The following is an attempt to share some of my objections to Common Core in a coherent fashion. These are my views on a controversial topic. An old friend I hold in high esteem asked me to share my thoughts with him. If you disagree, that’s fine. Frankly, I spent a lot of time I don’t have creating this document and don’t really feel like arguing about the Common Core. The Common Core is dying even if you just discovered it.

This is not a research paper, hence the lack of references. You can Google for yourself. Undoubtedly, this post contains typos as well. I’ll fix them as I find them.

This critique shares little with the attacks from the Tea Party or those dismissed by the Federal Education Secretary or Bill Gates as whiney parents.

I have seven major objections to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)

  1. The CCSS are a solution in search of a problem.
  2. The CCSS were implemented in a remarkably undemocratic fashion at great public expense to the benefit of ideologues and corporations.
  3. The standards are preposterous and developmentally inappropriate.
  4. The inevitable failure of the Common Core cannot be blamed on poor implementation when poor implementation is baked into the design.
  5. Standardized curriculum lowers standards, diminishes teacher agency, and lowers the quality of educational experiences.
  6. The CCSS will result in an accelerated erosion of public confidence in public education.
  7. The requirement that CCSS testing be conducted electronically adds unnecessary complexity, expense, and derails any chance of computers being used in a creative fashion to amplify student potential.

The CCSS are a solution in search of a problem

The professed rationale for the Common Core is based on several patently ridiculous assumptions. These include:

  • There is a sudden epidemic of bad teaching in American schools.
  • There has never been a way for parents to know how their children are doing in school.
  • Curriculum varies widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction across the United States.

I am no apologist for the current state of public (or private) education in America. There is a shortage of imagination, love, and commitment to knowing every child in order to amplify her potential. However, there is abundant scholarship by Linda Darling-Hammond, Diane Ravitch, Gerald Bracey, Deborah Meier, and others demonstrating that more American kids are staying in school longer than at any time in history. If we control for poverty, America competes quite favorably against any other nation in the world, if you care about such comparisons.

Parents have ample ways of knowing how their children are doing; from speaking with them, meeting with teachers, looking at their work, and the excessive number of standardized tests already administered to American school children. Some places in America spend as long as several months per school year on testing, not including practice tests or the test-prep curriculum.

At best, the Common Core State Standards ensure that if a kid moves from Maine to Mobile, they won’t miss the monkey lesson. Such uniformity of instruction based on arbitrary curricular topics is impossible to enforce and on the wrong side of history. As my colleague and mentor Seymour Papert said, “At best school teaches a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the world and yet we quibble endlessly about which billionth of a percent is important enough to teach.” Schools should prepare kids to solve problems their teachers never anticipated with the confidence and competence necessary to overcome any obstacle, even if only to discover that there is more to learn.

The CCSS were implemented in a remarkably undemocratic fashion at great public expense to the benefit of ideologues and corporations

Other once great nations have embraced nutty ideas like national curricula, but such policies were voted upon by legislators willing to raise their hand and be held accountable for their vote. The CCSS is a de-facto national curriculum created by corporate forces and anonymous unaccountable bureaucrats. State education departments and local districts surviving savage cuts in state education funding can hardly afford to reject the Common Core when its implementation brings with it billions of dollars in Federal funding from the Obama administration. Americans would never tolerate a national curriculum. That’s why the Common Core was required as a backdoor vehicle for enforcing instructional uniformity.

CCSS advocates assert that the standards were written by Governors and teachers. This claim is laughable.

The two major forces behind the Common Core, aside from the Federal Department of Education, are Bill Gates and multinational testing/publishing conglomerate, Pearson. The Gates Foundation has spent up to $2.3 billion on astroturf groups lobbying on behalf of The Common Core. (more info here)

While Gates is driven by ideology or a misguided sense of philanthropy, Pearson stands to profit handsomely. They are the largest education publisher in the USA. They also lead in producing and scoring standardized tests. The controversial PARCC test that recently made headlines when they spied on kids’ social media accounts and got government goons to enforce their testing regime. Add test-prep curriculum, worksheets, professional development, and their recent forays into teacher and administrator credentialing, and you quickly see how Pearson controls the entire education ecosystem – profiting at every step of the process they created. Not much imagination is required to see Pearson running publicly funded charter schools created in the rubble created by the Common Core. Heads they win. Tails kids and teachers lose. (Read the Politico Pearson exposé, “No Profit Left Behind”)

The Common Core State Standards only apply to public schools. Neither Bill Gates or President Obama would tolerate sending their children to schools slavishly adhering to this curricular diet intended for other people’s children. Surely the Gates and Obama children will be career and college ready in their lovely schools with art, music, blocks, field trips, well-stocked libraries, and teachers trusted to design curriculum.

The standards are preposterous and developmentally inappropriate

The Common Core State Standards are focused on college and career readiness all the way down to kindergarten!

Please explain Cavalieri’s Principle. I have yet to meet an adult who knows what this is, but it appears in the Common Core High School Geometry Standards.

CCSS.MATH.CONTENT.HSG.GMD.A.2

Give an informal argument using Cavalieri’s principle for the formulas for the volume of a sphere and other solid figures.

Read the voluminous CCSS Math or CCSS English Language Arts standards for yourself.

Thankfully, the CCSS only currently exist for Math and English Language Arts. This means that other subjects in the arts, sciences, and social sciences will not be standardized. However, it also means they are less likely to be taught in CCSS-obsessed schools.

The inevitable failure of the Common Core cannot be blamed on poor implementation when poor implementation is baked into the design

Promoters of the Common Core shrug off criticisms by blaming teachers for poorly implementing the standards. This line of attack is worse than cynical victim blaming. Allow me to explain why.

Let’s stipulate that the Common Core State Standards are a terrific idea. Our nation needs clear enforceable uniform education standards at each grade level.

If that were the case, the CCSS would be rolled-out over twelve years, not all at once. If a curricular topic typically taught in the 9th grade is moved to 7th grade by the Common Core, then many children will not have been taught those concepts, but will still be tested on them. When they inevitably fail to perform well, their teachers will be blamed and in states like New York where teacher pay and job security is tied to test scores, their teachers will be punished for doing what they have been told to do.

Scotland is rolling out a new national curriculum, but they are doing so over twelve years.

Why do you think that the Common Core was in such a hurry to implement a new K-12 curriculum at once?

Standardized curriculum lowers standards, diminishes teacher agency, and lowers the quality of educational experiences

Curriculum should be determined as close to the child as possible in collaboration with colleagues and reflecting the community. It is the height of arrogance to prepare instruction for children you have never met.

Uniform standards standardize (lower) expectations in the name of uniformity. The quality of education suffers when teachers have their curricular discretion challenged and replaced with a list of topics to “cover” at best, or a scripted curriculum (common in urban settings), at worst. The sheer number of Common Core standards makes depth, mastery, passion, curiosity, or other habits of mind less likely to achieve. When does a student get great at something when their education experience is strapped to an ever-accelerating treadmill?

When teachers are not required to make curricular decisions and design curriculum based on the curiosity, thinking, understanding, passion, or experience of their students, the resulting loss in teacher agency makes educators less thoughtful and reflective in their practice, not more. The art of teaching has been sacrificed at the expense of reducing pedagogical practice to animal control and content delivery.

My standards for what children should be able to know and do extend far beyond that which is taught or tested by the CCSS.

The CCSS will result in an accelerated erosion of public confidence in public education

The singular genius of George W. Bush and his No Child Left Behind legislation (kicked-up a notch by Obama’s Race-to-the-Top) was the recognition that many parents hate school, but love their kids’ teachers. If your goal is to privatize education, you need to concoct a way to convince parents to withdraw support for their kid’s teacher. A great way to achieve that objective is by misusing standardized tests and then announcing that your kid’s teacher is failing your kid. This public shaming creates a manufactured crisis used to justify radical interventions before calmer heads can prevail.

These standardized tests are misunderstood by the public and policy-makers while being used in ways that are psychometrically invalid. For example, it is no accident that many parents confuse these tests with college admissions requirements. Using tests designed to rank students mean that half of all test-takers be below the norm and were never intended to measure teacher efficacy.

The test scores come back up to six months after they are administered, long after a child advances to the next grade. Teachers receive scores for last year’s students, with no information on the questions answered incorrectly. These facts make it impossible to use the testing as a way of improving instruction, the stated aim of the farcical process.

I am not willing to give up on public schools because that’s where the children are. Public education is the bedrock of our democracy.

The negative trajectory of technology use required by the CCSS

You will find no greater advocate for the use of computational technology in education than me. However, the requirement that the CCSS assessment exams driving the entire Common Core effort be conducted electronically has a deeply disturbing effect on educational computing.

