Pointing in the Wrong Direction
© 2003 Gary S. Stager/District Administration Magazine

Published in the January 2004 issue of 

The good news is that my daughter’s teachers are at last beginning to use computers. The bad news is they are using them to make PowerPoint presentations. Frightening images of my high school algebra teacher with the indelible blue arm from the ceaseless writing and erasing at the overhead projector flashed through my mind during my recent trip to Back-to-School Night.

Monotonous lectures at the overhead are quickly being replaced by the even more mind-numbing PowerPoint-based instruction. While the overhead projector allows a presenter to make changes and annotations on the fly in response to the needs of the audience, a PowerPoint presentation is a fossil created earlier that day — or during another school year — with low expectations for audience engagement.

Allow me to set the scene, a drama familiar to parents of secondary school students. Your child writes his or her daily school schedule for you to dutifully follow during Back-to-School Night. You rush through dinner to attend the PTA meeting, where the details of the latest fundraiser can be revealed. This year you will be inflicting $20 gallon drums of cookie dough on your innocent friends, colleagues and relatives. Next, you run a half-marathon in less than three minutes on a pitch-dark campus in order to make it to your first-period class.

The teacher, a new devotee of PowerPoint, has a problem to solve. The low-bid PC in her classroom is broken and the school district cannot afford an expensive data projector for every teacher. Undeterred by these challenges and buoyed by a motivation to convey critical information to the assembled parents, the teacher does what any good problem solver would do. She prints out the PowerPoint presentation. The teacher carefully hands each parent a copy of her presentation one at a time. This takes approximately four minutes (and uses all of the toner in the hemisphere).

The title page contains her name and contact information, but no details about this particular class because the presentation needs to be generic enough to use all evening. Upon opening the stapled packet one is treated to a couple of dozen slides detailing the teacher’s gum rules, incomprehensible grading system and ways in which students will be punished for breaking any of the innumerable classroom rules. Since the “presentation” was prepared with a standard PowerPoint template, each page is dark and the school will be out of toner for the remainder of the year.

Teachers like the one I describe are well-meaning, but their reliance on PowerPoint undermines their ability to communicate effectively. Such presentations convey little information and reduce the humanity of the presenter through the recitation of decontextualized bullet points. Such presentations require expensive hardware, time-consuming preparation and reduce spontaneity. This eight-minute presentation was a test of endurance. I fear for students subjected to years of teacher-led presentations.

As a service to educators everywhere, I have prepared a one-slide PowerPoint presentation (above) to help them with Back-to-School night.

What’s the point?
Somehow the making of PowerPoint presentations has become the ultimate use of computers in American classrooms. Perhaps we are emotionally drawn to children making sales pitches. Adults see these children playing Donald Trump dress-up and overvalue the exercise as educational. Teachers refer to “doing PowerPoint” or students “making a PowerPoint” and this is unquestionably accepted as worthwhile.

The desire to create a generation of fifth graders with terrific secretarial skills fails on a number of levels. PowerPoint presentations frequently undermine effective communication. The time spent creating PowerPoint presentations reduces opportunities to develop important storytelling, oral communication and persuasive skills. The corporate look of PowerPoint creates an air of false complexity when students are really constrained by rigid canned templates and the use of clip-art. Class size and time constraints frequently deprive students of opportunities to actually make their presentations before an audience.

Kids should be conducting authentic research, writing original ideas and learning to communicate in a variety of modalities. PowerPoint is a poor use of technology and trivializes the development of communication skills.

The irony could cause whiplash. Over the past thirty years, the EdTech community expended sufficient energy to colonize Mars fighting the idea of teaching children to program computers. I cannot think of another single example in education where so much effort was invested in arguing against children learning something, especially ways of knowing and thinking so germane to navigating their world. Now, the very same folks responsible for enforced ignorance, disempowerment, and making computing so unattractive to children are now advocating “Computer Science for All.”*

There seems to be little consensus on what CS4All means, few educators prepared to teach it, no space in the schedule for a new course of study, and yet a seemingly unanimous desire to make binary, algorithm, and compression first grade spelling words. The sudden interest in “coding” is as interested in the Logo community’s fifty years of accumulated wisdom as Kylie Jenner is interested in taking Ed Asner to St. Barts.

So, amidst this morass of confusion, turf battles, and political posturing, well intentioned educators resort to puzzles, games, and vocabulary exercises for say, an hour of code.

I wish I had 0101 cents for every educator who has told me that her students “do a little Scratch.” I always want to respond, “Call me when your students have done a lot of Scratch.” Coding isn’t breaking a code like when you drunken insurance salesman go to an Escape Room as a liver bonding exercise. The epistemological benefit of programming computers comes from long intense thinking, communicating your hypotheses to the computer, and then either debugging or embellishment (adding features, seeking greater efficiency, decorating, testing a larger hypothesis).

Fluency should be the goal. Kids should be able to think, write, paint, compose, and dance with code. I recently met a team of sixth grade girls who won a contest for creating the “best app.” It was pretty good. I asked, “What else have you programmed?” and received blank stares. When I asked, “What would you like to program next?” the children all turned to look at the teacher for the correct answer. If the kids were truly learning to program, they would be full of independent ideas for what to do next.

Children have a remarkable capacity for intensity and computer programming is an intellectual and creative outlet for that intensity. When I learned to program in a public middle school in 1975, I felt smart for the first time in my life. I could look at problems from multiple angles. I could test strategies in my head. I could spend days thinking of little more than how to quash a bug in my program. I fell in love with the hard fun of thinking. I developed habits of mind that have served me for more than four decades.

So, for schools without a Mr. Jones to teach a nine-week mandatory daily computer programming class for every seventh grader, I have a modest proposal that satisfies many curricular objectives at once.

Whether your goal is literacy, new literacy, computer literacy, media literacy, coding, or the latest vulgarity, close reading, my bold suggestion offers a little something for everyone on your administrative Xmas list.

Give the kids a book to read!

That’s right. There are two very good books that teach children to program in Scratch using a project-approach. The books are completely accessible for a fifth grader. (or older) Here’s what you do.

