PBL 360 Overview – Professional Development for Modern Educators
Gary S. Stager, Ph.D. and his team of expert educators travel the world to create immersive, high-quality professional development experiences for schools interested in effective 21st century project-based learning (PBL) and learning by doing. Whether your school (or school system) is new to PBL, the tools and technologies of the global Maker Movement, or looking to sustain existing programs, we can design flexible professional learning opportunities to meet your needs, PK-12.
Our work is based on extensive practice assisting educators on six continents, in a wide variety of grade levels, subject areas and settings. Dr. Stager has particular experience working with extremely gifted and severely at-risk learners, plus expertise in S.T.E.M. and the arts. The Victorian State of Victoria recently offered a highly successful three-day PBL 360 workshop for members of their “New Pedagogies Project.”
PBL 360 captures the spirit of the annual Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute in a local setting.
Professional growth is ongoing, therefore professional development workshops need to be viewed as part of a continuum, not an inoculation. The PBL professional development workshops described below not only reflect educator’s specific needs, but are available in one, two or three-day events, supplemented by keynotes or community meetings, and may be followed-up with ongoing mentoring, consulting or online learning. Three days is recommended for greatest effect and capacity building.
While learning is interdisciplinary and not limited to age, we can tailor PD activities to emphasize specific subjects or grade levels.
These experiences embrace an expanding focus from learner, teacher, to transformational leader with a micro to systemic perspective. Video-based case studies, hands-on activities and brainstorming are all part of these highly interactive workshops.
- Effective professional development must be situated as close to the teacher’s actual practice as possible
- You cannot teach in a manner never experienced as a learner
- Access to expertise is critical in any learning environment
- Practice is inseparable from theory
- We stand on the shoulders of giants and learn from the wisdom of those who ventured before us
- Modern knowledge construction requires computing
- Learning and the learner should be the focus of any education initiative
- Children are competent
- School transformation is impossible if you only change one variable
- Things need not be as they seem
Effective project-based learning requires more than the occasional classroom project, no matter how engaging such occasional activities might be. PBL 360 helps educators understand the powerful ideas behind project-based learning so they can implement PBL and transform the learning environment using digital technology and modern learning theory. PBL 360 helps teachers build a powerful, personal set of lenses and an ability to see “360 degrees” – meaning in every direction – with which to build new classroom practices.
Teachers, administrators and even parents should consider participation.
Piaget teaches us that knowledge is a consequence of experience. Therefore, any understanding of project-based learning or ability to implement it effectively must be grounded in personal experience. It is for this reason that all professional development pathways begin with an Invent to Learn workshop. Subsequent workshop days will build upon personal reflections and lessons learned from the Invent to Learn experience. Flexibility and sensitivity to the specific needs of participants is paramount.
Day One – Learning Learning
Join colleagues for a day of hard fun and problem solving — where computing meets tinkering and design. The workshop begins with the case for project-based learning, making, tinkering, and engineering. Next, we will discuss strategies for effective prompt-setting. You will view examples of children engaged in complex problem solving with new game-changing technologies and identify lessons for your own classroom practice. Powerful ideas from the Reggio Emilia Approach, breakthroughs in science education, and the global maker movement combine to create rich learning experiences.
“In the future, science assessments will not assess students’ understanding of core ideas separately from their abilities to use the practices of science and engineering. They will be assessed together, showing that students not only “know” science concepts; but also that they can use their understanding to investigate the natural world through the practices of science inquiry, or solve meaningful problems through the practices of engineering design.” Next Generation Science Standards (2013)
Participants will have the chance to tinker with a range of exciting new low- and high-tech construction materials that can really amplify the potential of your students. The day culminates in the planning of a classroom project based on the TMI (Think-Make-Improve) design model.
Fabrication with cardboard and found materials, squishy electronic circuits, wearable computing, Arduino, robotics, conductive paint, and computer programming are all on the menu.
This workshop is suitable for all grades and subject areas.
