to the current gaping political divide in the U.S. (mirrored in many countries worldwide, certainly) or certainly the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic, will be best communicated by each group that performs it.

“These young musicians (and their director) are absolutely amazing. It was humbling to work on this, and [my partner] Julia Dollison and I shed buckets of tears throughout the process. Really proud of what they’ve accomplished with this and everything else, and confident that this currently messed up world is in very capable hands when these folks take charge.

“As a part of the celebration of their releasing this, I’ve just made this chart available at KerryMarsh.com. Kurt Elling’s version (arranged by Christian Elsässer) was an incredible source of inspiration to work from. Paul Simon’s composition has proved timeless…would that it weren’t so, actually. But these students, in their interpretation of his lyric, provide great hope.

Fairview HS Orchestra director DAVID RUTHERFORD adds this behind-the-scenes perspective:

“Your experience is this: For 7 minutes you watch all their beautiful faces, all together, side-by-side, shining at you with all the love of singing they’re known for. Your heart overflows with the beauty of the music piped through your earbuds. And you smile and say, ‘Beautiful!’

“But think about the experience for each student in the creation of the video. Alone, listening to a click track and accompaniment. No blend. No harmony. Multiple takes because of all the silly imperfections one begins to focus on in a myopic environment like that. Am I in tune? Was I early? How is this vowel? Where is this cutoff? The insecurities never end.

“Then each video is sent off to the producer and engineer, who take all 26 videos and painstakingly line up the sound, which takes literally weeks to do in front of a computer screen. After hundreds of hours, finally, all the consonants are together, the imperfections in pitch have been tweaked out, the entrances and the cutoffs are perfect, and the quality of sound from an iPhone microphone has been processed to become nearly studio quality. Finally the video, after another week, presents those beautiful faces artfully for maximum effect when you watch and listen.

“Again for the students, there was no shared experience here. There was no ensemble. Look at each one of those faces and think about it from their perspective as they sing – the space past that black border is tragically empty.

“So how can they sound so good? Because they remember what it was like to sing together, and they recreate that in their minds. This is a song they had sung all year long – I performed it with them on several occasions. They know how it feels to sing it as an ensemble, to blend their voices into one, and oh my goodness do they know how to connect with an audience. So they sang at an iPhone screen, remembering all this, pretending they were together singing for you….

“Excalibur, thank you for this reminder of just how valuable music is to all of us. The tears on my face are real.”


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, pubisher at Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary.

There’s no shortage of articles, web sites, top 1,000 app lists instructing educators what to do during the pandemic and when school returns to “normal.” All of that “help” may be counter-productive. You deserve a break.

If you’re not feeling up to reading, cooking, playing an instrument, or coding right now, watch an episode of Encore! on Disney+ and you will be remember what school can and should mean to children. Keep a box of tissues nearby and your closest friend on speed dial first.

Here are some of the books that ground, focus, and inspire me. I hope you’ll find some beauty, peace, grace, or meaning from any of these recommendations.


Painting Chinese: A Lifelong Teacher Gains the Wisdom of Youth

The great Herb Kohl’s gorgeous meditation of a lifetime of learning and teaching.


Wonder Art Workshop: Creative Child-Led Experiences for Nurturing Imagination, Curiosity, and a Love of Learning

Skip the stuff about “brain research” and dig into the large assortment of beautiful and magical art experiments. Super fun and creative!


The Book of Learning and Forgetting

This book by the great psycholinguist Frank Smith may be my favorite exploration of learning. It was always a favorite text of my graduate students too.


Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope

While not Jonathan Kozol‘s most popular or best known books, this is my favorite of his many masterpieces. Ordinary Resurrections is poignant and poetic while giving voice to the most innocent and vulnerable members of our society. This book is timeless and life-changing.


Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music

Read quickly past the fanboy stuff about the remarkable conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, and learn about one the most profound pedagogical approaches on earth, El Sistema. You will be moved by the what’s possible when teachers believe in the capacity of each learner and refuse to acknowledge obstacles. In my humble opinion, this one of the best education books of the past decade. Author Tricia Tunstall also coauthored a notable follow-up, Playing for Their Lives: The Global El Sistema Movement for Social Change Through Music.


The Inner Principal: Reflections on Educational Leadership

I challenge you to name a more candid, open, or philosophical book ever written by a school administrator, especially one as accomplished as David Loader.


The Muses Go to School: Inspiring Stories About the Importance of Arts in Education

The likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Phillip-Seymour Hoffman, Rosie Perez, and Bill T. Jones share the testimony to the critical importance of public school arts education with response pieces by amazing educators including Deborah Meier, Lisa Delpit, Bill Ayers, Diane Ravitch, Maxine Greene, and yours truly (clearly a clerical error).


The Long Haul: An Autobiography

Myles Horton’s tales of founding and sustaining the Highlander Folk School, an Appalachian retreat where students included Martin Lutther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Pete Seeger. Oh yeah, We Shall Overcome was composed there too. This book not only tells the important story of an unknown piece of American history, but offers much wisdom and inspiration for all teachers.


Idea Makers: Personal Perspectives on the Lives & Ideas of Some Notable People

Notable scientist, mathematician, and computer scientist Stephen Wolfram book of insightful essays about great mathematicians, scientists, and technologists, many of who he knew personally.


The Children

Pulitizer Prize winner David Halbestram’s monumental history of the American civil rights movement and the remarkable role played by courageous young people. This book reminds all of us of each person’s power to change the world.


Books I love to read aloud with kids

Field Trip to the Moon (PK-2)

Harold and the Purple Crayon (PK-2)

Homer Price (2-5)

I still love this book and its sequel!


Apprentice with the world’s greatest musicians!

Ever dream of taking piano, bass, vibes, voice, drum, guitar, saxophone, or trumpet lessons from one of the world’s finest musicians? Care to understand jazz or Brazilian music? Wish you could develop your own voice with the help of one of the world’s most acclaimed vocalists?

Check out the complete Open Studio course catalog!

Perhaps you don’t play an instrument and just enjoy watching great artists explain their craft? That’s cool too.

Well, Open Studio is not only the gold standard by which all other online music education programs are measured, but it has cracked the code in teaching impossibly complex and intimate concepts online.

Check out the multitude of offerings at every conceivable skill level.

