I have often wondered why educators are so darn excited about Google. They get “Google Certified,” attend Google conference sessions, mourn when features change or Google loses interest in a platform they LOVE(d). Google loving teachers attend summits that are a cross between an Amway convention and cult meeting. Districts trust their communications and document storage to a company they know harvests their data (and that of their students) just to save a few bucks on an email server. School leaders have never met Mr. Google or any of his designees, but trust them anyway.
Millions upon millions upon millions of dollars are spent annually on teaching seemingly competent adult educators to in the words of President George W. Bush, “use the Google.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. The Google is a swell thing. You type something into a box and related web pages are displayed – just like the search engines that came before it. Google PhotoScan is a little piece of magic for rescuing and preserving family photos. We trust Google a lot and have become reliant on a faceless corporation who can change the terms of service or kill a platform we rely on at the drop of a hat.
One of my favorite tweets of all time was when I asked, “Which should I care less about, Google Wave or Google Buzz?” It turns out that I hit the exacta when Google quickly took both Wave and Buzz behind the barn and shot them Gangnam Style. I get the sense that Google operates like libertarian toddlers who just finished a jumbo box of Lucky Charms cereal right before their community theatre performance of Lord of the Flies.
Mad at me yet? No? OK. Good. Let’s move on.
The one Google thingy that schools really love is Google Docs. Boy, do they love Google Docs.
I have long wondered why? We have had word processors for thirty-five years. Most computers come with a free one adequate for most school applications and there are certainly better “Office” suites available. Many schools already own them.
So, why oh why the love affair with Google Docs? I offer a few hypotheses.
Here are the Top Three Reasons Why Schools Love Google Docs. [Drum roll please…]
- Google is cool. The Googleplex has vegan cafeterias, free dry cleaning, massage chairs, AND Ping-Pong tables. I wish our teacher’s lounge had a Pachinko machine and an assortment of herbal teas. That would make me cool too!
- Nuthin’ cheaper than free
and the number one answer why schools love Google Docs is….
Collaboration is nice. Schools like nice. Being collaborative is what nice people do when they want to create nice things.
We have been here before
In the late 1980s, collaboration was all of the rage, but back then it was called cooperative learning. Cooperative learning. A school district sent me to a Robert Slavin Cooperative Learning Boot Camp run by Johns Hopkins University. Like any good boot camp, its intent was to beat us down and build us back up again as champions of cooperative learning. Colleagues were immediately separated so they could not question the dogma or rebel in any way. We learned to “jigsaw” boring and irrelevant curricula.
We were taught to create student teams of four kids; always four kids. The teams should be comprised of a smart kid, a dumb kid, a girl, a boy, a Black kid, a White kid, a skinny kid, a fat kid… Each team should stay together with their desks side-by-side for six weeks, always six weeks. If we did this, spelling test scores would improve.
Of course, during that prehistoric era, Google engineers were not even old enough to disrupt their own Waldorf schools. So, sadly there were no Google Docs to create multiplication flash cards or use all of our vocabulary words in a sentence. The word-processed five-paragraph essay in the cloud would have to wait.
Since 90% of what schools do is Language Arts and 98% of what they do with computers is language arts, Google Docs is mostly used for writing, but its secret power is collaborative writing.
I am a professional writer. (Not that you can tell from this essay) I am the author of hundreds of magazine articles, about as many blog posts (yeah, big whoop), a 450,000 word doctoral dissertation, countless academic papers, and co-authored one of the best-selling books about educational technology.
All of this qualifies me to say something heretical. (IMHO)
Writing is not collaborative!
(Please take a deep breath before declaring me a big meanie poo-poo head.)
You may write different parts of something and smush them together. You may peer-edit. You may create an anthology or periodical containing writing by several people, but writing is a solo sport. Writing is the result of one person’s internal processes.
Collaboration is more than simply the division of labor. It should not be taught as an isolated skill or coerced. Sadly, like many seemingly good ideas, schools seek to mechanize collaboration by turning natural process into a set of measurable skills and multi-year course of study, easily assessed. Some children win, while others fail.
Teams are created by teachers drawing Popsicle sticks with kids’ names written on them (until the teacher doesn’t like a random pairing and “fixes” it.) Students sense the capricious nature of this process and waste precious class time working the refs to get assigned teammates they like. Working with people with whom you are compatible is a logical idea frequently squelched by school “collaboration.”
Back in the halcyon days of Cooperative Learning™, a reporter for the long-defunct Electronic Learning Magazine asked Seymour Papert an intentionally softball question, “What do you think of Cooperative Learning?” Papert replied, “I think it is a profoundly bad idea to force children to work together.”
Collaboration should be natural
Cooperation and collaboration are natural processes. Such skills are useful when the creative process benefits from interdependence. The best collaboration mirrors democracy when individual talents, knowledge, or experiences are contributed to produce something larger than the sum of its parts.
Work with your friends. Work with people you trust. Work with people who have different skills or expertise. If that doesn’t produce the result you desire, you will find others to collaborate with. That is how you learn to collaborate. You may teach it, but the students will not stay taught.