Instead of using computers to create, program, edit, compose, publish, or collaborate, the Common Core electronic assessment requirement is causing schools, districts, and states to invest exorbitant sums on large numbers of often under-powered “devices” for test-taking and test-prep purposes. Existing computers will be tied up in these assessment activities as well. The security requirements of the CCSS exams are causing schools to lock-down computers in ways deleterious to learning and student empowerment. The fact that lots of “devices” need to be purchased for testing too often results in a diminution in computational power available to children in school. Constructive activities such as nusic composition, filmmaking, computer programming, physical computing, robotics, etc.. are rendered more difficult or impossible when technology purchases are shaped by testing requirements.

There are technical complexities and numerous pain points associated with this online testing as well. Many schools lack adequate network infrastructure to support hundreds or thousands of children being online at once. The testing software is buggy and prone to failure, especially since testing occurs nationwide at approximately the same time (and for longer than a Bar Exam). The testing software itself is awful and plagued by horrendous user-interface issues. Kids are being penalized for not being able to navigate buggy and confusing software, even if they understand the concept being tested. Poor(er) children with less access to computing activities are even more disadvantaged by the awful test navigation. In other words, much of what is being measured by the online Common Core tests will be a student’s ability to work the testing software, not valuable educational content. If you don’t believe me, try one of the online test samples for the PARCC assessment.

One last thing

It is particularly ironic how much of the public criticism of the Common Core is related to media accounts and water cooler conversations of the “crazy math” being taught to kids. There are actually very few new or more complex concepts in the Common Core than previous math curricula. In fact, the Common Core hardly challenges any of the assumptions of the existing mathematics curriculum. The Common Core English Language Arts standards are far more radical. Yet, our innumerate culture is up in arms about the “new new math” being imposed by the Common Core.

What is different about the Common Core approach to mathematics, particularly arithmetic, is the arrogant imposition of specific algorithms. In other words, parents are freaking out because their kids are being required to solve problems in a specific fashion that is different from how they solve similar problems.

This is more serious than a matter of teaching old dogs new tricks. The problem is teaching tricks at all. There are countless studies by Constance Kamii and others demonstrating that any time you teach a child the algorithm, you commit violence against their mathematical understanding. Mathematics is a way of making sense of the world and Piaget teaches us that it is not the job of the teacher to correct the child from the outside, but rather to create the conditions in which they correct themselves from the inside. Mathematical problem solving does not occur in one way no matter how forcefully you impose your will on children. If you require a strategy competing with their own intuitions, you add confusion that results in less confidence and understanding.

Aside from teaching one algorithm (trick), another way to harm a child’s mathematical thinking development is to teach many algorithms for solving the same problem. Publishers make this mistake frequently. In an attempt to acknowledge the plurality of ways in which various children solve problems, those strategies are identified and then taught to every child. Doing so adds unnecessary noise, undermines personal confidence, and ultimately tests memorization of tricks (algorithms) at the expense of understanding.

This scenario goes something like this. Kids estimate in lots of different ways. Let’s teach them nine or ten different ways to estimate, and test them along the way. By the end of the process, many kids will be so confused that they will no longer be able to perform the estimation skill they had prior to the direct instruction in estimation. Solving a problem in your head is disqualified.


These articles do a pretty good job of supporting my arguments above:

© 2015 Gary S. Stager
All Rights Reserved

PBL 360 Overview – Professional Development for Modern Educators

Gary S. Stager, Ph.D. and his team of expert educators travel the world to create immersive, high-quality professional development experiences for schools interested in effective 21st century project-based learning (PBL) and learning by doing. Whether your school (or school system) is new to PBL, the tools and technologies of the global Maker Movement, or looking to sustain existing programs, we can design flexible professional learning opportunities to meet your needs, PK-12.

Our work is based on extensive practice assisting educators on six continents, in a wide variety of grade levels, subject areas and settings. Dr. Stager has particular experience working with extremely gifted and severely at-risk learners, plus expertise in S.T.E.M. and the arts. The Victorian State of Victoria recently offered a highly successful three-day PBL 360 workshop for members of their “New Pedagogies Project.”

PBL 360 captures the spirit of the annual Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute in a local setting.

Options

Professional growth is ongoing, therefore professional development workshops need to be viewed as part of a continuum, not an inoculation. The PBL professional development workshops described below not only reflect educator’s specific needs, but are available in one, two or three-day events, supplemented by keynotes or community meetings, and may be followed-up with ongoing mentoring, consulting or online learning. Three days is recommended for greatest effect and capacity building.

While learning is interdisciplinary and not limited to age, we can tailor PD activities to emphasize specific subjects or grade levels.

These experiences embrace an expanding focus from learner, teacher, to transformational leader with a micro to systemic perspective. Video-based case studies, hands-on activities and brainstorming are all part of these highly interactive workshops.

Guiding principles

  • Effective professional development must be situated as close to the teacher’s actual practice as possible
  • You cannot teach in a manner never experienced as a learner
  • Access to expertise is critical in any learning environment
  • Practice is inseparable from theory
  • We stand on the shoulders of giants and learn from the wisdom of those who ventured before us
  • Modern knowledge construction requires computing
  • Learning and the learner should be the focus of any education initiative
  • Children are competent
  • School transformation is impossible if you only change one variable
  • Things need not be as they seem

PBL 360

Effective project-based learning requires more than the occasional classroom project, no matter how engaging such occasional activities might be. PBL 360 helps educators understand the powerful ideas behind project-based learning so they can implement PBL and transform the learning environment using digital technology and modern learning theory. PBL 360 helps teachers build a powerful, personal set of lenses and an ability to see “360 degrees” – meaning in every direction – with which to build new classroom practices.

Teachers, administrators and even parents should consider participation.

Reinventing ourselves

Piaget teaches us that knowledge is a consequence of experience. Therefore, any understanding of project-based learning or ability to implement it effectively must be grounded in personal experience. It is for this reason that all professional development pathways begin with an Invent to Learn workshop. Subsequent workshop days will build upon personal reflections and lessons learned from the Invent to Learn experience. Flexibility and sensitivity to the specific needs of participants is paramount.

Day One – Learning Learning

Join colleagues for a day of hard fun and problem solving — where computing meets tinkering and design. The workshop begins with the case for project-based learning, making, tinkering, and engineering. Next, we will discuss strategies for effective prompt-setting. You will view examples of children engaged in complex problem solving with new game-changing technologies and identify lessons for your own classroom practice. Powerful ideas from the Reggio Emilia Approach, breakthroughs in science education, and the global maker movement combine to create rich learning experiences.

“In the future, science assessments will not assess students’ understanding of core ideas separately from their abilities to use the practices of science and engineering. They will be assessed together, showing that students not only “know” science concepts; but also that they can use their understanding to investigate the natural world through the practices of science inquiry, or solve meaningful problems through the practices of engineering design.” Next Generation Science Standards (2013)

Participants will have the chance to tinker with a range of exciting new low- and high-tech construction materials that can really amplify the potential of your students. The day culminates in the planning of a classroom project based on the TMI (Think-Make-Improve) design model.

Fabrication with cardboard and found materials, squishy electronic circuits, wearable computing, Arduino, robotics, conductive paint, and computer programming are all on the menu.

This workshop is suitable for all grades and subject areas.

Day Two – Teaching

Day two begins with a period of reflection about the Invent to Learn workshop the day before, focusing on teaching and project-based learning topics, including:

  • Reflecting on the Invent to Learn workshop experience
  • Compare and contrast with your own learning experience
  • Compare and contrast with your current teaching practice

Project-based learning

  • What is a project?
  • Essential elements of effective PBL

Thematic curricula

  • Making connections
  • Meeting standards

Design technology and children’s engineering

  • The case for tinkering
  • Epistemological pluralism
  • Learning styles
  • Hands-on, minds-on
  • Iterative design methodology

Teacher roles in a modern classroom

  • Teacher as researcher
  • Identifying the big ideas of your subject area or grade level
  • Preparing learners for the “real world”
  • What does real world learning look like?
  • Lessons from the “Best Educational Ideas in the World”
  • What we can learn from Reggio Emilia, El Sistema and the “Maker” community?
  • Less Us, More Them
  • Shifting agency to learners
  • Creating independent learners

Classroom design to support PBL and hands-on learning

  • Physical environment
  • Centers, Makerspaces, and FabLabs
  • Scheduling

Tools, technology, materials

  • Computers as material
  • Digital technology
  • Programming
  • Choices and options

PBL 360 models teaching practices that put teachers at the center of their own learning, just like we want for students. This in turn empowers teachers to continue to work through the logistics of changing classroom practice as they develop ongoing fluency in tools, technologies, and pedagogy. Teachers who learn what modern learning “feels” like are better able to translate this into everyday practice, supported by ongoing professional development and sound policy.

