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

Cavallo, D. (1999) “Project Lighthouse in Thailand: Guiding Pathways to Powerful Learning.” In Logo Philosophy and Implementation. Montreal, Canada: LCSI.

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.

Stager, G. (2000) “Dream Bigger” in Little, J. and Dixon, B. (eds.) Transforming Learning: An Anthology of Miracles in Technology-Rich Classrooms. Melbourne, Australia: Kids Technology Foundation.

Stager, G. (2001) “Computationally-Rich Constructionism and At-Risk Learners.” Presented at the World Conference on Computers in Education. Copenhagen.

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.

Thornburg, D. (1986) Beyond Turtle Graphics: Further Explorations of Logo. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.

Turkle, S. (1991) “Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete.” In Constructionism. Idit Harel and Seymour Papert (eds.), Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Wolfram, S. (2002) A New Kind of Science. Champaign, IL: Wolfram Media, Inc.

“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…

Following my presentation at the March ASCD National Conference, Sarah McKibben of ASCD interviewed me for an article, If You Build It: Tinkering with the Maker Mind-Set, published in the June 2014 issue of ASCD Education Update.

As is often the case, just a few of my comments made it into the final publication. Since I responded to a number of interview questions via email, I am publishing my full interview here.  The questions posed are in green.

How would you define making? I talked to Steve Davee at the Maker Education Initiative, and he says that making is more of a mind-set. “Where things that are created by people are recognized, celebrated, and there’s a common interdisciplinary thread.”  Would you agree?

I like to say that the best makerspace is between your ears. I agree that it’s a stance that prepares learners to solve problems their teachers could never have predicted with a strong sense of confidence and competence, even if only to discover that there is much more to learn.

Seymour Papert calls the learning theory underlying the current interest in “making,” constructionism. He asserts that learn best occurs when the learner is engaged in the process of constructing something shareable.

In our book, we argue that my friend and mentor Papert, is the father the maker movement as well as educational computing.

In a webinar on your website, Sylvia Martinez said that with making, assessment is intrinsic within the materials.” That it’s more “organic, formative, and internally motivated.” If you’re working with a material like cardboard, without any technology involved (and you can’t base success on something lighting up), how do you assess learning?

First of all, it would be best to take a deep breath and not worry about assessing everything. All assessment interrupts the learning process. Even just asking, “Hey, whatcha doing?” interrupts the learning process. It is up to reasonable adults to determine an acceptable degree of interruption. Perhaps building stuff out of cardboard is just fun.

The best problems and projects push up against the persistence of reality. One could observe a student’s habits of mind. Speak with them about her goals and what she has accomplished. One could imagine thinking about the understanding of physics involved in building a structure, understanding of history in their cardboard Trojan horse, or storytelling ability.

There isn’t anything magical about technology when it comes to a teacher understanding the thinking of each student. That said, we find over and over again that in productive learning environments, kids may combine media, like cardboard, lights, and microcontrollers in interesting and unpredictable ways. The computer is part of an expansive continuum of constructive material.

It seems that there’s a wide gamut of materials in making. From cardboard to Arduinos to expensive laser cutters. You mentioned in a presentation, something about “low threshold, high-ceiling materials.” Can you describe what you mean?

Sure, Tinkering and engineering requires a dialogue with materials in which it is possible for young or inexperienced users to enjoy immediate feedback so they continue to grow as fluency increases. Think of paint and brushes in that context or programming languages, such as Scratch or MicroWorlds. Like with LEGO, simple elements or tools may be used to create infinite complexity and expressiveness.

Can you give me an example of how, for instance, a high school English teacher might bring making into the classroom?

Making real things that matter with a real potential audience. Kids should write plays, poems, newspaper articles, petitions, manuals, plus make films, compose music, etc…  We need to stop forcing kids to make PowerPoint presentations on topics they don’t care about for audiences they will never encounter. Kids have stories to tell. They should act, write, sing, dance, film those stories AND learn to write the sort of scientific, technical and persuasive writing that nearly every career demands.

At our Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute, middle school humanities teacher, Kate Tabor of Chicago, used MicroWorlds to “make” the computer generate random Elizabethan insults. Teachers have used versions of Logo for decades to explore grammatical structure and conjugation rules by writing computer programs to generate random poetry or create the plural possessive form of a word.

Steve Davee also mentioned that a key to successful making in schools is to empower students to become the experts–to learn how to use a 3d printer on their own, for example, and to share that knowledge with others. He said that when a teacher has to be involved with a technology or material, it creates a “creative bottleneck.” On the other hand, you’ve mentioned that teachers need to tap into their own expertise to guide students. Can these two approaches coexist peacefully?

Kids are competent. I believe that teachers are competent too. I find it unfortunate that so many educators behave as if teachers are incapable of adapting to modernity.

There is a fundamental difference in stance between assuming that as a teacher I know everything as a fountain of knowledge and that the kids are smarter than me. There may be a “creative bottleneck,” but giving up on teachers or schools is an unacceptable capitulation.

Great things are possible when the teacher gets out of the way, but even greater possibilities exist when the teacher is knowledgeable and has experience they can call upon to help a kid solve a tough problem, connect with an expert, or toss in a well-timed obstacle that will cause the student encounter a powerful idea at just the right teachable moment.

Each year, teachers at Constructing Modern Knowledge construct projects that two years ago would have earned them a TED Talk and five years ago, a Ph.D. in engineering, and yet so much teacher PD is focused on compliance, textbook page turning or learning to “use the Google.”

How does making align with Piaget’s understanding, as you’ve mentioned, that knowledge is a consequence of experience?

Piaget said that knowledge is a consequence of experience. Papert said, “If you can make things with computers, then you can make a lot more interesting things and you can learn more by making them.” Both ideas serve as strong justification for making.

In a webinar, Sylvia Martinez mentioned that instead of looking at standards and creating projects around them, teachers might work backward by creating an educational experience, then filling in the standards. Do you agree with this approach? How would this look with making?

I agree with Papert that at best school teaches a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the universe yet our entire educational system is hell-bent on arguing endlessly over which 1 billionth of a percent is important. As an educator, my primary responsibility is create a productive context for learning that democratizes access to experience and expertise while doing everything I can to make private thinking public in order to ready the environment for the student’s next intellectual development. Making is wholly consistent with this view.