Honestly, I could not care less about whom my students (kids or adults) choose to work with. The only reason to assign group size is scarcity of materials (we have to share). Even in those largely avoidable scenarios, it hardly matters if group size varies a bit. The main consideration is inactivity by some members when a group is too large.
Collaboration is both selfish and selfless. You give of yourself by sharing your talent and expertise, but the collaboration should benefit you as well.
Collaboration should be fluid
One of the great joys of Constructing Modern Knowledge derives from the range of collaboration on display at my annual institute. At the start, participating educators suggest a vast array of project ideas ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Participants identify which project they wish to work on and commence collaboration. If a person loses interest, becomes inspired by another project, or is incompatible with a teammate, they are free to join a different project or start a new one. Some people move effortlessly between multiple project teams; learning even more.
When projects are shared at the end of four days, three to five person teams have created the majority of projects, some may have a dozen or more collaborators, and we often discover delightful projects created by someone who quietly sat in the corner and worked alone.
I have been fortunate to learn a great deal about what I know about learning from some of the world’s best jazz musicians. Those who are expert at what they do, like musicians, artists, and scientists, pursue greatness by working tirelessly on what bugs them. That continuous and indefinite attention to detail makes them incredibly good at articulating how it is that they do what they do. In other words, they are great teachers.
The very fine jazz pianist and educator Peter Martin recently interviewed saxophonist Branford Marsalis and vocalist Kurt Elling about their remarkable collaboration, “Upward Spiral” (recording and tour). Marsalis and Elling are both highly accomplished A-list artists with their own working bands and artistic concepts. Yet, they have decided to spend a couple of years putting “their thing” on hold to create something new, wondrous and collaborative in the best, most natural, sense of the word. The music they create together on stage is transcendent and not to be missed.
During Peter Martin’s podcast, my old friend Branford Marsalis shares his profound concept of collaboration and juxtaposes it against the version so often practiced in schools. There is much to be learned here.
“The whole idea of a collaboration (to me) is that nobody gets to do what is that they do. The modern interpretation of collaboration is I know what you do. You do know what I do. Let’s get a head start and run real fast and collide into one another and whatever spills out over the side is the collaboration.” – Branford Marsalis
True collaboration is great. It’s even better than a free word processor.
 I pulled those figures out of my bum, but I have been doing so for decades and no one has been able to disprove this completely fabricated assertion.
Gary Stager is the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute for educators July 11-14, 2017, coauthor of Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, and curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, DailyPapert.com. Register today for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017!
A recent request from a doctoral student led me to find this 2013 paper I authored. Otherwise, it would have been forever lost in the dustbin of academia. You might find it interesting.
Papert’s Prison Fab Lab: Implications for the maker movement and education design
For three years, the author collaborated with Seymour Papert in the planning, design, operation, teaching and documentation of the Constructionist Learning Laboratory at the Maine Youth Center. This work is significant as it represents Dr. Papert’s last institutional research project and marks his first attempt to design an educational environment based on the theory of constructionism from scratch. The implications for education reform and school reform are numerous. However, in the context of the 2013 Interaction Design and Children focus on DIY/maker culture, the overlooked work of the Constructionist Learning Laboratory the work of Papert, Stager and their colleagues is particularly pertinent. More than a decade before maker culture and “fab labs” emerged as a popular addition to formal education, Papert succeeded in creating a school built entirely upon the ideals of that movement.
Read the complete paper here.
Back in the late Eighties, there was a Logo Conference held in Los Angeles. After a wild night reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s 1985 film, “After Hours,” longtime Papert collaborator Brian Silverman and I found ourselves locked out of where we were supposed to sleep.
Ever the problem solver, Brian said, “Seymour always has a big room. We can sleep there.”
So, we drove back across town and woke Seymour before 5 AM. Despite our discourteous invasion and before we went off to sleep, Papert offered a bit of profundity that withstands the test of time.
One of the people we had been partying with earlier in the evening was teacher, turned software developer, Tom Snyder. Brian remarked something along the lines of, “Tom is a good guy.” Seymour disagreed and said that he viewed the world of educational technology as a triangle with Alfred Bork, Tom Snyder, and himself (Papert) in each of the vertices. Papert went on to say that each of the three men possess a stance that views technology as benefitting one of three constituents in the educational system.
Alfred Bork was notorious for saying that teachers had low SAT scores, were not very bright, and any future teacher shortage would be corrected by replacing teachers with teaching machines. Today’s online testing, “personalized instruction,” and other dystopian systems concerned with delivery, testing, surveillance, and accountability are manifestations of Bork’s fantasies.
Tom Snyder was a fledgling educational software designer in the late 1980s trying to make payroll and in need of a catchy marketing niche. He looked around and found that most classrooms had one computer. So, he decided to make software for the “one computer classroom.” In this scenario, the teacher was an actor, the classroom was a set, and the computer was a prop for engaging in whole class or small group problem solving. Oddly, this practical marketing slogan born from a shortage of computers nearly thirty years ago remains an enduring metaphor for classroom computer use. The “interactive” whiteboard is one example. (Some of Tom’s software is still available)
Seymour Papert believed in the late 1960s that every child would and should have a personal computer with which to mess about with powerful ideas, create, and collaborate.