Day Three – Transformation

The third day focuses on the details and specifics of implementing and sustaining PBL in individual classrooms and collaboratively with colleagues. Participants will lead with:

Program Planning

  • Curricular audit
  • Standards, grade levels
  • Assessment

Classroom Planning

  • Planning PBL for your classroom
  • Curricular projects vs. student-based inquiry
  • Creating effective project prompts

Identifying Change

  • The changing role of the teacher
  • Shaping the PBL-supportive learning environment
  • Does your school day support PBL?
  • Action plan formulation

Advocacy

  • Communicating a unifying vision with parents and the community
  • Adjusting expectations for students, parents, community, administrators, and colleagues
  • Creating alliances
  • Identifying resources

Modern learning embraces a vision of students becoming part of a solution-oriented future where their talents, skills, and passions are rewarded. The changes in curriculum must therefore be matched with a change in pedagogy that supports these overarching goals. Teachers need to understand design thinking, for example, not just as a checklist, but as a new way to shape the learning environment. It is no longer acceptable to simply teach students to use digital tools that make work flow more efficient, nor will it be possible to segregate “making” and “doing” into vocational, non-college preparatory classes.

PBL 360 will help teachers create learning environments that meet these goals with professional development that is innovative, supportive, and sustainable.

Constructive Technology Workshop Materials

Although constructive technology evolves continuously, the following is the range of hardware and software that can be combined with traditional craft materials and recycled items supplied by the client. The specialized materials will be furnished by Constructing Modern Knowledge, LLC. Specific items may vary.

Cardboard construction

  • Makedo
  • Rollobox
Robotics

  • LEGO WeDo
  • Hummingbird Robotics Kits
  • Pro-Bot
eTextiles/soft circuits/wearable computers

  • Lilypad Arduino Protosnap
  • Lilypad Arduino MP3
  • Flora
Computer Science, programming, and control

  • Scratch
  • Snap!
  • Turtle Art
  • Arduino IDE
  • Ardublocks
Microcontroller engineering and programming

  • Arduino Inventor’s Kits
  • Digital Sandbox
New ways to create electrical circuits

  • Circuit Stickers
  • Electronic papercraft
  • Circuit Scribe pens
  • Conductive paint
  • Squishy Circuits
Electronics and Internet of Things

  • MaKey MaKey
  • littleBits
Consumables

  • Coin cell batteries
  • Sewable battery holders
  • Foam sheets and shapes
  • Felt
  • Needles and thread
  • Conductive thread and tape
  • Fabric snaps

Additional costs may be incurred for transporting supplies and for consumable materials depending on the number of participants and workshop location(s). Groups of more than 20 participants may require an additional facilitator.

Invent To Learn books may be purchased at a discount to be used in conjunction with the workshop.


About Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.

Gary Stager, an internationally recognized educator, speaker and consultant, is the Executive Director of  Constructing Modern Knowledge. Since 1982, Gary has helped learners of all ages on six continents embrace the power of computers as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression. He led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools (1990), has designed online graduate school programs since the mid-90s, was a collaborator in the MIT Media Lab’s Future of Learning Group and a member of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation’s Learning Team.

When Jean Piaget wanted to better understand how children learn mathematics, he hired Seymour Papert. When Dr. Papert wanted to create a high-tech alternative learning environment for incarcerated at-risk teens, he hired Gary Stager. This work was the basis for Gary’s doctoral dissertation and documented Papert’s most-recent institutional research project.

Gary’s recent work has included teaching and mentoring some of Australia’s “most troubled” public schools, launching 1:1 computing in a Korean International School beginning in the first grade, media appearances in Peru and serving as a school S.T.E.M. Director. His advocacy on behalf of creativity, computing and children led to the creation of the Constructivist Consortium and the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Gary is the co-author of Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, often cited as the “bible of the Maker Movement in schools”.

A popular speaker and school consultant, Dr. Stager has keynoted major conferences worldwide to help teachers see the potential of new technology to revolutionize education. Dr. Stager is also a contributor to The Huffington Post and a Senior S.T.E.M. and Education Consultant to leading school architecture firm, Fielding Nair International. Gary also works with teachers and students as Special Assistant to the Head of School for Innovation at The Willows Community School in Culver City, California.He has twice been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Melbourne’s Trinity College. Gary currently works as the Special Assistant to the Head of School for Innovation at The Willows Community School in Culver City, California.

Contact

Email learning@inventtolearn.com to inquire about costs and schedule for your customized workshop. We will work with you to create an experience that will change your school, district, or organization forever. Additional ongoing consulting, mentoring, or online learning services are available to meet individual needs.

Summer Institute

Schools should also consider sending personnel to the annual summer project-based learning institute, Constructing Modern Knowledge – (www.constructingmodernknowledge.com)

In November, I had a the great honor of working with my colleagues at the Omar Dengo Foundation, Costa Rica’s NGO responsible for computers in schools. For the past quarter century, the Fundacion Omar Dengo has led the world in the constructionist use of computers in education – and they do it at a national level!

While there, I delivered the organization’s annual lecture in the Jean Piaget Auditorium. The first two speakers in this annual series were Seymour Papert and Nicholas Negroponte.

The first video is over an hour in length and is followed but the audience Q & A. The second portion of the event gave me the opportunity to tie a bow on the longer address and to explore topics I forgot to speak about.

I hope these videos inspire some thought and discussion.


Gary Stager “This is Our Moment “ – Conferencia Anual 2014 Fundación Omar Dengo (Costa Rica)
San José, Costa Rica. November 2014

 

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Gary Stager – Questions and Answers Section – Annual Lecture 2014 (Costa Rica)
San José, Costa Rica. November 2014

I started teaching Logo to kids in 1982 and adults in 1983. I was an editor of ISTE’s Logo Exchange journal and wrote the project books accompanying the MicroWorlds Pro and MicroWorlds EX software environments. I also wrote programming activities for LEGO TC Logo and Control Lab, in addition to long forgotten but wonderful Logo environments, LogoExpress and Logo Ensemble.

Now that I’m working in a school regularly, I have been working to develop greater programming fluency among students and their teachers. We started a Programming with Some BBQ “learning lunch” series and I’ve been leading model lessons in classrooms. While I wish that teachers could/would find the time to develop their own curricular materials for supporting and extending these activities, I’m finding that I may just need to do so despite my contempt for curriculum.

One of the great things about the Logo programming language, upon which Scratch and MicroWorlds are built, is that there are countless entry points. While turtle graphics tends to be the focus of what schools use Logo for, I’m taking a decidedly more text-based approach. Along the way, important computer science concepts are being developed and middle school language arts teachers who have never seen value in (for lack of a better term) S.T.E.M. activities, have become intrigued by using computer science to explore grammar, poetry, and linguistics. The silly activity introduced in the link below is timeless, dating back to the 1960s, and is well documented in E. Paul Goldenberg and Wally Feurzig’s fantastic (out-of-print) book, “Exploring Language with Logo.”

I only take credit for the pedagogical approach and design of this document for teachers. As I create more, I’ll probably share it.

My goal is always to do as little talking or explaining as humanly possible without introducing metaphors or misconceptions that add future confusion or may need to remediated later. Teaching something properly from the start is the best way to go.

Commence the hilarity and let the programming begin! Becoming a programmer requires more than an hour of code.

Introduction to Logo Programming in MicroWorlds EX

Modifications may be made or bugs may fixed in the document linked above replaced as time goes by.

In addition to the popular minds-on/hands-on Invent to Learn workshops already offered by Constructing Modern Knowledge, I’m pleased to announce a brand new set of exciting, informative, and practical workshops for schools, districts, and conferences for 2015. Family workshops are a fantastic way to build support for learning by doing in your school.

For more information, email learning@inventtolearn.com. Please include type (workshop, keynote, consulting, etc.), approximate dates, location, and any additional details. We’ll get back to you ASAP!

New Workshops

PBL with littleBits™ new tiny dingbat

littleBits are incredibly powerful snap-together electronic elements that allow learners of all ages to create a wide array of interactive projects. Arts and crafts meet science and engineering when littleBits are available for pro typing or creating super cool new inventions. In addition to knowledge construction with littleBits, participants will explore the following topics.

  • What makes a good project?
  • Effective prompt setting
  • Project-based learning strategies for exploring powerful ideas
  • Less Us, More Them

Wearable Computing new tiny dingbat

An LED, battery, and conductive thread can bring principles of electronics and engineering to learners of all ages. Interactive jewelry, bookmarks, and stuffed toys become a vehicle for making powerful ideas accessible to a diverse population of learners. More experienced participants may combine computer science with these “soft circuits” or “e-Textiles” to make singing suffer animals, animated t-shirts, jackets with directional signals, or backpacks with burglar alarms with the addition of the Lilypad Arduino or Flora microcontroller. Design, STEM, arts, and crafts come to life in this fun and exciting workshop! 

