I’ve managed to do some some writing during the plague. Thanks for reading and stay safe.

  1. This is Our Moment! 
  2. Let COVID-19 Kill the Pencil
  3. Time for Optimism
  4. Scratch and the Negligent Homicide of Mathland

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practice “Less us, more them”

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

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

Remember, less is more

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

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

Launch students into open-ended learning adventures

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

Inspire kids to read entire books

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

Tackle a new piece of software

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

Contribute to something larger than yourself

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

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

Teach like you know better

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

Take note of current events

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

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

Let Grow

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

Stand on the shoulders of giants

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

Take time to enjoy some culture

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

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

Apprentice with the world’s greatest living mathematician

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

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

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

Abandon hysterical internet policies

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

Heed Seymour Papert’s advice

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

Do twenty things to do with a computer

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

Program your own Gameboy

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

Teach reading and programming simultaneously

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

Share my sense of optimism

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

Wash your hands! Stay inside! Stand with children!


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

Prechewed Pencils

Today’s horrific health and economic crisis might have at least one educational benefit, students are “working” from home and like everywhere else in the past two generations, communication is largely via computer generated text, not manual handwriting.

Whenever I visit a school, I scan the environment, observe social interactions, and look for learning artifacts. Even while strolling around spectacular schools — the sort of institutions blessed with phenomenal facilities, grandiose grounds, well-stocked libraries, maker spaces, and performing arts centers — I sense reason for concern. The lower primary classrooms have examples, presumably of exemplary student work, adorning the corridor walls. Sadly, the displayed work fails to match the grandeur, quality, and expectations of the school. Por que?

Thanks to the technology of choice, the pencil, your average elementary school student will spend an inordinate amount of time filling a cleverly designed worksheet with two or three banal sentences. I truly lament the lost opportunities for children to create work commensurate with their creativity and intellect. The prophylactic barrier is the pencil.

How many learning disabilities are created by a six-year-old’s confusion between their ability to express one’s self and their physical prowess at etching letters with a primitive writing stick? The development of a child’s fine motor skills is much better suited to typing than handwriting. Few other intellectual pursuits require muscle development.

Word processing is the undisputed winner of the computer age. No serious writer under the age of a presidential candidate uses a writing stick for more than writing “not my fault” in Sharpie. Writers “write” on computers. Period. Full stop. Fin!

I harbor no doubt that the pencil has retarded literacy development. It spawned the five-paragraph essay, inauthentic “writing” assignments, and has made life unpleasant for teachers sifting through piles of student chicken scratch. The pencil has fundamentally limited the quality and volume of student writing. This is indisputable.

You learn to write by writing. When you waste several years teaching kids, not one, but two different styles of ancient stick scratching, you severely diminish opportunities for students to say something with coherence, persuasion, beauty, or personal voice.

Word processing makes it possible to write more, better, and quicker, while the editing process is continuous and fluid. You may still turn in X number of drafts to satisfy an assignment, but each of those drafts is the product of countless micro-drafts. Best of all, word processing eliminates another useless and ineffective subject of bygone eras, Spelling instruction! Bonus! #winning

Spare me the academic papers by tenure-track weenies at East Metuchen Community  College seeking to “prove” that handwriting instruction raises test scores or I will be forced to send you reams of scholarship on butter churning as an effective weight loss strategy or blood letting as an indicator of entrepreneurship.

I am sorry, but publishers of handwriting workbooks and providers of D’Nealian professional development may have to go and get themselves some of those clean coal jobs or find some other way to torture young people. The College Board may be hiring!

If you feel nostalgic about handwriting, offer a calligraphy elective. Now, your school will have an art class! The high-falutin handwritten International Baccalaureate a concern? Relegate penmanship to an 11th grade PE unit.

The only time I use a pen or pencil is when asked to autograph a copy of a book I composed on a computer. Banking is online, so no more check writing excuses. You can teach kids to sign their name on a greeting card for their great grandmother in a session or two and then say, “Aloha!” to Eberhard Faber. Spend the rest of elementary school how to think and engage in work that matters. Their lumbrical muscles will thank you and their intellectual development will no longer be limited by a Number 2 drawing stick.

Teachers, it’s time to say goodbye to your little friend… Pencils R.I.P


For those interested in “keyboarding instruction,” please read this literature review.