Day Two – Teaching
Day two begins with a period of reflection about the Invent to Learn workshop the day before, focusing on teaching and project-based learning topics, including:
- Reflecting on the Invent to Learn workshop experience
- Compare and contrast with your own learning experience
- Compare and contrast with your current teaching practice
- What is a project?
- Essential elements of effective PBL
- Making connections
- Meeting standards
Design technology and children’s engineering
- The case for tinkering
- Epistemological pluralism
- Learning styles
- Hands-on, minds-on
- Iterative design methodology
Teacher roles in a modern classroom
- Teacher as researcher
- Identifying the big ideas of your subject area or grade level
- Preparing learners for the “real world”
- What does real world learning look like?
- Lessons from the “Best Educational Ideas in the World”
- What we can learn from Reggio Emilia, El Sistema and the “Maker” community?
- Less Us, More Them
- Shifting agency to learners
- Creating independent learners
Classroom design to support PBL and hands-on learning
- Physical environment
- Centers, Makerspaces, and FabLabs
Tools, technology, materials
- Computers as material
- Digital technology
- Choices and options
PBL 360 models teaching practices that put teachers at the center of their own learning, just like we want for students. This in turn empowers teachers to continue to work through the logistics of changing classroom practice as they develop ongoing fluency in tools, technologies, and pedagogy. Teachers who learn what modern learning “feels” like are better able to translate this into everyday practice, supported by ongoing professional development and sound policy.
Day Three – Transformation
The third day focuses on the details and specifics of implementing and sustaining PBL in individual classrooms and collaboratively with colleagues. Participants will lead with:
- Curricular audit
- Standards, grade levels
- Planning PBL for your classroom
- Curricular projects vs. student-based inquiry
- Creating effective project prompts
- The changing role of the teacher
- Shaping the PBL-supportive learning environment
- Does your school day support PBL?
- Action plan formulation
- Communicating a unifying vision with parents and the community
- Adjusting expectations for students, parents, community, administrators, and colleagues
- Creating alliances
- Identifying resources
Modern learning embraces a vision of students becoming part of a solution-oriented future where their talents, skills, and passions are rewarded. The changes in curriculum must therefore be matched with a change in pedagogy that supports these overarching goals. Teachers need to understand design thinking, for example, not just as a checklist, but as a new way to shape the learning environment. It is no longer acceptable to simply teach students to use digital tools that make work flow more efficient, nor will it be possible to segregate “making” and “doing” into vocational, non-college preparatory classes.
PBL 360 will help teachers create learning environments that meet these goals with professional development that is innovative, supportive, and sustainable.
Constructive Technology Workshop Materials
Although constructive technology evolves continuously, the following is the range of hardware and software that can be combined with traditional craft materials and recycled items supplied by the client. The specialized materials will be furnished by Constructing Modern Knowledge, LLC. Specific items may vary.
|eTextiles/soft circuits/wearable computers
||Computer Science, programming, and control
|Microcontroller engineering and programming
||New ways to create electrical circuits
|Electronics and Internet of Things
Additional costs may be incurred for transporting supplies and for consumable materials depending on the number of participants and workshop location(s). Groups of more than 20 participants may require an additional facilitator.
Invent To Learn books may be purchased at a discount to be used in conjunction with the workshop.
About Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Gary Stager, an internationally recognized educator, speaker and consultant, is the Executive Director of Constructing Modern Knowledge. Since 1982, Gary has helped learners of all ages on six continents embrace the power of computers as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression. He led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools (1990), has designed online graduate school programs since the mid-90s, was a collaborator in the MIT Media Lab’s Future of Learning Group and a member of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation’s Learning Team.
When Jean Piaget wanted to better understand how children learn mathematics, he hired Seymour Papert. When Dr. Papert wanted to create a high-tech alternative learning environment for incarcerated at-risk teens, he hired Gary Stager. This work was the basis for Gary’s doctoral dissertation and documented Papert’s most-recent institutional research project.
Gary’s recent work has included teaching and mentoring some of Australia’s “most troubled” public schools, launching 1:1 computing in a Korean International School beginning in the first grade, media appearances in Peru and serving as a school S.T.E.M. Director. His advocacy on behalf of creativity, computing and children led to the creation of the Constructivist Consortium and the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Gary is the co-author of Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, often cited as the “bible of the Maker Movement in schools”.