Reycling and Robotics
new tiny dingbat

This workshop uses the incredible Hummingbird Robotics Kit to show how a powerful and easy-to-use microntroller designed for the classroom, common electronic parts (motors, lights, sensors) may be combined with recycled “found” materials and craft supplies to create unique interactive robots from Kindergarten thru high school.  Scratch and Snap! programming brings these creations to life. No experience is required to become a master robotics engineer! Cross-curricular project ideas will be shared.

Introduction to Microcontroller Projects and Arduino Programming
new tiny dingbat

The Arduino open-source microcontroller is used by kids, hobbyists, and professional alike. Arduino is at the heart of interactive electronics projects and is perfect for classroom settings, but can seem intimidating to the initiated. This workshop introduces the foundational electronics, cybernetics and computer science concepts critical to learning and making with Arduino. The Arduino IDE programming environment will be demystified and other environments better suited for children, including Ardublocks and Scratch, will be explored. Strategies for teaching with Arduino will be shared.



new tiny dingbatMaking and Learning in the Primary Years 

Young children are natural inventors, tinkerers, and makers. This workshop builds upon the natural inclinations of young children by adding new “technological colors” to their crayon box. littleBits, Scratch, Turtle Art, Makedo, Makey Makey, Hummingbird robotics kits, LEGO WeDo, soft circuits and more can all enrich the learning process. Timeless craft traditions and recycled junk combine with emerging technology to create a greater range, breadth, and depth of opportunities for learning by doing. Strategies for effective scaffolding, classroom organization, and the use of exciting new technologies in a developmentally appropriate fashion will be discussed. Participants in this workshop will learn how such modern knowledge construction projects are wholly consistent with the best early childhood traditions and support current standards. Dr. Stager is a certified preschool thru eighth grade teacher and an expert in the Reggio Emilia approach.

new tiny dingbatBuild and Program a Truly Personal Computer with the Raspberry Pi

The Raspberry Pi is a ultra low-cost Linux-based computer the size of a deck of playing cards that costs less than $40. It is capable of running open-source productivity software, like Open Office and Google Docs, plus programmed via Scratch, Turtle Art, or Python. You can even run Arduino microcontrollers, power a home-entertainment center, or run your own Minecraft server! Old USB keyboards. mice, TVs or monitors are recycled and repurposed to assemble your complete personal computer. Each participant in this workshop will setup, use, and program their Raspberry Pi in addition to discussing how it might be used across the curriculum. (materials fee applies)

Thinking and learning are strong proud words. When educational publishers or policy-makers seek to modify such terms, (re: design thinking, discovery learning, computational thinking…), the result seems less than the individual parts.

We get “design thinking” without any design; “computational thinking” without computation; “discovery learning” where the only acceptable discoveries are the ones the teacher (or textbook) already anticipated.

Increases in agency or student empowerment remain rhetorical and pedagogical progress, illusory.

I am too often reminded of the Sir Joshua Reynolds quote hanging all over Thomas Edison’s laboratories, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”

Piaget teaches us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” Schools and teachers serve students best when the emphasis is on action, not hypothetical conversations about what one might do if afforded the opportunity.

Papert was sadly correct when he said, “When ideas go to school, they lose their power.”

Let’s say that the lessons IDEO employees gleaned from designing the latest toothpaste tube could actually be applied to education (a preposterous supposition, but let’s roll with it). By the time those ideas move from the latest blog post or conference workshop to the classroom, kids are left with an elaborate process in which brainstorming and affixing Post-It notes to walls becomes a means to solving hypothetical problems or PowerPoint reports about a topic they care little about for a non-existent audience.

Actions taken by the system, like school or classroom redesign or schedule redesign may be fantastically beneficial, but are too often conflated with the benefits of learning by being designing something personally meaningful. In other words, the adults may have learned something by being designers, but are depriving youngsters of that same quality of experience. At a time when learning is too often viewed as the direct causal result of having been taught, system-level design becomes conflated with student learning. Arranging ceiling lights in the shape of constellations to reinforce the STEM focus of the school is hardly the same as students learning science by being scientists. Doing science leads to richer learning experiences and is profoundly different from being taught about it in a room with pictures of scientists on the wall or carpet tiles arranged in fractal patterns.

Image credit: https://flic.kr/p/cL9Gi

Image credit: https://flic.kr/p/cL9Gi

Teachers, and by extension students, become consumed by hitting all of the steps in the “design process” and remembering those stages at the expense of deeper experiences in creativity, design, engineering, or computing. I am alarmed by how many schools celebrate that they allow kids to choose a topic to write a report about (paper, blog post, or PowerPoint) and then confuse such coercive, traditional, and inauthentic experiences with remarkable feats of empowerment or school reform.

It is sad and dangerous to give folks the illusion of agency without actual power or meaningful options.

A couple weeks ago, I received an email from a New York Times reporter asking to interview me about Mayor Bill DiBlasio’s promise to end the ban on student cellphones in New York City public schools.. I replied immediately via email and called the reporter to tell her I was unavailable for a few hours, but that I provided my views on the subject via email from my iPhone. She agreed to call me later that day.

Alas, that call never occurred and my views didn’t make the article.

So, instead of wasting 144 words, I’ll share them below.

While there may be educational benefits of phone access, there are three primary reasons why the ban needs to be lifted.

1) it is unproductive to be arbitrarily mean to children. Schools would be well-served by lowering the antagonism level between children and adults.

2) Parents have legitimate safety fears and a right to contact their child. A child should be able to call for help or report their whereabouts to and from school.

Parasitic businesses prey on kids

Parasitic businesses prey on kids

3) It is unconscionable that poor children in NYC are being shaken down by vans parked outside schools charging kids to store their phones while in school – in many cases more than the cost of lunch.
When I enter a theatre or board a plane, I am asked politely to silence my phone. School should be no different, unless there is an educationally sound reason to use the phone.

Cellphone storage truck parked in front of an NYC Public School

Cellphone storage truck parked in front of an NYC Public School

Dr. Gary Stager is coauthor of the book, “Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom.” He is also a global expert on educational technology and veteran teacher educator.

A Not-So-Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future

© 2004 Gary S. Stager

Published by the NECC Daily Leader conference newspaper on June 22, 2004

The computer is not just an advanced calculator or camera or paintbrush; rather, it is a device that accelerates and extends our processes of thought. It is an imagination machine, which starts with the ideas we put into it and takes them farther than we ever could have taken them on our own.”  (Daniel Hillis, 1998)

This is an incredibly dark period for education. Perennial challenges are now accompanied by name-calling and public policy based on “getting tough” with third graders. Perhaps decision-makers just don’t know what learning in the digital age could look like. They need to see how kids not only learn old things in new ways, but construct personal understanding of powerful ideas in a rigorous computationally-rich fashion. Computers are today’s dominant intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression.

Computers offer kids the means of production for learning via previously off-limit domains, including: music composition, filmmaking, robotics, computer science, journalism and engineering.

If only there were a place where compelling models of new educational practice could be shared… Welcome to NECC!

A few years ago, educators ceased talking about computing and started talking about technology. Suddenly computing, this remarkable invention of 20th century ingenuity, capable of transforming every intellectual domain, was dead without so much as an obituary. Conference speakers soon spoke of computers being just technology – like a zipper or Pez dispenser. This rhetorical shift liberated educators from learning to use computers, rethink the nature of curriculum or change practice to embrace the expansive opportunities afforded by computing. Information became the focus, not what kids do with computers.

In the mid-1970s my junior high required every 7th grader to learn to program a computer in nine weeks. The feelings of intellectual elation I experienced programming are indescribable. I didn’t know what was impossible so everything was possible. The computer amplified my thinking and the habits of mind I developed in Mr. Jones’ class serve me every day.

Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak enjoyed similar experiences. Imagine how the world would be different if some smart adults had not procured a mainframe and some terminals and said to Gates and Wozniak, “See what you can figure out. Have fun. Lock up when you’re done.”

How do your children’s school computing experiences compare? Do all students have access to creative tools anytime anyplace? Does the school culture inspire a thirst for knowledge and support authentic project-based work?

We’ve lowered standards when twelve year-olds in my junior high are NOW being taught to find the return key in a mandatory keyboarding class. Someday they may be “taught” to surf a filtered locked-down crippled Web incapable of downloading, rich media or collaboration all in the name of preparing them for the future. Some future.

Adults talk of how kids know so much about computers, how they are so competent, confident and fluent. Then those kids come to school and are treated like imbeciles or felons. Kid power is a gift to educators. We need to build upon those gifts and channel their students in directions they might not know exist. If kids came to school readers, we wouldn’t grunt phonemes at them. We would read better literature.