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

“Prechewed Pencils” by Bernie Goldbach is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

One anonymous teacher who is quoted in my book, claims that her district is not using DIBELS because administrators and teachers want to use it or because it gives helpful information, because it doesn’t, she claims. “We’re using it because Reading First requires it,” she says. “Some schools are posting fluency scores of children … and then the students have race cars, in the form of bulletin boards, where they are trying to race to the speed goal. On the phoneme segmentation part, some kindergarten classrooms have been known to drill and practice the segmentation while kids are in line waiting for the restroom.”

DIBELS is not just an early literacy test. Teachers are required to group learners and build instruction around the scores. They’re evaluated on the DIBELS scores their pupils achieve. Publishers are tailoring programs to DIBELS. And academic and life decisions for children, starting in kindergarten, are being made according to DIBELS scores.

I believe this period in American education will be characterized as the pedagogy of the absurd. Roland Good, a DIBELS developer, told the U.S. House of Representatives’ Education Committee during a hearing last April that three million children are tested with DIBELS at least three times a year from kindergarten through third grade. New Mexico provides every teacher with a DIBELS Palm Pilot so the pupils’ scores can be sent directly to Oregon for processing.

Kentucky’s associate education commissioner testified at the hearing that the state’s Reading First proposal was rejected repeatedly until they agreed to use DIBELS. The DOE inspector general cited conflicts of interest by Good and his Oregon colleagues in promoting DIBELS.

Another teacher, quoted in my book, claims that while the DIBELS test is used throughout the school year, any child who receives the label “Needs Extensive Intervention” as a result of the first testing must be monitored with a “fluency passage” every other week.

No test of any kind for any purpose has ever had this kind of status. In my book, I analyzed each of the subtests in depth. Here are my conclusions:

•   DIBELS reduces reading to a few components that can be tested in one minute. Tests of naming letters or sounding out nonsense syllables are not tests of reading. Only the misnamed Reading Fluency test involves reading a meaningful text, and that is scored by the number of words read correctly in one minute.

•   DIBELS does not test what it says it tests. Each test reduces what it claims to test to an aspect tested in one minute.

•   What DIBELS does, it does poorly, even viewed from its own criteria. Items are poorly constructed and inaccuracies are common.

•   DIBELS cannot be scored consistently. The tester must time responses (three seconds on a stopwatch), mark a score sheet, and listen to the student, whose dialect may be different from the tester, all at the same time.

•   DIBELS does not test the reading quality. No test evaluates what the reader comprehends. Even the “retelling fluency test” is scored by counting the words used in a retelling.

•   The focus on improving performance on DIBELS is likely to contribute little or nothing to reading development and could actually interfere. It just has children do everything fast.

•   DIBELS misrepresents pupil abilities. Children who already comprehend print are undervalued, and those who race through each test with no comprehension are overrated.

•   DIBELS demeans teachers. It must be used invariantly. It leaves no place for teacher judgment or experience.

•   DIBELS is a set of silly little tests. It is so bad in so many ways that it could not pass review for adoption in any state or district without political coercion. Little can be learned about something as complicated as reading development in one-minute tests.

Pedagogy of the Absurd
I believe this period in American education will be characterized as the pedagogy of the absurd. Nothing better illustrates this than DIBELS. It never gets close to measuring what reading is really about-making sense of print. It is absurd that self-serving bureaucrats in Washington have forced it on millions of children. It is absurd that scores on these silly little tests are used to judge schools, teachers and children. It is absurd that use of DIBELS can label a child a failure the first week of kindergarten. And it is a tragedy that life decisions are being made for 5- and 6-year-olds on the basis of such absurd criteria.

Today’s parents of five year olds are hearing a new answer to the age old question, “What did you do in school today? “I got DIBELed.” Within a few days of entering kindergarten, hundreds of thousands of five year olds are given their first opportunity to taste failure in their ability to say the names of letters in three seconds, say the sound that a picture name begins with in three seconds, and sound out three letter words in three seconds. And if they can’t get enough letters named, initial sounds made, or words sounded in one minute in each DIBELS sub-test then they have failed and are thus in need of intensive instruction even though they just started kindergarten. From then on they will be DIBELed three times during each year through third grade and sometimes beyond. By mid-year in kindergarten the children also must sound out a page of nonsense syllables. 