As we have mechanized and standardized teaching over the past generation, teachers have been deprived of experience in thinking about thinking. Their agency has been robbed by scripted curricula, test-prep, the Common Core, and other nonsense I believe to be on the wrong side of history. As a result, they can’t help but become less thoughtful in their practice. My work is concerned with creating experiences during which teachers become reacquainted with learning in order to become more sensitive to the individual needs, passions, talents, and expertise of each student. The emerging tools of the Maker Movement provide an exciting basis for such experiences.

As I said at ASCD, you can’t teach 21st Century learners, if you haven’t learned this century.

The future viability of public education is dependent on a system of creative competent educators trusted to provide rich learning experiences for children.

All of my friends know I have serious reservations about smarmy self-important libertarianism of TED and loathe speaking in the format – essentially a television program without any of the accoutrements of a television studio. That said, I’ve now performed three of them.

My first TEDx Talk made me ill for months before and weeks following the talk. The pressure was unbearable. You see, I wanted to go viral and become a millionaire – an overnight sensation like that guy who has taken such a courageous stance for creativity. The clock got me and I left half of my prepared thoughts on the cutting room floor. That said, people seem to like the talk anyway. For that I am grateful.

My first TED experience was so unpleasant that I sought an opportunity to try it again. This time, I promised myself that I would not stress out or over plan. That strategy paid off and the experience was a lot less traumatic. The only problem is that the venue audio was a disaster and I’m yelling through the entire talk. Don’t worry. I won’t be yelling when I publish a print anthology of these performances.

In March, I was invited by my longtime client, The American School of Bombay, to do another TEDx Talk. I assembled my vast team of advisors and brainstormed how I could turn this talk into riches beyond my wildest dreams. I quickly abandoned that idea and decided to use the occasion to honor my dear friend, mentor, and colleague, Dr. Seymour Papert in a talk I called, “Seymour Papert – Inventor of Everything*

I hope you enjoy it (or at least learn something before I lose another game of Beat the Clock)! Please share, tweet, reload the page 24/7! I have not yet given up on becoming an overnight sensation.

2014 – Seymour Papert – Inventor of Everything*

2013 – We Know What to Do

2011 – Reform™

 

The following new strategy for 1:1 implementation in schools has been based on careful observation of emerging standards and implementation patterns across the globe.

Step 1:
Buy a lot of “devices” containing a rechargeable battery or allow students to bring a random assortment of “devices” to school

Step 2:
Announce that your school, district, state, or nation has “gone 1:1″

Step 3 – Step 1,000,000:
Repeat Step 2 over and over again

 

 

“Young people have a remarkable capacity for intensity….”

Those words, uttered by one of America’s leading public intellectuals, Dr. Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, has driven my work for the past six or seven years. It is incumbent on every educator, parent, and citizen to build upon each kid’s capacity for intensity otherwise it manifests itself as boredom, misbehavior, ennui, or perhaps worst of all, wasted potential.

Schools need to raise the intensity level of their classrooms!

However, intensity is NOT the same as chaos. Schools don’t need any help with chaos. That they’ve cornered the market on.

capacity500
Anyone who has seen me speak is familiar with this photograph (above). It was taken around 1992 or 1993 at Glamorgan (now Toorak) the primary school campus of Geolong Grammar school in Melbourne, Australia. The kids were using their laptops to program in LogoWriter, a predecessor to MicroWorlds or Scratch.

I love this photo because in the time that elapsed between hitting the space bar and awaiting the result to appear on the screen, every ounce of the kid’s being was mobilized in anticipation of the result. He was literally shaking,

Moments after that image was captured, something occurred that has been repeated innumerable times ever since. Almost without exception, when a kid I’m teaching demonstrates a magnificent fireball of intensity, a teacher takes me aside to whisper some variation of, “that kid isn’t really good at school.”

No kidding? Could that possibly be due to an intensity mismatch between the eager clever child and her classroom?

I enjoy the great privilege of working in classrooms PK-12 all over the world on a regular basis. This allows me observe patterns, identify trends, and form hypotheses like the one about a mismatch in intensity. The purpose of my work in classrooms is to model for teachers what’s possible. When they see through the eyes, hands, and sometimes screens of their students, they may gain fresh perspectives on how things need not be as they seem.

Over four days last month, I taught more than 500 kids I never met before to program in Turtle Art and MicroWorlds EX. I enter each classroom conveying a message of, “I’m Gary. We’ve got stuff to do.” I greet each kid with an open heart and belief in their competence, unencumbered by their cumulative file, IEP, social status, or popularity. In every single instance, kids became lost in their work often for several times longer than a standard class period, without direct instruction, or a single  disciplinary incident. No shushing, yelling, time-outs, threats, rewards, or other behavioral management are needed. I have long maintained that classroom management techniques are only necessary if you feel compelled to manage a classroom.

In nearly every class I work with – anywhere, teachers take me aside to remark about how at least one kid shone brilliantly despite being a difficult or at-risk student. This no longer surprises me.

In one particular class, a kid quickly caught my eye due to his enthusiasm for programming. The kid took my two minute introduction to the programming language and set himself a challenge instantly. I then suggested a more complex variation. He followed with another idea before commandeering the computer on the teacher’s desk and connected to the projector in order to give an impromptu tutorial for classmates struggling with an elusive concept he observed while working on his own project. He was a fine teacher.

Then the fifth grader sat back down at his desk to continue his work. A colleague suggested that he write a program to draw concentric circles. A nifty bit of geometric and algebraic thinking followed. When I kicked things up a notch by writing my own even more complex program on the projected computer and named it, “Gary Defeats Derrick.” The kid laughed and read my program in an attempt to understand my use of global variables, conditionals, and iteration. Later in the day, the same kid chased me down the hall to tell me about what he had discovered since I left his classroom that morning.

Oh yeah, I later learned that the very same terrific kid is being drummed out of school  for not being their type of student.

I learned long ago. If a school does not have bad children, it will make them.

 

Student voice is good. We should take the needs, interests, concerns, talent, curiosity, discomfort, and joy of children seriously. (pretty courageous statement, eh?)

However, if one is truly committed to making the world better for kids, “voice,” is nice, but inadequate. “Voice” absent of power is often little more than propaganda or exploitation.