Speed up, slow-down, control multiple perspectives, guided practice sessions, office hours…


Summer is a great time for kids to read entire series of books.

Here are some great ones you won’t find in your school curriculum or approved by the Texas State Textbook Commission, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pearson!

Horrible Histories (grades 4-9)

Collect them all! They’re gorey, bloody, irreverent, gross, and filled with historical facts shared in an entertaining fashion.


The Time Warp Trio series (grades 2-5)

Jon Scieszka’s zany time travel adventure in which three buddies explore great moments in history.


Guys Read series (grades 5-8)

Seven volume anthologies of high-interest short stories with each book featuring a different literary genre.


Books to keep kids active

Jane Bull is the author of countless colorful, clever, fabulous, and fun craft books published by DK. Highly recommended!

New York City Street Games

This out-of-print, but still available gem, teaches youts to play all da clasic sports your grandparents played on the streets of NYC. There is a great documentary, narrated by Ray Romano on the same subject.


Books for learning to program in Scratch

Here is an article I wrote featuring my favorite books to help kids learn Scratch programming.


Favorite cookbooks for little kids

Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up

Salad People and More Real Recipes: A New Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up

Fabulous books full of wordless recipes for healthy food

 

 

 

 


Honest Pretzels: And 64 Other Amazing Recipes for Cooks Ages 8 & Up

Little Helpers Toddler Cookbook: Healthy, Kid-Friendly Recipes to Cook Together

The Tickle Fingers Toddler Cookbook: Hands-on Fun in the Kitchen for 1 to 4s

Sesame Street Let’s Cook!

Cookie Monster’s Foodie Truck: A Sesame Street ® Celebration of Food


The Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs (#1 bestseller)

The Complete Baking Book for Young Chefs

 


Timeless videos I still love to watch with my grandkids

Here are some of my favorite videos to watch with the toddlers. They’re funny, kind, not scary, and stimulate imagination.

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series

Never disappoints or fails to entertain. The show is pitch perfect for kids and adults to enjoy together. (a real bargain too)


The Little Rascals: The “Complete” Collection

The best available collection of the classic shorts that inspired generations to play, dream, and learn by making – long before there was a maker movement. Trust me. Kids still love these 80 year-old films.


Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: It’s a Beautiful Day

30 classic episodes


If you love card games…

I don’t, but I have given countless sets as gifts to delighted kids and families.

Fluxx

An endless assortment of looney card games where the rules or the objective of a game change with every card!


I hope that anyone reading this is healthy and sane during this period of uncertainty. Teachers and kids alike are grieving over the loss of freedom, social interactions, and normalcy. Many families, even those never before considered at-risk, are terrified of the potential for financial ruin or catastrophic health risks. Since I’m all about the love and spreading optimism, I humbly share a silver-lining for teachers and the kids that they serve.

The fact that you are being told to “teach online” in some vague version of “look busy” may mean that teachers are finally being trusted. Districts large and small are abandoning grading as they recognize that education (at home) is inequitable. I guess it’s better late than never to discover the obvious.

Parents and superintendents are vanquishing the needless infliction of nonsense known as homework. Standardized testing is being canceled, an actual miracle. Colleges have recognized that enrolling students next Fall is more important than SAT or ACT scores. Each of these emergency measures has been advocated by sentient educators forever.

So, there is reason to celebrate (briefly), but then you must act! Use this time to remake schooling in a way that’s more humane, creative, meaningful, and learner-centered. This is your moment!

In the absence of compelling models of what’s possible, the forces of darkness will fill the void. Each of us needs to create models of possibility.

The fact that kids’ days are now unencumbered by school could mean that they finally have adequate time to work on projects that matter rather than being interrupted every 23 minutes. I recently wrote, What’s Your Hurry?, about teaching computer programming, but it’s applicable to other disciplines.

Project-based learning offers a context for learner-centered pedagogy. I was reminded that the new edition of our book, “Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” includes several chapters on effective prompt setting that may be useful in designing projects for kids at home. Invent To Learn also lays out the case for learning-by-doing. Use that information to guide your communication with administrators, parents, and the community.

The following are but a few suggestions for seizing the moment and reinventing education after this crisis is resolved so we may all return to a new, better, normal.

Practice “Less us, more them”

Anytime a teacher feels the impulse to intervene in an educational transaction, it is worth pausing, taking a breath, and asking, “Is there less that I can do and more that the student(s) can do?” The more agency shifted to the student, the more they will learn.

One exercise you can practice teaching online, as well as face-to-face, is talk less. If you typically lecture for 40 minutes, try 20. If you talk for 20 minutes, try 10. If you talk for 10, try 5. In my experience, there is rarely an instance in which a minute or two of instruction is insufficient before asking students to do something. While teaching online, try not to present content, but rather stimulate discussion or organize activities to maximize student participation. Piaget reminds us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.”

Remember, less is more

My colleague Brian Harvey once said, “The key to school reform is throw out half the curriculum – any half.” This is wise advice during sudden shift to online teaching and the chaos caused by the interruption of the school year.

Focus on the big ideas. Make connections between topics and employ multiple skills simultaneously. Abandon the compulsion to “deliver” a morbidly obese curriculum. Simplify. Edit. Curate.

Launch students into open-ended learning adventures

Learning adventures are a technique I became known for when I began teaching online in the 1990s. This process is described in the 2008 paper, Learning Adventures: A new approach for transforming real and virtual classroom environments.

Inspire kids to read entire books

Since the bowdlerized and abridged basals are locked in school, encourage kids to luxuriate with real books! Imagine if kids had the freedom to select texts that interest them and to read them from cover-to-cover without a comprehension quiz or vocabulary lesson interrupting every paragraph! Suggest that kids post reviews on Amazon.com for an authentic audience rather than making a mobile or writing a five-paragraph essay. Use Amazon.com or Goodreads to find other books you might enjoy.

Tackle a new piece of software

Been meaning to learn Final Cut X, Lightroom, a new programming language, or any other piece of sophisticated software? Employ groups of kids to tackle the software alone or together and employ their knowledge once school returns. Let them share what they know and lead.

Contribute to something larger than yourself

This is the time for teachers to support kids in creating big creative projects. Write a newspaper, novel, poetry anthology, play, cookbook, or joke book. Make a movie and then make it better. Create a virtual museum. Share your work, engage in peer editing, and share to a potentially infinite audience.

