All of my friends know I have serious reservations about smarmy self-important libertarianism of TED and loathe speaking in the format – essentially a television program without any of the accoutrements of a television studio. That said, I’ve now performed three of them.

My first TEDx Talk made me ill for months before and weeks following the talk. The pressure was unbearable. You see, I wanted to go viral and become a millionaire – an overnight sensation like that guy who has taken such a courageous stance for creativity. The clock got me and I left half of my prepared thoughts on the cutting room floor. That said, people seem to like the talk anyway. For that I am grateful.

My first TED experience was so unpleasant that I sought an opportunity to try it again. This time, I promised myself that I would not stress out or over plan. That strategy paid off and the experience was a lot less traumatic. The only problem is that the venue audio was a disaster and I’m yelling through the entire talk. Don’t worry. I won’t be yelling when I publish a print anthology of these performances.

In March, I was invited by my longtime client, The American School of Bombay, to do another TEDx Talk. I assembled my vast team of advisors and brainstormed how I could turn this talk into riches beyond my wildest dreams. I quickly abandoned that idea and decided to use the occasion to honor my dear friend, mentor, and colleague, Dr. Seymour Papert in a talk I called, “Seymour Papert – Inventor of Everything*

I hope you enjoy it (or at least learn something before I lose another game of Beat the Clock)! Please share, tweet, reload the page 24/7! I have not yet given up on becoming an overnight sensation.

2014 – Seymour Papert – Inventor of Everything*

2013 – We Know What to Do

2011 – Reform™

 

I’ve been online since 1983 and my own web site dates back to the first term of the Clinton presidency. Along the way, I may have ruffled a few feathers.

Let me tell you about one of my all-time favorite social media brouhahas.

On December 17, 2008, The Huffington Post published an article I wrote entitled, “Obama Practices Social Promotion.

I began the article…

“A curious cartel of billionaire bullies, power hungry politicians and tough-talking school superintendents wage an eternal battle against social promotion — for the good of our children of course. Social promotion, a divisive political term with no basis in reality, like partial-birth abortion, is one of the most popular talking points among the the most vocal critics of public education. The “end of social promotion” has caused tens of thousands of kids as young as 3rd grade to be left-back, despite overwhelming evidence that this practice harms children and increases the drop-out rate.

However, social promotion is a godsend to urban school superintendents in this age of privatization. It is truly bizarre that the public education system, which at least in-part is dedicated to preparing people for careers and life, would devalue expertise.”

…and went on to say…

“Arne Duncan Fails Upward

Today’s nomination of Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan to be the Barack Obama’s Secretary Education is a spectacular example of social promotion. Duncan, who as been the CEO or Chief of Staff of the Chicago Public Schools for the past ten years has done such a swell job of “reform” that his best friend and basketball buddy, Barack Obama, would not send his own children to the public schools. President-elect Obama is like Eli Broad, Bill Gates and the members of the Business Roundtable who kill public schools with their kindness while turning them into the sort of joyless test-prep sweatshops unworthy of children they love.

Arne Duncan is a darling of the charter school movement, Eli Broad, the right-wing Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, anti-union “Democrats” and I kid you not — Hooked-on-Phonics. President-elect Obama eagerly awaits recommendations on nuclear proliferation from Billy Mays, Ron Popeil and the ShamWow guy.”

All of my assertions (especially the inflammatory ones), contained links to supporting evidence.

Then it happened

A few days later, right around Christmas, my Google Alert started sounding. Soon it was like a bell warning of  four-alarm fire and the alarm sounded for several straight days. What could possibly have caused such sudden popularity for Little ‘ol me?

It seems that the CEO of Hooked-on-Phonics® was so offended by my joke comparing their qualifications to endorse a federal Secreatary of Education to the ShamWow guy that the company paid a public relations firm to issue a global press release condemning me. “Hooked on Phonics(R) CEO Responds to Gary Stager’s Criticism of President-elect Obama’s Choice of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education,” was released in dozens of countries around the world. Every time one of those press releases went public, my Google alert rang again.

What is so golden about that misguided attempt to make me famous is the lengths to which the CEO of Hooked-on-Phonics® went to avoid offending the ShamWow guy (probably a wise idea since he apparently beat up a cannibal hooker).