While I’ve been on a brief social media “skunk at the garden party” hiatus, Dean Shareski has generously filled-in by sharing his queasiness over the “viralGoldieblox video being passed around the Web. Señor Shareski set his BS detector  on high and has provided evidence that the “amazing” Rube Goldberg machine “made by girls” is merely a commercial for a new toy called, Goldieblox.

I am shocked! Shocked!

Anyone who knows me knows that I love toys. I find buying them irresistible. I’ve been seeing Goldieblox at Maker Faires for more than a year, but have not bought a set because I think they lack extended play value (a term LEGO uses internally). I’m not one to get all outraged that a toy for girls is pink. Goldieblox just hasn’t seemed very interesting to me or the girls I work with. It’s not part of my workshop road show sweeping the globe, “Invent To Learn.”

It just doesn’t seem that Goldieblox has any chance of measuring up to the self-promotion and hype of its creator that her box of ribbon and spools is “building women engineers.” I applaud the sentiment, but if we are truly serious about improving the education of girls, it will take a lot more work than a trip to Toys R Us.

I could be wrong. I’ve recently been upgrading my initial assessment of littleBits, based on my observations of children playing with the new toy/electronics construction kit. So, perhaps I will soon fall in love with Goldieblox, but I doubt it.

Back to Monsignor Shareski…

In his post critical of the Goldidblox video, Fake and Real Student Voice, Professori Shareski awakened several repressed social media memories I had long forgotten.

I took a lot of “brown porridge” when I called BS on the very same videos of yesteryear.

There was Dalton Sherman, the “amazing” 5th grader who was coached all summer-long to give a condescending speech, written by the Dallas Schools PR department  to Dallas teachers, right before laying off 400 of them.  I smelled a rat the second I saw the video. Was called a big fat poo-poo head by teachers on social media and was right. BTW: Dalton Sherman seems to have disappeared just like those teacher jobs. So much for being the voice of school reform.

Then there was Michael Wesch (who is an important scholar) made famous by the hostage film he created in which college students decried the state of education.

Fantastic. A college class with far too many students in it (200) attempts to revolutionize the educational system by whining in a five minute web video.

I’m sorry, but count me unimpressed!

Perhaps a student should hold up a sign saying, “My professor is wasting my time and money by making me participate in a piece of exploitative propaganda in which I get to insult either my generation or the one before me just to get on YouTube.”

How did bashing our own profession become such a popular sport? What possible value could demeaning educators have in a professional development setting? Are we desperate for moving pictures or are they merely a substitute for actual ideas?

From Hey Mom! Look What I Made in College (November 2007)

Aside from their lack of authenticity, what these three AMAZING viral videos of is how children and claims of “student voice” exploit children for propaganda purposes. The Goldieblox video is a commercial selling a toy. We don’t tweet Sir Grapefellow commercials (my preferred boyhood breakfast treat) as AMAZING examples of student voice, so why the wishful thinking about Goldieblox?

Señor Shareski rightfully cites my colleague Super-Awesome Sylvia (read Super-Awesome Sylvia in the Not So Awesome Land of Schooling) as a counter example to the fake Goldieblox commercial. I have worked closely with Sylvia over the past couple of years and made her part of the Constructing Modern Knowledge faculty, not because she is cute (she is), but because she is accomplished. She knows stuff. She has skills. She has a great work ethic and  is a terrific teacher (at 12).

However, talent and achievement  did not made Sylvia immune from cynical exploitation by Rupert Murdoch and Joel Klein’s education cabal as documented in an article I wrote for the Huffington Post, Shameless Shape Shifters.

So the moral of our story is…

Three lessons…

  1. As a young blogger in 1971, The Brady Bunch taught me an important lesson relevant here, caveat emptor – buyer beware. Users of social media need to “follow the money,” have a highly-tuned BS Detector, and know when and what they are being sold.
  2. Calling everything amazing or everyone a genius is lazy and counterproductive.
  3. Student voice without what Seymour Papert calls “kid power” is worse than empty rhetoric, it is a lie. Escapism is not the same as freedom.  Too much of what is offered as “student voice” offers a false sense of agency, power, or freedom to the powerless. It is what Martin Luther King, Jr. called, “the intoxicating drug of gradualism.”

Papert circa 1999 enjoying the work of a middle schooler

I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend, colleague, and mentor Dr. Seymour Papert a lot lately. Our new book, “Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” is dedicated to him and we tried our best to give him the credit he deserves for predicting, inventing, or laying the foundation for much of what we now celebrate as “the maker movement.” The popularity of the book and my non-stop travel schedule to bring the ideas of constructionism to classrooms all over the world is testament to Seymour’s vision and evidence that it took much of the world decades to catch up.

Jazz and Logo are two of my favorite things in life. They both make me feel bigger than myself and nurture me. Jazz and Logo provide epistemological lenses through which I view the world and appreciate the highest potential of mankind. Like jazz, Logo has been pronounced dead since its inception, but I KNOW how good it is for kids. I KNOW how it makes them feel intelligent and creative. I KNOW that Logo-like activities hold the potential to change the course of schooling. That’s why I have been teaching it to children and their teachers in one form or another for almost 32 years.

I’ve been teaching a lot of Logo lately, particularly a relatively new version called Turtle Art. Turtle Art is a real throwback to the days of one turtle focused on turtle geometry, but the interface has been simplified to allow block-based programming and the images resulting from mathematical ideas can be quite beautiful works of art. (you can see some examples in the image gallery at Turtleart.org)

Turtle Art was created by Brian Silverman, Artemis Papert (Seymour’s daughter) and their friend Paula Bonta. Turtle Art itself is a work of art that allows learners of all ages to begin programming, creating, solving problems, and engaging in hard fun within seconds of seeing it for the first time. Since an MIT undergraduate in the late 1970s, Brian Silverman has made Papert’s ideas live in products that often exceeded Papert’s expectations.

There aren’t many software environments or activities of any sort that engage 3rd graders, 6th graders, 10th graders and adults equally as Turtle Art. I wrote another blog post a year or so ago about how I wish I had video of the first time I introduced Turtle Art to a class of 3rd graders. Their “math class” looked like a rugby scrum, there was moving, and wiggling, and pointing, and sharing and hugging and high-fiving everywhere while the kids were BEING mathematicians.