  • Buy a copy of one of the recommended books for each student or pair of students.
  • Use the book as a replacement text.
  • Ask the students to work through all of the projects in the book.
  • Encourage kids to support one another; perhaps suggest that they “ask three before me.”
  • Celebrate students who take a project idea and make it their own or spend time “messing about” with a programming concept in a different context.

There is no need for comprehension quizzes, tests, or vocabulary practice since what the students read and understand should be evident in their programming. Kids read a book. Kids create. Kids learn to program.

There is a growing library of Scratch books being published, but these are the two I recommend.

Super Scratch Programming Adventure! : Learn to Program by Making Cool Games is a graphic novel filled with Scratch projects.

Scratch For Kids For Dummies by Derek Breen is a terrific project-based approach to learning Scratch.

If per chance, thick books scare you, there are two excerpted versions of Derek Breen’s Scratch for Kids for Dummies book, entitled Designing Digital Games: Create Games with Scratch! (Dummies Junior) and Creating Digital Animations: Animate Stories with Scratch! (Dummies Junior). Either would also do the trick.

Shameless plug

Sylvia Martinez and I wrote a chapter in this new book, Creating the Coding Generation in Primary Schools.

* There are a plethora of reasons why I believe that Computer Science for All is doomed as a systemic innovation, but I will save those for another article.

Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.

The story of a boy’s academic pursuits in New Jersey and education’s lack of progress since then…

© 2001 Gary S. Stager/Curriculum Administrator Magazine
Published in the July 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator

I recently received a sad email informing me that Paul Jones, my first and only computing programming teacher, had passed away. Mr. Jones taught at Schuyler Colfax Junior High School in Wayne, New Jersey for thirty-seven years. If a monument to honor great achievements in educational computing is ever erected, it should surely include a statue of Mr. Jones.

Around 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. I only had the course once since I was in the band. In a twist familiar to schools across the land, kids less inclined to creative and intellectual pursuits got to take double the number of courses in those areas!

In the 1970s the Wayne Township Public Schools in New Jersey believed 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. This was not a gifted course or a vocational course. This “mandatory elective” (a concept unique to schooling) was viewed as a window onto a world of ideas – equal in status to industrial arts, home economics and the arts.

To young adolescents transitioning out of trick-or-treating Mr. Jones was scary in a Dr. Frankenstein sort of way. Rumors abounded about him talking to his computer and even kissing it goodnight before going home at the end of the day. The truth was that this guy could make computers do things! To kids who never imagined seeing a computer – let alone controlling one, having such power within our reach was pretty heady stuff.

The class consisted of mini-tutorials, programming problems on worksheets to kill time while we waited to use the one or two teletypes sitting in the front and back of the room. The scarcity of classroom computers had an unintended consequence, lots of collaboration.

We could sign-up to do more programming or play a computer game after school. This afterschool activity, undoubtedly offered out of the goodness of Mr. Jones’ heart, would allow us extra precious minutes of computer time. Text-based versions of boxing, tennis, football and Star Trek were favorites. Mr. Jones knew how the games worked and would show us the underlying code if we were interested. Mr. Jones did sort of love his computer and his students. Once I knew the odds for each football play the computer never beat me again. I could THINK LIKE THE COMPUTER! This made me feel powerful and laid the foundation for a life of problem solving.

The habits of mind developed in Mr. Jones’ class helped me survive the series of miserable mathematics classes that would greet me in high school. Perhaps Mr. Jones was such a great teacher because he was learning to program too. (This never occurred to me as a kid since Mr. Jones knew everything about computers.)

During high school I would pay an occasional visit to Mr. Jones in order to trade programming secrets. As an adult we had a casual collegial relationship. He may have even attended one or two of my workshops. I do remember that he loved AppleWorks with a passion normally reserved for opera and that he collected Beagle Bros. AppleWorks add-ons like they were Beanie Babies.

Not long after Mr. Jones died I received a charming email from the world’s finest seventh grade social studies teacher, Bob Prail, asking me if I would be interested in applying for Mr. Jones’ teaching job. I was honored to be considered and must admit that the whole “circle of life” angle warmed my heart. However, living with my family 3,000 miles from Schuyler Colfax Jr. High would make the commute difficult. I also feared that the responsibilities assigned to this teaching position were no longer pioneering or designed to expand the thinking of students. I was concerned that the 2001 curriculum for a computing teacher (probably now called something like digital communication technology integration facilitator and cable-puller) would have deteriorated into the mindless computer literacy objectives of mouse-clicking, web bookmarking and word processing plaguing too many schools.

Unnamed sources within the junior high school in question have since revealed that students now spend a considerable amount of time learning to “keyboard.” I don’t know which is worse, disrespecting the talents and culture of kids by pretending that they have never seen a computer before or lowering our expectations by making it impossible for kids to do wondrous things with the most powerful technology ever invented.

As students of Mr. Jones a quarter century ago, none of us HAD ever seen a computer before and yet the curriculum was designed to inspire us to seize control of this mysterious machine. Since we had little idea what was impossible, we thought anything was possible. We felt smart, powerful and creative. Assuming Mr. Jones’ responsibilities while trivializing the intellectual power of computing would dishonor his spirit and diminish his pioneering contributions to the world of powerful ideas.


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.


I am often asked about the adoption of Chromebooks and have spent months agonizing how to respond. This article offers food for thought to teachers, administrators, school board members, and policy makers who might find themself swept up in Chromebook mania.

What should a student computer do?

In addition to being portable, reliable, lightweight, affordable, and with a good battery life, a student computer should capable of doing everything our unimaginative adult reptilian brains think a kid should be able to do with a computer and powerful enough to do a great many things we cannot imagine.

The Chromebook might be sufficient if you believe that the primary purpose of school to be taking notes, looking stuff up, completing forms, and communication. I find this to be an impoverished view of both learning and computing. Children need and deserve more. If you find such uses compelling, kids already own cellphones capable of performing such tasks.