A popular speaker and school consultant, Dr. Stager has keynoted major conferences worldwide to help teachers see the potential of new technology to revolutionize education. Dr. Stager is also a contributor to The Huffington Post and a Senior S.T.E.M. and Education Consultant to leading school architecture firm, Fielding Nair International. Gary also works with teachers and students as Special Assistant to the Head of School for Innovation at The Willows Community School in Culver City, California.He has twice been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Melbourne’s Trinity College. Gary currently works as the Special Assistant to the Head of School for Innovation at The Willows Community School in Culver City, California.
Email email@example.com to inquire about costs and schedule for your customized workshop. We will work with you to create an experience that will change your school, district, or organization forever. Additional ongoing consulting, mentoring, or online learning services are available to meet individual needs.
In November, I had a the great honor of working with my colleagues at the Omar Dengo Foundation, Costa Rica’s NGO responsible for computers in schools. For the past quarter century, the Fundacion Omar Dengo has led the world in the constructionist use of computers in education – and they do it at a national level!
While there, I delivered the organization’s annual lecture in the Jean Piaget Auditorium. The first two speakers in this annual series were Seymour Papert and Nicholas Negroponte.
The first video is over an hour in length and is followed but the audience Q & A. The second portion of the event gave me the opportunity to tie a bow on the longer address and to explore topics I forgot to speak about.
I hope these videos inspire some thought and discussion.
Gary Stager “This is Our Moment “ – Conferencia Anual 2014 Fundación Omar Dengo (Costa Rica)
San José, Costa Rica. November 2014
Gary Stager – Questions and Answers Section – Annual Lecture 2014 (Costa Rica)
San José, Costa Rica. November 2014
I started teaching Logo to kids in 1982 and adults in 1983. I was an editor of ISTE’s Logo Exchange journal and wrote the project books accompanying the MicroWorlds Pro and MicroWorlds EX software environments. I also wrote programming activities for LEGO TC Logo and Control Lab, in addition to long forgotten but wonderful Logo environments, LogoExpress and Logo Ensemble.
Now that I’m working in a school regularly, I have been working to develop greater programming fluency among students and their teachers. We started a Programming with Some BBQ “learning lunch” series and I’ve been leading model lessons in classrooms. While I wish that teachers could/would find the time to develop their own curricular materials for supporting and extending these activities, I’m finding that I may just need to do so despite my contempt for curriculum.
One of the great things about the Logo programming language, upon which Scratch and MicroWorlds are built, is that there are countless entry points. While turtle graphics tends to be the focus of what schools use Logo for, I’m taking a decidedly more text-based approach. Along the way, important computer science concepts are being developed and middle school language arts teachers who have never seen value in (for lack of a better term) S.T.E.M. activities, have become intrigued by using computer science to explore grammar, poetry, and linguistics. The silly activity introduced in the link below is timeless, dating back to the 1960s, and is well documented in E. Paul Goldenberg and Wally Feurzig’s fantastic (out-of-print) book, “Exploring Language with Logo.”
I only take credit for the pedagogical approach and design of this document for teachers. As I create more, I’ll probably share it.
My goal is always to do as little talking or explaining as humanly possible without introducing metaphors or misconceptions that add future confusion or may need to remediated later. Teaching something properly from the start is the best way to go.
Commence the hilarity and let the programming begin! Becoming a programmer requires more than an hour of code.
Modifications may be made or bugs may fixed in the document linked above replaced as time goes by.
I’m against rubrics. Anyone considering their use should read Alfie Kohn’s article, Trouble with Rubrics.
That said, people I respect have used the special Handy Dandy Patented Stager Super Dooper Rubric over the years. The following is the language contained in my graduate school syllabi for a decade or so.
I have strong reservations about both grades and rubrics. I believe that both practices have a prophylactic effect on learning. Doing the best job you can do and sharing your knowledge with others are the paramount goals for this course. I expect excellence.