“Gary Stager is entitled to his opinions regarding President-elect Obama’s selection of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education and education policy generally. However, it is unfortunate he has tried to trivialize my views by likening my company and its product — Hooked on Phonics, a product that has helped millions of children learn to read — to a sponge (with all due respect to the folks at ShamWow).”

Read the entire condemnation of me here. I could not be prouder!

My only regret is that the predictions I made about President-Elect Obama’s education policies and his nominee for Secretary of Education turned out to be even worse than I had feared. Read the five and a half year-old article for yourself here.

I am always looking for ways to help teachers be more intentional and create deeper learning experiences for their students. Today, through the haze of Bombay Belly, I had an epiphany that may help you in similar learning situations.

Authentic project-based learning is in my humble opinion incompatible with curricular tricks like, Understanding by Design, where an adult determines what a children should know or do and then gives the illusion of freedom while kids strive to match the curriculum author’s expectation.

I view curriculum as the buoy, not the boat and find that a good idea is worth 1,000 benchmarks and standards.

Whether you agree with me or not, please consider my new strategy for encouraging richer classroom learning. I call it, “…and then?”

It goes something like this. Whenever a teacher asks a kid or group of kids to participate in some activity or engage in a project, ask, “..and then?” Try asking yourself, “..and then?” while you teach.

For example, when the kindergarten teacher has every child make a paper turkey or a cardboard clock, ask, “…and then?” This is like an improvisational game that encourages/requires teachers to extend the activity “that much” further.

You ask first graders to invent musical instrument. Rather than being content with the inventions, ask, “…and then?” You might then decide to:

  1. Ask each kid to compose a song to be played on their instrument
  2. Teach their song to a friend to play on their invented instrument
  3. The next day ask the kids to play the song they were taught yesterday from memory
  4. When they can’t remember how, you might ask each “composer” to write down the song so other players can remember it
  5. This leads to the invention of notational forms which can be compared and contrasted for efficacy or efficiency. This invention of notation leads to powerful ideas across multiple disciplines.

I think, “…and then?,” has application at any age and across any subject area.

Try it for yourself and let me know what you think!

Four out of five kindergarteners agree.

foam blocks 1 smaller
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foam blocks 2 smaller

Foam blocks suck.

 

I led professional development in the Newark, NJ Public Schools and taught Newark teachers for about a decade from 1983 through 1993. Newark, NJ, a large city dwarfed by its neighbor, New York City has spent much of my lifetime grappling with third world-levels of poverty and all of the ills that accompany urban neglect. Half of Newark’s mayors since the 1960s have gone to prison on corruption charges. Only recently has Newark had supermarkets or a movie theatre despite being the birthplace of Sarah Vaughan, Wayne Shorter, Amiri Baraka, and countless other great American artists. Teaching in Newark is difficult and a calling.

Allow me to be unequivocal.

In my thirty-two years of work with schools and educators on six continents, I have never worked with more caring, competent, generous or hardworking educators than those employed by the Newark Public Schools.

If I led a PD session on a sweltering August day, it would be filled by Newark teachers working without compensation. Others would pay their own way to attend afterschool workshops 30 miles away.

I have worked in some of the most elite and expensive private schools on earth and in many cases would rather trust my child’s education to the teachers I worked with in Newark (the physical plant and resources are another matter entirely). Newark teachers provide material, emotional, and financial support for their poor students every day.

Decades before Cory Booker donned his superhero Underoos and tweeted his enthusiasm for code.org, Logo programming was being taught by outstanding Newark teachers in dozens and dozens of Newark elementary schools. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the Newark Public Schools were one of the leading centers of innovation in educational computing. All of that is long gone after decades of test-score-raising gimmicks imposed by political charlatans from outside of the community.

You would never know that because in addition to abandoning the residents of this once great city, the good people of New Jersey suspended democracy, neutered the elected school board, and let the State take over the school in 1995. That’s nearly 20 years ago. Surely, all of that State wisdom, leadership, and no-nonsense zero-tolerance innovation, together with endless test-prep and demonizing of teachers would be successful, right?