When many of us first attended NECC, we viewed the personal computer as not only a window on the future, but a microscope on the past. We knew how all sorts of learners exceed our wildest expectations when equipped with computers and constructionist software. Personal experience illuminated how the existing pencil-based curriculum was failing kids. Optimism filled the air.

Look around and you might conclude that the state-of-the-art includes: classrooms as game shows; data mining to justify standardized testing; reading as a winner-take-all race; and hysterical network security. “Technology” is being touted as a way to centralize control and breathe life into the least effective teaching practices of yore.

Widespread consensus is hard to achieve, especially on complex matters like education. Nonetheless, the educational computing community seems to have decided that our children should look forward to a future filled with testing and Microsoft Office instruction. Tests about Microsoft Office could achieve two national goals.

NECC attendees are pioneers entrusted with helping schools realize the potential of the imagination machine and as Gladwell suggests serve as the 10th Fleet in revolutionizing the context for learning. Go home and share the fabulous ideas you collect here in the Big Easy, but remember that the kids you serve expect big things from you and it won’t be easy.

In Australia…

Laptop Schools Lead the Way in Professional Development

As published in Educational Leadership – October 1995
By Gary S.Stager

Gary S. Stager is a teacher educator and adjunct professor at Pepperdine University. He has spent the past ten years working with a dozen Australian schools in which every student and teacher has a laptop computer.

Educational reform is too often equated with plugging students into anything that happens to plug in. Technology-rich Australian schools lead the way in helping teachers use technology thoughtfully.

Many educators believe that technology alone will lead to innovation and restructuring in schools. Unfortunately, they either do not include staff development in the equation, or they provide programs that do little more than ensure that teachers are able to unjam the printer or use one piece of canned instructional software.

Having developed a number of professional development models for a dozen schools in Australia and more in the United States, I believe computer-related staff development should immerse teachers in meaningful, educationally relevant projects. These activities should encourage teachers to reflect on powerful ideas and share their educational visions in order to create a culture of learning for their students. In brief, teachers must be able to connect their computer experience to constructive student use of computers.

Australian Leadership

In 1989, Methodist Ladies’ College, an independent pre-K-12 school with 2,400 students, embarked on an unparalleled learning adventure. At that time, the Melbourne school made a commitment to personal computing, LogoWriter, and constructivism. The governing principle was that all students, grades 5-12, should own a personal notebook computer on which they could work at school, at home, and across the curriculum. Ownership of the notebook computer would reinforce ownership of the knowledge constructed with it. Approximately 2,000 Methodist Ladies’ College students now have a personal notebook computer.

The school made personal computing part of its commitment to creating a nurturing learning culture. It ensured that teachers were supported in their own learning by catering to a wide range of learning styles, experiences, and interests. All involved agreed that personal computing was a powerful idea, one more important than the computers themselves. What students actually did with the computers was of paramount importance. LogoWriter was the schools’s primary software of choice. (MicroWorlds is now used.)

Dozens of Australian schools (called “laptop schools”) are now in various stages of following the lead of Methodist Ladies’ College in computing and are now using some of the professional development models created during my five years of work there.

Staff Development Innovations

Many schools find the task of getting a handful of teachers to use computers at even a superficial level daunting. The laptop schools expect their teachers not only to be comfortable with 30 notebook computers in their classroom, but also to participate actively in the reinvention of their school. In such progressive schools, staff development does not mean pouring information into teachers’ heads or training them in a few technical skills. Staff development means helping teachers fearlessly dream, explore, and invent new educational experiences for their students.

I have employed three staff development strategies – in-classroom collaboration, “slumber parties,” and build-a-book workshopsæin many laptop schools. All three model constructivism by providing meaningful contexts for learning, emphasizing collaborative problem solving and personal expression, and placing the learner (in this case the teacher) at the center of the learning experience. Each school values and respects the professionalism of the teachers by acknowledging the knowledge, skills, and experience each teacher possesses.

In-Classroom Collaboration

Several Australian laptop schools have used the in-classroom model I developed working in the Scarsdale, New York, and Wayne, New Jersey, public schools. This collaborative form of teacher development places the trainer in the teacher’s classroom to observe, evaluate, answer questions, and model imaginative ways in which the technology might be used. The collaborative spirit and enthusiasm engendered by the trainer motivates the teacher, who feels more comfortable taking risks when a colleague is there to help. Implementation is more viable because this professional development occurs on the teacher’s turf and during school hours.

Residential “Slumber Parties”

This approach allows teachers to leave the pressures of school and home behind for a few days to improve their computing skills in a carefully constructed environment designed to foster opportunities for peer collaboration, self-expression, and personal reflection, and to encourage a renewed enthusiasm for learning. These workshops have taken place at hotels, training centers, a monastery with lodging facilities, even at a school. These learner-centered workshops stress action, not rhetoric. The workshop leader serves as a catalyst, and creates opportunities for participants to connect personal reflections to their teaching. These connections are powerful when they come from the teacher’s own experienceæmuch like the types of learning opportunities we desire for students. The slumber parties use three key activities:

  1. Project brainstorming. Before we are even sure that the teachers know how to turn on their computers, we ask them to identify projects they wish to undertake during the workshop. The projects may be collaborative, personal, or curriculum-related, and they need not relate to the subjects they teach.
  2. Powerful ideas. Each day begins with a discussion of a relevant education issue or philosophical concern. Topics might include the history of Logo and your role in technological innovation (what the school has already accomplished); process approaches to learning; or personal learning stories. The topic for the final day, “What does this have to do with school?” is designed to help teachers reflect on their workshop experiences and make connections to their role as teachers.
  3. Problem solving off the deep end. One or two problem-solving activities are planned to demonstrate how teachers can solve complex open-ended problems through collaborative effort. These exercises help the participants to understand that not every problem has only one correct answer and that some problems may have no answers.

Slumber parties are offered on a regular basis. Because the primary goal of the workshops is to support a learning community, teachers and administrators are encouraged to participate in more than one. Participants gain appreciation for the power and expressive potential of LogoWriter. And, they are reminded that their colleagues are creative, imaginative learners like themselves.

Build-a-Book Residential Workshops

The origin for these workshops is based in the book, Build-a-Book Geometry. The book chronicles the author’s experience as a high school geometry teacher who spent an entire year encouraging his students to write their own geometry text through discovery, discussion, debate, and experimentation. It provides an exciting model for taking what teams of students know about a concept and then giving them challenges built upon their understanding or misunderstanding of it. The teacher then uses the responses to elicit a set of issues to which another team will respond, and so on. Throughout the process, each team keeps careful notes of hypotheses, processes, and conclusions, then shares these notes with the other teams during the process of writing the class book.

Healy’s ideas inspired a format that addresses confusing topics through discussion, problem solving, collaboration, and journal writing. Before the workshop, I ask each participant to identify three LogoWriter programming issues that they do not understand or that they need to have clarified. Small teams of teachers spend hours answering the questions and explaining numerous programming (and often mathematical) issues to one another. This exercise stresses the most important component of cooperative learningæinterdependence. When each group has answered all questions to its collective satisfaction, each teacher meets with a member of another team to explain what his or her group has accomplished.

Participants explore emerging questions through projectsædesigned by the leaderæthat are intended to use increasingly sophisticated skills. For example, teachers discuss the concept of programming elegance as they review student projects, and they keep careful notes of their programming processes, questions, and discoveries. These collective notes are included in the class book (disk). This disk becomes a valuable personal reference that the teachers can use in their own classrooms.

Teacher assessments of the residential workshops have been extremely positive. And, the quality of the experience makes the cost quite low when compared with the cost of providing an ongoing series of two-hour after-school workshops. Schools routinely spend much more time teaching concepts in bite-size chunks, while leaving real learning to chance.

Suggestions for Success

Following are some guidelines for successful technology implementation.