Therefore, I am trying a new experiment this term. You should evaluate each course artifact you create according to the following “rubric.” The progression denotes a range from the least personal growth to the most.
- I did not participate
- I phoned-it in
- I impressed by colleagues
- I impressed my friends and neighbors
- I impressed my children
- I impressed Gary
- I impressed myself
In addition to the popular minds-on/hands-on Invent to Learn workshops already offered by Constructing Modern Knowledge, I’m pleased to announce a brand new set of exciting, informative, and practical workshops for schools, districts, and conferences for 2015. Family workshops are a fantastic way to build support for learning by doing in your school.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include type (workshop, keynote, consulting, etc.), approximate dates, location, and any additional details. We’ll get back to you ASAP!
PBL with littleBits™
littleBits are incredibly powerful snap-together electronic elements that allow learners of all ages to create a wide array of interactive projects. Arts and crafts meet science and engineering when littleBits are available for pro typing or creating super cool new inventions. In addition to knowledge construction with littleBits, participants will explore the following topics.
- What makes a good project?
- Effective prompt setting
- Project-based learning strategies for exploring powerful ideas
- Less Us, More Them
An LED, battery, and conductive thread can bring principles of electronics and engineering to learners of all ages. Interactive jewelry, bookmarks, and stuffed toys become a vehicle for making powerful ideas accessible to a diverse population of learners. More experienced participants may combine computer science with these “soft circuits” or “e-Textiles” to make singing suffer animals, animated t-shirts, jackets with directional signals, or backpacks with burglar alarms with the addition of the Lilypad Arduino or Flora microcontroller. Design, STEM, arts, and crafts come to life in this fun and exciting workshop!
Reycling and Robotics
This workshop uses the incredible Hummingbird Robotics Kit to show how a powerful and easy-to-use microntroller designed for the classroom, common electronic parts (motors, lights, sensors) may be combined with recycled “found” materials and craft supplies to create unique interactive robots from Kindergarten thru high school. Scratch and Snap! programming brings these creations to life. No experience is required to become a master robotics engineer! Cross-curricular project ideas will be shared.
Introduction to Microcontroller Projects and Arduino Programming
The Arduino open-source microcontroller is used by kids, hobbyists, and professional alike. Arduino is at the heart of interactive electronics projects and is perfect for classroom settings, but can seem intimidating to the initiated. This workshop introduces the foundational electronics, cybernetics and computer science concepts critical to learning and making with Arduino. The Arduino IDE programming environment will be demystified and other environments better suited for children, including Ardublocks and Scratch, will be explored. Strategies for teaching with Arduino will be shared.
Young children are natural inventors, tinkerers, and makers. This workshop builds upon the natural inclinations of young children by adding new “technological colors” to their crayon box. littleBits, Scratch, Turtle Art, Makedo, Makey Makey, Hummingbird robotics kits, LEGO WeDo, soft circuits and more can all enrich the learning process. Timeless craft traditions and recycled junk combine with emerging technology to create a greater range, breadth, and depth of opportunities for learning by doing. Strategies for effective scaffolding, classroom organization, and the use of exciting new technologies in a developmentally appropriate fashion will be discussed. Participants in this workshop will learn how such modern knowledge construction projects are wholly consistent with the best early childhood traditions and support current standards. Dr. Stager is a certified preschool thru eighth grade teacher and an expert in the Reggio Emilia approach.
Build and Program a Truly Personal Computer with the Raspberry Pi
The Raspberry Pi is a ultra low-cost Linux-based computer the size of a deck of playing cards that costs less than $40. It is capable of running open-source productivity software, like Open Office and Google Docs, plus programmed via Scratch, Turtle Art, or Python. You can even run Arduino microcontrollers, power a home-entertainment center, or run your own Minecraft server! Old USB keyboards. mice, TVs or monitors are recycled and repurposed to assemble your complete personal computer. Each participant in this workshop will setup, use, and program their Raspberry Pi in addition to discussing how it might be used across the curriculum. (materials fee applies)
Balance is the Fabreze of education policy. It is a chemical spray designed to mask the stench of a two year-old tuna sandwich found in the minvan with the artificial bouquet of an April rain dancing on a lily pad.