The city’s public schools are among the lowest-performing in the state, even after the state government took over management of the city’s schools in 1995, which was done under the presumption that improvement would follow. – Wikipedia

Where’s the accountability Governor Christie?

It is high time to return democracy to the governance of the Newark Public Schools!

Surely after the State installed the unqualified adolescent little sister of Michelle Rhee, Cami Anderson, as Superintendent of Schools, things would improve, right? She even instituted that holy grail of no-nothings, merit pay.

Cami Anderson loves charter schools and has dynamite (I mean literally dynamite) ideas for the Newark Public Schools. Check out Diane Ravitch’s review of Anderson’s “One Newark” Plan.

Cami’s dynamite plan is to get the state to suspend tenure/seniority laws so she can fire 700 Newark teachers and replace them with 350 or so unqualified Teach-for-America interns. Surely, interns will solve the problem. Larger class sizes AND unqualified teachers, perfect together!

Where’s the accountability Governor Christie?

According to the TFA regional website, Newark schools already have hired some 200 members.  They are usually graduates of liberal art programs who sign up for two years to teach in low-income areas and then leave.

Anderson herself is both a TFA graduate and an executive with the  foundation-financed TFA, an organization that also receives federal subsidies. (source)

Oh, did I forget to mention that this plan will be financed by the Walton Family Foundation. The Waltons aren’t that nice TV family, they are the scumbag plutocrats who own Wal-Mart, bribe foreign officials, underpay their employees, and stick taxpayers with the bill. Driving the cost of public education to zero is consistent with their scorched earth business practices.

If you care about public education, stop shopping at Wal-Mart.

The business press and forces of public school privatization LOVE Cami and her dynamiteplan. We need to stand up and tell them, “Hell no!”

Isn’t it time that we treat Teach-for-America interns as the scabs they are?

Every American who cares about the future of our nation or values the role our public schools play in preserving our democracy needs to stand with Newark teachers against the robber barons, Mark Zuckerberg and Governor Bully.

Candidly, I have not been enthusiastic about teaching “computational thinking” to kids. In nearly every case, computational thinking seemed to be a dodge intended to avoid computing, specifically computer programming.

“There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”

(Sir Joshua Reynolds)

Programming is an incredibly powerful context for learning mathematics while engaged in being a mathematician. If mathematics is a way of making sense of the world, computing is a great way to make mathematics.

Most of the examples of computational thinking I’ve come across seemed like a cross between “Computer Appreciation” and “Math Appreciation.” However, since smart people were taking “computational thinking” more seriously, I spent a great deal of time thinking about a legitimate case for it in the education of young people.

Here it is…

Computational thinking is useful when modeling a system or complex problem is possible, but the programming is too difficult.

Examples will be shared in other venues.

“Young people have a remarkable capacity for intensity….”

Those words, uttered by one of America’s leading public intellectuals, Dr. Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, has driven my work for the past six or seven years. It is incumbent on every educator, parent, and citizen to build upon each kid’s capacity for intensity otherwise it manifests itself as boredom, misbehavior, ennui, or perhaps worst of all, wasted potential.

Schools need to raise the intensity level of their classrooms!

However, intensity is NOT the same as chaos. Schools don’t need any help with chaos. That they’ve cornered the market on.

capacity500
Anyone who has seen me speak is familiar with this photograph (above). It was taken around 1992 or 1993 at Glamorgan (now Toorak) the primary school campus of Geolong Grammar school in Melbourne, Australia. The kids were using their laptops to program in LogoWriter, a predecessor to MicroWorlds or Scratch.

I love this photo because in the time that elapsed between hitting the space bar and awaiting the result to appear on the screen, every ounce of the kid’s being was mobilized in anticipation of the result. He was literally shaking,

Moments after that image was captured, something occurred that has been repeated innumerable times ever since. Almost without exception, when a kid I’m teaching demonstrates a magnificent fireball of intensity, a teacher takes me aside to whisper some variation of, “that kid isn’t really good at school.”

No kidding? Could that possibly be due to an intensity mismatch between the eager clever child and her classroom?