Powerful learning is a bargain at any price

Thirty years ago, my friend and mentor Dr. Cynthia Solomon taught me that sound education decisions are never based on price. Providing children with underpowered technology insults kids, treats them like 2nd class citizens, and signals that schools should get scraps. The more schools settle for less, the less the public will provide.

One of the most peculiar terms to enter the education lexicon is “device.” What was the last time you walked into an electronics or computer store and said to a salesperson, “I would like to buy a device please?” This never happens. You buy yourself a computer.

A device is an object you buy on the cheap for other people’s children to create an illusion of modernity. A Chromebook might be swell for a traveling salesman or UPS driver. It is, in my humble opinion, insufficient for school students in 2017.

Providing students with a Chromebook rather than a proper laptop computer is akin to replacing your school orchestra instruments with kazoos. We live in one of the richest nations in all of history. We can afford a cello and multimedia-capable computer for every child.

My best friend’s son attends a middle school where every student was issued a Chromebook. The kids use them primarily to charge their iPhones.

If someday, Chromebooks are sufficiently robust, reliable, and flexible at a good price, I will embrace them with great enthusiasm. That day has yet to arrive.

Chromebooks represent an impoverished view of computing

Read Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon’s 1971 paper, “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer,” (Go ahead. Google it on a Chromebook if you wish) and see how many of things they demonstrated that kids were doing with computers more than 45 years ago are possible on your “device.”

Australian schools in 1989-90 embraced personal laptop computing as a vehicle for programming across the curriculum and created a renaissance of learning with computers that too many educators remain ignorant of or have chosen to forget. Look at the capabilities of the XO computer, aka the $100 laptop, created by the One Laptop Per Child foundation. It was more powerful than today’s Chromebook. We do not to use classroom technology that dooms learners to secretarial roles. They need computers to invent, create, compose, control microcontrollers, program robots, run external machines, build simulations, and write their own software.

Where is S.T.E.M? Or the Arts in the examples of classroom Chromebook use? To those who say that you can compose music, make movies, or edit large audio files on a Chromebook, I suggest, “You first!” The ability to connect things like microcontrollers, robotics, 3D printers, laser cutters may indeed become possible on a Chromebook in the near future, but we already have all sorts of personal computers capable of doing all of those things well today. Why gamble?

When geniuses like Alan Kay, Seymour Papert, Cynthia Solomon, and Nicholas Negroponte spoke of “the children’s machine,” they meant a better computer than what their father used at the office. Today, “student devices” take on an air of condescension and paternalism that disempower young people.

Schools continuously invent that which already exists; each time with diminished expectations.

They love them!

The only time you hear teachers or administrators claim that kids love something is when those very same adults are desperate to justify a bad decision. Telling me that teachers are finally “using technology” since you procured Chromebooks is just an example of setting low expectations for the professionals you entrust with educating children. Making it easy to do school in a slightly more efficient manner should not be the goal. Making the impossible possible should be. Celebrating the fact that a teacher can use a Chromebook is an example of the soft bigotry of low expectations.

How low can you go?

I truly respect and appreciate that public schools are underfunded, but underpowered Chromebooks are not the answer. How cheap is cheap enough for a student “device?”

I recently purchased a 15-inch HP laptop with a touchscreen, extended keyboard, 12 GB of RAM, a 2 TB hard drive, and Windows 10 at Costco for $350. I routinely find real PC laptops capable of meeting the standards I outlined above in the $250 – $350 price range in retail stores. Imagine what the price would be if schools wished to buy millions of them!

If $250 – $350 is too expensive (it’s cheaper than playing soccer for one season), how about $35 for a Raspberry Pi, the powerful computer students can run real software on, including Mathematica, which comes free, on the Pi. A Raspberry Pi 3 computer has greater flexibility, power, and available software than a Chromebook and it costs less than my typical Dominos Pizza order.

If you’re feeling extra flush with cash, add a Raspberry Pi Zero computer to your order for the price of that delicious chocolate chip brownie concoction Dominos offers upon checkout.

The Cloud is not free and it still sucks!

One of the great misconceptions driving the adoption of “devices,” such as the Chromebook, is the promise of cloud computing. Doesn’t that just sound heavenly? The cloud….

How is the Internet access in your school? Painful? Slow? Unreliable? Have hundreds of children do all of their computing in the cloud and you may find the school network completely unusable. The future may indeed be “in the cloud,” but today works really well on personal hard drives.

The cost of upgrading your network infrastructure and then employing a high school dropout named Lenny and all of his mates to maintain the network (ie… lock, block, and tell teachers what they can and cannot do online) is much more expensive than trusting kids to save their files on their own laptop.

The Vision thing

Perhaps I missed something, but I am unaware of the educational vision supporting widespread Chromebook adoption. Google has not even faked an educational philosophy like “Think Different.”

Screwing Microsoft might be fun, even laudable, but it is not a compelling educational vision.

The Google problem

Did you hear that Google has a free salad bar and dry cleaning? How cool is that? I wish our staff room had a barista! The successful penetration of Chromebooks into schools is due in no small part to our culture’s lust for unlimited employer provided vegan smoothies. However, it would be irresponsible for educators to surrender pedagogical practice and the potential of our students to the whims of 23 year-old smartasses at any technology company. Silicon Valley could make its greatest positive impact on education by learning the lessons of history, consulting education experts, and most importantly, paying their fair share of taxes.

There are also legitimate privacy concerns about trusting a benevolent corporation with our intellectual property, correspondence, and student data. Google clearly has a lot to gain from hooking kids and their teachers on “The Google” while turning their customers into product.

The pyramid scheme known as the Google Certified Educator program turns innocent well-meaning teachers into street corner hustlers armed with a participation trophy for heroically mastering “the Google.”

Again, I do not understand why any of this reliance on Google is necessary. The average school could spend well under $100/month on its own email and web servers either on-site or co-located. Best of all, no one is reading your email and you are ultimately responsible for your own files. Let a 5th grader manage the entire operation!

The miracle of Google’s YouTube is that a company makes billions of dollars per year by delivering ad-supported stolen content to users. Any teacher who does not believe that they too are in the intellectual property business should be prepared to be replaced by a YouTube video.

