Coming to a Classroom Near You!
seventh grader’s journey includes learning math through Scooby Doo ©2001 Gary S. Stager/Curriculum Administrator Magazine
A version of this was published in the August 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine
At our annual family dinner to celebrate the end of another grueling school year, each of our children reflected upon the lessons learned and the obstacles overcome during the previous ten months. Our seventh-grade daughter, who will be referred to by the top-secret code name of Miffy, shared with us a new pedagogical strategy and use of educational technology not yet conceived of during my school years.
What was this innovation? Was it project-based learning, multiage collaboration, constructionism, online publishing, modeling and simulation? Nope, it was Disney films.
Yup, that’s right. Disney films (and several others too). The following is a partial list of the films shown this year during class time by my daughter’s teachers.
The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Lion King
Mighty Joe Young
The Little Mermaid
Angels in the
The Big Green*
Planet of the Apes
Mighty Joe Young
The Lion King II
The Road to
Remember the Titans
Rocky & Bullwinkle
Star Wars: Return
Mr. Holland’s Opus
Now I’m as fond of wasting time and goofing-off as the next guy, but Miffy was able to remember watching at least 34 films having no educational value whatsoever in one school year. In case you were thinking that they could be studying film criticism or visual storytelling you should know that they only watched half of most films because the periods are too short. Others were watched over several days.
This remarkable waste of class time occurred in a school where requests for meaningful projects, hands-on experiments, field-trips, drama and other productive learning experiences are abandoned because of an oft-repeated “lack of time.” Sure the standardized tests and top-down curricular pressures wreak havoc with creating a productive context for learning, but we can’t blame this one on Princeton or the President. Somewhere along the line educators determined that the demanding curriculum was elastic enough for the illegal showing of countless commercial films.
My Daughter the Rodeo Clown
Miffy also told me that due to the SAT-9 exams, Career Day had been cancelled. I’m not sure which part of that statement is most tragic, so let’s state it in the form of a standardized test question.
Which is most pathetic?
a) Canceling Career Day because of SAT-9 (standardized) testing
b) Career Day
c) The school’s remedy for having cancelled career day
The ingenious remedy chosen was to
spend much of the last week of school watching a series of instructional
videos called, “Real Life 101.” While hardly as educational as Mulan, these shows turned out to be far more entertaining. The audience was repeatedly reminded, “you
don’t need a college degree for this career, but it wouldn’t hurt! “
The hosts of the series, Maya, Megan, Zooby and Josh (there always seems to be a Josh) introduced exciting career options for the high-tech interconnected global economy of the 21st century. The career options included the following: Snake handler, projectionist, naval explosive expert, skydive instructor, rafting instructor, diamond cutter, roller coaster technician, exterminator, auctioneer, alligator wrestler and my personal favorite growth industry – rodeo clown!
You can’t make this stuff up! The worksheet that followed the Career Day substitute asked each child to rank these careers in order of preference and write a few sentences explaining their number one choice.
If I wanted my children
to watch television, I’d let them stay home. At least at home
they could watch something educational like “Behind the Music:
The Mamas and the Papas”or learn about Beat poetry from the “Many
Loves of Dobie Gillis. ” At least then they would have a chance to learn something more than the unfortunate lessons being modeled by their schools.
*My kid explained that all of these films share the same plot about a group of fat kids working hard together to win the big game – somewhere in there a lesson for us all.
Before accepting overtesting as inevitable, try debating the issue with parents and students
By Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Originally published in District Administration Magazine – July 2003
Our schools are in the midst of a mass panic not seen since the swine flu epidemic–standardized testing. We are swept up in a wave of “the tests are important,” “parents demand accountability,” and “they make us do it.” This uncritical groupthink will destroy public education unless we wake up, form alliances and tell the public the truth.
Democrats and Republicans alike caught a bad case of testing fever and voted overwhelmingly for No Child Left Behind, perhaps the greatest intrusion of the federal government into local education in history. NCLB will compel states to test their students every year from grades 2-12 in order to rank schools and shut many of them down. Our Proctor-in-Chief, George W. Bush, is extending the joys of standardized testing into Head Start.
Since many administrators and school board members have no idea how many standardized tests they need to administer, NCLB will undoubtedly add additional tests and draconian consequences to a school year already diminished by weeks of testing and test preparation.
Without so much as a public debate on what we would want for our schools, testing mania has been allowed to spread like a plague on our educational process. If some testing is good, more is better. If the youngest students can’t yet hold a pencil or read, of course they can bubble-in answers to math problems for several hours at a time. Head Start should be a reading program. You got a problem with three-year-olds reading? Why then, you must suffer from “the bigotry of low expectations.” The end of recess does not affect obesity. Replacing art and music with scripted curricula won’t lead to increased school violence or discipline problems. Down is up, black is white.