These three points of view described by Papert in the middle of the night described how technology is not neutral and in an educational setting, it always grants agency to one of three actors; the system, the teacher, or the student. Papert’s disciples see the greatest benefit arising from granting maximum agency to the learner.
Technology is never neutral. An incredibly clever teacher might be able to pull a technology a little bit between the vertices in the triangle, but that doesn’t change the equation. Educators need to decide upon whom they wish to bestow agency. I’m in Papert’s corner. It is best for learners and enjoys the greatest return on investment.
Gary Stager is the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute for educators July 11-14, 2017, coauthor of Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, and curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, DailyPapert.com.
Register today for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017!
Dr. Gary Stager was invited to write a profile of his friend, colleague, and mentor Dr. Seymour Papert for the premiere issue of Hello World!, an impressive new magazine for educators from The Raspberry Pi Foundation. This new print magazine is also available online under a Creative Commons license.
I suggest you explore the entire new magazine for inspiration and practical classroom ideas around the Raspberry Pi platform, “coding,” problem solving, physical computing, and computational thinking.
Gary’s article was cut due to space limitations. However, the good news, for anyone interested, is that the full text of the article appears below (with its original title).
Seymour Papert Would have Loved the Raspberry Pi!
When Dr. Seymour Papert died in July 2016, the world lost one of the great philosophers and change-agents of the past half-century. Papert was not only a recognized mathematician, artificial intelligence pioneer, computer scientist, and the person Jean Piaget hired to help him understand how children construct mathematical knowledge; he was also the father of educational computing and the maker movement.
By the late 1960s, Papert was advocating for every child to have its own computer. At a time when few people had ever seen a computer, Papert wasn’t just dreaming of children using computers to play games or be asked quiz questions. He believed that children should program the computer. They should be in charge of the system; learning while programming and debugging. He posed a fundamental question still relevant today, “Does the child program the computer or does the computer program the child?” Along with colleagues Cynthia Solomon and Wally Feurzig, Papert created Logo, the first programming language designed specifically for children and learning. MicroWorlds, Scratch, and SNAP! are but a few of the Logo dialects in use fifty years later.
Papert’s legacy extends beyond children programming, despite how rare and radical that practice remains today. In 1968, Alan Kay was so impressed by the mathematics he witnessed children doing in Logo that he sketched the Dynabook, the prototype for the modern personal computer on his flight home from visiting Papert at MIT. In the mid-1980s, Papert designed the first programmable robotics construction kit for children, LEGO TC Logo. LEGO’s current line of robotics gear is named for Papert’s seminal book, Mindstorms. In 1993, Papert conjured up images of a knowledge machine that children could use to answer their questions, just like the new Amazon Echo or Google Home. littleBits and MaKey Makey are modern descendants of Papert’s vision.
Prior to the availability of CRTs (video displays), the Logo turtle was a cybernetic creature tethered to a timeshare terminal. As students expressed formal mathematical ideas for how they wished the turtle to move about in space, it would drag a pen (or lift it up) and move about in space as a surrogate for the child’s body, all the while learning not only powerful ideas from computer science, but constructing mathematical knowledge by “teaching” the turtle. From the beginning, Papert’s vision included physical computing and using the computer to make things that lived on the screen and in the real world. This vision is clear in a paper Cynthia Solomon and Seymour Papert co-authored in 1970-71, “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer.”
“In our image of a school computation laboratory, an important role is played by numerous “controller ports” which allow any student to plug any device into the computer… The laboratory will have a supply of motors, solenoids, relays, sense devices of various kids, etc. Using them, the students will be able to invent and build an endless variety of cybernetic systems. “ (Papert & Solomon, 1971)
This document made the case for the maker movement more than forty-five years ago. Two decades later, Papert spoke of the computer as mudpie or material with which one could not only create ideas, art, or theories, but also build intelligent machines and control their world.
From his early days as an anti-apartheid dissident in 1940s South Africa to his work with children in underserved communities and neglected settings around the world, social justice and equity was a current running through all of Papert’s activities. If children were to engage with powerful ideas and construct knowledge, then they would require agency over the learning process and ownership of the technology used to construct knowledge.
“If you can make things with technology, then you can make a lot more interesting things. And learn a lot more by making them.” – Seymour Papert (Stager, 2006)
Programming computers and building robots are a couple examples of how critical student agency was to Papert. He inspired 1:1 computing, Maine becoming the first state on earth to give a laptop to every 7th & 8th grader, and the One Laptop Per Child initiative.
“…Only inertia and prejudice, not economics or lack of good educational ideas stand in the way of providing every child in the world with the kinds of experience of which we have tried to give you some glimpses. If every child were to be given access to a computer, computers would be cheap enough for every child to be given access to a computer.” (Papert & Solomon, 1971)
It made Papert crazy that kids could not build their own computers. When we worked together (1999-2002) to create an alternative project-based learning environment inside a troubled teen prison, we bought PCs hoping that the kids could not only maintain them, but also eventually build their own. Despite kids building guitars, gliders, robots, films, computer programs, cameras, telescopes, and countless other personally meaningful projects uninterrupted for five hours per day – a “makerspace” as school. Back then, it was too much trouble to source parts and build “personal” computers.