Check out what Berklee College of Music students have already done!

Teach like you know better

Use this time to rev-up or revive sound pedagogical practices like genre study, author study, process writing, interdisciplinary projects and the other educative good stuff too often sacrificed due to a lack of sufficient time. You now have the time to teach well.

Take note of current events

Daily life offers a world of inspiration and learning invitations. Why not engage kids in developmentally appropriate current events or take advantage of opportunities like JSTOR being open to the public during the COVID-19 crisis? Here’s a possible student prompt.

“Go to JSTOR, figure out how it works, find an interesting article, and share what you learned with the class.”

Let Grow

Change the world by challenging students to learn something on their own by embracing the simple, yet profound, Let Grow school project. A simple assignment asks kids to do something on their own with their parent’s permission and share their experiences with their peers.

Stand on the shoulders of giants

Every problem in education has been solved and every imaginable idea has been implemented somewhere. Teachers should use this time to read books about education written by experts and learn the lessons of the masters.

Take time to enjoy some culture

There is no excuse to miss out on all of the cultural activities being shared online from free Shakespeare from the Globe Theatre, Broadway shows, operas, living room concerts, piano practice with Chick Corea, and exciting multimedia collaborations. Many of these streams are archived on social media, YouTube, or the Web. Bring some peace, beauty, and serenity into your home.

The following are some links, albeit incomplete and subjective, to free streaming cultural events.

Apprentice with the world’s greatest living mathematician

In A Personal Road to Reinventing Mathematics Education, I wrote about how I have been fortunate enough to know and spend time with some of the world’s most prominent mathematicians and that while not a single one of them ever made me feel stupid, plenty of math teachers did. Stephen Wolfram is arguably the world’s leading mathematician/scientist/computer scientist. Over the past few years, he has become interested in teachers, kids, and math education. Dr. Wolfram spoke at Constructing Modern Knowledge, runs an annual summer camp for high school mathematicians, and has made many of his company’s remarkable computational tools available for learners.

Acknowledging that many students are home do to the pandemic this week, Wolfram led a free online Ask Me Anything session about an array of math and science topics, ostensibly for kids, as well as a “follow-along” computation workshop. You, your children, or your students have unprecedented access to all sorts of expertise, just a click away! This is like Albert Einstein making house calls!

A bit of exploration will undoubtedly uncover experts in other disciplines sharing their knowledge and talents online as well.

Abandon hysterical internet policies

The immediate need for laptops, Internet access, student email, plus the expedient use of available technologies like YouTube, FaceTime, Skype, Twitter, Instagram, and Zoom has instantly dispelled the hysterical and paranoid centralized approach to the Internet schools have labored under for the past twenty-five years. The Internet has never been dependent on the policies of your school or your paraprofessional IT staff to succeed. Perhaps we will learn what digital citizenship actually looks like after teachers and children are treated like modern citizens.

Heed Seymour Papert’s advice

When I worked with Seymour Papert, he created a document titled, “Eight Big Ideas Behind the Constructionist Learning Lab.” This one sheet of paper challenges educators to create productive contexts for learning in the 21st Century. Can you aspire to make these recommendations a reality in your classroom(s)?

Do twenty things to do with a computer

In 1971, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon published, Twenty Things to Do with a Computer. How does your school measure up a half-century later?

Program your own Gameboy

Yes, you read that correctly. Here is everything you need to know to write your own computer games, build an arcade, or program a handheld gaming device!

Teach reading and programming simultaneously

Upper elementary and middle school students could learn to program in Scratch and develop their reading fluency at the same time. Learn how in A Modest Proposal.

Share my sense of optimism

Shortly before the COVID-19 crisis, I published, Time for Optimism, in which I shared reasons why progressive education is on the march and how we might teach accordingly. We can do this!

Wash your hands! Stay inside! Stand with children!


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. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary.


Scratch is a miracle. It’s popularity as a creative computing environment and its ubiquity around the world are truly impressive. Millions of children use the environment and have shared tens of millions of projects for others to enjoy and remix.

Scratch is a descendent of the Logo programming language. Logo was the first, and I would argue best, programming environment ever designed for children and learning. Logo is over fifty years old. While this would seem to be a million years old in technology years, Logo not only remains powerful in the hands of children, but benefits from a half-century worth of research, project ideas, and collective pedagogical wisdom.

Scratch adds media computation to the Logo bag of tricks available to kids. The sort of storytelling projects created in it appeals to adults who value kids being engaged in creative acts. A large part of Scratch’s appeal is the enormity of its project library full of projects that look like anyone can make them. It is also worth remembering that Scratch was originally designed for use in afterschool programs where teaching could not be guaranteed. Kids look at Scratch and know what to do. These are powerful and legitimate design features that contribute to its popularity.

Logo on the other hand was designed as a vehicle for education reform and created a “microworld” in which children could be mathematicians rather than just be taught math. Kids using Logo often fell in love with mathematics and felt intellectually powerful for the first time. Logo introduced the concept of the turtle, a representation of the child’s place in physical space, and turtle geometry, a math connected to movement in the real world. The turtle matched the intensity of children, captured their imagination, and was their collaborator in constructing mathematical knowledge. In 1968, Alan Kay first imagined the Dynabook, the progenitor of the modern laptop or tablet computer, after observing children programming in Logo. Kay recalls being amazed by the sophisticated mathematics young children were engaged in. Fifty-two years later, I feel the exact same way every time I use Logo with children.

*Today, a 5th grader came bounding up to me to announce, “Look what I accomplished!” She had taught the Logo turtle to draw a fraction, a bit of curricular detritus that normally invokes dread. In the process, she simultaneously demonstrated understanding of fractions, division, angle, linear measurement, and was on the verge of understanding variables all while teaching the turtle to draw. Turtle geometry may be the greatest mathematical prosthetic ever invented for learners. Logo creates a Mathland in which “messing about” and learning mathematics is as natural as a child develops oral language.

Math is the weakest link in every school. It remains the center for misery and instructionism in most. Seymour Papert taught me that the teaching of math ultimately jeopardizes all other efforts at educational progress. There is no gap as wide as the gulf between mathematics – a jewel of human intellect, and school math. Papert believed that even the most progressive schools become undone by the traditional diet and pedagogy of school math. He often discussed the need to create a mathematics children can love, rather than inventing tricks for teaching a “noxious” irrelevant math. Papert convinced me that no matter how project-based or student-centered a school happens to be, there remains a part of the day or week (math time) when coercion is reintroduced into the system. That is ultimately coercive to the nobler aims of the institution. Logo is and has been one of the few Trojan horses available for helping teachers rethink “math” on behalf of the kids they serve.