Education Week’s annual report “Technology Counts,” states an alarming trend–schools are not spending enough money on using computers for the purposes of standardized testing! Apparently, the years I’ve spent helping schools use computers to enhance learning have been wasted. It never occurred to me that computers should be used to replace #2 pencils and scan sheets. Tech-based testing reminds me of the old Gaines Burger commercial that asked, “Is your dog getting enough cheese?”
The Education Week “research” is replete with charts and graphs designed to whip child-centered educators into line. EdWeek loves winners and losers nearly as much as the testing industry. Coincidentally, a giant publisher of standardized tests, textbooks and test preparation systems, funded their “study.”
In such a climate of confusion and hysteria, educators feel powerless. Parents trust that you will do the right thing. Misconceptions about high-stakes testing are amplified by an unwillingness to engage the community in conversation.
Inspired by Juanita Doyon’s terrific new book, Not With Our Kids You Don’t: Ten Strategies to Save Our Schools, and a desire to show my kids that you can make a difference, I decided to try my hand at activism.
I designed a flier answering some of the myths about standardized testing and telling parents that California state law allows them to exempt their child from the STAR tests. Two days before testing was to begin I stood in front of my daughter’s high school and passed out 150 fliers in about 10 minutes. I felt a bit creepy, but the kids told me that I was cool (a first).
I have since learned that 46 students opted out of the tests. That’s a one-third hit-rate. Not since the Pet Rock has a marketing effort been so successful with so little effort Think about it–a kid had to take a piece of paper from a stranger, bring it home, convince his parents to write a letter disobeying the wishes of the school and bring the letter back to school the next day. Perhaps the public isn’t as hungry for increased accountability as we have been led to believe?
One parent said she didn’t know her tax money was spent on standardized testing. Can you imagine the public being less engaged in a matter so important?
It is incumbent upon each of us to tell parents what we know and engage the community in serious discussions about schooling. We may find that we have many more allies than there are politicians telling us what’s best for kids.
The year following my initial opt-out activism,I wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper urging parents to opt-out. Fearing a loss of federal money as a result of not making AYP due to testing resistance, the Torrance Unified School District lied to parents about the legitimacy of the testing process. I responded with a freedom of information request about funding, personnel, policy, costs and time dedicated to STAR testing. This tied the district office in knots for months. If I can find the request, I will share it.
Here is a list of recommended books for parents and educators interested in opposing standardized testing.
Computationally-Rich Activities for the Construction of Mathematical Knowledge – No Squares Allowed
©1998 Gary S. Stager with Terry Cannings
This paper was published in the proceedings of the 1998 National Educational Computing Conference in San Diego
Based on a book chapter: Stager, G. S. (1997). Logo and Learning Mathematics-No Room for Squares. Logo: A Retrospective. D. L. Johnson and C. D. Maddux. Philadelphia, The Haworth Press: 153-169.
The NCTM Standards state that fifty percent of all mathematics has been invented since World War II. (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989) Few if any of these branches of mathematical inquiry have found their way into the K-12 curriculum. This is most unfortunate since topics such as number theory, chaos, topology, cellular automata and fractal geometry may appeal to students unsuccessful in traditional math classes. These new mathematical topics tend to be more contextual, visual, playful and fascinating than adding columns of numbers or factoring quadratic equations. Logo provides a powerful medium for rich mathematical explorations and problem solving while providing a context in which students may fall in love with the beauty of mathematics. The examples in this paper are intended to spark the imaginations of teachers and explore several mathematical areas ripe for Logo-based investigations.
While it may seem obvious to assert that computers are powerful computational devices, their impact on K-12 mathematics education has been minimal. (Suydam, 1990) More than a decade after microcomputers began entering schools, 84% of American tenth graders said they never used a computer in math class.(National Center for Educational Statistics, 1984) Computers provide a vehicle for “messing about” with mathematics in unprecedented learner-centered ways. “Whole language” is possible because we live in a world surrounded by words we can manipulate, analyze and combine in infinite ways. The same constructionist spirit is possible with “whole math” because of the computer. In rich Logo projects the computer becomes an object to think with – a partner in one’s thinking that mediates an ongoing conversation with self.
Many educators equate Logo with old-fashioned turtle graphics or suggest that Logo is for the youngest of children. Neither of these beliefs is true. Although traditional turtle graphics continues to be a rich laboratory in which students construct geometric knowledge, Logo is flexible enough to explore the entire mathematical spectrum. Logo continues to satisfy the claim that it has no threshold and no ceiling. (Harvey, 1982) Best of all, Logo provides a context in which children are motivated to solve problems and express themselves.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics recognizes Logo as a software environment that can assist schools in meeting the goals for the improvement of mathematics education. In fact, Logo is the only computer software specifically named in the document.