Google envy makes bad education policy.

Unicorn Computing

School decision makers responsible for purchasing Chromebooks have been heard to say the following in justification of their actions.

“I had to get Chromebooks!”

The school up the street got them.

“The latest batch is so much better than the other ones we bought.”         

Why are you investing in unreliable technology and then congratulating yourself for doing it again?

“I know that the Chromebooks don’t do everything we need or want them to do, but they should soon.”

Then why did you buy Chromebooks now?

I call the actions justified by such statements unicorn computing. Peer pressure, hoping, and praying are insufficient justification for saddling teachers and children with underpowered powered unreliable devices – especially when cost-effective options exist.

In Closing…

It doesn’t matter to me if a new kind of computer captures the heart and wallets of consumers. All that matters is that scarce educational resources are used to provide students with maximum potential. If Chromebooks were the first computer ever invented and other options did not exist, I might embrace the Chromebook as a classroom option. If Chromebooks were sufficiently powerful, durable, and reliable, I’d endorse their use. When better computers are available at approximately the same price, disempowering kids and confusing teachers seems an imprudent option.

My life’s work has been dedicated to expanding rich learning opportunities for all students by helping educators embrace the tools of modernity. Much of this work has involved personal computing. From 1990, I led professional development in the world’s first two laptop schools and then countless others inspired by this work. I worked with the father of educational computing, Dr. Seymour Papert, for twenty years and was a member of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation’s Learning Group. Professionally, I have taught children to program computers across the curriculum since 1982. I learned to program in the mid-1970s, an experience that liberated my creativity and opened a window into a world of powerful ideas ever since.

I view computers as personal intellectual laboratories, ateliers, and vehicles for self-expression. The act of computing gives children agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world. When every child owns a personal portable computer, they are able to construct knowledge “anytime anywhere,” learn-by-doing, and share their knowledge with a global audience. Computing bestows agency upon learners and allows them to embrace complexity while exploring domains of knowledge and demonstrating ways of knowing unavailable to adults just a few years ago.

There is no greater advocate for computers and computing in education than me. However, the purchasing decisions made by adults, for students, can either amplify human potential or impede learning.

Smaller cheaper computers are an attractive proposition, especially for cash-strapped schools, but I am alarmed by the widespread and too often thoughtless adoption of Google Chromebooks in education. Simply stated, the Chromebook turns back the clock on what we have learned children can do with computers in search of an immature technology.

Look at what preK-6 Mexican teachers did in my recent PBL 360 workshop in Guadalajara. This was their first experience with engineering, physical computing, and programming. They designed, created, and programmed these “birds” in less than two hours with the Hummingbird Robotics Kit and SNAP!

The prompt was simple…

“Make a Bird. Singing and dancing is appreciated.”

There was no instruction. The entire project was completed in under two hours – roughly the equivalent of two class periods.

My work continues to demonstrate the limits of instruction, the power of construction, and the Piagetian notion that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” There is simply no substitute for experience. Constructive technology and computing amplify human potential and expand the range, breadth, and depth of possible projects. This is critical since the project should be the smallest unit of concern for educators.

Look at these short video clips sharing the teachers’ projects and compare what is possible during an educator’s first or second computing experience with the unimaginative and pedestrian “technology” professional development typically offered. We need to raise our standards substantially.

“You cannot behave as if children are competent if you behave as if teachers are incompetent.” – Gary Stager

The following videos are unedited clips of each group sharing their project. Start listing the plethora of curricular standards satisfied by a single project of this kind.

Operatic Diva Bird from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

The Parrott from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde Robot Pengin from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Three-Function Bird from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Singing Bird with Creepy Eyes from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

About the author

Gary Stager, Ph.D. is the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute for educators, coauthor of Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, and curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, DailyPapert.com. You may learn more about him and reach out here.


The Hummingbirds Robotics Kit is also available from Amazon.com.

What I Did on My Three Summer VacationsBy Brian Silverman
Illustrated by Peter Reynolds

Previously published in Mathematics and Informatic Quarterly (in Bulgaria) prior to this version appearing in the Fall 1998 issue of Logo Exchange. Volume 17. Number 1.

We finally did it. We made it through the maze in Montreal’s Old Port in eleven minutes. There’s a really good chance that our time is the all-time record!

It all started a few years ago when my daughter, Diana and I were biking and found ourselves in Montreal’s Old Port. There was a new attraction called S.O.S. Labyrinthe, that promised a pirate adventure. It turned out to be a giant indoor maze in an old warehouse building with a handful obstacles with a pirate theme. The “pirates” were kids on roller blades providing help to the desperately lost and confusion to the rest of us.

The maze is a twenty-by-eighty grid of about two metre squares. The walls are made of thick plastic sheets hung between poles that are placed at the grid points. Four small sections of the maze have been built up to resemble a ship’s bridge, an engine room, a cargo hold, and lockers for the crew. These four checkpoints have hidden stampers to stamp a card received when you enter the maze.This card is also time-stamped when you first enter then maze and again when you leave.

When Diana and I first tried we got lost almost immediately. It took us about an hour and twenty minutes to find our way out and get all the stamps we needed. Despite being lost most of the time we enjoyed it so much that we went back the following week. This time we brought my son Eric along because he’d missed the first time through. The second time, to avoid getting lost, we decided to follow a set of simple rules that, as any little robot will tell you, can help to get you out of most mazes.

The rules are:

  1. turn right whenever you can
  2. turn around when you reach a dead end.

That’s all there is to it and it actually works. We followed the rules and managed to make it through the maze in about twenty two minutes. When we finished the pirate behind the desk put our names on the board as the group that had the best time of the day. He mentioned in passing that it was a better time than he sees most days.

The challenge at this point was obvious. Our goal was to get the best time ever. We only had to figure out how. I had a plan that I thought would be pretty simple. However, as is almost always the case, it didn’t turn out to be as simple as I’d initially imagined. The plan was this: Go through the maze twice. The first time through bring along a little computer to record our path. Then go home, draw a map, find the best route and go back the following day and go through running as fast as we can.