I enjoy the great privilege of working in classrooms PK-12 all over the world on a regular basis. This allows me observe patterns, identify trends, and form hypotheses like the one about a mismatch in intensity. The purpose of my work in classrooms is to model for teachers what’s possible. When they see through the eyes, hands, and sometimes screens of their students, they may gain fresh perspectives on how things need not be as they seem.

Over four days last month, I taught more than 500 kids I never met before to program in Turtle Art and MicroWorlds EX. I enter each classroom conveying a message of, “I’m Gary. We’ve got stuff to do.” I greet each kid with an open heart and belief in their competence, unencumbered by their cumulative file, IEP, social status, or popularity. In every single instance, kids became lost in their work often for several times longer than a standard class period, without direct instruction, or a single  disciplinary incident. No shushing, yelling, time-outs, threats, rewards, or other behavioral management are needed. I have long maintained that classroom management techniques are only necessary if you feel compelled to manage a classroom.

In nearly every class I work with – anywhere, teachers take me aside to remark about how at least one kid shone brilliantly despite being a difficult or at-risk student. This no longer surprises me.

In one particular class, a kid quickly caught my eye due to his enthusiasm for programming. The kid took my two minute introduction to the programming language and set himself a challenge instantly. I then suggested a more complex variation. He followed with another idea before commandeering the computer on the teacher’s desk and connected to the projector in order to give an impromptu tutorial for classmates struggling with an elusive concept he observed while working on his own project. He was a fine teacher.

Then the fifth grader sat back down at his desk to continue his work. A colleague suggested that he write a program to draw concentric circles. A nifty bit of geometric and algebraic thinking followed. When I kicked things up a notch by writing my own even more complex program on the projected computer and named it, “Gary Defeats Derrick.” The kid laughed and read my program in an attempt to understand my use of global variables, conditionals, and iteration. Later in the day, the same kid chased me down the hall to tell me about what he had discovered since I left his classroom that morning.

Oh yeah, I later learned that the very same terrific kid is being drummed out of school  for not being their type of student.

I learned long ago. If a school does not have bad children, it will make them.

 

As Thomas Friedman once said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Two educators have developed a radical pedagogical theory solving an timeless problem that has  plagued education for decades.

The historic is so remarkable that two professional institutions, ASCD and ISTE rushed to joint-publish the work, as they say in the trade, before the crayon dried on the page.

The profundity, clarity of vision, and transformative nature of “The Method” generates a force field of exuberance that repels the “scientific” findings of such 20th Century institutions as Stanford University and Harvey Mudd College. This paradigmatic shift transcends the need for academic references or even a bibliography. We are asked to believe and thousands of school administrators have heeded the call.

If you would like to learn more about how to insure that students don’t miss a precious instant of your lecture while off at sport practice or music lessons, click here.

Student voice is good. We should take the needs, interests, concerns, talent, curiosity, discomfort, and joy of children seriously. (pretty courageous statement, eh?)

However, if one is truly committed to making the world better for kids, “voice,” is nice, but inadequate. “Voice” absent of power is often little more than propaganda or exploitation.

While I’ve been on a brief social media “skunk at the garden party” hiatus, Dean Shareski has generously filled-in by sharing his queasiness over the “viralGoldieblox video being passed around the Web. Señor Shareski set his BS detector  on high and has provided evidence that the “amazing” Rube Goldberg machine “made by girls” is merely a commercial for a new toy called, Goldieblox.

I am shocked! Shocked!

Anyone who knows me knows that I love toys. I find buying them irresistible. I’ve been seeing Goldieblox at Maker Faires for more than a year, but have not bought a set because I think they lack extended play value (a term LEGO uses internally). I’m not one to get all outraged that a toy for girls is pink. Goldieblox just hasn’t seemed very interesting to me or the girls I work with. It’s not part of my workshop road show sweeping the globe, “Invent To Learn.”

It just doesn’t seem that Goldieblox has any chance of measuring up to the self-promotion and hype of its creator that her box of ribbon and spools is “building women engineers.” I applaud the sentiment, but if we are truly serious about improving the education of girls, it will take a lot more work than a trip to Toys R Us.