- Balanced literacy got us systemic phonics.
- Balanced math begot Singapore Math worksheets.
- Balanced standards produced The Common Core.
- Balanced policy debates produced No Child Left Behind and Race-to-the-Top
- A balanced approach to educational technology made computer science extinct in schools and has now taught two generations of children to find the space bar in a computer lab-based keyboarding class.
I could go on.
Balance is elusive. It is fake and lazy and cowardly and sad. Balance is embraced by those who don’t know or can’t/won’t articulate what they truly believe. Balance fills the void left by the absence of alternative models and excellence. It is anonymous.
Educators are told that passion should be tempered. Every pedagogical idea is just fine as long as it is “for the children.” We should just do our jobs and not complain about outrageous attacks on our dignity, paycheck, curriculum, working conditions, or the living conditions of the students we serve.
Balance fills the school day with mandates and directives and lots of interruptions that while offering an illusion of options make it impossible for a learner to focus on anything long enough to become good at it.
Balance teaches children that teachers are helpless pawns in a system they don’t control or cannot understand.
Balance is the absentee parent of incrementalism. As educators take “baby steps” towards what they know is right or righteous they lead a long and meandering hike after which the followers cannot remember the original destination.
“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963)
Educators are to remain neutral and seek consensus at all-costs. Balance programs us to find the silver lining in tornados. There MUST be SOMETHING good in what Bill Gates or Sal Khan or any number of a million corporations with ED or MENTUM or ACHIEVE or VATION in their names happen to be peddling.
The laws of the political universe, and education is inherently political, greet each embrace of “balance” as ten steps in a more conservative direction. There is no balance – just weakness.
I urge you to read one of my favorite passages ever written about “balance” in education. It is from a lesser-known classic, On Being a Teacher,” by the great American educator, Jonathan Kozol. Please take a few minutes to read, “Extreme Ideas.”
Thinking and learning are strong proud words. When educational publishers or policy-makers seek to modify such terms, (re: design thinking, discovery learning, computational thinking…), the result seems less than the individual parts.
We get “design thinking” without any design; “computational thinking” without computation; “discovery learning” where the only acceptable discoveries are the ones the teacher (or textbook) already anticipated.
Increases in agency or student empowerment remain rhetorical and pedagogical progress, illusory.
I am too often reminded of the Sir Joshua Reynolds quote hanging all over Thomas Edison’s laboratories, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”
Piaget teaches us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” Schools and teachers serve students best when the emphasis is on action, not hypothetical conversations about what one might do if afforded the opportunity.
Papert was sadly correct when he said, “When ideas go to school, they lose their power.”
Let’s say that the lessons IDEO employees gleaned from designing the latest toothpaste tube could actually be applied to education (a preposterous supposition, but let’s roll with it). By the time those ideas move from the latest blog post or conference workshop to the classroom, kids are left with an elaborate process in which brainstorming and affixing Post-It notes to walls becomes a means to solving hypothetical problems or PowerPoint reports about a topic they care little about for a non-existent audience.
Actions taken by the system, like school or classroom redesign or schedule redesign may be fantastically beneficial, but are too often conflated with the benefits of learning by being designing something personally meaningful. In other words, the adults may have learned something by being designers, but are depriving youngsters of that same quality of experience. At a time when learning is too often viewed as the direct causal result of having been taught, system-level design becomes conflated with student learning. Arranging ceiling lights in the shape of constellations to reinforce the STEM focus of the school is hardly the same as students learning science by being scientists. Doing science leads to richer learning experiences and is profoundly different from being taught about it in a room with pictures of scientists on the wall or carpet tiles arranged in fractal patterns.
Teachers, and by extension students, become consumed by hitting all of the steps in the “design process” and remembering those stages at the expense of deeper experiences in creativity, design, engineering, or computing. I am alarmed by how many schools celebrate that they allow kids to choose a topic to write a report about (paper, blog post, or PowerPoint) and then confuse such coercive, traditional, and inauthentic experiences with remarkable feats of empowerment or school reform.