There were a couple of immediate problems. The first one was pretty easy to resolve. How could we be sure that the maze didn’t change on us between the first run and the second? (The plastic panels are moved on a regular basis to keep the maze from staying the same.) A couple of phone calls and oblique questions later, we’d found out that the maze is only changed once a week, on Thursday night. The second immediate problem was trickier to resolve. Our plan required little computers to record our path. We didn’t have any little computers. Even if we did we wouldn’t know how to make them record paths.

My friends at MIT had little computers. We’d been working for a few years on making “programmable LEGO bricks”. At that time we were at the point where we’d had a couple of prototypes that had worked for a bit but none of them were reliable enough for the task. However as a result of a sort of spinoff of that project there were some little computer boards around that weren’t much bigger than a deck of cards. I asked my friend Randy Sargent if I could borrow one. He mailed it to me and I had it within a few weeks. Unfortunately by then the season was over and the project would have to wait until the next summer.

During the course of the winter a couple of things happened. One was that I had a lot of fun programming the little computer board I’d received. Over Christmas I played with making a tiny version of Logo. By New Year’s we had Logo programmable LEGO robots that didn’t need to be attached to a big computer. At the same time Randy had been working on perfecting a new programmable brick. By the following summer these came together and we had a programmable brick and a logo program for saving information about where in the maze we’d been.

Little computers are pretty stupid. We would have liked to have been able to just carry one along and have it remember where it had been. But the little computer wasn’t up for the task. What we did instead was attach a couple of pushbuttons to it. One to click the number of “squares” we’d gone forward, the other to click in the amount that we’d turned at each corner.

The summer mostly slid away before we got around to trying a second run. When we did get around to it, it was just Eric and me. Before getting into the maze we’d attached the brick to his belt, run some wires up his shirt and down the sleeves to the pushbuttons in his hands. Unless you were looking hard you wouldn’t have noticed anything suspicious. We scoped out the maze counting out loud on the straightaways and yelling out directions at the corners. People looked at us a bit strangely in general and were particularly confused and curious when we had to bring out the brick for minor adjustments.

We didn’t do too well on that round. The brick started misbehaving about three quarters of the way through. And even if it hadn’t, the recorded data had lots of mistakes in it. With a lot of guessing and processing we were able to construct about a quarter of the map but no more. Since it was late summer we gave up again for the year figuring we’d pick it up again the following year.

The next winter was a good one for programmable bricks. When we did the second run there were only five working bricks in the world and even those five needed a fair amount of babysitting. By the next summer, there had been several new iterations of the design (largely the work of Fred Martin) resulting in dozens of working bricks that were solid enough that we wouldn’t have to worry too much about hardware failures for the next round.

Also, during the winter there was plenty of time to think about what went wrong the previous summer. The main problem was that mistakes in clicking the buttons led to so much distortion in the map that it was completely useless. The maze is so big, (more than a thousand straightaways and turns), that it’s impossible to do the kind of recording that we did without making mistakes. We thought a bit about eliminating mistakes but decided instead to run the experiment with several programmable bricks simultaneously, do the recording several times separately then regroup and compare results.

As it turns out, Randy and another friend, Carl Witty were planning to come to Montreal towards the end of the summer to show off their robots at an artificial intelligence conference. They arrived with a car full of computers, tools, and robot parts. Their robots all come with cameras connected to electronics that can discriminate colors. Their demos included robots chasing balls and each other at high speeds. It seemed only natural to get them involved in the third round.

We had a lot of discussion about whether or not we could use the vision systems they had in their robots for more automatic data gathering. We decided not to because even if we could resolve all the computer issues, we weren’t sure that we had enough batteries for all of the needed electronics for the time it’d take. We did decide, however, that since they had brought along several miniature cameras we’d take a video record of first trip through and use that to help interpret the data we’d get from the computers.

Carrying a camera around a maze really didn’t seem subtle enough. Instead we took the camera and sewed it into a hat with only the lens sticking out the front. The camcorder fit neatly in a backpack. By the time we were ready to go, Carl, Randy and I each had a programmable brick rubber banded to our belts and Eric had a camera in his hat. The data gathering run took about two hours and was pretty boring. The bricks kept disagreeing with each other but we ignored this because we decided to sort it all out later. Eric, originally worried that he’d attract too much attention with the camera ended up not being able to convince anyone that he actually had one.

We brought the electronics home, dumped the data to three separate laptop computers and then spent an evening that didn’t quite turn into an all nighter trying to make some sense of it. For hours there was Randy, Carl, and I each with our own computer bouncing sequence numbers, grid locations, and reports of similarities and differences in data between us. My wife Erlyne and the kids watched for some of this, enjoyed part of the video but abandoned us when it seemed that we’d really fallen off the deep end. We persisted and after spending some time getting a feel for the method to the madness we decided to systemically play through the video noting when everything looked to be working and stopping the tape and fudging when it didn’t. Our stamina ran out before the tape did and we gave up for the night with about three quarters of the map in place.

The next morning, we all felt refreshed and raring to go. In less that two hours the printer was churning out copies of a complete maze map . We were about to set off when Eric asked why each of us had to go to get stamps at each of the places rather than splitting up the job. We realized pretty quickly that he had a point. There was a rule against going through the walls. There wasn’t a rule against the cards with the stamps going through the walls. It took us about a half an hour of staring at the map and thinking to come up with a plan that involved three teams and three relay points to pass the cards along like a baton in a relay race. Eric and I had the first stretch, passed the cards to Randy and then headed off to where Randy would pass them back after having met Carl twice along the way.

It all worked like clockwork. The maps were accurate, the plan workable. Eric and I had the first stamp in less that two minutes and found Randy in another two. When we called him through the plastic wall he didn’t answer but his hand appeared. He said later that a pirate was standing right beside and he was trying to not attract any attention. After the handoff we headed to the final relay point where we met up with Carl and got the cards through the wall from Randy. From there it was just a quick run to the end to get the last time stamp. It had taken eleven minutes, much less time than we had imagined possible.