Yesterday, I taught a sixth grade class in Mumbai to use Turtle Art for the first time. They worked for 90-minutes straight. Any casual observer could see the kids wriggle their bodies to determine the right orientation of the turtle, assist their peers, show-off their creations, and occasionally shriek with delight in a reflexive fashion when the result of their program surprised them or confirmed their hypothesis. As usual, a wide range of mathematical ability and learning styles were on display. Some kids get lost in one idea and tune out the entire world. This behavior is not just reserved to the loner or A student. It is often the kid you least expect.

Yesterday, while the rest of the class was creating and then modifying elaborate Turtle Art programs I provided, one sixth grader went “off the grid” to program the turtle to draw a house. The house has a long and checkered past in Logo history. In the early days of Turtle Graphics, lots of kids put triangles on top of squares to draw a house. Papert used the example in his seminal book, “Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas,” and was then horrified to discover that “making houses” had become de-facto curriculum in classrooms the world over. From then on, Papert refrained from sharing screen shots to avoid others concluding that they were scripture.

It sure was nice to see a kid make a house spontaneously, just like two generations of kids have done with the turtle. It reminded me of what the great jazz saxophonist and composer Jimmy Heath said at Constructing Modern Knowledge last summer, “What was good IS good.”

Love is all you need
This morning, I taught sixty 10th graders for three hours. We spend the first 75 minutes or so programming in Turtle Art.  Like the 6th graders, the 10th graders  had never seen Turtle Art before. After Turtle Art,  the kids could choose between experimenting with MaKey MaKeys, wearable computing, or Arduino programming. Seymour would have been delighted by the hard fun and engineering on display. I was trying to cram as many different experiences into a short period of time as possible so that the school’s teachers would have options to consider long after I leave.

After we divided into three work areas, something happened that Papert would have LOVED. He would have given speeches about this experience, written papers about it and chatted enthusiastically about it for months. Ninety minutes or so after everyone else had moved on to work with other materials, one young lady sat quietly by herself and continued programming in Turtle Art. She created many subprocedures in order to generate the image below.


Papert loved love and would have loved this expression of love created by “his turtle.” (Papert also loved wordplay and using terms like, “learning learning.” I’m sure he would be pleased with how many times I managed to use love in one sentence.) His life’s work was towards the creation of a Mathland where one could fall in love with mathematical thinking and become fluent in the same way a child born in France becomes fluent in French. Papert spoke often of creating a mathematics that children can love rather than wasting our energy teaching a math they hate. Papert was fond of saying, “Love is a better master than duty,” and delighted in having once submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation with that title (it was rejected).

The fifteen or sixteen year old girl programming in Turtle Art for the first time could not possibly have been more intimately involved in the creation of her mathematical artifact. Her head, heart, body and soul were connected to her project.

The experience resonated with her and will stay with me forever. I sure wish my friend Seymour could have seen it.

Love,

 

 


Turtle Art is free for friends who ask for a copy, but is not open source. It’s educational efficacy is the result of a singular design vision unencumbered by a community adding features to the environment. Email contact@turtleart.org to request a copy for Mac, Windows or Linux.

I suppose that school IT departments are a necessary evil, but that does not change the fact that 999 out of 1,000 of them are just evil.

Too many school leaders are so terrified of anything that plugs in that they surrender unprecedented budgetary authority and power to folks unworthy of such responsibility. Rather than provide support for the professional educators and children one would think they are there to serve, far too many school IT personnel add unnecessary complication and obstacles to the mission of a school. In way too many schools, teachers report to IT staff who put in place cumbersome policies that conflict with educational priorities and make computers too unreliable to have a significant impact on teaching or learning.

In 1990, I led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools. Over the next several years, I helped countless schools “go 1:1.” Until around 1995-96, most schools with 1,000 laptops employed one nice lady you went to when your computer broke. She patted you on the head, wiped your tears and called the vendor to repair the machine. In the mid-90s, everything changed. The World Wide Web decentralized computing by tying computers back together via networks, schools spent a king’s ransom worrying about nonsense like backing up kids’ data, securing the 7th grade computer lab against the Soviets, and installing draconian filtering systems that with each passing year made the Web less reliable or useful to students. Administrative ignorance of computers now had a new friend, paralyzing fear of what kids might find online. Now schools suddenly required an army of IT gatekeepers who if incompetent enough could convince their schools to hire all of their friends.

In the K-6 school where I work regularly, we managed approximately 60 laptops last year with no security, networked storage or IT personnel. I wrote the number of each laptop on its underside with a Sharpie and kids knew that if they wanted to continue working on yesterday’s file, they should go back to the same laptop they were using. Everything worked just swell. There were no maintenance issues and computers behaved as one would expect, not the figment of a computer kids have come to expect after the IT Department is done “fixing them.” Schools routinely buy a $1,000 computer and quickly turn it into a $200 “device.”  I know we constantly have to defend computers for students, but does anyone EVER question the ROI for school IT personnel?

The scenario I just described often leads me to wonder if schools really possess the maturity to have computers. We’re not preparing kids for the future if the computers they’re forced to use don’t function normally or if we confiscate a kid’s machine after they make it operational (see LAUSD iPad clown show). It’s no wonder we can’t have nice things.

Today, I saw the promised land.

I’m in Mumbai working at the American School of Bombay for a week. This is my third trip here since 2004 when I was hired by the school board to perform an audit of their computer use. This morning, I taught 60 tenth graders for three hours. We began by having all of the students spend an hour or so programming in Turtle Art and then set up three areas where kids could choose to work on MaKey MaKey projects, Arduino engineering, or wearable computing/soft-circuits.

Great stuff happened, not just because I’m a badass who can teach 60 kids I’ve never met before to program, build robots and make wearable computers, but because the school’s IT Department was there to help! Let me say that again real slowly… “The ———— IT ———- Department ——— Was —— There —— To —— Help!” Mull that over a few times.

When I arrived, the materials I requested were waiting for me. When kids hadn’t bothered to download and install the software last night, the team helped me get software onto individual laptops. When we needed Arduino manuals, the team downloaded and printed ten copies. When we were missing an item, it arrived minutes later without an interruption in the instructional program. When kids needed help, the team pitched-in and they did so with a smile on their face and pride in a job well done. They love what the kids are able to do with the materials they support. (I should also mention the terrific science and math teachers who demonstrated genuine interest and delight in the work of their students.)