It is sad and dangerous to give folks the illusion of agency without actual power or meaningful options.
Don’t give up on schools, there is still much to be done
By Gary Stager
Dear Mr. Gates:
I write with great admiration and appreciation of your remarkable philanthropic efforts on behalf of health, poverty and education. Changing the world is a spectacular goal. Congratulations on your plans to dedicate more of your time to charity and on Warren Buffett’s enormous contribution to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts.
I know nothing about infectious diseases, vaccines or sustainable agriculture. I defer to you and other experts on those topics. A recent Business Week cover story, Bill Gates Gets Schooled, was eye opening. That article reports the mixed success of your foundation’s efforts in public school reform and your candid admission of disappointing results. It must be depressing to spend a billion dollars on school reform and all you got was a lousy t-shirt. I humbly share the following recommendations to help guide your future initiatives.
Decide what you believe
You and all your advisors should read Seymour Sarason’s book, What Do YOU Mean by Learning? Sarason makes what should be an obvious observation that discussions of learning, teaching and school reform often fail to discuss what the stakeholders mean by learning. Without such a serious ongoing discussion, failure is predictable.
With all due respect, the Gates Foundation needs to decide what it means by learning and stop funding competing organizations. Investing in the Met Schools (see “Radical Reformer,” November 2005, page 46) and Achieve, Inc., simultaneously is like funding both sides of a war.
Apparently it is rocket science
The Business Week article tells the story of a Denver High School that received Gates Foundation funds. The school was broken up into four smaller schools in an attempt to make schooling more personal and have fewer students fall through the cracks. However, the school’s award-winning choir, a perennial source of pride and excellence, crumbled when students were dispersed to four different schools within the building. Surely, some smart adult could have figured out a plan to move children from one corner of a school to another for choir practice?
Schools are complex organisms full of unintended consequences
A recent Los Angeles Times article chronicled how the noble goal of breaking large high schools into small, more personal, learning communities does foster school pride. However, it also may cause those communities to become tribes hostile to one another and result in limited elective options for students.
The impossible is easy, the easy is often impossible
This is my axiom to explain the chaotic nature of schools. It may indeed be easier to build a residential campus in Paris for New York City ninth graders than to hire a French teacher for their neighborhood school.
When seeking clarity, ask yourself a simple question: “Would I proudly send my child to this school?”
Drop the business metaphors
Stop talking about schools as businesses and using terms like efficiency, productivity, supply chain and measurable outcomes. Such metaphors are weak and create needless tension among your “partners” in education.
Drop the school metaphors
The clich?s used by educators to describe their practices and objectives can prove just as stifling and counterproductive as business metaphors. Reflexive mantras like “Sage on the stage” and “You must invest in professional development” fail to acknowledge the complexities of education and provide alibis for failure.
Stop talking about results
Such short-term language may be appropriate for quarterly profit statements, but not education. Learning is messy, individual and natural. Schools do not manufacture widgets, but create an environment in which children and teachers may grow.
If you do wish to focus on results, be honest about what works. Education is notorious for having ideology trump evidence. Your talk of “more rigorous curriculum” and scores directly contradicts research funded by your foundation. The Met/Big Picture schools are wildly successful despite the complete absence of any traditional notion of curriculum. If you want results, build a lot more schools like the Met and let go of the fantasy of one-size-fits-all magical curricula.
You need to meddle
If you pay the bills, then you have a right and responsibility to run the school. A hands-off approach to schools you fund creates confusion among the stakeholders. Your support, insight, expertise and clear expectations must be apparent and consistent.
Work with the living and do no harm
You have acknowledged that it is easier and more effective to build new schools than fix some existing ones. Keep creating great schools where children can flourish and building models others can follow.
Solve the college readiness problem
If you find that preparing poor, urban, rural and minority students for college is too difficult, then build some colleges with open enrollment in those communities to offer opportunities students would otherwise be deprived of.