We went to see the pirate at the desk. The board of daily winners wasn’t around any more. We showed him our card that confirmed that we’d done it in eleven minutes. He said that if we did it that fast we must have cheated. Maybe it’s true. Throwing that much technology at a problem may be cheating. On the other hand, it may just be another way of solving it


About the author

Since the late 1970s, Brian Silverman has been involved in the invention of learning environments for children. His work includes dozens of Logo versions (including LogoWriter & MicroWorlds), Scratch, LEGO robotics, TurtleArt and the PicoCricket. Brian is a Consulting Scientist to the MIT Media Lab, enjoys recreational math, and is a computer scientist and master tinkerer. He once built a tictactoe-playing computer out of TinkerToys. Brian is a longtime faculty member of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute.

You can also visit Brian’s Wikipedia page here.

About the illustrator

Peter H. Reynolds co-founded FableVision, Inc., in 1996 and serves as its Chairman. Mr. Reynolds produces award-winning children’s broadcast programming, educational videos and multimedia applications at FableVision, Inc. He served as Vice President and Creative Director of Tom Snyder Productions for 13 years.

He is also an accomplished writer, storyteller and illustrator, and gets his enthusiasm and energy to every project he creates. His bestselling books about protecting and nurturing the creative spirit include The Dot, Ish, and So Few of Me (Candlewick Press). His cornerstone work, The North Star (FableVision), The SugarLoaf book series (Simon & Schuster), My Very Big Little World and The Best Kid in the World, are the first of Peter’s many books about an irrepressible little girl who sees the world through creative-colored glasses. He has recently co-authored several popular books with his twin brother, Paul.

The film version of The Dot (Weston Woods) went on to win the American Library Association’ (ALA’s) Carnegie Medal of Excellence for the Best Children’s Video of 2005 and the film version of Ish was announced as one of ALA’s 2006 Notable Children’s Videos. His other series of original, animated film shorts, including The Blue Shoe, Living Forever and He Was Me, have won many awards and honors around the globe.

Peter’s award-winning publishing work also includes illustrating New York Times1 Best Seller children’s book, Someday (Simon & Schuster), written by Alison McGhee – a “storybook for all ages.” He illustrated the New York Times best-selling Judy Moody series (Candlewick) written by Megan McDonald, Eleanor Estes’ The Alley and The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode, Judy Blume’s Fudge series (Dutton), and Ellen Potter’s Olivia Kidney books

Peter Reynolds was a guest speaker at the 1st and 10th annual Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute.

I wrote the attached paper for the 2017 Interaction Design and Children Conference at Stanford University. It was accepted, but ultimately not published since I could not justify the thousand bucks or so it would cost to attend the conference and then sign over the copyright of my work in order for it to disappear into an obscure journal.

Participating in such academic conferences have a very low return on investment since I am not a tenure track university professor. Nonetheless, I hope this paper makes some sort of contribution to the discussion.


ABSTRACT

The recent death of Seymour Papert is an occasion for grief, celebration, and planning for building upon his enormous contributions to knowledge. This paper is a plea for the IDC community to help preserve and expand upon the enormity of Papert’s powerful ideas.

Read the complete paper here.

Bob Tinker at CMK 2008

The world lost a remarkable educator on June 22, 2017 when Dr. Robert Tinker passed away at the age of 75.

If your students have ever worked on a collaborative online project, taken a virtual class, used a science probe, played The Zoombinis, or used any terrific materials created by TERC or The Concord Consortium, Bob is the reason why.

A gifted scientist, Bob was brilliant, kind, patient, joyous, and generous. Like our mutual friend, Seymour Papert, Bob spent his life helping others to learn and love science and math just as much as he did. He possessed the rare empathy that allowed him to wonder why others might not learn this or that as naturally or easily as he did. Rather than blame or shame learners, Bob designed tools not to teach, but for learning. At Seymour Papert’s memorial celebration, Tod Machover quoted Papert as saying, “Everyone needs a prosthetic.” Bob Tinker was in the business of creating remarkable prosthetics useful for embracing the wonders of scientific inquiry.

I just learned that Bob fought on the front lines of the civil rights movement in Alabama, just as Papert did in South Africa. This news came as no surprise.

“My Dad was the probably the smartest man I knew (MIT PhD), and he decided to pass on earning a big salary with a Defense Contractor in order to positively impact change. With my mom at his side, during the civil rights movement they moved to the South to teach at a University that could hardly afford textbooks. They marched in dangerous areas. They worked to expose climate change. They personally funded the arts and those less fortunate. They then built the two largest science/match educational non-profits in the USA. The two NGOs employ hundreds, have trained thousands of teachers, and have educated millions of kids.” (Bob’s daughter, Facebook, June 22)

A life well lived… Online, Bob’s friends remember him as a mensch.

Long before politicians and hucksters began alarming the citizenry about the need to teach Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S.T.E.M.) subjects as a vulgar ticket to careers, real or imagined, Bob Tinker created tools and technology that not only raised the standards for student participation in those fields, but did so in a progressive constructivist context. Not only didn’t his approach to S.T.E.M. exceed empty rhetoric and vocabulary acquisition, Bob’s work brought a broad spectrum of modern scientific domains to life in classrooms. Biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, earth science, electronics, engineering, and computational thinking were all in the mix.

Dr. Tinker delighting in a teacher’s scientific discovery

One could make a compelling argument that Bob Tinker is the father of S.T.E.M. However, I think of him as the Thomas Edison of S.T.E.M. Beyond his remarkable academic preparation, Bob was not resigned to a life of writing pretentious papers to be published in overpriced conference proceedings read by six colleagues. While there was nobody better at writing successful grant proposals, Bob and his colleagues had a stunning track record of “commercializing” their ideas. At both TERC, where he was Director of Educational Technology and The Concord Consortium he founded, Bob Tinker personified Edison’s notion of research AND development. An idea could be tested, refined, manufactured, and distributed in a reasonable timeframe. Unlike so many researchers cloistered in university departments and think tanks, Bob and his colleagues turned ideas into actual products enjoyed by millions of students around the world. Like Edison, Dr. Tinker didn’t work alone. He assembled and led an incredibly competent band of “muckers” who could bring impossible ideas to life.