The leader of the IT Team received a second-hand note from me saying that I needed some sort of bucket-shaped item for use in one of the MaKey MaKey projects I hoped to interest kids in. He went to KFC last evening and scored a half-dozen chicken buckets for our use – EXACTLY what I needed, but didn’t know where to source in India.

I see kids go to the Help Desk and (wait for it) receive help. Yup. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Every kid who has approached the Help Desk has left happy. Every time I go to the Apple Store “Genius” Bar, I want to take hostages.

The school IT Team here at ASB is fantastic, but there is obviously a culture in place that expects and supports such greatness. There must be great clarity in their customer service mission. I am honored to work with them.

PS: The network works perfectly and as a guest I have complete access to Facebook and Twitter – booyah!

* ASB is a BYOD school, but the device is a laptop of a minimum standard. This adds complexity to keeping every user up and running, but again, no problem at all.

Note from Gary Stager…

In 1989, a great friend, colleague and pioneer in educational computing, Steve Shuller, authored the following literature review. Steve was Director of Outreach at Bank Street College during its microcomputer heyday, co-created New Jersey’s Network for Action in Microcomputer Education (N.A.M.E., now NJECC) and was a Director of the IBM Model Schools Project. Shortly before his untimely death Steve prepared this literature review for the Scarsdale, NY Public Schools, hoping that it would contribute to the end of tiresome discussions regarding keyboarding instruction.

Steve would be horrified that this trivial issue lives on in a field that has matured little in the past fourteen years. I share his work with you as a public service and in loving memory of a great educator.


Keyboarding in Elementary Schools
Curricular Issues

Stephen M. Shuller
Computer Coordinator
Scarsdale, NY Public Schools

August 1989

Introduction

We are currently in the midst of a world-wide revolution, moving from the Industrial Age to an era in which information is the primary product (Toffler 1984). As information processing tools, computers are central to this revolution. The ability to interact with computers is an essential skill for the Information Age, one which our schools will need to address to prepare our students to meet the challenges of this fundamentally changed world.

The educational reform movement of the 1980′s has recognized the importance of computers in education. For example, A Nation at Risk (1983) calls for the high school students to:

(a) understand the computer as an information, computation, and communication device;

(b) use the computer in the study of the other Basics and for personal and work-related purposes; and

(c) understand the world of computers, electronics, and related technologies. (A Nation at Risk 1983, 26)

Virtually every other reform proposal has included similar recommendations. The educational community has responded to the futurists’ visions of the Information Age and the reformers proposals by working to integrate computers into the curriculum at all levels.

At present, people interact with computers by typing words on typewriter-like keyboards. Even though computers may someday be able to understand handwriting and human speech, in the currently foreseeable future-which in the Information Age may be only a dozen years or so at best-keyboarding skills are necessary to make computers do our bidding. Thus, keyboarding is an essential enabling skill for using computers in schools and in society, and must be included in Information Age curricula (Gibbon 1987).

Even though there is virtual unanimity that students should learn to keyboard, there is considerably less agreement on how, how much, when, and by whom. This paper will consider the teaching of keyboarding in elementary schools, examining these questions as a guide for curriculum development.

Keyboarding and Typing: Historical Context

Computer keyboards are similar to typewriters, Industrial Age tools invented by Christopher Sholes in 1868 and first marketed by Remington in 1873 (Yamada 1983). By the end of the 19th Century, typewriters were considered reliable writing tools, and started becoming widely used in offices (Pea and Kurland 1987). The first typing instruction was provided by typewriter manufacturers in about 1880 (Yamada 1983). It took public schools until 1915 to begin teaching typing as a high school occupational skill (West 1983).

By the 1920′s, educators began to experiment with using the new technology-typewriters–to help children learn to write (Pea and Kurland 1987). These experiments were quite successful. In the largest-scale controlled study, Wood and Freeman (1932) followed 2383 students as they learned to write on portable typewriters over a two year period. They found that the students who used typewriters wrote with more expression, showed higher reading scores, became better spellers, and enjoyed writing more than students learning to write using conventional methods. Similarly, Merrick (1941) found that typewriters helped the English development of high school students. Even so, typewriters did not catch on in education.

In the 1960′s and early 1970′s, there was another smattering of interest in using computers in language arts (Balajthy 1988). Edward Fry, a noted reading specialist at Rutgers University, published a book on using typewriters in language arts which was not widely used. Perhaps seeing a new window of opportunity, Fry (1984) revised his text and reissued it as an approach to keyboarding in language arts.

Since we have known for more than half a century that keyboarding can help elementary school children learn language skills, why have typewriters only rarely found their way into elementary school classrooms, in sharp contrast to the current push to put computers into schools? One answer is that schools by and large reflect the perceived needs of society. Industrial Age schools resembled factories, and funds for typewriters were only available to prepare the relatively few students who would become clerks and typists. Information Age schools must prepare the vast majority of students to use computers because they are information management tools.

But why start elementary school students on computers? Here there is less direct pressure from society and more interest from educators who see the potential to enhance education. The two main factors spurring this interest are the transformation of professional writing through word processing (Zinsser 1983) and the transformation of writing instruction through the process approach (Graves 1983). Computers can greatly facilitate implementation of a process approach to teaching writing (Green 1984; Daiute 1985), so many educators are interested. In the current social milieu, the taxpayers are often willing to supply the necessary equipment.

Keyboarding in Elementary Schools: Curricular Issues

Given that we would like to use microcomputer based word processing as a tool to teach writing, what sort of keyboarding skills will elementary school students need? There seem to be three main alternatives. If they have no familiarization with the computer keyboard, they will have to “hunt and peck.” If they know where the keys are but not how to touch type, they can “peck” without much “hunting,” preferably using both hands. Finally, they can learn to touch type.

Everyone seems to agree that keyboard familiarization is in order, but whether to stop there or to teach touch typing to elementary school students is controversial. Advocates of the keyboard familiarization approach argue that students can type quickly enough to facilitate their writing without touch typing, that touch typing demands too much from limited time and computer resources, and that touch typing skills are quickly forgotten unless the students continue to practice regularly. Advocates of touch typing counter that students who develop the “bad habit” of keyboarding with two fingers find it very difficult to learn correct touch typing skills later and that such skills will ultimately be very important because of increased speed and efficiency.