DIBELS reduces reading to a set of one-minute tests of reading “skills.” Many five year olds are simply overwhelmed by being escorted to an unfamiliar place in the school where a stranger with a stop watch rushes them through a series of tasks and stops them before they have had any chance to figure out what is happening.  

DIBELS takes over the lives of primary children and determines their school future. It becomes the curriculum. In a half-day kindergarten five year olds will get little more than DIBELing in school. Ironically, there’s little time for reading and even less time for writing. And all over America children are being retained in Kindergarten or first grade on the basis of their DIBELS scores. Some teachers have a bulletin board with nonsense words for the children to practice reading nonsense. Children practice for DIBELS while waiting in line to use the toilet.  

With their commitment to testing what a child can do rapidly and accurately in one minute, DIBELS authors reduce reading to a series of tasks that measures something less than what the name of each implies. The tests are Letter Naming, Initial Sound, Phonemic Segmentation , Nonsense Words , Oral Reading. The last is the only test that has the child read a real passage. The score is the number of words read correctly in one minute. Children learn in repeated testing and practice to say as many words as they can quickly and not worry about the meaning. There is also a Retelling, added according to the DIBELS manual when teachers worried that the oral reading score didn’t show comprehension. The score is the number of words the child used in the retelling. In this test there is no concern for the quality of the retelling.

The authors also added an oral Word Use test that involves no reading..The child is asked to “use” a word. The score is the number of words used in using the word.  

The authors require what they call “fluency” in each sub-test. The child must be fast and accurate whether naming letters, abstracting initial sounds, breaking words into sounds, saying nonsense words, reading oral passages, retelling the text, or using words orally. It’s hard to see what how fast a child can name letters has to do with making sense of print.  

In none of the DIBELS one minute tests is there any measure of the quality of the reading: No score shows comprehension. 

To summarize: DIBELS is a set of silly little, one minute tests so poorly thought through and constructed that they would be unlikely to pass the review of any school, district or state committee. Education Week has said that there are widespread beliefs among local and state authorities that they could not receive No Child Left Behind funds unless they adopted DIBELS. (Education Week, Sept. 7, 2005.) 

No child should suffer what millions are suffering from DIBELS. And no parent or teacher should be party to DIBELing the enthusiasm for school out of children for the sake of the meaningless bench marks that are replacing learning to read in too many American schools.


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

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

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

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

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

 

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

I fear for the future of such experiences in a world in which software has no value and there is no incentive for modern Logos to be created. Scratch benefits from mountains of government, university, and corporate funding, making it the 900-pound gorilla in coding for kids.

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

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

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

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

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

[Kids] It draws!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider this simple example:

fd 20
fd 30
fd 100

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

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

bk 75
rt 180 fd 75
fd -75

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

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


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

Resources

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

Selected bibliography

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

The Papert articles (above) are available here.


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


All children should learn to program, not because it may lead to a job, but because it is a new liberal art and grants young people agency over an increasingly and technologically sophisticated world. At a time of rising authoritarianism and science denialism, it seems prudent to provide kids with experiences that develop a systematic way of making sense of the world. It may literally be the least we can do.

click to enlarge

Current approaches to teaching computing to kids suffer from the traditional failures of curriculum development and too often fall prey to the following desires:

  • vocabulary acquisition
  • a condescending view of teacher competence
  • convenience
  • frugality
  • ignorance of the intellectual euphoria associated with bending a computer to your will
  • offering students an illusion of agency without actual power
  • speed

The calls for “CS for All” are right out of the timeless schooling playbook; require a new subject without a requisite investment of funds or imagination and reduce it the sort of lifeless content devoid of experience that is easily tested. For extra credit, “demonstrate” that some students just don’t have a facility for the subject. A bell curve would be swell, but the real goal is for the “new subject” to fail with only children and their teachers to blame.

Scope & sequence from Microsoft’s CS curriculum for the micro:bit. https://makecode.microbit.org/courses/csintro

There is no better way to explain the quality of computer science curricula being developed for school use. Much of this curriculum is designed by interns or the very same educators who presided over the death of interest in CS. In many cases, the curriculum focuses on isolated topics, rather than on doing. What can a student do with the information being taught? Fluency is the goal!

(IMHO) Computer programming is not a means to demonstrate understanding of computer science jargon or even a technical act. At its best, computer programming a form of composition – like writing, music composition, painting, sculpting, or dancing. A handful of carefully designed assignments does not make one a computer programmer any more than it produces authors, musicians, or artists.