I fear for the future of such experiences in a world in which software has no value and there is no incentive for modern Logos to be created.

I just spent several hundred words stipulating that Scratch is a good thing. However, decisions were made in the evolution of Scratch that undermine its ability to make mathematics comprehensible, wondrous, relevant, and accessible for learners of all ages. Scratch could maintain fidelity to the powerful ideas inherent in Logo while adding all of the storytelling, animation, and media manipulation in a Web-based programming environment, but the designers of Scratch have decided to do otherwise. In fact, the most recent version, Scratch 3.0, has made it either too difficult or impossible to create the sorts of experiences I desire for my grandchildren and the children I’m privileged to teach.

I truly do not wish to step into the minefield of arguing about everyone’s favorite software, but my concerns are legitimate. I know readers may be thinking, “Hey, design your own software if you love Logo so much!” This is impossible in a world in which software has no value and there is no incentive for modern Logos to be created. Scratch benefits from mountains of government, university, and corporate funding, making it the 900-pound gorilla in coding for kids. That’s a good thing, but it could be better. My hope is that as Scratch evolves, consideration is given to bringing back some of the powerful mathematical ideas that have been lost.

Let me get specific. The following examples are a non-exhaustive list of the ways in which Scratch makes my life more difficult as a teacher and teacher educator concerned with providing authentic mathematical experiences.

Putting the turtle out to pasture
Perhaps the most enduring and kid-imagination-capturing metaphor of Logo programming goes like this:

[Teacher] “The turtle has a pen stuck in its belly button. What do you think happens when it drags its pen?”

[Kids] It draws!

This sounds simple, but is at the heart of what makes Logo a powerful, personal experience. Placing a transitional object representing ourselves inside of the machine is an instant personal invitation to programming. Drawing, with a crayon, pencil, or turtle is the protean activity for representing a child’s thinking.

Drawing or painting with the mouse is fine but denies children opportunities to express mathematical formalisms in service of drawing. There is fifty years’ worth of scholarship, joy, and powerful ideas associated with turtle graphics – often a user’s first experience with thinking like a mathematician and debugging.

Scratch 3.0 inexplicably demotes its pen blocks (commands) to software extensions. The extensions are hidden until the user un-hides them. All of the other Scratch 3.0 extensions support either external hardware control or more advanced esoterica like interactive video, language translation, or text-to-speech functionality. I appreciate that part of Scratch’s success is its clean design and lack of clutter. However, pen blocks are seminal and were integrated into previous versions. This design decision has several negative consequences.

  • It complicates the possible use of turtle graphics by requiring finding the location of the extensions button and clicking on the pen extensions
  • It implies that turtle graphics (drawing) is not as valuable a form of expression as animation.
  • The symbol on the extensions button is highly non-intuitive.
  • The pen blocks, once the extension is loaded, appear near the bottom of the block palettes, far from the motion blocks they rely on. This makes block programming cumbersome when the focus is turtle geometry.

The turtle has a pen stuck in its nose? Ouch!
In Scratch, the sprite draws from the perimeter of its shape, not its center. This makes precise movement, predictions about distances, and drawing precision much more difficult.

There are no turtle costumes for sprites
The turtle head points in the direction that matches “Forward” commands. This is obvious to even the youngest programmers. In Scratch, even if one wanted to use the turtle, there are no turtle costumes. Neither the turtles found in systems, like Turtle Art, MicroWorlds,  Lynx , or even the old 70s-80s era turtle  are provided. While it is possible to design your own Scratch costumes, you would be required to do so for every project, rather than merely adding sprite costumes to the system.

It is easy to explain that the “turtle may wear other costumes you design,” telling the kids that “the sprite could be a turtle that you can dress in custom costumes,” adds needless complexity.

No Clean, CG, Home, or CS
Nearly every other version of Logo has a Clean command for erasing the screen, CG, or CS for erasing the screen and repositioning the turtle at the center of the screen with a compass orientation of zero. Commonly found, HOME commands, send the turtle back to the center of the screen at coordinates, [0 0]. These are all simple concepts for even young children to quickly grasp and use.

Scratch’s pen extension Erase All block wipes the screen clean, but neither returns the sprite to home nor reorients a “dizzy turtle.”

Program for clearing the screen and sending the turtle/sprite home

Sure, if a teacher wants students to have a block performing the roles of Clearscreen, Scratch allows them to Make a Block.

The problem with doing so is that Scratch leaves the blocks you create, complete with their instructions, in the blocks palette – cluttering up your workspace. The definition of the “new” block cannot be hidden from users, even when the new block appears under My Blocks. Even more critically, there is no simple way to add pseudo-primitives (user-created blocks) to Scratch 3 for use by students each time they use the software. Therefore, you need to recreate Clearscreen in every new project.

[Making your own blocks is buggy too. Make your own block. Drag that stack of blocks, topped by Define, off the screen to delete it. Press Undo (Apple-Z or CTRL-Z). The definition stack of blocks returns, but not the new block under My Blocks until another block is created.]

The default sprite orientation is 90
When you hatch a sprite in Scratch, its orientation is towards the right side of the screen with an orientation of 90. If one hopes for children to construct understanding of compass orientation based on Mod 360, orienting the sprite/turtle to 0 is more intuitive. Since the turtle is a metaphor for yourself in space, your orientation is up, or 0 when facing the computer to program it.

No wrapping
For many kids, one of the most intoxicating aspects of turtle graphics comes from commanding the turtle to go forward a large number of steps. In many ways, it’s a kid’s first experience with big numbers. Turn the turtle and go forward a million steps and get a crazy wrapping pattern on the screen. Add some pen color changes, turns, and more long lines and math turns into art turns into math.

Scratch has no wrapping due to its focus on animation and game design. There could be a way to toggle wrap/no wrap. But alas…

Units are unnecessary
Not only are they unneeded, but educationally problematic. Far too much of math education is merely vocabulary acquisition, often devoid of actual experience. I go into countless classrooms where I find a store-bought or handmade “angles” poster on the wall listing the various kinds of angles. My first question is, “Who do you think is reading that?” The kids certainly aren’t, but more importantly, “Who cares?” Kids are forced to memorize names of angles too often without any experience with angles. Turtle geometry changes all of that.