In 1995, Papert caused a commotion in a US Congressional hearing on the future of education when an infuriated venture capitalist scolded him while saying that it was irresponsible to assert that computers could cost $100, have a lifespan of a decade, and be maintained by children themselves. (CSPAN, 1995) Later Papert would be fond of demonstrating how any child anywhere in the world could repair the $100 OLPC laptop with a single screwdriver. Before Congress, he asserted that computers only seem expensive when accounting tricks compare them to the price of pencils. If used in the expansive ways his projects demonstrated, Papert predicted that “kid power” could change the world.
The Raspberry Pi finally offers children a low-cost programmable computer that they may build, maintain, expand, and use to control cyberspace and the world around them. Its functionality, flexibility, and affordability hold the promise of leveraging kid power to put the last piece in the Papert puzzle.
CSPAN (Producer). (1995, 12/1/16). Technology In Education [Video] Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?67583-1/technology-education&whence=
Papert, S., & Solomon, C. (1971). Twenty things to do with a computer. Retrieved from Cambridge, MA:
Stager, G. S. (2006). An Investigation of Constructionism in the Maine Youth Center. (Ph.D.), The University of Melbourne, Melbourne.
Bungling the World’s Easiest Sale
And yet in 2005, the notion of a laptop for every student appears to be more controversial than ever. In fact, the proverbial laptop has hit the fan across the country. Shame on us!
The Cobb County, Georgia schools were well on their way to purchasing 63,000 iBooks for teachers and students when a cranky politician sued and got a judge to order an end to the initiative. The cause of the judicial intervention was an accusation of fraud. Voters approved a tax levy designed to “upgrade obsolete computer workstations,” yet the judge seems to think that purchasing laptops does not represent an upgrade. This is a distinction without difference.
My experience suggests that parents eagerly embrace sincere efforts to revolutionize education.
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution and Marietta Daily Journal have featured hysterical reports on the laptop initiative for months. They smell blood and are going after district personnel for among other crimes, having been involved in the planning process and funding teacher professional development. The local press was outraged that Cobb County decided to purchase Apple iBooks instead of the Dell laptops that Henrico County, Virginia just bought for $50 less per unit.
If your educational goals consist of students making four slide PowerPoint slides about frogs to disinterested audiences or using the web to find five interesting facts about Spiro Agnew, then sure, go to Wal-Mart and buy the cheapest laptops. You might even ask kids to bring their PSPs to class and use those instead.
Fiscal prudence with the public purse is noble, but it is irresponsible to make computer purchases based solely on price. Not all computers are created equally. A public agency should be able to make the case that the bundled iLife creativity suite and operating system that Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal says, “leaves Windows XP in the dust,” is worth a few extra dollars per unit. A legitimate educational rationale should be able to be made for purchasing Macs if a district so chooses.
Henrico County, VA made a great contribution to educational computing five years ago when they found a way to purchase more than 20,000 iBooks without raising taxes. Since then their missteps and public pronouncements have made it more difficult for other schools to embrace 1:1 computing. As the Governor of Maine fought for his laptop legislation, Henrico was in the news for inappropriate web use and an overreaction to isolated student mischief. This led Maine and other jurisdictions to accept crippled operating systems that calm the public’s fears, but create unintended consequences down the road. Disabling iTunes means no Tupac, but it also means no Martin Luther King, no Garageband music composition, no podcasting and no videoconferences with NASA scientists.
Just as Cobb County’s laptop plans were hitting their stride, Henrico struck again. Their school board loudly “dumped” Apple and signed a contract with Dell for their next round of laptops. Henrico officials explained that iBooks don’t have Microsoft Office on them. That’s funny. Lots of other schools run Office on their iBooks? Why are school districts issuing press releases announcing their purchases? Why does anyone care? I have no idea which brand of school bus or tater-tots Henrico purchases, why are laptops different?
To complete the Apple exorcism, Henrico decided to sell the dreaded iBooks to the public for $50 each. This led to what is now known as the “iRiot” in which 17 people were trampled and four were hospitalized. CNN reported a woman soiled herself and a guy used a folding chair to beat off other shoppers. Rather than apologize, a district official suggested that the event had “entertainment value.”
Whatever it says on your business card, you’re in sales.
When the legislature opposed his laptop plan, Maine Governor King traveled the state leading creative laptop-based history lessons and generating popular support. He spoke of the democratization of knowledge and opportunity. When the Governor proposed that Maine become “the learning state” with a reenergized economy, he demanded that politicians support the initiative.
Whatever level of public support Cobb County’s plans enjoyed, it was insufficient to ward off the opposition. The public was offered incremental gains in teacher use of computers, a modest gain in students looking up stuff on the Internet at least once a day from 20-50% and a promise that 60% of students will occasionally use brainstorming software. Textbook content would be delivered via the laptop. Woo hoo! I’ve got goose bumps! Where do I send my check?
Worst of all, the district lacked the courage to say that every student would be expected to use the laptop. How can someone opt-out of using the principal instrument for intellectual work, knowledge acquisition and creative expression? Can a student opt-out of using books? Express a moral objection to lectures?