Computer programming mediates a conversation between the person and herself. Skills and habits of mind emerge from acts of creation, development, and debugging. One might think about this in terms of the purest forms of project-based learning where the project is a teacher’s smallest unit of concern and students are free to lose themselves in the process of realizing something that matters to them.

Great expertise is developed by identifying things that bother you, a laser-like focus on overcoming that obstacle, and the emergence of a new thing that bothers to you as you approach your temporary goal. This phenomena maps perfectly to the process of programming and debugging. It also matches a young person’s remarkable capacity for intensity while mirroring the writing process and other forms of composition.

Show kids a primitive or two and see what they can do with it. The genius of “Logo family” languages, like MicroWorlds, Lynx, Scratch, Snap!, TurtleStitch, Beetleblocks,  Turtle Art, or perhaps even MakeCode is that seemingly infinite world of complexity can be realized with a handful of commands or blocks. With forward and right, you can draw anything in the universe. New commands, reporters, variables, conditionals, and control structures may be introduced to students as they need them. Programming elegance results from constraints or experience. Since microcomputers are no longer limited to 4K of RAM, “efficient” code becomes less of a necessity and more of an aesthetic quality that develops over time.Allowing kids to program in their own voice allows them to concretize abstractions and solve problems while developing programming prowess.

The Piagetian adage, “knowledge is a consequence of experience,” is certainly true for programming. The more you program and the longer you stare at the screen of what you are programming, the better you will become at it. Schools that “or a little bit of Scratch” or celebrate “Hour of Code” trivialize the power of programming. Engaging in the false complexity associated with teaching a new programming language every year (or faster) is also likely to deprive students of the exhilarating feelings that result from your program meeting or exceeding your expectations. Programming should be like learning to write, compose, make cinema, dance, etc…

Above all else, quality work takes time. What’s your hurry?

PS: Computer programming requires computers.

• • •

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


Get started learning to program by programming at Constructing Modern Knowledge 2020!

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Coding & Physical Computing Masterclasses in California!

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

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

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

Here’s the project idea…

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

Extension

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

Try these challenges

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

That’s it!

Happy programming



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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

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

“Things take longer to happen than you think they will, but then they happen faster than you thought they could.” – Al Gore

As summer 2019 draws to a close, I am left with a sense of renewed optimism. It feels as if there is a growing appetite for the sort of progressive, constructionist, child-centered, Reggio inspired, project-based I have advocated for over my entire career. The popularity of our book Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, interest in the other books we publish, and the success of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute contributes to my optimism. I spent much of August working in three different schools that are unapologetically progressive. They embrace things like project-based learning, no grades, multi-age grouping, authentic assessment, learning-by-making, and computing as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression. I have not enjoyed this level of fun and meaningful work since I led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools, started one of the first camp computer programming programs, or collaborated with Seymour Papert on my doctoral research, when we created a multiage, project-based, alternative learning environment for incarcerated teens.

Recent news accounts detail how the children of the Koch Brothers are creating a progressive school in Wichita, Kansas, called Wonder. Even if that school and its potential spinoffs are the polar opposite of the obedience schools for other people funded by the Kochs, the mere recognition by rich people that progressive education is preferable (at least for their children) may be viewed as a small victory.

EduTwitter and education articles are awash in ideas with progressive intent. Unfortunately, much of the escalating volume of half-baked and often terrible advice dispensed is shallow, ahistoric, or just plain wrong. However, even impoverished or disingenuous notions of student voice, reflection, metacognition, choice, centers, exhibitions of work, Montessori education, agency, making, etc. are evidence of a growing desire for progressive education.

We may also see a demographic shift in the expectations for schooling by millennials who entered kindergarten the year No Child Left Behind was enacted and are now coming to grips with the costs of an impoverished educational experience focused on standardization, testing, and narrowing of the curriculum. Their K-12 education was distinguished by constant test-prep, teacher shaming, charter and privatization schemes, elimination of electives, and dismantling of arts programs.