There is widespread agreement that elementary students need to be able to type at least as fast as they can write by hand to avoid interfering with their writing process. A number of investigators have determined elementary school student handwriting rates. Graham and Miller (1980) found that students in grades 4 through 6 can copy text at a rate of 7 to 10 words per minute (wpm). Graves (1983) found a range of 8 to 19 wpm for 9 and 10 year olds when composing. Freyd and Kahn (1989) found an average rate of 11.44 wpm among 6th graders. With no keyboarding instruction (familiarization or touch typing), students of these ages can generally type 3 to 5 wpm (Wetzel 1985, 1987; Stoecker 1988). Different testing procedures probably accounts for most of the variation in these results. Wetzel (1987) reports that 10 wpm is generally accepted as a benchmark writing rate for students in grades 4 through 6.

Can students learn to type as fast as they can write with a keyboard familiarization program and word processing practice alone? The results are mixed. Freyd and Kahn (1989) report two studies in which students were able to type at writing speed with just keyboard familiarization and practice. one group of 6th graders started with an average rate of 6.62 wpm in October. With one hour of word processing per week, they had increased their average speed to 10.12 wpm in May. On the other hand, Daiute (1985) found that 11 and 12 year olds could write more words by hand in 15 minutes than they could type on the computer even after six months of word processing experience. Dalton, Morocco, and Neale (1988) found that 4th graders were initially comfortable word processing without touch typing instruction, but became frustrated later in the year as they needed to enter longer texts into the computer. In this study, however, students began using the word processor with no previous keyboard familiarization, so the results are not surprising.

Advocates of touch typing frequently claim that teaching touch typing to students who first learned to type without proper fingering techniques is very difficult or impossible (Kisner 1984; Stewart and Jones 1985; National Business Educators Association 1987; Abrams 1988; Balajthy 1988). No empirical evidence is presented to substantiate this claim, however. Wetzel (1987) interviewed several typing teachers, some of whomwere concerned about the “hunt and peck unlearning” problem, but others were not concerned, based on their own teaching experiences. West (1983) reports successfully teaching “hunt and peck” typists to use correct touch typing finger positions with about 10 hours of instruction.

By grade 3, children are developmentally able to touch type on electric keyboards. Advocates of touch typing generally agree that students should receive instruction just prior to the time they will need to use touch typing skills for word processing. If studen ts do not regularly practice typing, their skills can deteriorate in as little as six weeks (Warwood 1985). Wetzel (1987) found that students regress in their skills if they do not practice regularly after 20 hours of initial instruction. He cites business education research that students tend to retain their skills once they reach a plateau of 20 wpm. Gerlach (1987) ,found that with continued practice, students continue to improve their speed. In her study, 6th grade students who averaged 9.71 wpm after a 6 to 8 hour keyboarding course improved to 12.27 wpm four months later with continuing word processing practice.

Business educators have proposed a number of touch typing programs for elementary school students, some based on a recommended amount of instruction, others based on a performance criterion. Kisner (1984) recommended touch typing instruction in 20 to 30 minute periods, to a criterion of 20 wpm in Grade 3 or 25 wpm in grades 4 through 6. These recommendations seem to comefrom the experience of business education teachers with high school students rather than from keyboarding experience with elementary school children.

Jackson and Berg (1986) recommend 30 hours of instruction spread over two or three years, with weekly 30 minute review sessions. Instruction should take place in 20 to 30 minute periods, using a combination of software and a textbook. The recommended course sequence follows the traditional typing course, starting with the home row and introducing two new keys per session, with appropriate drills. Teachers should monitor the students continuously to make sure they are using proper form. Instruction should emphasize speed, not accuracy.

In 1987, the National Business Education Association (NBEA) proposed standards for keyboarding instruction in elementary schools. The NBEA recommended that elementary school students learn touch typing to a criterion of 15 wpm, and middle school students further develop their skill to a criterion of 25 wpm. Not surprisingly, the NBEA recommended that business education teachers, rather than elementary school classroom teachers, provide the instruction.

Wetzel (1985) surveyed the literature on touch typing programs for elementary school students, finding that fifth graders could be taught to touch type 22 wpm with a nine-weeks of daily instruction for 45 minutes, and fifth and sixth graders could achieve 40 wpm by spending one hour daily for a full year.

Alternatively, a more limited keyboarding instruction program consisting of instruction in correct fingering techniques and practice with a computer typing tutorial could lead to an average typing rate of 10 wpm in four weeks of 35 minute sessions or 15 wpm in nine weeks of such sessions. He also observed third, fourth, and fifth graders using word processors without touch typing instruction, finding that those who could type from 7 to 10 wpm were able to make adequate use of the computer for word processing. Given the heavy demands on teaching time in elementary schools, the relatively low level of typing skill needed to facilitate word processing and other computer activity, and the students’ ability to increase typing proficiency through continued computer use, Wetzel recommended a limited keyboarding program to accomplish a typing speed of 10 wpm in a relatively short period of time.

In a later paper, Wetzel (1987) modified these recommendations to take into account differing amounts of computer usage. If students regularly use computers at least two hours per week, Wetzel feels that they will get enough practice to sustain typing skills, justifying a 20 to 30 hour period of initial instruction in touch typing. If students characteristically use computers one hour per week or less, only a much more limited program of keyboard familiarization is recommended.

Stoecker (1988) developed a touch typing program ofinstruction designed for use by elementary school teachers. After a four week course, 20 sessions of 30 minutes each, fifth and sixth graders achieved typing rates of about 12 wpm. Stoecker’s program consists of student and teacher materials for use with any word processor. He has found that elementary school classroom teachers can learn to use this approach through a one day long training workshop.