I could be wrong. I’ve recently been upgrading my initial assessment of littleBits, based on my observations of children playing with the new toy/electronics construction kit. So, perhaps I will soon fall in love with Goldieblox, but I doubt it.

Back to Monsignor Shareski…

In his post critical of the Goldidblox video, Fake and Real Student Voice, Professori Shareski awakened several repressed social media memories I had long forgotten.

I took a lot of “brown porridge” when I called BS on the very same videos of yesteryear.

There was Dalton Sherman, the “amazing” 5th grader who was coached all summer-long to give a condescending speech, written by the Dallas Schools PR department  to Dallas teachers, right before laying off 400 of them.  I smelled a rat the second I saw the video. Was called a big fat poo-poo head by teachers on social media and was right. BTW: Dalton Sherman seems to have disappeared just like those teacher jobs. So much for being the voice of school reform.

Then there was Michael Wesch (who is an important scholar) made famous by the hostage film he created in which college students decried the state of education.

Fantastic. A college class with far too many students in it (200) attempts to revolutionize the educational system by whining in a five minute web video.

I’m sorry, but count me unimpressed!

Perhaps a student should hold up a sign saying, “My professor is wasting my time and money by making me participate in a piece of exploitative propaganda in which I get to insult either my generation or the one before me just to get on YouTube.”

How did bashing our own profession become such a popular sport? What possible value could demeaning educators have in a professional development setting? Are we desperate for moving pictures or are they merely a substitute for actual ideas?

From Hey Mom! Look What I Made in College (November 2007)

Aside from their lack of authenticity, what these three AMAZING viral videos of is how children and claims of “student voice” exploit children for propaganda purposes. The Goldieblox video is a commercial selling a toy. We don’t tweet Sir Grapefellow commercials (my preferred boyhood breakfast treat) as AMAZING examples of student voice, so why the wishful thinking about Goldieblox?

Señor Shareski rightfully cites my colleague Super-Awesome Sylvia (read Super-Awesome Sylvia in the Not So Awesome Land of Schooling) as a counter example to the fake Goldieblox commercial. I have worked closely with Sylvia over the past couple of years and made her part of the Constructing Modern Knowledge faculty, not because she is cute (she is), but because she is accomplished. She knows stuff. She has skills. She has a great work ethic and  is a terrific teacher (at 12).

However, talent and achievement  did not made Sylvia immune from cynical exploitation by Rupert Murdoch and Joel Klein’s education cabal as documented in an article I wrote for the Huffington Post, Shameless Shape Shifters.

So the moral of our story is…

Three lessons…

  1. As a young blogger in 1971, The Brady Bunch taught me an important lesson relevant here, caveat emptor – buyer beware. Users of social media need to “follow the money,” have a highly-tuned BS Detector, and know when and what they are being sold.
  2. Calling everything amazing or everyone a genius is lazy and counterproductive.
  3. Student voice without what Seymour Papert calls “kid power” is worse than empty rhetoric, it is a lie. Escapism is not the same as freedom.  Too much of what is offered as “student voice” offers a false sense of agency, power, or freedom to the powerless. It is what Martin Luther King, Jr. called, “the intoxicating drug of gradualism.”

Papert circa 1999 enjoying the work of a middle schooler

I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend, colleague, and mentor Dr. Seymour Papert a lot lately. Our new book, “Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” is dedicated to him and we tried our best to give him the credit he deserves for predicting, inventing, or laying the foundation for much of what we now celebrate as “the maker movement.” The popularity of the book and my non-stop travel schedule to bring the ideas of constructionism to classrooms all over the world is testament to Seymour’s vision and evidence that it took much of the world decades to catch up.

Jazz and Logo are two of my favorite things in life. They both make me feel bigger than myself and nurture me. Jazz and Logo provide epistemological lenses through which I view the world and appreciate the highest potential of mankind. Like jazz, Logo has been pronounced dead since its inception, but I KNOW how good it is for kids. I KNOW how it makes them feel intelligent and creative. I KNOW that Logo-like activities hold the potential to change the course of schooling. That’s why I have been teaching it to children and their teachers in one form or another for almost 32 years.