If you watch me introduce turtle geometry to children, I show them that the turtle can walk and turn. It walks in turtle steps. I never use the terms, angle or degrees, until either kids use them or much much much later. After kids have experience with angles and a growing intuition about their units of measure will I mention the words, angle or degrees. After experience, those labels hang nicely on the concepts and the terms are understood, not just parroted.

In Scratch, the turn right and turn left blocks include the label for “degrees.” This is quite unfortunate. The design of these blocks is particularly odd since they do not even use the words, right and left, but arrows instead. This is most peculiar when juxtaposed against the rest of the motion blocks which are excessively chatty with extraneous text for their inputs.

Why use symbols for right and left and not a straight arrow for move?

To make matters worse, the default degree value in Scratch is 15. Kids naturally turn in 90 degree increments. If the default were 90, as it is in Turtle Art, kids quickly realize that there are turns smaller and larger when seeking angular precision. This is a much more effective sequence for understanding angle measurement from the syntonic to the abstract.

One tacit, yet profound, benefit of teachers teaching with Logo is that they gain experience teaching mathematics without front-loading vocabulary. In too many classrooms, kids are “taught” terms, like degree or angle, absent any experience. Logo-like environments offer the potential for teachers to appreciate how students may engage in mathematics unburdened by jargon. After children enjoy meaningful experiences and “mess-about” with the turtle, it is easy to say, “that’s called an angle,” or “the units used to measure angles are called degrees.” Those terms now have a powerful idea to hang their hat on.

Starting with units is not just unnecessary, it’s pedagogically unproductive.

Asymmetrical movement
Why are there blocks for turning right and left when there is only one move block? In Logo, Forward (FD) and Back (BK) are incredibly simple for children to understand and act out by playing turtle as a formal activity or in the course of programming. Move is ambiguous. Which way should I move? Forward and back make perfect sense.

Frankly, having a default of 10 in the move block is also a drag. For decades, teachers have experienced success by asking children, “How far would you like the turtle to go?” Kids suggest values and then are surprised by them. 10 is an arbitrary number. I might prefer 0 or a random integer as the default value for move. Such a change would force children to make a decision about the distance they wish to travel.

If you want the turtle to move backward, there is no back block. You are required to turn 180 degrees or move by a negative value.

Premature use of negative numbers
Introducing negative numbers and vectors the moment one encounters the turtle is premature and likely developmentally inappropriate. There is no reason for little kids to deal with negative numbers so soon when forward (fd) and back (bk) blocks could have been in the system, or at least as primitives under the pen extensions.

Multiple forwards provides kids practice with repeated addition, leading to multiplication.

Consider this simple example:

fd 20
fd 30
fd 100

Now you want the turtle to return to the midpoint of that line segment.

You can achieve that goal three ways, not including all of the repeated addition that might be used if a kid is not ready to divide 150 by 2 or figure out that a U-turn equals 180 degrees.

bk 75
rt 180 fd 75
fd -75

It is the possibility of solving even simple problems in multiple ways that is central to the genius of learning to think mathematically with Logo and the turtle. Sadly, the Scratch use of “move” to replace forward and back makes what was once a natural simple act, complicated or impossible.

PS: One more annoyance
Why are ask and answer in the Sensing palette? They get information from a user, but do not sense anything. Either move them or rename the Sensing palette, Data. Again, why lead the witness with the arbitrary “What’s your name?” value?


*Notes:
This was largely written after a recent day teaching kids. I spent months deciding whether to share this with the world. The great Cynthia Solomon contributed to my thinking and Sylvia Martinez read a draft. Seymour Papert is in my head all of the time.

Resources

  • Scratch – web site for Scratch software
  • ScratchEd – online community and resources for teachers teaching with Scratch
  • LogoThings – Cynthia Solomon’s collection of artifacts on the history of Logo
  • A Modest Proposal – ideas for using Scratch to learn computing and reading
  • Lynx – web site for new generation of Web-based Logo
  • MicroWorlds – web site for MicroWorlds software
  • Turtle Art – web site for Turtle Art software
  • The Daily Papert – archives of Seymour Papert writing, audio, and video
  • The Logo Exchange – archives of the long-running journal for Logo-using educators
  • Logo history discussion – video interview with Cynthia Solomon and Wally Feurzig, two of Logo’s creators

Selected bibliography

  • Abelson, H., & DiSessa, A. A. (1986). Turtle geometry: The computer as a medium for exploring mathematics: MIT press.
  • Harvey, B. (1982). Why logo? . Byte, 7, 163-193.
  • Hawkins, D. (2002). The informed vision; essays on learning and human nature. NY: Algora Press.
  • Newell, B. (1988a). Turtle confusion: Logo puzzles and riddles. Canberra, Australia: Curriculum Development Centre.
  • Newell, B. (1988b). Turtles speak mathematics. Canberra, Australia: Curriculum Development Centre.
  • Papert, S. (1972). Teaching children to be mathematicians versus teaching about mathematics. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 3(3), 249-262.
  • Papert, S. (1993). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.
  • Papert, S. (1999). Introduction: What is logo and who needs it? In LCSI (Ed.), Logo philosophy and implementation (pp. v-xvi). Montreal, Quebec: LCSI.
  • Papert, S. (2000). What’s the big idea? Toward a pedagogical theory of idea power. IBM Systems Journal, 39(3&4), 720-729.
  • Papert, S. (2002). The turtle’s long slow trip: Macro-educological perspectives on microworlds. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 27, 7-27.
  • Papert, S. (2005). You can’t think about thinking without thinking about thinking about something. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 5(3), 366-367.
  • Watt, D. (1983). Learning with logo. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co.
  • Watt, M., & Watt, D. (1986). Teaching with logo: Building blocks for learning. NY: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

The Papert articles (above) are available here.


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. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary.


Snap! is a block based language created by the University of California at Berkeley and used in their first year computer science courses, as well as the high school AP Computer Science Principles Beauty and Joy of Computing curriculum. You might think of as Snap! as Scratch‘s older wiser cousin – perfect for learning computer science, engaging in more mathematical programming, and creating more complex coding projects.