Balajthy (1988) emphasizes the importance of integrating keyboarding instruction into the language arts curriculum. He cites recent studies showing that keyboarding can improve language arts skills, results which are consistent with the typewriter-based studies of the 1930′s and 19401s. Balajthy, like Wetzel, finds that students can achieve adequate typing skills with a limited period of keyboarding instruction-about 8 to 10 hours-followed by regular practice with computer activities. Like Stoecker, Balajthy recommends teacher- keyboarding instruction using a word processor rather than use of a software-based tutorial. Balajthy (1987) cautions that unless students have significant amounts of ongoing typing or word processing activity, touch typing instruction is a waste of time because skills will deteriorate rapidly.

One reason why Stoecker and Balajthy recommend keyboarding instruction on word processors with teacher supervision is because computer tutorials cannot monitor correct fingering and other aspects of proper touch typing. Stoecker (1988) reportsthat non-typists tend to use two fingers unless a teacherobserves. In contrast, Mikkelson and Gerlach (1988) performed acontrolled study in which third to sixth graders worked with a computer typing tutorial. Half of the students were supervised and encouraged to use proper touch typing form; the other half were observed but not supervised. The results were surprising–both groups made similar progress in typing skill, and there was no difference between groups in propensity to use correct touch typing techniques.

If Mikkelson and Gerlach’s results are generalizable, it would be possible for elementary school teachers to obtain satisfactory results by teaching touch typing through limited individual work with a computer typing tutorial. Such instruction could take place on classroom computers while other activities were taking place. If students need to be supervised to insure proper fingering techniques, then either elementary classroom teachers will need to be trained to teach touch typing or business education teachers will be needed.

Keyboarding and the Future

In their Database of Competencies for Business Curriculum Development, the NBEA defined keyboarding as follows:

Keyboarding is defined as the act of placing information into various types of equipment through the use of a typewriter-like keyboard. Typewriting and keyboarding are not synonymous. The focus of a keyboarding course is on input rather than output. (NBEA 1987, A-19)

Keyboarding is seen as a way to input information into a computer so that it can be manipulated. Thus, initial accuracy is less important than speed, ability to manipulate text is more important than formatting skills for specific types of documents, and composing is more important than transcribing (so it does not matter so much if the typist looks at the keys).

These distinctions recognize important changes in the purposes for which people type on Industrial Age typewriters and on Information Age computer keyboards. Yet, if we look closely at the keyboarding programs proposed by business educators, we find a methodology geared to the Industrial Age purpose of transcribing rather than the Information Age purpose of composing (Freyd and Kahn 1989).

This discrepancy is not surprising. As Naisbitt (1982) observed, people tend first to use a new technology in the same ways they have used older technologies which seem similar. only after a (sometimes lengthy) period of incubation do we see new directions or uses that grow out of the technology itself. So, at this point it is useful to take a step back and consider whether we might be looking at the keyboarding issue all wrong.

Graves (1983) has determined that five and six year old beginning writers compose at a painstakingly slow pace of 1.5 words per minute. At that rate, writing down a six word sentence can take up to nine minutes. Even five and six year olds who are unfamiliar with keyboards can compose more quickly and easily oncomputers than by hand (Wetzel, 1985). Graves has remarked that “one can imagine starting kids off writing on keyboards and save handwriting until motor skills are more highly refined.” (Green 1984).

Fry (1987) has proposed that schools eliminate the teaching of cursive writing and substitute keyboarding. He points out that cursive writing is not taught in European schools; students learn manuscript, and then develop their own handwriting style through shortcuts. By teaching cursive writing instead of keyboarding, Fry says, “we are training for the last century instead of for the next century.”

The issue of touch typing versus two-finger typing may be similar. Gertner and Norman (1984) have observed that the main advantage of touch typing is in copying. Copying is important for Industrial Age clerks and typists to transcribe business documents, but it is irrelevant to writers using word processing to compose and edit. By insisting on touch typing, are we training for the last century instead of for the next?

The New York State Keyboarding Curriculum

The New York State Board of Regents Action Plan to Improve Elementary and Secondary Education Results in New York calls for instruction in keyboarding to be “included in the State-developed English Language Arts Syllabus.” A state education department curriculum guide entitled Developing Keyboarding Skills to Support the Elementary Language Arts Program further stipulates that “approximately 18 to 20 hours of instruction should be devoted to keyboarding instruction within the framework of the Language Arts Program in the elementary grades.” (New York State Education Department 1986, 23).

The state keyboarding curriculum closely parallels material published by the National Business Education Association and by-state and local business education personnel. As described above, this means that the general thrust of the guide recognizes different needs and objectives between traditional typing instruction and keyboarding instruction, the recommended teaching strategies follow a more or less traditional touch typing approach. The influence of the business education community is apparent from the Suggested Readings offered in Appendix B. Of the 25 references listed on pages 29 and 30, 15 are to business education sources, and only 4 are to computer education and 3 more to general education sources.

The state curriculum clearly reflects the relative strength of business educators compared with computer coordinators in New York. For example, under “General Guidelines for Achieving Outcomes,” the guide suggests that:

business education teachers should be called upon to assist in the development of keyboarding curricula, in-service training, and selection of materials and methodology. (5)

Under “Planning for Teacher Awareness and Training:

… the business education teacher … can be very helpful in developing the plan and for training other teachers inappropriate keyboarding techniques. Business education teachers can also serve as a resource once a program is in place to conduct follow- activities as needed. (6)

Under delivery of instruction, the curriculum calls for students to learn touch typing, including correct fingering, posture, and eye contact (away from the keyboard, that is). The guide stops short of requiring business education teachers to teach the keyboarding courses, but states:

Teachers who have been trained in keyboarding methodology are of considerable importance in achieving these goals. (7)

In contrast, computer coordinators are mentioned only once in thecurriculum guide. The guide clearly views computer coordinators as technicians rather than instructional leaders, suggesting that they can be helpful in scheduling labs, repairing equipment, finding software and the like. The next sentence reminds the reader that knowledgeable high school students can also provide “considerable assistance.” (7)

To its credit, the state keyboarding guide does focus on integrating keyboarding into the language arts curriculum, as suggested by Balajthy (1988) and others. But it leans so heavily for its methodology on the perspective of the past that it is” suspect as a guide to the future.

Conclusions and Recommendations

There is widespread agreement that elementary school students need keyboarding skills. Whether keyboardfamiliarization is sufficient or whether students need touch typing skills depends on the nature of the school’s language arts and computer education curricula.