Admit that math education is a disaster
Almost nothing done in the past 50 years has helped students be more numerate. Work with Seymour Papert to invent a mathematics curricula that students could love, rather than coming up with tricks to help a few more memorize algorithms irrelevant to their lives and the complex world in which they learn. Computers have a clear role to play in learning about such sciences of complexity.
Show some courage
You are the richest man in the world. That’s like having tenure. You may work without fear! You and Oprah spent two hours on television alerting the public that too many schools are failing too many children. However, you seem reluctant to discuss the underlying causes of poverty, inequitable funding formulas and the resegregation of our nation’s public schools. The Gates-funded Manual Arts High School in Denver that has now closed was destroyed by the resegregation of the school. Civil rights are critical for students and you need to lend your voice to that struggle.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings likes to say, “Schools are the same as they were 25 years ago.” That is demonstrably false. I graduated high school 25 years ago and enjoyed a full-range of electives, three music classes per day, great bands, fabulous plays, no AP courses, little tracking and teachers did not soil themselves over the need to raise scores on deeply flawed standardized tests. The climate of fear, name-calling and punishment paralyzing schools today is a recent phenomena produced by those professing to help.
We will have achieved success when all schools are demonstrably great places where children prefer to be and authentic learning exceeds our expectations. I wish you well in your quest to create such a reality.
Gary Stager on International Ed Comparisons
John Dewey is Ours!
By Gary Stager
Put on your dunce caps! It’s international education comparison season again. I know. I know… Eritrea is kicking our butt in long division. If we don’t get tough quickly, all of our best fast-food jobs will be outsourced overseas.
During this somber season of atonement, assorted windbags take to the airwaves to decry the callous incompetence of American teachers and to label our students as fat, lazy and stupid. We learn that country X focuses on the basics; country Y spends more time on fewer topics; while country Z has a longer school year. Don’t you just love how after careful review of the data, the prescription for American public schools is always more testing, increased sanctions, louder name-calling and longer seat-time?
We know that simplistic proclamations about superior schools far away are incomplete at best, yet we continue to wring our hands about our inferiority. Japan is one of the favorite pedagogical bogeymen, but on a trip to Tokyo I witnessed four people employed to complete every retail transaction and two women required to operate an automatic elevator. I suspect that the four people making change at every department store checkout counter or the two women piloting one elevator did not succeed in calculus class. Like in Houston, students who might lower the average must just disappear.
While others can challenge their validity, the greatest risk posed by the international education comparisons is the underlying assumption that learning is (or should be) uniform. This premise is absurd and destructive for every state engaged in the standardized arms race. No human endeavor can or should be standardized. This is especially true across different cultures with dissimilar needs, goals, motivations, resources and belief systems.
The Stager Perspective
My work in public and private schools across a dozen or so countries entitles me to proclaim myself a scholar on global educational comparisons. My experience and humble analysis leads me to the following conclusion. Schools stink everywhere!
As long as citizens around the world strive to embrace the following myths and practices schools will continue to lose relevance and offer fewer benefits to children.
Artificial curricular hierarchy
The notion that a committee of bureaucrats can prescribe a specific sequence of curricular topics and skills for all learners defies everything we know about learning theory and will always lag behind societal shifts.
Assuming knowledge is static
Just as every learner is different, the nature of knowledge is fluid. Educational success is not measured by recitation and recall.
Testing is not teaching and teaching is not learning
Until we abandon the obsession with quantifying knowledge without even engaging a discussion of, “what we mean by learning,” schools will continue to treat children as rounding errors.
Rows of uncomfortable desks nailed to the floor, bells, grades, age segregation, decontextualized content, sorting by similar levels of incompetence and zero-tolerance policies must give way to more flexible learning environments.
Communication is weak
Parents, still largely unwelcome educational partners, find it increasingly difficult to receive timely answers to simple questions despite enormous investments in data aggregation and school-to-home accountability systems.