For years, I have believed there to be an assortment of sophisticated programming projects that should be part of every child’s educational experience. Writing a program to graph a linear equation supports timeless algebraic curricula and is an excellent introduction to0 software design. Best of all, it is an opportunity to communicate the formalisms of algebra to the computer. By teaching this to the computer, students better understand the mathematics. When you learn that you can program your own tools, you are inspired to engage in even more sophisticated mathematical explorations.

I’ve done similar projects in Logo and MicroWorlds over the past years.

This project is possible in Scratch (with barely any modifications), but the next project, generating an X Y table for a linear equation is not. Therefore, I decided to use Snap! in the context of the 7th grade class I taught today.

Here you may download and use the handout based on my classroom experience with kids. I attempted to commit the process to paper. I will likely create a handout for creating the X Y table too. In the meantime, can you figure out how to do it yourself?

[Note: I declare what Y equals rather than just inserting the equation into the y coordinate in order to make the y = …x clearer for kids]


Gary S. Stager, Ph.D. is an award-winning teacher educator, speaker, consultant and author who is an expert at helping educators prepare students for an uncertain future by super charging learner-centered traditions with modern materials and technology. He is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on learning-by-doing, robotics, computer programming and the maker movement in classrooms. 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. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the first online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.


Coding & Physical Computing Masterclasses in California!

I’ve been meaning to share this project idea with Josh Burker, author of The Invent to Learn: Guide to Fun and the Invent to Learn: Guide to More Fun books, for more than a year.

While on one of the fabulous London Walks tours (I’ve done dozens of them) of Chelsea in London last year, I learned that before houses had street numbers assigned to them, people shared cards with a rendering of their home’s fanlight depicted on it. This practice dates back to 1720.

The function of the fanlight is to light a home’s entry way, but many of London’s upscale townhouses feature a semicircle shaped fanlight in which a geometric pattern exists. Each pattern needs to be different, at least in a particular neighborhood, in order to depict the occupants of the home for deliveries and visitors. Below are some of the photos of fanlights I took while walking around Chelsea.

Here’s the project idea…

  • Use your favorite dialect of Logo (Turtle Art, SNAP!, Scratch, etc…) to design a unique fan light. Teachers may support the activity by providing the code for drawing a uniform semicircle in which each student’s fanlight pattern must fit.

Extension

This is a good project for employing the concept of state transparency; in programming as in life, it is a good idea to return to where you started. Returning the turtle to its initial starting position and orientation allows you to repeat the pattern elsewhere on the screen and perform various transformations on it.

Try these challenges

  • Use Logo/MicroWorlds/SNAP!/Scratch to program the turtle to draw a row of townhomes with different fan lights in each window.
  • Change the scale of your entire neighborhood.
  • Change the scale of your fanlight window without altering its shape.
  • Allow the user to specify the scale of the fanlight and draw it to that scale.
  • Create a more abstract illustration using your fanlight in different ways.

That’s it!

Happy programming



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.is an award-winning teacher educator, speaker, consultant and author who is an expert at helping educators prepare students for an uncertain future by super charging learner-centered traditions with modern materials and technology. He is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on learning-by-doing, robotics, computer programming and the maker movement in classrooms. 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. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the first online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

Two-Day Seminars with Will Richardson in October 2019 in DC, NJ, & Boston – Register today!

Checking-in on teachers working on a robotics project during an Invent To Learn workshop

A reporter for an Australian education magazine recently sent
interview questions about robotics in education, including the obligatory question about AI. The final article, when it runs, only grabs a few of my statements mixed in amongst the thoughts of others. So, here is the interview in its entirety. Of late, I have decided to answer all reporter questions as if they are earnest and thoughtful. Enjoy!

Q: With the current focus on STEM, and the increasing need to engage students in hands-on STEM learning, what sort of potential exists for the teaching of robotics in the classroom?

GS: Piaget teaches us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” If we believe that learning by doing is powerful, learning-by-making concretizes and situates powerful ideas. Robotics is one such medium for learning-by-making in a fashion that combines the actual use of concepts traditionally taught superficially or not at all.

In a learner-centered context, robotics adds colors to the crayon box. If in the recent past, seven year-olds made dinosaurs out of cereal boxes, now their cereal box dinosaurs can sing, dance, or send a text message to their grandmother, as long as state law still allows dinosaurs to use cellphones in schools.

Reggio Children’s Carla Rinaldi working with Aussie educators Prue & Stephanie at Constructing Modern Knowledge

Q: How important has robotics become in preparing students for the jobs of the future?

GS: Less than learning to play the cello, love theatre, or understand the importance of Thelonious Monk, the labor movement, or women’s history in a contemporary democracy.

A scene from one of my family workshops (click to zoom)

Q: Do you think skills such as coding and programming will become just as important as learning Math and English in coming years?

GS: Such questions reveal how powerful ideas are often reduced to fads and buzzwords in a zero-sum notion of schooling. While it surely the case that any new idea introduced in schools runs the risk of stealing time and attention from something else, robotics is an interdisciplinary medium for expression, like drawing, painting, writing, composing

If our goals were as modest as to increase understanding of the decontextualized and often irrelevant nonsense found in the existing Math curriculum, kids would learn to program and engage in physical computing projects. The only context for using and therefore understanding many Math concepts is in computing activities. Absolute value on paper is a useless piece of vocabulary. If you are trying to design a robot to navigate an unfamiliar terrain or get your rocket ship to land on a planet in the video game you programmed, a working understanding of absolute value comes in quite handy.

For much of my generation, DNA is three letters representing three words I can neither remember or pronounce, plus that squiggly thing I don’t understand. Advances in technology now make it possible for year seven kids to manipulate DNA. I bet those kids will have a different relationship with genetics than previous generations.

Q: What sort of an impact does teaching the fundamentals of robotics have when it comes to possible career pathways for students?

GS: I don’t know and I do not trust anyone who claims to know the future of employment. Schools make a terrible mistake when they see their purpose as vocational in nature. The sorting of kids into winners and losers with career pathways determined by some artificial school assessment should be relegated to the dustbin of history. How well did the Hawke Government do at predicting the impact of social media? Schools should prepare children to solve problems that none of their teachers ever anticipated. Schools should do everything possible to create the conditions in which children can become good at something, while gaining a sense of what greatness in that domain might look like. The “something” is irrelevant. Currently, academic success has little to do with the development of expertise.