Touch typing courses are only effective if students receive a substantial period of initial instruction followed by regular practice throughout the school year. Touch typing courses can be recommended when computers are fully integrated into the language arts curriculum and when students regularly have at least two hours of individual computer time per week. In this type of environment, the initial touch typing instruction should occur at the time when students will first become involved with computers on a regular basis. The initial instruction should be provided either by specialists or by classroom teachers who have been given training in how to teach touch typing.

In situations where students make more limited use of computers, the evidence at hand suggests that a program of keyboard familiarization is sufficient to provide adequate keyboarding skills to support word processing and other uses of computers in elementary schools. Keyboard familiarization can be taught by classroom teachers assisted by appropriate computer software.

As we move further into the Information Age, fundamental changes in our school curricula will follow, paralleling the changing needs of society. Envisioning these changes, we can imagine a time when keyboarding will replace cursive writing asan essential skill for elementary school children, complementing a language arts curriculum using computers extensively for such activities as writing with word processors. Developing an Information Age language arts curriculum with keyboarding as a fundamental skill should be a central focus of our long-range curriculum planning.

References

Abrams, Jeri. “Keys to Keyboarding.” Boston Computer Society Education Special Interest Group News 4 (November/December 1988): 6-12.

Balajthy, Ernest. “Keyboarding and the Language Arts.” The Reading Teacher 41 (October 1987): 86-87.

Balajthy, Ernest. “Keyboarding, Language Arts, and the Elementary School Child.” The Computing Teacher 15 (February 1988): 40-43.

Daiute, Colette. Writing and Computers. Reading, MA: AddisonWesley, 1985.

Dalton, Bridget M., Catherine Cobb Morocco, and Amy E. Neale.

“I’ve Lost My Story!” Mastering The Machine Skills for Word Processing. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, 1988.

Freyd, Pamela and Jessica Kahn. “Touch Typing in Elementary Schools-Why Bother?” In William C. Ryan, Ed. Proceedings of the National Educational Computing Conference 1989. Eugene, OR: International Council on Computers for Education, 1989.

Fry, Edward. Computer Keyboarding for Children. NY: Teachers College Press, 1984.

Fry, Edward. Quoted in “Keyboarding replacing writing: Penmanship should be out and typing in, professor says.” The Associated Press, 2 February, 1987.

Gentner, Donald and Donald Norman. “The Typist’s Touch.” Psychology Today 18 (March 1984): 67-72.

Gerlach, Gail J. The Effect of Typing Skill on Using a Word Processor-for Composition. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Washington, DC, 1987.

Gibbon, Samuel Y., Jr. “Learning and Instruction in the Information Age.” In Mary Alice White, Ed. What Curriculum for the Information Age? Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1987.

Graham, Steve and Lamoine Miller. “Handwriting Research and Practice: A Unified Approach.” focus on Exceptional Children 13 (1980): 1-16.

Graves, Donald H. Writing: Teachers-and Children at Work. Exeter, NH: Heinemann, 1983.

Green, John 0. “Computers and Writing: An Interview with Donald Graves.” Classroom Computer Learning 4 (March 1984): 21-23, 28.

Jackson, Truman H. and Diane Berg. “Elementary Keyboarding-Is it important?” The Computing Teacher 13 (March 1986): 8-11.

Kisner, Evelyn. “Keyboarding-A Must in Tomorrow’s World.” The Computing Teacher 11 (February 1984): 21-22.

Koenke, Karl. “ERIC/RCS Report: Keyboarding: Prelude to Composing at the Computer-” English Education 19 (December 1987): 244-249.

McCrohan, Jane. Teaching Keyboarding: The first step in making the computer an effective writing tool. Paper presented at the New Jersey Educational Computing Conference, 1989.

McLean, Gary N. “Criteria for Selecting Computer Software for Keyboarding Instruction.” Business Education Forum 41 (May 1987): 10, 12.

Merrick, Nellie L. “Typewriting in the University High School.” School Review 49 (April 1941): 284-296.

Mikkelsen, Vincent P. and Gail Gerlach. Teaching Keyboarding Skills to Elementary School Students in Supervised and Unsupervised-Environments. ERIC Document Number ED301152, 1988.

Naisbitt, J. Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming our Lives. New York: Warner Books, 1982.

National Business Education Association. Database of Competencies for Business curriculum Development, K-14. ERIC Document Number ED 294064, 1987.

A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office [1983]).

Pea, Roy D. and D. Midian Kurland. “Cognitive Technologies for Writing.” In Ernst Z. Rothkopf, Ed. Review of Educational Research, Volume 14. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association, 1987.

Stewart, Jane and Buford Jones. “Keyboarding Instruction: Elementary School Options.” Business Education Forum 37 (1983): 11-12.

Stoecker, John W. Teacher Training for Keyboarding Instruction– 4-8: A Researched and Field Tested Inservice Model. ERIC Document Number ED290451, 1988.

Warwood, B., V. Hartman, J. Hauwiller, and S. Taylor. A Research Study to Determine the Effects of Early Keyboard Use upon Student Development in Occupational Keyboarding. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University, 1985. ERIC Document Number ED 265367.

West, L. The Acquisition of Typewriting Skills. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1983.

Wetzel, Keith. “Keyboarding Skills: Elementary, My Dear.” The Computing Teacher 12 (June 1985): 15-19.

Wetzel, Keith. “Keyboarding-An Interview with Keith Wetzel.”

Making the Literature, Writing, Word Processing Connection. The Writing Notebook, 1987.

Wood, Ben D. and Frank N. Freeman. An Experimental Study of the Educational Influences of the Typewriter in the Elementary School Classroom. NY: MacMillan, 1932.

Yamada, Hisao. “A Historical Study of Typewriters and Typing Methods: from the Position of Planning Japanese Parallels.” In Dudley Gibson., Ed. Wordprocessing and the Electronic office. London; Council for Educational Technology, 1983.

Zinsser, W. Writing with a Word Processor. NY: Harper and Row, 1983.

A boyhood dream has come true. I was interviewed by California School Business Magazine!

I certainly sized the opportunity to pull no punches. I left no myth behind.  Perhaps a few school business administrators will think differently about some of their decisions in the future.

A PDF of the article is linked below. I hope you enjoy the interview and share it widely!

Edtech Expert Discusses the Revolution in Computing