I’ve been teaching a lot of Logo lately, particularly a relatively new version called Turtle Art. Turtle Art is a real throwback to the days of one turtle focused on turtle geometry, but the interface has been simplified to allow block-based programming and the images resulting from mathematical ideas can be quite beautiful works of art. (you can see some examples in the image gallery at Turtleart.org)

Turtle Art was created by Brian Silverman, Artemis Papert (Seymour’s daughter) and their friend Paula Bonta. Turtle Art itself is a work of art that allows learners of all ages to begin programming, creating, solving problems, and engaging in hard fun within seconds of seeing it for the first time. Since an MIT undergraduate in the late 1970s, Brian Silverman has made Papert’s ideas live in products that often exceeded Papert’s expectations.

There aren’t many software environments or activities of any sort that engage 3rd graders, 6th graders, 10th graders and adults equally as Turtle Art. I wrote another blog post a year or so ago about how I wish I had video of the first time I introduced Turtle Art to a class of 3rd graders. Their “math class” looked like a rugby scrum, there was moving, and wiggling, and pointing, and sharing and hugging and high-fiving everywhere while the kids were BEING mathematicians.

Yesterday, I taught a sixth grade class in Mumbai to use Turtle Art for the first time. They worked for 90-minutes straight. Any casual observer could see the kids wriggle their bodies to determine the right orientation of the turtle, assist their peers, show-off their creations, and occasionally shriek with delight in a reflexive fashion when the result of their program surprised them or confirmed their hypothesis. As usual, a wide range of mathematical ability and learning styles were on display. Some kids get lost in one idea and tune out the entire world. This behavior is not just reserved to the loner or A student. It is often the kid you least expect.

Yesterday, while the rest of the class was creating and then modifying elaborate Turtle Art programs I provided, one sixth grader went “off the grid” to program the turtle to draw a house. The house has a long and checkered past in Logo history. In the early days of Turtle Graphics, lots of kids put triangles on top of squares to draw a house. Papert used the example in his seminal book, “Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas,” and was then horrified to discover that “making houses” had become de-facto curriculum in classrooms the world over. From then on, Papert refrained from sharing screen shots to avoid others concluding that they were scripture.

It sure was nice to see a kid make a house spontaneously, just like two generations of kids have done with the turtle. It reminded me of what the great jazz saxophonist and composer Jimmy Heath said at Constructing Modern Knowledge last summer, “What was good IS good.”

Love is all you need
This morning, I taught sixty 10th graders for three hours. We spend the first 75 minutes or so programming in Turtle Art.  Like the 6th graders, the 10th graders  had never seen Turtle Art before. After Turtle Art,  the kids could choose between experimenting with MaKey MaKeys, wearable computing, or Arduino programming. Seymour would have been delighted by the hard fun and engineering on display. I was trying to cram as many different experiences into a short period of time as possible so that the school’s teachers would have options to consider long after I leave.

After we divided into three work areas, something happened that Papert would have LOVED. He would have given speeches about this experience, written papers about it and chatted enthusiastically about it for months. Ninety minutes or so after everyone else had moved on to work with other materials, one young lady sat quietly by herself and continued programming in Turtle Art. She created many subprocedures in order to generate the image below.


Papert loved love and would have loved this expression of love created by “his turtle.” (Papert also loved wordplay and using terms like, “learning learning.” I’m sure he would be pleased with how many times I managed to use love in one sentence.) His life’s work was towards the creation of a Mathland where one could fall in love with mathematical thinking and become fluent in the same way a child born in France becomes fluent in French. Papert spoke often of creating a mathematics that children can love rather than wasting our energy teaching a math they hate. Papert was fond of saying, “Love is a better master than duty,” and delighted in having once submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation with that title (it was rejected).

The fifteen or sixteen year old girl programming in Turtle Art for the first time could not possibly have been more intimately involved in the creation of her mathematical artifact. Her head, heart, body and soul were connected to her project.

The experience resonated with her and will stay with me forever. I sure wish my friend Seymour could have seen it.

Love,

 

 


Turtle Art is free for friends who ask for a copy, but is not open source. It’s educational efficacy is the result of a singular design vision unencumbered by a community adding features to the environment. Email contact@turtleart.org to request a copy for Mac, Windows or Linux.