I have three adult university educated children. The only one to live on her own, with employment, and health insurance since the minute she graduated, was the art major. She enjoyed a fabulous well-rounded liberal arts education.

Q: Do you think schools are typically placing enough of an emphasis on robotics, coding, programming and artificial intelligence? Or do we still have a long way to go in embracing this technology in schools, particularly in Australia?

GS: In a wealthy nation like Australia (or the United States), every child should have their own personal multimedia laptop computer (30 years after Australia pioneered 1:1 computing) and they should learn to program that computer and control external devices not because it might lead to a job someday, but because programming and physical computing (a term preferable to robotics) are ways of gaining agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world.

Programming and robotics answer the question Seymour Papert began asking more than fifty years ago, “Does the computer program the child, or the child program the computer.” In an age of rising authoritarianism and “fake news,” learner agency is of paramount importance.

The first schools in the world where every kid owned a personal portable computer, used them for programming and robotics was in Australia!

Coding and programming are the same thing. As a proponent of high-quality educational experiences, I recommend programming and robotics as incubators of powerful ideas. AI largely remains science fiction. Its contemporary uses in education are dystopian in nature and should be rejected.

A scene from one of my family workshops

Q: When it comes to the teaching of STEM in schools, and particularly robotics, how well do you think Australia is placed compared to other countries? And, are our schools doing enough to prepare students for future jobs?

GS: International education comparisons are immoral and needlessly based on scarcity. In order for Australian students to succeed, it is unnecessary for children in New Zealand to fail. Competition in education always has deleterious effects.

A scene from one of my family workshops

Q: Do you think enough is being done in educating our future teachers about the importance of STEM and robotics during their tertiary education?

GS: No. The art of teaching and everything but curriculum delivery and animal control has been sadly removed from teacher preparation. Teachers taught in a progressive tradition see robotics as mere stuff and use it with ease and without specialised instruction.

Q: What are some of the steps schools can take to upskill their teachers in robotics? And how important is it to ensure teachers are appropriately skilled in teaching robotics?

GS:

  • Stop viewing robotics narrowly through the lens of robotics competitions where one rich school builds a truck to kill another rich school’s truck. Competition also has a prophylactic impact on the participation of girls.
  • Expand your notion of robotics more broadly as physical computing and see the whimsical, playful, beautiful projects shared in our book, Invent To Learn,this library of project videos (http://cmkfutures.com/competent-teachers/), the Birdbrain technologies video library (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxjgGxBG2QhymwC2FHpt3zw), and the work being done with the micro:bit around the world
  • Most importantly, schools need to embrace project-based learning, not as the pudding you get after suffering through a semester of instruction, but as the primary educational diet. Once that occurs, the power of robotics/physical computing as a vehicle for personal expression becomes self evident.

A scene from one of my family workshops (click to zoom)

Q: What are some of the ways teachers can incorporate robotics into the Australian Digital Technologies Curriculum?

GS: By doing something. There are remarkable new materials available like the Hummingbird Bit Robotics Kits, (https://inventtolearn.com/bit/) but schools have now had access to kid-friendly robotics kits from LEGO since 1987.

I also recommend placing teachers and parents in meaningful hands-on experiences such as my family workshops described at http://stager.tv/blog/?p=4452, or the Constructing Modern Knowledge institute.

A scene from one of my family workshops (click to zoom)

Q: In coming years, how much of an emphasis do you think will be placed on robotics education in schools?

GS: Fads fizzle. One’s ability to control computational devices will only increase in importance.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to comment on?

GS: The voluptuous Australian national curriculum in design and technology should be replaced by Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon’s pithy 1971 paper, “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer.”


Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.is an award-winning teacher educator, speaker, consultant and author who is an expert at helping educators prepare students for an uncertain future by super charging learner-centered traditions with modern materials and technology. He is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on learning-by-doing, robotics, computer programming and the maker movement in classrooms. 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. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the first online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

Two-Day Seminars with Will Richardson in October 2019 in DC, NJ, & Boston – Register today!

I’ve never been good at ice-breakers or getting-to-know-you games. If I am being paid to teach, whether it be children or adults, that’s my focus. I never worry about classroom management because I never enter a classroom thinking I need to manage it. “Hi, I’m Gary. We’ve got stuff to do!”

I take seriously the Reggio Emilia inspired notion that the primary responsibility of a teacher is to be a researcher – one who makes private thinking public and invisible thinking visible. Teachers should work* to understand the thinking of each student and identify what they can do in order to prepare the learning environment for the next intellectual development.

During my educator workshops around the world I often find that the best engineers are preschool teachers, the best mathematicians teach P.E., and the most natural programmers teach 5th grade (or vice versa?).  I have certainly found plenty of veteran teachers to be much more sophisticated technology users than their younger peers. Starting the workshop with preconceived notions of who the participants are or what they think they know only narrows the possibilities for serendipity and exceeding expectations.

This is the time of year when teachers meet with teachers of the next grade level to discuss the students they are about to receive. Perhaps this common practice is counterproductive. A student’s “file” can be a life sentence. Why be prejudiced about a student  before you meet her? Why not start every class with fresh eyes, an open mind, and open heart? Ask yourself, “How do I make this the best seven hours or forty-three minutes of a kid’s life?”


Footnote:

It's a lot less like work than it about caring for each student or getting to know them on a collegial level.


Leading family learning-by-making workshops in schools around the world is a pure joy. When parents can experience through the eyes, hands, and screens of their children what is possible, they demand a new more progressive educational diet from their school. I have now led three different family workshops at my favorite school in the world. The first one featured a wide range of materials, including: MakeyMakey, littleBits, LEGO WeDo, sewable circuitry, and Turtle Art. Twenty people RSVPd and more than one hundred showed up. The kids ranged in age from preschool to high school.

The next workshop was held the night before Halloween 2018. So, I selected a Halloween theme for our work with the Hummingbird Duo Robotics kits. A few minutes of introduction to the Hummingbird kit and the prompt, “Bring a Spooky ghost, goblin, or monster to life!” was all that was required for 60+ kids and parents to build and program in Snap! spooky creatures in less than ninety minutes.