  • Work with the living.
    Because schools have limited technological and teacher development resources, those that do exist should be allocated prudently. If energy and resources are focused on creating a few successful models of classroom computing each year, the enthusiasm among teachers will be infectious. Of course, the selection of models must be broad enough to engage teachers of differing backgrounds and subject areas.
  • Eliminate obstacles.
    It should not be surprising that teachers without sufficient access to computer technology don’t embrace its use. How many workshops must a teacher attend to get a new printer ribbon? How long must a teacher wait to get enough lab time for his or her students to work on a meaningful project? The idea that schools should not buy computers before the teachers know what to do with them must be discarded.
  • Stay on message.
    Administrators must articulate a clear philosophy regarding how the new technology is to be used and how the culture of the school is likely to change. Communication between teachers and administrators must be honest, risk-free, and comfortable. Administrators must constantly clarify the curricular content and traditions the school values, as well as specify the outdated methodology and content that is to be eliminated. Teachers must be confident that their administrators will support them through the transitional periods.
  • Work on the teacher’s turf.
    Those responsible for staff development should be skilled in classroom implementation and should work alongside the teacher to create models of constructive computer use. It is important for teachers to see what students can do; this is difficult to accomplish in a brief workshop at the end of a long workday.
  • Plan off-site institutes.
    Schools must ensure that teachers understand the concepts of collaborative problem solving, cooperative learning, and constructivism. Accordingly, teachers must have the opportunity to leave behind the pressures of family and school for several days in order to experience the art of learning with their colleagues. Off-site residential “whole learning” workshops can have a profoundly positive effect on a large number of teachers in a short period of time.
  • Provide adequate resources.
    Nothing dooms the use of technology in the classroom more effectively than lack of support. Administrators can support teacher efforts by providing and maintaining the technology requested and by providing access to a working printer and a supply of blank disks.
  • Avoid software du jour.
    Many educators feel considerable pressure to constantly find something new to do with their computers. Unfortunately, this newness is equated with amassing more and more software. It is reckless and expensive to jump on every software bandwagon. The use of narrow, skill-specific software provides little benefit to students. Choose an open-ended environment, such as MicroWorlds, in which students can express themselves in many ways that may also converge with the curriculum.
  • Practice what you preach.
    Staff development experiences should be engaging, interdisciplinary, collaborative, heterogeneous, and models of constructivist learning.
  • Celebrate initiative.
    Recognize teachers who have made a demonstrated commitment to educational computing. Free them from some duties so they can assist colleagues in their classrooms; encourage them to lead workshops; and give them access to additional hardware.
  • Offer in-school sabbaticals.
    Provide innovative teachers with the in-school time and the resources necessary to develop curriculum and to conduct action research.
  • Share learning stories.
    Encourage teachers to reflect on significant personal learning experiences. Encourage them to share these experiences with their colleagues and to discuss the relationship between their own learning and their classroom practices. Formal action research projects and informal get-togethers are both effective. Teachers routinely relate that their most beneficial professional development experience is the opportunity to talk with peers.
  • Help teachers purchase technology.
    Schools should help fund 50-80 percent of a teacher’s purchase of a personal computer. This support demonstrates to teachers a shared commitment to educational progress. Partial funding gives teachers the flexibility to purchase the right computer configuration. Consider offering an annual stipend for upgrades and peripherals.
  • Cast a wide net.
    No one approach to staff development works for all teachers. Provide a combination of traditional workshops, in-classroom collaborations, mentoring, conferences, and whole-learning residential workshops from which teachers can choose.

Although many administrators dream of providing only a handful of computers in their schools, the reality of what is happening in schools across Australia requires serious consideration. Universal computing is in our future, and staff development programs must be geared to that fact. Modern staff development must help teachers not only embrace the technology, but also anticipate the classroom change that will accompany widespread use.

We must recognize that the only constant on which we can depend is the teacher. Our schools will only be as good as the least professional teacher. Staff development must enhance professionalism and empower teachers to improve the lives of their students. Our children deserve no less.

The Case for Computing
By Gary S. Stager

A chapter from the book, Snapshots! Educational Insights from the Thornburg Center (2004)

The personal computer is the most powerful, expressive and flexible instrument ever invented. At its best, the PC offers learners a rich intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression. Although computing has transformed nearly every aspect of society, schools remain relatively untouched.

This chapter is not about predicting the future. It is about the learning opportunities that exist today and may be overlooked. Computers and creativity are in dangerously short supply. The dearth of compelling models of using computers in deeper ways has created a vacuum now filled by a Dickensian approach to schooling.

When I read the growing mountain of educational technology standards I can’t help but wonder if these objectives could be satisfied without the use of a computer. The unimaginative use of school computers is symptomatic of larger crises in schooling, including what Seymour Papert calls, “idea aversion.” Over the past few decades I have enjoyed working at key moments in the intersection of learning and computers. My daily work is guided by an optimism rooted in experiences learning with computers and observing children doing the same. As much as this is the story of great promise and great disappointment, the children we serve sustain our enthusiasm to work harder to realize the learning potential of the digital age.

Ancient History – My Early Years of Computing

In 1976 I got to touch a computer for the first time. My junior high school (grades 6-8) had a mandatory computer-programming course for seventh and eighth graders. More than a quarter century ago, the Wayne Township Public Schools in New Jersey thought it was important for all kids to have experience programming computers. There was never any discussion of preparation for computing careers, school-to-work, presentation graphics or computer literacy. Computer programming was viewed as a window onto a world of ideas given equal status as industrial arts, music appreciation, art and oral communications.

The scarcity of classroom computers made programming a highly social activity since we were often leaning over each other’s shoulders in order to get in on the action.

Mr. Jones, the computer programming teacher, was scary in a Dr. Frankenstein sort of way. However, I was attracted by the realization that this guy could make computers do things!

Mr. Jones knew how elaborate computer games worked and would show us the code afterschool if we were interested. Once I understood how to read a computer program, I could THINK LIKE THE COMPUTER! This made me feel powerful.

The feelings of intellectual elation I experienced programming are indescribable. The computer amplified my thinking. I could start with the germ of an idea and through incremental success and debugging challenges build something more sophisticated than I could have ever imagined.

The self-awareness that I was a competent thinker helped me survive the indignities of high school mathematics classes. Mr. Jones helped me learn to think like a computer. The ability to visualize divergent paths, anticipate bugs, and rapidly test mental scenarios is the direct result of computer programming. This gift serves me in everyday life when I need hack my way through a voicemail system to reach a knowledgeable human, or get my car out a locked parking structure.

Perhaps Mr. Jones was such a great teacher because he was learning to program too – maybe just slightly ahead of us. (This never occurred to me as a kid since Mr. Jones knew everything about computers.)

A strong community of practice emerged in the high school computer room. We learned from each other, challenged one another and played with each other’s programs. We altered timeshare games, added ways to cheat and programmed cheap tricks designed to shock classmates. I even ran after school classes in BASIC for kids interested in learning to program.

Computers were to be used to make things at my high school, not as a subject of study. There was never a mention of computer literacy and owning a computer was unthinkable. The school computers were a place to lose our selves in powerful ideas.

We never saw a manual for a piece of software although we treasured every issue of Creative Computing – working hard to meticulously enter hundreds of lines of computer code only to have every single program be buggy. Since we had little idea what was impossible, we thought anything was possible. We felt smart, powerful and creative. We took Fortran manuals out of the public library for no other reason than to hold a connection to a larger world of computing – a world we were inventing for ourselves.

Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak, were involved in similar little ventures at the time. Many of the computing visionaries who changed the world had similar early experiences with computers. I remember the explosion of thinking and creativity I experienced programming computers and try to recreate the spirit of that computer-rich learning culture in every school I visit. Kids deserve no less.

In the mid-80s I was welcomed into the global “Logo community” and asked to present papers at places like MIT. This was pretty heady stuff for a failed trumpet player and mediocre student. Logo programming offered a vehicle for sharing my talents, expressing my creativity and engaging in powerful ideas with some of the leading thinkers in education. Seymour Papert’s scholarship gave voice to my intuitions visa-a-vis the tension between schooling and learning.

To this day, my work with adults and kids is centered around using computers as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression. To experience the full power of computing, the tools need to be flexible extensible and transparent. The user needs to be fluent in the grammar of the system whether it is text based, symbolic or gestural.

Laptops

In 1989, Methodist Ladies’ College, an Australian PK-12 school already recognized for its world-class music education, committed to every student having a personal laptop computer. By the time I began working with MLC a year later, 5th and 7th graders were required to own a laptop. The “P” in PC was taken very seriously. Personal computing would not only solve the obvious problems of student access, low levels of faculty fluency and the costs associated with the construction of computer labs – the PC would embody the wisdom of Dewey, Vygotsky and Piaget. Logo, because of its open-endedness and cross-curricular potential, was the software platform chosen for student learning. The potential of Logo as a learning environment that would grow with students across disciplines and grade levels could only be realized with access to ubiquitous hardware. This justified the investment in laptops.

MLC principal, David Loader, understood that the personal was at the core of any efforts to make his school more learner-centered. He was not shy in his desire to radically reinvent his school. Bold new thinking, epistemological breakthroughs, sensitivity to a plurality of learning styles, increased collaboration (among teachers and children) and student self-reliance were expected outcomes of the high-tech investment. Teachers learning to not only use, but program, computers would acquaint themselves with the type of “hard fun” envisioned for student learning.

If the computer were to play a catalytic role in this educational shift, it was obvious that the computers needed to be personal. Truly creative and intellectual work requires freedom and a respect for privacy. Quality work is contingent on sufficient time to think, to experiment, to play. The laptop can only become an extension of the child when it is available at all times. Therefore, there was never any debate about laptops going home with students. Time and time again, the most interesting work was accomplished during the student’s personal time.