Amidst the unambitious benchmarks and narrow vision, the district’s FAQ just makes stuff up, such as in the case of literature instruction, “software and Internet access can provide access to nearly every published title.”
I’ve worked with many 1:1 schools over the past fifteen years and have found it remarkably easy to justify the investment to auditoriums full of parents. It’s an easy sale when you offer a vision of children learning in unprecedented ways. I share examples of at-risk students increasing attendance and engaging in sophisticated projects, sophisticated concepts being learned in ways impossible just a few years ago, enhanced creativity, more work-related social interactions and learning 24/7, not just between the bells. Images of children participating in the construction of modern knowledge as mathematicians, composers, artists, engineers, poets and scientists appeal to the hopes and dreams of parents.
We need to do a much better job of selling the dream of what computers can bring to the learning process, but first we need to create some compelling models for citizens to embrace. We’ll have plenty of time to do so while we clean up the public relations mess created by the recent ham-fisted laptop implementations.
Do your teachers need a computing IEP?
At the recent Consortium for School Networking conference educational computing pioneer Seymour Papert was asked to explain why there has been so little transformation. Papert told the crowd that their practice of verbal inflation was the major obstacle to educational innovation in the digital age. He meant the breathless rhetoric about the magical ways technology is used in classrooms, when most of those tales could not pass the “So what?” test. Conventional notions of curriculum, assessment and practice are seldom questioned, he said, and yet we have the temerity to declare, “Transformation!”
Computer-generated mind maps are presented to the community as justification for the technology investment while they represent little more than high-tech napkin scribbles or a book report outline. Wiring is mistakenly confused with innovation while we hold on with all our might to the ridiculous mythology of drill-and-practice. The only transformation in the software industry is the ever-changing collection of ways it disguises that you’ll be gonged if you get a long division problem incorrect. Integrated learning systems, classroom performance systems and adaptive instruction are clever euphemisms for turning classrooms into high-stakes game shows. This is just 1980s Math Blaster without that pesky patina of fun.
Teachers who don’t use computers aren’t digital immigrants; they’re digital ninnies.
Conference programs are filled with presentations on how to use computers to reinforce a trivial aspect of the traditional curriculum without ever calling into question that content. Our attention should be paid to how the computer might allow children to not only learn what the textbooks prescribe in a deeper, more efficient fashion, but to develop what Papert called, “modern knowledge.”
All sorts of excuses are made for why the most powerful intellectual instrument ever invented, the computer, has had so little impact on schooling. We blame a shortage of professional development, funding or quality software. Publishers, politicians and principals are also accused of impeding educational progress with their hierarchical mandates. Yet, the simple fact remains that a quarter century after microcomputers entered your schools a minority of teachers use them and an even smaller percentage do so in a way that increases opportunities for all learners.
Lurking in the teacher’s room
Fifteen years ago I had the good fortune to lead professional development at the first two schools where every child had a laptop. Wondrous student work emerged and a good number of educators even “transformed” their teaching practice. Yet, it seemed impossible to reach the “tipping point” when the vast majority of teachers used computers in constructive ways. It turns out there was a staff member, ironically an IT teacher, who would take colleagues aside and tell them not to worry about the laptops or the silly talk of innovation. “This too shall pass,” he suggested. This one teacher caused inestimable damage before moving to several other schools and repeating the pattern.
Many schools harbor such low-tech insurgents and pay too little attention to their potential for destruction.
Dear Mr. & Ms. Crabtree:
You are not noble defenders of childhood innocence or pedagogical excellence. You have managed to block student access to critical learning opportunities and intellectual tools for more than 25 years. There is no acceptable excuse for cheating a generation of children.
We love cute little cliches referring to children as digital natives and adults are mere digital immigrants. Not only is this simplistic aphorism insulting to the millions of grown-ups capable of using a computer, but it also provides cover for the teachers who have refused to enter the last quarter of the 20th century. After all, they’re special.
Why not call such teachers digital ninnies? How about non-learners? Students should not be entrusted to adults so oppositionally defiant as learners. An IEP would be created for a child who displayed such an unwillingness to grow.
School leaders need to expand their vision, raise expectations and use precise language they are indeed going to transform education for the next generation of learners. Let’s cut the baloney, increase access and share compelling models of what children can learn and do with computers.
Blocked Web sites, IT staff that exist to hinder staff, and restrictive policies make integrating technology too hard to overcome
By Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Originally published in District Administration Magazine – December 2002
I recently spent a week teaching in a wonderful school. The school sits on a gorgeous sprawling campus. The principal is well read and charming. The students were delightful and the teachers generous with their hospitality. Every student has his or her own laptop. I was engaging the children in activities I love, and yet I found the overall experience excruciating. Why? Because of an information technology staff run amok.