Last week’s workshop was the best yet. An invitation for thirty grade 3-6 kids and parents to attend a family learning-by-making workshop sold out in no time flat.

Each of these workshops exemplified irrefutable evidence of the efficacy of constructionism and the limits of instruction. However, the most recent workshop possessed a special magic. Last week’s workshop was centered around the BBC micro:bit microcontroller development board. For $30 (Australian/$22 US), each kid would go home with the micro:bit Go kit they used during the workshop.

It is worth noting that while the hosting school has a long tradition of project-based learning and open education, it is not a high tech school and its facilities are not unlike many public primary schools. Furniture, room layout, and projector placement make instruction virtually impossible, even if I were prone to offer step-by-step tutelage, of which I am not. (Kids and parents were working in every nook and cranny of a library and in an adjacent classroom) Besides, the research project that is my work with teachers and students, leaves me convinced that instructionism, the notion that learning is the result of having been taught, is a fool’s errand. Piaget’s belief that “knowledge is a consequence of experience” is central to my work.

Parents brought their own laptops while other families used school laptops. The parents with personal laptops needed to use their phones for Internet access because stupid school Internet implementation doesn’t allow guest Web access. There were more than sixty workshop participants.

This is how the workshop began.


Hi. I’m Gary. This is the micro:bit. It has a 5X5 LED display that can be used to show pictures or display text. It also has two buttons that you can use to trigger actions. The micro:bit also has a temperature sensor, a light sensor, an accelerometer that knows if you move, tilt, or drop it, a compass, and ability to communicate between two or more micro:bits via radio. You can also connect LEDs, motors, buttons, or other sensors to the micro:bit via alligator clips, wire, or conductive thread  if you want to build robots or other cool stuff.

If you program in Scratch, the micro:bit can be used to control a video game you make by pressing the buttons or tilting the micro:bit like a steering wheel. You can even connect the micro:bit to a paper towel tube and make a magic wand to advance a story you program.

We will be using a Web-based programming environment, Microsoft MakeCode, tonight because it uses all of the hardware features of your micro:bit.

  • Go to MakeCode.com
  • Click on micro:bit
  • Click on New Project
  • Drag the Show Icon block from the Basic blocks into the Start block.
  • Select the heart shape
  • Now, we want to transfer the program we created to the micro:bit. The micro:bit works like a USB flash drive. Put a program on it and it runs until you put a new program there.
  • Click Download
  • Find the downloaded file you created, the one that ends in .hex in your downloads folder
  • Drag that file onto the microbic drive in your file explorer or Finder
  • Watch the yellow light on the micro:bit flash to indicate that the transfer is underway.

Voila! There’s a heart icon on your micro:bit!

  • Click on the Input blocks
  • Drag out an On Button blockChoose Button A
  • Make the program show you a Pacman icon when a user clicks the A button on the micro:bit
    Drag out another On Button block
  • Program the B button to Show String (some text you type as a message)
    Download your new program and copy it to the micro:bit

Heart displays

  • Click the A button and see Pacman. Click the B button and display your message!
  • Connect your battery box to the micro:bit and disconnect the micro:bit from the computer. Look!
  • The program runs as long as it has power!
  • Come get your micro:bit kit and a list of project ideas you might try.

90 minutes later, we needed to tell kids and parents to go home. (I am reasonably confident that I wrote more of my two minutes worth of instruction above than I actually said to the kids).

About 1/3 of the participants were girls and many boys were accompanied by mothers and grandmothers. There were plenty of Dads participating as well. Once one kid or family team made a breakthrough, I would signal that to other kids so they knew where to look or ask questions if they were struggling or curious.


Scenes from the workshop

Observations
Many teachers in workshop settings really struggle with the mechanics or concept of finding their downloaded file and clicking-dragging the file onto the micro:bit. Not a single child had any difficulty performing the process of copying a file from one drive to another. I have long been critical of the clumsy way in which MakeCode handles the process of downloading programs to the micro:bit and the way in which the Arduino IDE uploads programs to its board. The fact that upload and download are used arbitrarily is but one indicator of the unnecessarily tricky process. The fact that not one primary school student had such difficulty the first time they encountered physical computing makes me less anxious about the process.

Several kids were very clever and had working understanding of variables despite not having school experience with such concepts. This once again proves that when a teacher acts as a researcher. they discover that kids know stuff or harbor misconceptions . Such information allows for adjusting the learning environment, testing an intervention, or introducing a greater challenge. Some students had little difficulty constructing equations, despite the ham-fisted MakeCode interface. A few kids just wanted the micro:bit to perform calculations and display the result.

Conditionals proved equally logical to lots of the 8-12 year-olds. (It was interesting chatting with parent/student teams because it was often difficult to predict if you needed to engage in one or two conversations at the same time. A clever kid didn’t always mean that their parent understood what was going on or vice versa.)

There is much written about iterative design in education. Iterative design is swell for designing a new toothpaste tube based on customer interviews, brainstorming, pain points, etc. It is terrible for learning history or playing the cello. Iteration is about fixing something; making it right. I am much more excited about activities, such as computer programming in accessible languages, that lead to generative design. Show a kid a couple o blocks and they immediately have their own ideas about what to do next. The degree of difficulty of projects increase as kids experience success. If they are successful, they naturally find a new challenge, embellish their project, or test another hypothesis. If unsuccessful, debugging is necessary. Debugging is one of the most powerful ideas justifying computer use in education.

New prompt ideas emerged. While working with kids, I improvised the challenge to make a thermometer that showed a smiley face for warm temperatures and a sad face for colder temperatures. That was then substituted for a too difficult challenge in my list of suggested prompts.

When chips are cheap as chips, all sorts of new things are possible. You can leave projects assembled longer than a class period. You can use multiple micro:bits in one project. If you build something useful, you never have to take it apart. Giving every child the constructive technology to keep is a game changer! I will reconvene the students who attended the workshop next week to answer questions and see what they’ve been up to. Perhaps, this experience will lead to another article.

In less than the time of two traditional class periods (90 minutes), young children demonstrated a working understanding of computing concepts covering a breadth and depth of experiences many kids will not enjoy over twelve years of formal schooling. All of this was accomplished without coercion, assessment, sorting, worksheets, or more than a couple of minutes worth of instruction. A commitment to student agency and use of good open-ended constructive technology with extended play value allows a beautiful garden to bloom.

Resources


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. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.