Laptops were a way to enable student programming “around the clock” and make constructionism concrete.

MLC was a magical place during the early nineties. Every aspect of schooling was open for discussion and reconsideration.

When I expressed concern over the gap between classroom reality and the rhetoric proclaiming the school’s commitment to constructionism, the principal supported my desire to take dozens of teachers away for intensive residential professional development sessions. After all, constructionism is something you DO as well as believe. You cannot be a constructionist who subcontracts the construction. “Do as I say, not as I do,” would no longer cut it.

A renaissance of learning and teaching catapulted MLC and the subsequent Australian “laptop schools” to the attention of school reformers around the world.

We were ecstatic when “laptop” students began to adorn their computers with their names written in glitter paint. This signaled appropriation. The computers mattered. Success.

The early success of MLC and the many other “laptop schools” to follow were a realization of the dream Seymour Papert and Alan Kay held for decades. In 1968, computer scientist Alan Kay visited Seymour Papert at MIT. Papert, a protégé of Jean Piaget, a mathematician and artificial intelligence pioneer was combining his interests by designing computing environments in which children could learn. Kay was so impressed by how children in Papert’s Logo Lab were learning meaningful mathematics that he sketched the Dynabook, a dream of portable computers yet to be fully realized, on the flight home to Xerox PARC, a leading high-tech thinktank.

Kay set out to design a portable personal computer for children on which complex ideas could come alive through the construction of simulations. Dr. Kay recently remembered this time by saying,  “More and more, I was thinking of the computer not just as hardware and software but as a medium through which you could communicate important things. Before I got involved with computers I had made a living teaching guitar. I was thinking about the aesthetic relationship people have with their musical instruments and the phrase popped into my mind: an instrument whose music is ideas.”

Kay’s poetic vision resonated with my memories of Mr. Jones, summer camp and my own experiences programming in Logo.

“One of the problems with the way computers are used in education is that they are most often just an extension of this idea that learning means just learning accepted facts. But what really interests me is using computers to transmit ideas, points of view, ways of thinking. You don’t need a computer for this, but just as with a musical instrument, once you get onto this way of using them, then the computer is a great amplifier for learning.”

At-risk and high tech

For three years, beginning in 1999, I worked with Seymour Papert to develop a high-tech alternative learning environment, the Constructionist Learning Laboratory (CCL), inside the Maine Youth Center, the state facility for adjudicated teens. This multiage environment provided each student with a personal computer and access to a variety of constructive material. The experience of trying to reacquaint or acquaint these previously unsuccessful students with the learning process teaches us many lessons about just how at-risk our entire educational system has become.

The intent of the project was to create a rich constructionist learning environment in which severely at-risk students could be engaged in long-term projects based on personal interest, expertise and experience. Students used computational technologies, programmable LEGO and more traditional materials to construct knowledge through the act of creating a personally meaningful project. The hypothesis was that the constructionist philosophy offers students better opportunities to learn and engage in personally meaningful intellectual development. The computer was the magic carpet that would allow these children to escape their history of school failure.

Students in this alternative learning environment routinely suffered from what Seymour Papert called,“the curious epidemic of learning disabilities.” Kids with low or non-existent literacy skills were able to invent and program robots capable of making decisions and interacting with their environment. Robo Sumo wrestlers, interactive gingerbread houses, card dealing robots, luggage sorting systems and temperature-sensitive vending machines capable of charging a customer more money on hot humid days were but a few of the ingenious inventions constructed with programmable LEGO materials. Students also designed their own videogames, made movies and explored the universe via computer-controlled microscopes and telescopes. They wrote sequels to Othello and published articles in programming journals. These kids proved that computing offered productive learning opportunities for all kinds of minds.

One child, said to be completely illiterate, wrote a page of program code the night before class because an idea was burning inside of him. Another “illiterate” youngster, incarcerated for more than half of his life, was capable of building dozens of mechanisms in the blink of an eye and installing complex software. His ability to program complicated robots presented clues about his true abilities. A week before he left the facility, this child, so accustomed to school failure, sat down and typed a 12,000-word autobiography.

Tony’s adventure is also a tale worth telling. He had not been in school since the seventh grade and indicated that none of his peer group attended school past the age of twelve or thirteen. In the CLL he fell in love with robotics and photography at the age of seventeen.

During the spring of 2001, the MYC campus was populated with groundhog holes. To most kids these familiar signs of spring went unnoticed, but not for the “new” Tony.

Tony and his new assistant, “Craig,” spent the next few weeks building a series of what came to be known as “Gopher-cams.” This work captured the imagination of the entire Maine Youth Center. Tony and Craig learned a great deal about how simple unanticipated obstacles like a twig could derail days of planning and require new programming or engineering. These students engaged in a process of exploration not unlike the men who sailed the high seas or landed on the moon. While they never really found out what was down the hole, they learned many much more important lessons.

Robotics gives life to engineering, mathematics and computer science in a tactile form. It is a concrete manifestation of problem solving that rewards debugging, ingenuity and persistence. The LEGO robotic materials promote improvisational thinking, allowing even young children to build a machine, test a hypothesis, tinker, debug, and exceed their own expectations.  As often experienced in programming, every incremental success leads to a larger question or the construction of a bigger theory.  This dialogue with the machine amplifies and mediates a conversation with self.

Digital technology is a critical variable in the transformation of reluctant learners. Self-esteem, or even academic grades, might have been enhanced through traditional activities. However, the availability of computationally-rich construction materials afforded the learners the opportunity to experience the empowerment associated with the feeling of wonderful ideas. For the first time in their lives, these children experienced what it felt like to be engaged in intellectual work. This feeling required a personal sustained relationship with the computer and computationally-rich objects to think with such as LEGO and MicroWorlds. All students deserve the chance to make important contributions to the world of ideas, and must be given the means to do so.

State of the art?

Much needs to be done to ensure that all students enjoy the quality of experience offered by the best laptop schools, online environments and the CLL.

Somewhere along the line, the dreams of Kay, Papert and Loader were diluted by the inertia of school. Detours along the road to the Dynabook were paved by the emergence of the Internet and corporate interest in the laptop miracle.

Until the explosion of interest in the Internet and Web, individual laptops offered a relatively low-cost decentralized way to increase access to computers and rich learning opportunities. The Net, however, required these machines to be tethered to centralized servers and an educational bureaucracy pleased with its newfound control. Computing costs soared, data and children were either menaced or menaces. Jobs needed to be protected. The desires of the many often trumped the needs of the learner.

Microsoft generously offered to bring the laptop message to American schools, but their promotional videos pushed desks back into rows and teachers stood at the front of classrooms directing their students to use Excel to calculate the perimeter of a rectangle. Over emphasis on clerical “business” applications – were manifest in elaborate projects designed to justify (shoehorn) the use of Excel or Powerpoint in an unchanged curriculum. Many of these projects have the dubious distinction of being mechanically impressive while educationally pointless. Our gullible embrace of false complexity increases as the work is projected in a darkened classroom.

I’ve developed Murray’s Law to describe the way in which many schools assimilate powerful technology. “Every 18 months schools will purchase computers with twice the processing power of today, and do things twice as trivial with those computers.”

There is a fundamental difference between technology and computing, which can be seen in the words themselves. One is a noun, the other a verb, What we saw students do with technology at the CCL was active, engaged, compelling, sophisticated learning.  They were computing, and similar experiences for all students can transform the experience of school.

What are you really saying?

I know that many of you must be thinking, “Does Gary really believe that everyone should be a programmer?” My answer is, “No, but every child should experience the opportunity to program a computer during her K-12 education.” Critics of my position will say things like, “Not every person needs to program or will even like it.” To these people I suggest that not every kid needs to learn to write haiku or sand a tie rack in woodshop. However, we require millions of children to do so because we believe it is either rewarding, of cultural value or offers a window onto potential forms of human expression.

Despite our high-tech society’s infinite dependence on programming and the impressive rewards for computing innovation, many people find the notion of programming repulsive. Everyone wants their child to earn Bill Gates’ money, but only if they never have to cut a line of code. Educators especially need to get past this hysteria rooted in fear and ignorance for the sake of the children in our care. (this sentence is optional if you feel it is inflammatory)

I do not understand why anyone would question the value of offering programming experiences to children.

It is unseemly for schools to determine that a tiny fraction of the student population is capable of using computers in an intellectually rich way. The “drill for the test” curriculum of the A.P. Computer Science course serves only a few of the most technically sophisticated students. That is elitism.

Children enjoy programming when engaged in a supportive environment. The study of other disciplines may be enhanced through the ability to concretize the formal. For example, complex mathematical concepts become understandable through playful manipulation, graphical expression of abstractions or the application of those concepts in service of a personal goal. It would be difficult to argue that mathematics education, at the very least, would not be enriched through programming.