The unchecked policies, practices and prior restraint exercised by the school’s information technology team made it impossible for me to teach effectively. It seemed as if a surprise lurked behind every mouse click and URL. Despite the school’s enormous investment in computers and networking, very little of it actually worked in the ways one would expect
Non-educators implemented policies prohibiting teachers from-downloading and uploading files, regardless of their content. IP settings needed to be changed when a user switched from an Ethernet to wireless connection. The streaming of QuickTime or RealMedia ties was prohibited regardless of their educational value. Student work could not be published online because the school’s “extranet” has yet to go live. I think extranet is some meglamaniac’s synonym for the Internet
I face similar frustrations at every school I visit–anywhere in the world. I need to beg a network technician for the magical network password, secret IP settings or request an act of Congress to make a presentation. Teachers enrolled in Pepperdine University’s prestigious Online Masters in Educational Technology are routinely denied access to their own coursework by ridicolous filters that ban .edu domains.
It is worth noting that none of these obstacles protect children from the real or imagined threat of pedophiles from Turkmenistan or inappropriate Web content. These obstructions are the creation of control freaks eager to maintain authority they neither earn or deserve. The payroll and morale costs are inestimable.
The Looming Crisis
Computer coordinators used to say, “If I do my job, I won’t have a job in two years.” A decade later there seems to be a dozen non-instructional tech coordinators, directors or managers for each of their predecessors.
Haven’t computers become easier to use and more reliable? Shouldn’t professional educators be competent computer users after a generation of bribing, begging, cajoling, tricking, threatening, inservicing and coercing? If so, then why do we have so many support personnel employed by schools? How much do they cost? When will they be unnecessary?
Reasonable people may disagree over the role of Web filtering and schools have a finite budget for bandwidth. However, IT personnel are making insane, expensive and miseducative decisions. There is no greater threat to successful classroom computer use than the actions of the staff employed to support that very use.
The Web is not static. Plug-ins are not a cancer, they add functionality. I am grateful that Web browsers were built with an open architecture allowing them to be extensible. This has accelerated the power of the Web in ways unanticipated by its creators.
The power of the Web is in its ability to democratize publishing and offer students the potential for unlimited audience. This is a critical educational rationale derailed by non-educators. Such policies insult professional educators.
Administrators who give unprecedented budgetary discretion and policy-making control to IT staff are abdicating their responsibilities. School leaders need to summon the courage to face things that plug-in and become conversant in networking issues. They must supervise non-instructional personnel and determine their actual staffing needs. Failure to do so results in an enormous waste of money, teacher dissatisfaction and underutilized technology.
I have been using computers for more than 25 years. I use and maintain a cross-platform wireless network at home. I write computer manuals, program in several languages and yet needed to call for help every few minutes during my recent teaching stint. The average teacher juggling all of her responsibilities with a desire to use computers in the classroom does not have a prayer.
An old friend and colleague got a new job at an education marketing/communication company where he believed they wanted actual content. He asked me to share some views on educational leadership. So, I took the time to formulate responses for his august publication. Sadly, it appears that the new publication seeks to be a low-rent version of EdSurge, focused on aggregating links and pro-vendor happy talk. Therefore, I humbly share the unpublished interview with my dozen of loyal social media readers.
Question: What do educators need to know today?
- Shameless self-promotion is the key to all good things in education.
Sixteen years of politics have successfully eroded the public’s confidence in public education. Every school needs a Minister of Propaganda to inform the community of the wonderful things happening in classrooms. If the adults feel incapable of performing this role, find a fifteen year-old student to deputize.
- We stand on the shoulders of giants.
I once heard President Clinton say, “Every problem in education has been solved somewhere.” Put down the Twitter machine, read some books, attend conferences, and learn from great educators.
- I want to live in a world where kids wake up at three AM clamoring to get back to school to work on a project they care about and where teachers ask themselves, “How do I make this the best seven hours of a kid’s life?”
- There is nothing to be gained from reading “get rich quick” books sold at airport gift shops.
Thomas Friedman, Frank Bruni, Steven Covey, Michael Horn, Clayton Christensen, and Dan Pink are no match for Herbert Kohl, John Dewey, Loris Malaguzzi, Seymour Papert, Alfie Kohn, Jonathan Kozol, or Frank Smith. A suggested reading list may be found at http://cmkfutures.com/reading/
- The current fascination with “Big Data Analytics” and “AI” will result in classrooms none of you will send your kids to.
Rather than wait for a dystopian future, there are things we can do today to make schools better places for learning.
- We need to fight amnesia.
Since “No Child Left Behind,” mountains of wisdom and evidence have been erased from our professional practice. For example, the debate over approaches to literacy ranges all of the way from punitive phonics to painful phonics. Sound commonsense practices, such as whole language, are no longer even debated.
- Removing agency from teachers makes them less effective, not more.
- It is time for urgency.
As Jonathan Kozol says, “You are only 7 once.” Microcomputers have now been in schools for close to two generations. It is high time we stop debating the merits of modernity.
- We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.
We can afford a multimedia laptop and cello for every child.
- If every school had a strong instrumental music program, there might not be a President Trump.
- “Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions.” – Deborah Meier
- Pearson is not your friend.
Question: When did a deep knowledge of teaching practices and education philosophy become a hindrance?
Around 1985, a couple of years after A Nation at Risk, legislatures around the world declared, “Teaching ain’t nothin’,” and replaced rich and varied teacher education curricula with Animal Control and Curriculum Delivery. The art of teaching and self-contained interdisciplinary elementary classrooms were replaced with departmentalized, mechanical efficiency schemes.