Their teachers’ preparation was focused on animal control and curriculum delivery, absent practice in the art of teaching. Tens of thousands of Teach for America interns were thrown in front of a classroom after being handed a backpack of tricks and greeting card messages about “what a teacher makes.” Whole language, classroom centers, interdisciplinary projects, authentic assessment, pleasure reading, play, integration, and even recess were flickering flames in the heads of teachers old enough to remember the seventies. Donald Graves, Frank Smith, John Holt, Lillian Weber, Maxine Greene, Herb Kohl, Ken and Yetta Goodman, Ivan Illitch, Bev Bos, Vivian Paley, Loris Malaguzzi, Dennis Littky, Deborah Meier, and Ted Sizer have been erased from the common language of educators. Award-winning school administrators congratulate themselves for their discovery of TED Talks on the hotel room TV during one of the many school discipline conferences. Sound educational theory has been replaced by “I believe.”

Hey Stager, I thought you said there was room for optimism? Those last two paragraphs are pretty brutal.

There is now, and will be for the foreseeable future, more demand for progressive education than there is supply.

The children of the first Millennials are now entering school. This emerging generation of parents will greet the schooling of their children with a hunger for a different educational diet than they experienced, even if they have no idea what that might be. Those of us who know better, need to do better. We need to create clear and distinguishable options for parents yearning for a creative, humane, and joyful educational experience for their children. I assert that the demand for progressive education already exceeds supply and will continue to grow.

Remarkable new materials and software are creating opportunities not just to teach things we have always wanted kids to know, but are granting students access to new knowledge domains, ways of knowing, and creative outlets unimaginable just a few years ago. Such objects-to-think-with help realize a modern sustainable form of progressive education.

The challenge: When the Koch Brothers and progressives value the same quality of education for their children, doing the right thing for all children might not only be viable, but on the right side of history. Imagine if the world awakes from its slumber and suddenly desires the kind of educational system many of us dream of. How would we meet the demand? Who will teach in that fashion? Who will teach the teachers? Where does one begin?

My recent work reminds me that even in schools fully committed to progressive ideals, we are building the plane while flying it. Regardless of the quality of their preservice education, teachers love children and want to be liberated from the shackles of compliance. Schools will need to educate children, their teachers, and the community all at the same time if they wish to invent a better future. You cannot visit this future, watch a video about it, or tweet it into existence. No amount of education tourism is a substitute for you and your colleagues taking the controls, confronting your compromises, and doing the right thing.

Issues to address as a community

My work in progressive schools has helped me identify a list of issues schools need to address in any attempt to realize their aspirations. Essential conversations are ongoing and essential, but must accompany bold, meaningful, and reflective practice.

Where do we begin?

  • Projects
  • Teaching for democracy
  • Independence and interdependence
  • The value of learning stories
  • Honoring childhood
  • Removing coercion, competition, and antagonism from the classroom
  • Interdisciplinary projects are not a mash-up but are rooted in reflective practice.
  • The importance of whimsy, beauty, and fun
  • Computer programing as a liberal art
  • The value of school R&D

Making the case for project-based learning

  • What is a project?
  • Projects as the curriculum, not a culminating activity
  • Teaching in a project-based environment
  • How do you know a kid is learning?

What happens in a progressive classroom?

  • The limits of instruction
  • What if a kid isn’t interested in a particular project?
  • Connecting to student interests
  • How long should a project last?
  • Classroom centers
  • Shaping the learning environment
  • Teacher as researcher

Curriculum

  • How do I satisfy “the curriculum” without teaching it?
  • How skills and knowledge emerge from projects
  • The power of themes
  • Finding the balance between student interests and the responsibility to introduce children to things they don’t yet know they love
  • Why the constructive use of computers is non-negotiable.
  • Lessons from the Reggio Emilia Approach, El Sistema, constructionism, and other progressive traditions

The issues involved in realizing the ideals of progressive education are subtle and incredibly complex. They may even be impossible, but such aspirations are beneficial and worthy of a relentless pursuit.

Piaget “teaches us that knowledge is a consequence of experience.” If we wish for teachers to teach differently, they need to experience learning in new ways. If we want parents to support our progressive efforts, they too need to experience learning in different contexts.

We’re not clairvoyant and can’t predict what the future holds. We do however know a great deal about how to amplify the potential of each teacher and learner. I intend to dedicate the rest of my days making schools more productive contexts for learning so that each school day may be the best seven hours of a kid’s life.

I look forward to helping many more schools stand on the side children, perhaps even yours.

Please reach out if you are interested in PD, speaking, consulting services, family workshops, or school residencies.


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

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