Those products were sound, timely, reliable, open-ended, fun and teachable without succumbing to “teacher proofing” or dumbing down the science. There was never anything condescending about Dr. Tinker’s prolific work. Bob’s considerable charm and passion undoubtedly played a role in the creation of public/private partnerships, including with The National Geographic and Broderbund, required to successfully distribute his inventions to classrooms and homes everywhere. Bob was also a pioneer in making powerful software tools freely available online. He also preceded the DIY ethos of the maker movement by advocating for the creation of one’s own science probes in 2007!

In Bob’s world, there was no reason to add an A for Arts to S.T.E.M., since the doing of science and mathematics was itself, beautiful, wondrous, playful, creative, and relevant. Papert and Tinker shared a desire for children to be mathematicians and scientists, rather than being taught math or science. They both worked to make complexity possible by making the frontiers of mathematics and science accessible and usable by children. Bob went a step further and created programs where students could collaborate with scientists online as colleagues back in 1989, two years before the World Wide Web was released to the public. My fourth grade class participated in the National Geographic Kids Network Acid Rain project back in 1990.

In an interview Bob said:

“I became inspired to teach by tutoring two kids for two years in a black college in the South. It was the best education (for me!) anyone could design because it showed me exactly how science education could reach far more learners. I’ve dedicated my life to realizing that dream and it’s been wonderful working with smart people who share that dedication. There’s always been a sense of mission. We make important advances that will affect kids all over the world and—this was my initial motivation—bring cutting-edge educational resources to under-resourced kids.”

On a personal note

I do not remember exactly when I first met Bob Tinker, but it was at a conference approximately thirty years ago. Back then, the smartest people in the world spoke at educational computing conferences. I was familiar with his work prior to meeting him. In fact, I was a big fan of The Science Toolkit, distributed by home recreational software publisher, Broderbund. The Science Toolkit was a low-cost ($79 master module with two probes and $39 add-on sets) software package with external sensors that plugged into the joystick port of a microcomputer to allow children to conduct, measure, and record science experiments at home. This was an example of what Bob pioneered and called Micro-Based Labs (MBL).

Check out the video clip from the Christmas 1983 episode of the PBS show Computer Chronicles. Note how clean and simple the software it is and compare it some of the probeware software sold to schools today.

Prior to meeting Bob, I owned my own Science Toolkit. I was especially pleased with myself for figuring out how to program LogoWriter to read data from the kit’s probes without using the accompanying software. I could now write my own programs for collecting data, graphing it, and controlling my own experiments. I nailed using the light sensor, but my temperature data I received wasn’t particularly accurate. I eventually rationalized this as being the fault of the sensor or based on the limitations of the Science Toolkit, despite the fact that the probe worked just fine with the software provided. 

Not much time passed before I ran into Bob Tinker in one of those “V.I.P.” receptions, in the crummy “suite” of the conference chair in the forgettable hotel where the conference was being held. As I told Bob about my struggles with temperature data, he grabbed a napkin and wrote calculus formulas across all of the quadrants of the unfolded napkin. Bob mentioned that reading the temperature data was non-linear, a concept this C- science student could vaguely comprehend. While I never figured out how to translate the napkin math to a working LogoWriter program, Bob’s good cheer, gentle mentoring, and generosity reminded meow something I wrote in an essay a couple of years ago, “Math teachers often made me feel stupid; mathematicians never did.”

Maria Knee & Bob Tinker at CMK 2008

When I started the Constructing Modern Knowledge institute for educators ten years ago, Bob was the first speaker I secured. He had agreed  to return in a few weeks to help us celebrate our 10th anniversary this July.

I will never forget the joy he brought to kindergarten teacher extraordinaire, Maria Knee, who was euphoric while manipulating molecules in software Bob created (The Molecular Workbench). He and his colleagues made the impossible accessible to generations of teachers and children.

I am gutted by Bob’s passing. Losing Bob, Seymour Papert, Marvin Minsky, and Edith Ackermann within an 18-month period is almost too painful to bear. They were fountains of powerful ideas extinguished in anti-intellectual age hostile to science, even wonder. The education community does not enjoy a proud record of honoring the contributions of its pioneers or standing on their shoulders. Instead we continuously rediscover that which already exists, without attribution and with diminished expectations.

More than twenty-five years ago, Seymour Papert and Bob Tinker led a crazy or courageous session at the National Educational Computing Conference in Boston. If memory serves me, the presentation had a title along the lines of “Enemies of Constructionism.” I remember them taking turns placing acetates on the overhead projector proclaiming the name and photo of one of their enemies, including their NSF project manager who happened to be in the audience. This session had to be Seymour’s idea because Bob was too nice, but I suspect that Bob wrote the proposal.

I considered Bob a friend and dear colleague, even though we never really hung out or worked together formally. We often discussed collaborating on an elementary school project of some sort even though Bob modestly claimed not to know anything about little kids. Less than a year ago, Bob introduced me to a colleague and recommended that I be an advisor for an NSF proposal. I was honored to be asked and the grant* has been funded. While searching my email database, I found another proposal Bob himself included me in eleven years ago. I am humbled by his faith in me and respect for my work.

I wonder if ISTE will honor Bob in any way or if they even know who he is? I still await even a tweet about the passing of Dr. Papert. Like Papert, Bob Tinker was never invited to be a keynote speaker at ISTE or its predecessor, NECC.

Rest-in-power Bob. We will miss you forever and the struggle against ignorance continues!


Seminal articles by Robert Tinker, Ph.D.

Read more by searching for Tinker.

The Concord Consortium is assembling a collection of tributes to Bob Tinker here.

Read Bob Tinker’s Wikipedia page.

Notes

* Read the text of the funded NSF proposal, Science and Engineering Education for Infrastructure Transformation.