It doesn’t ultimately matter if you agree with my hypothesis about the ill-health of schools and schooling. What you must celebrate is that the American ideal is for every child to enjoy a free and excellent K-12 education, followed by unparalleled opportunities for higher education. While our practice does not always measure up to our rhetoric, our democratic ideals are noble and our schools have served many children well. Rather than waste our energy worrying about global competition we should rededicate ourselves to helping every child reach their potential as a well-rounded human with a thirst for knowledge and creative expression.
A Not-So-Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future
© 2004 Gary S. Stager
Published by the NECC Daily Leader conference newspaper on June 22, 2004
The computer is not just an advanced calculator or camera or paintbrush; rather, it is a device that accelerates and extends our processes of thought. It is an imagination machine, which starts with the ideas we put into it and takes them farther than we ever could have taken them on our own.” (Daniel Hillis, 1998)
This is an incredibly dark period for education. Perennial challenges are now accompanied by name-calling and public policy based on “getting tough” with third graders. Perhaps decision-makers just don’t know what learning in the digital age could look like. They need to see how kids not only learn old things in new ways, but construct personal understanding of powerful ideas in a rigorous computationally-rich fashion. Computers are today’s dominant intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression.
Computers offer kids the means of production for learning via previously off-limit domains, including: music composition, filmmaking, robotics, computer science, journalism and engineering.
If only there were a place where compelling models of new educational practice could be shared… Welcome to NECC!
A few years ago, educators ceased talking about computing and started talking about technology. Suddenly computing, this remarkable invention of 20th century ingenuity, capable of transforming every intellectual domain, was dead without so much as an obituary. Conference speakers soon spoke of computers being just technology – like a zipper or Pez dispenser. This rhetorical shift liberated educators from learning to use computers, rethink the nature of curriculum or change practice to embrace the expansive opportunities afforded by computing. Information became the focus, not what kids do with computers.
In the mid-1970s my junior high required every 7th grader to learn to program a computer in nine weeks. The feelings of intellectual elation I experienced programming are indescribable. I didn’t know what was impossible so everything was possible. The computer amplified my thinking and the habits of mind I developed in Mr. Jones’ class serve me every day.
Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak enjoyed similar experiences. Imagine how the world would be different if some smart adults had not procured a mainframe and some terminals and said to Gates and Wozniak, “See what you can figure out. Have fun. Lock up when you’re done.”
How do your children’s school computing experiences compare? Do all students have access to creative tools anytime anyplace? Does the school culture inspire a thirst for knowledge and support authentic project-based work?
We’ve lowered standards when twelve year-olds in my junior high are NOW being taught to find the return key in a mandatory keyboarding class. Someday they may be “taught” to surf a filtered locked-down crippled Web incapable of downloading, rich media or collaboration all in the name of preparing them for the future. Some future.
Adults talk of how kids know so much about computers, how they are so competent, confident and fluent. Then those kids come to school and are treated like imbeciles or felons. Kid power is a gift to educators. We need to build upon those gifts and channel their students in directions they might not know exist. If kids came to school readers, we wouldn’t grunt phonemes at them. We would read better literature.
When many of us first attended NECC, we viewed the personal computer as not only a window on the future, but a microscope on the past. We knew how all sorts of learners exceed our wildest expectations when equipped with computers and constructionist software. Personal experience illuminated how the existing pencil-based curriculum was failing kids. Optimism filled the air.
Look around and you might conclude that the state-of-the-art includes: classrooms as game shows; data mining to justify standardized testing; reading as a winner-take-all race; and hysterical network security. “Technology” is being touted as a way to centralize control and breathe life into the least effective teaching practices of yore.
Widespread consensus is hard to achieve, especially on complex matters like education. Nonetheless, the educational computing community seems to have decided that our children should look forward to a future filled with testing and Microsoft Office instruction. Tests about Microsoft Office could achieve two national goals.
NECC attendees are pioneers entrusted with helping schools realize the potential of the imagination machine and as Gladwell suggests serve as the 10th Fleet in revolutionizing the context for learning. Go home and share the fabulous ideas you collect here in the Big Easy, but remember that the kids you serve expect big things from you and it won’t be easy.