Unqualified is the new qualified. Appointing unqualified folks, like Joel Klein or Betsy DeVos, to leadership positions signals a corrosive message throughout the school system – educators can not be trusted to lead schools.
It is impossible to overstate the impact of the anti-intellectual assault on public education led by Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton Family, and Teach for America. It is preposterous to argue against continuing education for educators. Why isn’t there Hedgefund Trader for America or Surgeon for America?
Question: What are the top three things Gary Stager University would teach prospective teachers and principals?
- Teaching and learning are not the same thing. Learning is a verb and not the direct result of having been taught. Learning is natural. Children do not need to be tricked or coerced into learning when engaged in meaningful pursuits. Whenever faced with a classroom decision, educators should rely on the mantra, “Less Us, More Them.” Students always profit when maximum agency is shifted to them.
- The “project” should be the smallest unit of concern to educators. Piaget teaches us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” Experiences are best supported through interesting learner-centerered projects.
- Classroom management is only necessary when you go into a classroom thinking you need to manage it. We need to lower the level of antagonism between adults and children in order to create productive contexts for learning. If your temperament and worldview are better suited to being a prison guard, you have made a serious vocational error.
I became a pre-k through 8th grade teacher in the mid-1980s. I was literally in the last teacher education cohort who was expected to learn how to teach science, music, art, physical education, special education, make puppets out of Pop-Tart boxes, create math manipulatives, and fill a classroom with interdisciplinary projects. Teacher preparation was equal parts art and science. Then around 1985, a couple of years after A Nation at Risk, legislatures around the world declared, “Teaching ain’t nothin’,” and replaced rich and varied teacher education curricula with Animal Control and Curriculum Delivery.
Today, anyone who has ever been a billionaire or 7-11 night manager can run the US Department of Education or be a superintendent of schools, while well-prepared and experienced educators are met with suspicion and derision. We say that, “we stand on the shoulders of giants,” but ask a room full of school leaders how many of the authors in this reading list they have read and prepare to be stunned by the blank stares. Suggest any teaching practice not sold by Pearson and you’re likely to have a school principal reply, “Oh! You mean like Montessori?” Quite simply, unqualified is the new qualified.
Elementary teaching has been narrowed and departmentalized in ways that make it as ineffective as high school. Truly getting to know each child and to engage them in meaning making through interdisciplinary projects has been the first casualty of the assault on the art of teaching. As teacher agency has eroded through mistrust, prescriptive curriculum, and standardized testing, teachers become less, not more, thoughtful in their practice. When you mechanize teaching and place it under constant surveillance, teaching quality becomes less human, rewarding, joyful, creative, and more compliant.
Over the past thirty years, educators have lost control, freedom, and memory of classic pedagogical practices. During my work in classrooms around the world, I am often struck by how teachers are unaware of teaching practices I have long taken for granted. For example, I just assumed that every teacher knew about classroom centers, could defend their use, and make them a staple of each learning environment. I was wrong. That’s one of the reasons I wrote “Thoughts on Classroom Centers,” although I would still love to find the seminal work(s) on the topic.
While mentioning this lingering question to one of my heroes, Deborah Meier, she suggested I ask Renée Dinerstein. (I intend to) Ms. Dinnerstein is the author of a fine new book, Choice Time – How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2. The book focuses on the critical element of student choice and what they do during learner-centered classroom time. Classroom centers are the magic carpet of choice time.
I just purchased the book and cannot recommend it highly enough. It is a beautiful guide filled with clear and practical advice for teachers without being condescending or treating its readers like imbeciles. The book is not 500 pages of jargon and reproducibles, but rather 165 pages of inspiration intended to rekindle creative teaching in order to create more productive contexts for learning by children. It also helps teachers observe and understand the thinking of each child.
Although it says that the book’s wiscom is intended for PK-2nd grade, I would recomment the book to teachers at any grade level.
The author maintains a web site, investigatingchoicetime.com, intended to extend the inspiration shared in the book.
On Christmas Eve (2016), the world lost one of its most profound thinkers when learning theorist, Dr. Edith Ackermann, left us at age 70. Anyone blessed with even the most casual encounter with Edith embraced her as a mentor, collaborator, and friend. She bestowed boundless respect upon anyone trying to make the world more beautiful, just, or creative. Edith’s grace danced into a room like a cool breeze awakening its occupants and setting their sights towards what truly matters.
Edith was a giant among learning theorists, even if under-appreciated and a best kept secret. Her work focused on the intersection of play, design, childhood, and technology. She worked closely with Jean Piaget, Seymour Papert, and Ernst von Glasersfeld – three of the most important experts on learning ever. Her insights were invaluable to the LEGO Company, MIT students, architects, and educators around the world.
Edith was always there to help me clarify my thinking and to take an idea one stop past my anticipated exit. She was a pal with whom you could walk arm in arm discussing almost anything, laugh boisterously, and gossip quietly. We disliked many of the same ideas and people, but Edith was just much better at hiding her disdain.
Perhaps, Edith’s remarkable perspective came from being an outsider. Despite the profound impact she had on innumerable students and colleagues, I never got the sense that the testosterone-oozing world of MIT afforded her the respect or security she so richly deserved.