 

This June’s ISTE Conference will be my thirtieth ISTE (formerly NECC) conferences as a speaker. I suspect that I have been part of 60-80 presentations at this conference over that period – a record few if any can match. I was also part of the keynote session at NECC 2009. (watch it here)

This year’s accepted presentations are an eclectic mix. I will be sharing the stage with Sylvia Martinez about making and maker spaces. My personal sessions reflect two of my passions and areas of expertise; using technology in the context of the Reggio Emilia Approach and Logo programming.

The Reggio Emilia Approach emerges from the municipal infant/toddler centers and preschools of the Italian city, Reggio Emilia. These schools, often referred to as the best schools in the world, are a complex mix of democracy, creativity, subtlety, attention to detail, knowledge construction, and profound respect for children. There are many lessons to be learned for teaching any subject at any grade level and for using technology in this remarkable spirit. Constructing Modern Knowledge has done much to bring the Reggio Emilia Approach to edtech enthusiasts over the past decade.

I began teaching Logo programming to kids and teachers 35 years ago and even edited the ISTE journal, Logo Exchange (killed by ISTE). There is still no better way to introduce modern powerful ideas than through Logo programming. I delight in watching teachers twist their bodies around, high-fiving the air, and completely losing themselves in the microword of the turtle. During my session, I will discuss the precedents for Logo, demonstrate seminal programming activities, explore current dialects of the language, celebrate Logo’s contributions to education and the computer industry, ponder Logo’s future, and mourn the recent passing of Logo’s father, Dr. Seymour Papert.

Without Logo there might be no maker movement, classroom robotics, CS4All, Scratch, or even software site licenses.

So, what do making, Logo, and the Reggio Emilia approach have in common? Effective maker spaces have a lot to learn about preparing a productive context for learning from the educators of Reggio Emilia. Papert and the Reggio community enjoyed a longstanding mutual admiration while sharing Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky at their philosophical roots. Logo was used in Reggio Emilia classrooms as discussed in a recent translation of a book featuring teachers discussing student projects as a window into their thinking with Loris Malaguzzi, the father of the Reggio Emilia approach. One of the chapters in Loris Malaguzzi and the Teachers: Dialogues on Collaboration and Conflict among Children, Reggio Emilia 1990 explores students learning with Logo.

Gary Stager’s ISTE 2017 Presentation Calendar

Before You Build a Makerspace: Four Aspects to Consider [panel with Sylvia Martinez]

  • Tuesday, June 27, 1:45–2:45 pm CDT
  • Building/Room: 302A

Logo at 50: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas

  • Tuesday, June 27, 4:45–5:45 pm CDT
  • Building/Room: Hemisfair Ballroom 2

Logo, the first computer programming language for kids, was invented in 1967 and is still in use around the world today. This session will discuss the Piagetian roots of Logo, critical aspects of its design and versions today. Anyone interested in CS4All has a lot to learn from Logo.

Logo and the fifty years of research demonstrating its efficacy in a remarkable number of classrooms and contexts around the world predate the ISTE standards and exceed their expectations. The recent President of the United States advocated CS4All while the standards listed above fail to explicitly address computer programming. Logo catalyzed a commitment to social justice and educational change and introduced many educators to powerful ideas from artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and progressive education.

Learning From the Maker Movement in a Reggio Context

  • Wednesday, June 28, 8:30–9:30 am CDT
  • Building/Room: 220

Discover how the Reggio Emilia Approach that is rooted in a half-century of work with Italian preschoolers and includes profound, subtle and complex lessons from intensely learner-centered classrooms, is applicable to all educational settings. Learn what “Reggio” teaches us about learning-by-making, making learning visible, aesthetics and PBL.

Direct interview requests to gary [at] stager.org


Gary Stager is the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute for educators July 11-14, 2017, coauthor of Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, and curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, DailyPapert.com. Register today for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017!

I once heard former President Clinton say, “every problem in education has been solved somewhere.” Educators stand on the shoulders of giants and should be fluent in the literature of their chosen field.  We should be reading all of the time, but summer is definitely an opportunity to “catch-up.”

Regrettably too many “summer reading lists for educators” are better suited for those concerned with get-rich quick schemes than enriching the lives of children. Case-in-point, the President of the National Association of Independent Schools published “What to Read this Summer,” a list containing not a single book about teaching, learning, or even educational leadership. Over the past few years, I offered a canon for those interested in educational leadership and a large collection of suggested books for creative educators and parents.

When I suggested that everyone employed at my most recent school read at least one book over the summer, the principal suggested I provide options. Therefore, I chose a selection of books that would appeal to teachers of different grade levels and interests, but support and inspire the school’s desire to be more progressive, creative, child-centered, authentic, and project-based.

Gandini, Lella et al… (2015) In the Spirit of the Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia, Second Edition.
Aimed at early childhood education, but equally applicable at any grade level.  Illustrates how to honor the “hundred languages of children.”

 

 

 


Little, Tom and Katherine Ellison. (2015) Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools
A spectacular case made for progressive education in the face of the nonsense masquerading as school “reform” these days.

 

 

 


Littky, Dennis. (2004) The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s Business.
Aimed at secondary education, but with powerful ideas applicable at any level. Students spend 40% each week in authentic internship settings and the remaining school time is focused on developing skills for the internship. This may be the best book written about high school reform in decades. 


Papert, Seymour. (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.
A seminal book that situates the maker movement and coding in a long progressive tradition. This is arguably the most important education book of the past quarter century.  Papert worked with Piaget, co-invented Logo, and is the major force behind educational computing, robotics, and the Maker Movement.


Perkins, David. (2010) Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education.
A clear and concise book on how to teach in a learner-centered fashion by a leader at Harvard’s Project Zero. 

 


Tunstall, Tricia. (2013) Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music.
“One of the finest books about teaching and learning I’ve read in the past decade.” (Gary Stager) Tells the story of how hundreds of thousands of students in Venezuela are taught to play classical music at a high level. LA Philharmonic Conductor Gustavo Dudamel is a graduate of “El Sistema.” The lessons in this book are applicable across all subject areas. 

Check out the CMK Press collection of books on learning-by-making by educators for educators!