Schools need to make a sufficient number of computers with powerful software available for the transparent use of every child across all disciplines. Schools also have an obligation to offer a more inclusive selection of courses designed for a more diverse student body interested in learning with and about computers. Courses in software design, digital communication, robotics, or computer science are but a few options. The Generation Y program, in which students lend their technological expertise to teachers who want to integrate technology into their lessons provides another outlet for authentic practice.

Whither computing?

I wonder when the educational computing community decided to replace the word. computing, with technologyThe Computing Teacher became Learning and Leading with TechnologyClassroom Computer Learning begot Technology and Learning Magazine. Conference speakers began diminishing the power of the computer by lumping all sorts of objects into the catch-all of technology. Computers are in fact a technology, but they are now spoken of in the same breath as the blackboard, chalk, filmstrip projector or Waterpik. Computing was never to be mentioned again in polite company.

I recently read the conference program for a 1985 educational computing conference. The topics of discussion and sessions offered are virtually the same as at similar events today. The only difference is that all mentions of programming have disappeared from the marketplace of ideas.

It seems ironic that educators fond of reciting how kids know so much about computers act as if the computer was just invented. We should be unimpressed by breathless tales of children web surfing or using a word processor to write a school report. My standards are much higher. We will cheat a second generation of microcomputer-age students if we do not raise our game and acknowledge that so much more is possible.

If we concur that kids are at least comfortable with computers, if not fluent, then teachers have a responsibility to build on the fluency of computer-savvy kids. This is a classroom gift, like an early reader, a natural soprano or a six year-old dinosaur expert. It is incumbent on schools and their personnel to steer such students in more challenging and productive directions. Teachers have an obligation to respect the talents, experience and knowledge of students by creating authentic opportunities for growth.

If the youngest children can “play” doctor, lawyer, teacher or fireman, why can’t they imagine themselves as software designers? Open-ended software construction environments designed for children, like MicroWorlds, make it possible for children of all ages to view themselves as competent and creative producers of knowledge. Too few students know that such accomplishments are within reach.  This failure results from a leadership, vision, and professional knowledge deficit.

While school computing fades from memory, keyboarding instruction inexplicably remains a K-12 staple from coast to coast. Computer assisted instruction, schemes designed to reduce reading to a high-stakes race and low-level technical skills dominate the use of computers in schools. In the hands of a clever curriculum committee, “uses scroll bars” can be part of a nine-year scope and sequence.

Examples of kids composing music, constructing robots, or designing their own simulations are too hard to find. More than a quarter century has passed since Mr. Jones taught me to program. Yet, children in that school are now compelled to complete a keyboarding class. There can be no rational justification for so blatant a dumbing-down of the curriculum.

Computing Changes Everything

There are so many ways in which children may use computers in authentic ways. Low-cost MIDI software and hardware offers even young children a vehicle for musical composition. The 1990 NCTM Standards indicated that fifty percent of mathematics has been invented since World War II. This mathematics is visual, experimental and rooted in computing. It may even engage kids in the beauty, function and magic of mathematics.

In Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril, author Timothy Ferris describes how amateur astronomers armed with telescopes, computers and Net connections are making substantive contributions to the field of astronomy. For the first time in history, children possess the necessary tools to be scientists and to engage in scientific communities.

MacArthur Genius Stephen Wolfram has written a revolutionary new 1,280 page book, A New Kind of Science. The book illustrates his theory that the universe and countless other disciplines may be reduced to a simple algorithm. Scientists agree that if just a few percent of Wolfram’s theories are true, much of what we thought we knew could be wrong and many other cosmic mysteries may be solved. Wolfram believes that a human being is no more intelligent than a cloud and both may be created with a simple computer program.

A New Kind of Science starts with very a big bang.

“Three centuries ago science was transformed by the dramatic new idea that rules based on mathematical equations could be used to describe the natural world. My purpose in this book is to initiate another such transformation, and to introduce a new kind of science that is based on the much more general types of rules that can be embodied in simple computer programs.”

You do not have to take Wolfram’s word for it. With the $65 A New Kind of Science Explorer software, you and your students can explore more than 450 of Wolfram’s experiments. The visual nature of cellular automata – the marriage of science, computer graphics and mathematics – allows children to play on the frontiers of scientific thought while trying to prove, disprove or extend the theories of one of the world’s greatest scientists. The intellectual habits required to “think with” this tool are rooted in computer programming.

I recently told Alan Kay that while I was hardly a mathematician, I knew what it felt like to have a mathematical idea. He generously replied, “Then you are a mathematician, you’re just not a professional.” The work of Seymour Papert shows us that through the explicit act of computing children can too be mathematicians and scientists.

“If you can use technology to make things you can make a lot more interesting things. And you can learn a lot more by making them. …We are entering a digital world where knowing about digital technology is as important as reading and writing.  So learning about computers is essential for our students’ futures BUT the most important purpose is using them NOW to learn about everything else. “ (Papert 1999)

We can neutralize our critics and improve the lives of kids if we shift our focus towards using school computers for the purpose of constructing knowledge through the explicit act of making things – including: robots, music compositions, digital movies, streaming radio and simulations. Children engaged in thoughtful projects might impress citizens desperate for academic rigor. Examples of competent children computing bring many current educational practices into question. Emphasizing the use of computers to make things will make life easier for teachers, more exciting for learners and lead schools into what should be education’s golden age.

SIDEBAR

Why Should Schools Compute?

Computing offers an authentic context for doing & making mathematics
Traditional arithmetic and mathematical processes are provided with a genuine context for use. New forms of mathematics become accessible to learners.

Computing concretizes the abstract
Formal concepts like feedback, variables and causality become concrete through use.

Computing offers new avenues for creative expression
Computing makes forms of visual art and music composition possible for even young children while providing a canvas for the exploration of new art forms like animation. A limitless audience is now possible.

Computer science is a legitimate science
Computer science plays a revolutionary role in society and in every other science. It should be studied alongside biology, physics and chemistry.

Computing supports a plurality of learning styles
There are many ways to approach a problem and express a solution.

Computing offers preparation for a plethora of careers
There is a shortage of competent high-tech professionals in our economy

Computing grants agency to the user, not the computer
Rather than the computer programming the child, the child can control the computer.

Debugging offers ongoing opportunities to enhance problem-solving skills
Nothing works correctly the first time. The immediacy of concrete feedback makes debugging a skill that will serve learners for a lifetime.

Computing rewards habits of mind such as persistence, curiosity and perspective
Computers mediate a conversation with self in which constant feedback and incremental success propels learners to achieve beyond their expectations.


References

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Duckworth, E. (1996) The Having of Wonderful Ideas and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning. NY: Teachers College Press.

Ferris, T. (2002) Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril. NY: Simon and Schuster.

Harel, I., and Papert, S., eds. (1991) Constructionism. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Kafai, Y., and Resnick, M., eds. (1996) Constructionism in Practice: Designing, Thinking, and Learning in a Digital World. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Levy, S. (2002) The Man Who Cracked the Code to Everything.Wired Magazine. Volume 10, Issue 6. June 2002.

Papert, S. (1980) Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. New York: Basic Books.

Papert, S. (1990) “A Critique of Technocentrism in Thinking About the School of the Future,” MIT Epistemology and Learning Memo No. 2. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory.

Papert, S. (1991) “Situating Constructionism.” In Constructionism, in  Harel, I., and Papert, S., eds. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Papert, S. (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. New York: Basic Books.

Papert, S. (1996) The Connected Family. Atlanta: Longstreet Publishing.

Papert, S. (1999) “The Eight Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Laboratory.” Unpublished internal document. South Portland, Maine.

Papert, S. (1999) “What is Logo? Who Needs it?” In Logo Philosophy and Implementation. Montreal, Canada: LCSI.

Papert, S. (2000) “What’s the Big Idea? Steps toward a pedagogy of idea power.” IBM Systems Journal, Vol. 39, Nos 3&4, 2000.

Resnick, M., and Ocko, S. (1991) “LEGO/Logo: Learning Through and About Design.” In Constructionism, in  Harel, I., and Papert, S., eds. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

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Stager, G. (2002) “Papertian Constructionism and At-Risk Learners.” Presented at the National Educational Computing Conference. San Antonio.

“The Dynabook Revisted” from the website, The Book and the Computer: exploring the future of the printed word in the digital age. (n.d.) Retrieved January 20, 2003 from http://www.honco.net/os/kay.html

Thornburg, D. (1984) Exploring Logo Without a Computer. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.

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“The Dynabook Revisted” from the website, The Book and the Computer: exploring the future of the printed word in the digital age. (n.d.) Retrieved January 20, 2003 from http://www.honco.net/os/kay.html.

ibid…