Shamefully, I do not know much about Edith’s history or personal life; yet another painful reminder that we should do everything possible to know our friends better. Therefore, I will share some thoughts about her work and what she meant to me.
I don’t remember when I first met Edith. I think it was in 2000 when Seymour Papert sent me to sub for him as the keynote speaker at a conference held at the Piaget Archives in Geneva. Papert failed to tell the organizers that 1) he wasn’t coming or 2) that I was his replacement. The entire story is a hilarious comedy of errors that I’ll share another day.
Edith and I attended many EuroLogo (now Constructionism) Conferences and worked together 15+ years ago in Mexico City leading a workshop as members of the MIT Media Lab’s Future of Learning Group. Several years ago, I invited Edith to be a guest speaker at my 2014 Constructing Modern Knowledge institute. I set aside concerns that her Swiss accent, quiet demeanor, and brilliant intellect would not work in a room full of predominantly American educators. Her unrivaled genius made the risk worthwhile.
Edith’s wisdom, passion, humanity, and generosity of spirit made her an immediate favorite of the very educators who others treat as low-skill labor in need of a 7-step plan for raising achievement. The next year, Edith spent most of the institute with us interacting informally with participants and appearing on a panel discussion with two of my other heroes, David Loader and Deborah Meier. Last summer, despite her ongoing battle with Cancer, Edith Ackermann spent all four days of CMK helping each of us make meaning out of our individual and collective experiences.
Edith taught us so much.
One powerful idea she shared was that “Making is a way of seeing.” Edith had a gift for bringing into focus what others miss. She invited us to “lean in,” not in the vulgar career climbing form advocated by Sheryl Sandberg, but as a way of becoming one with nature, the community, ideas, beauty, and one’s soul.
I would like to share three very special memories of Edith Ackermann at Constructing Modern Knowledge.
After nine years of effort, I managed to convince Reggio Children President Carla Rinaldi to participate in Constructing Modern Knowledge. Edith and Carla were old friends who greeted each other with great love and respect. Their mutual affection was truly touching. During the institute, I stole a little time to show Carla and Edith how Tickle (an iOS dialect of Scratch) could be used to bring drones and a variety of robots to life. They appreciated the technological wizardry for a split second and then became preschoolers imagining how the different toys could play, communicate and love one another. Both experts were so in tune with the inner lives of children that they were able to wear the spirit of childhood play with great ease and abundant joy.
A tacit theme of Constructing Modern Knowledge involves creating the conditions by which each participating educator may think about how their particular learning experience connects with their own priory experience and future classroom practice. Superficially, our speakers may seem to have nothing to do with one another or the sorts of project work undertaken by CMK attendees. In 2015, I invited two National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters, 86 year-old pianist Barry Harris and 89 year-old saxophonist Jimmy Heath, to perform a masterclass at CMK. Edith not only understood immediately why I invited them to perform at an event about learning and making, but she was thrilled to spend time with Barry Harris whose music she knew. Edith had also watched videos of Barry teaching. Just take a look at the joy with which she approached this encounter.
I work all year organizing Constructing Modern Knowledge and try to steal an hour to indulge a passion of mine, taking great friends and colleagues to Cremeland, an “al fresco” roadside stand in Manchester, New Hampshire known for its fabulous fried fish and ice cream. The first year Edith joined the CMK team, I took her and a couple of colleagues for our secret lunch at Cremeland. You order food at one window, eat at picnic tables in the parking lot, and then return to a window at the opposite end of the building for decadent ice cream.
There is always a bit of chaos when a group of people are ordering from an unknown menu through a tiny window, but throw Edith’s Swiss accent into the mix and watch hilarity ensue.
Server: Can I take your order?
Edith: I’ll have the haddock platter.
Server: Hot Dog?
Server: Hot Dog?
Server: Hot Dog?
Edith: NO! Haddock not Hot Dog!
This became a private joke between us and when I gave the CMK faculty and speakers t-shirts with chalkboards printed on them, Edith wrote, “Haddock, not hot dog,” on hers.
Au revoir dear Edith…. We love you and will miss you more than you could ever know.
For further reading…
- Constructivism(s): Shared roots, crossed paths, multiple legacies
- Cultures of creativity and modes of appropriation: From DIY (Do It Yourself) to BIIT (Be In It Together)
- The Craftsman, The Trickster, and The Poet “Re-Souling” The Rational Mind
- Minds in Motion, Media in Transition Growing up in the digital age: Areas of change
- Amusement, Delight, and Whimsy: Humor Has Its Reasons that Reason Cannot Ignore
- Microgravity Playscapes – Play in Long-Term Space Missions (Edith Ackermann coauthor)
- Programming For The Natives: What is it? What’s In It For The Kids?
- Systematic Creativity In The Digital Realm
- LEGO Learning Foundation Future of Learning Whitepaper (Edith Ackermann coauthor)
- To Know is to Relate: The Art of Distancing in Human Transactions (1997)
- More papers by Edith Ackermann
Constructionism 2010 Talk – Constructivism(s): Shared roots, crossed paths, multiple legacies