The Goals of the NCTM (1984) Standards for All Students
- learn to value mathematics
- become confident in their ability to do mathematics
- become mathematical problem solvers
- learn to communicate mathematically
- learn to reason mathematically
The NCTM Standards state that fifty percent of all mathematics has been invented since World War II. (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989) Few if any of these branches of mathematical inquiry have found their way into the K-12 curriculum. This is most unfortunate since topics such as number theory, chaos, topology, cellular automata and fractal geometry may appeal to students unsuccessful in traditional math classes. These new mathematical topics tend to be more contextual, visual, playful and fascinating than adding columns of numbers or factoring quadratic equations. Logo provides a powerful medium for rich mathematical explorations and problem solving while providing a context in which students may fall in love with the beauty of mathematics.
Computer microworlds such as Logo turtle graphics and the topics of constructions and loci provide opportunities for a great deal of student involvement, In particular, the first two contexts serve as excellent vehicles for students to develop, compare and apply algorithms. (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1989, p. 159)
The examples in this paper are intended to spark the imaginations of teachers and explore several mathematical areas ripe for Logo-based investigations. The project ideas use MicroWorlds, the latest generation of Logo software designed by Seymour Papert and Logo Computer Systems, Inc. MicroWorlds extends the Logo programming environment through the addition of an improved user interface, multiple turtles, buttons, text boxes, paint tools, multimedia objects, sliders and parallelism.
Parallelism allows the computer to perform more than one function at a time. Most computer-users have never experienced parallelism or the emergent problem solving strategies it affords. MicroWorlds makes this powerful computer science concept concrete and usable by five year-olds. The parallelism of MicroWorlds makes it possible to explore some mathematical and scientific phenomena for the first time. Parallelism also allows more conventional problems to be approached in new ways.
One source of inspiration for student Logo projects is commercial software. Progressive math educators have found software like The Geometric Supposer and the more robust Geometers’ Sketchpad to be useful tools for exploring Euclidian geometry and performing geometric constructions. I noticed that while teachers may use these tools as extremely flexible blackboards, kids can pull down a menu and request a perpendicular bisector to be drawn without any deeper understanding than if the problem was solved with pencil and paper.
Could middle or high school students design collaboratively their own such tools? If so, they would gain a more intimate understanding of the related math concepts because of the need to “teach” the computer to perform constructions and measurements. Throughout this process, teams of students are asked to brainstorm questions, share what they know and define paths for further inquiry. Students as young as seventh grade have developed their own geometry toolkits in MicroWorlds.
Much of learning mathematics involves naming actions and relationships. Logo programming enhances the construction of mathematical knowledge through the process of defining and debugging Logo procedures. The personal geometry toolkits designed by students are used to construct geometric knowledge and questions worthy of further investigation. As understanding emerges the tool can be enhanced in order to investigate more advanced problems.
At the beginning of this project students are given a few tool procedures to start with. These procedures are designed to:
- drop a point on the screen (each point is a turtle and in MicroWorlds every turtle knows where it is in space)
- compute the distance between two points
With these two sets of tool procedures students can create tools necessary for generating geometric constructions, measuring constructions and comparing figures. MicroWorlds’ paint tools may be used to color-in figures and to draw freehand shapes. The procedural nature of Logo allows for higher level functions to be built upon previous procedures. Figures 1a, 1b & 1c are screen shots of one student’s geometry toolkit.
Probability and Chance
Children use MicroWorlds to explore probability via traditional data collection problems involving coin or dice tosses and in projects of their own design. Logo’s easy to use RANDOM function appears in the video games, races, board games and sound effects of many students.
Perhaps the best use of probability I have encountered in a MicroWorlds project is in a project I like to call, “Sim-Middle Ages.” In this project a student satisfied the requirements for the unit on medieval life in a quite imaginative fashion. Her project allows the user to specify the number of plots of land, number of seeds to plant and the number of mouths to feed. MicroWorlds then randomly determines the amount of plague, pestilence, rainfall and rate of taxation to be encountered by the farmer.
On the next page there are two buttons. One button announces if you live or die in the middle ages and the other tells why, based on the user-determined and random variables. You may then go back and adjust any of the values in an attempt to survive. (figures 2a, 2b and 2c)
Things happen in the commercial simulations, but users often don’t understand the causality. In student-created simulations, students use mathematics in a very powerful way. They develop their own algorithms to model historical or scientific phenomena. This type of project can connect mathematics with history, economics, physical science and life science in very powerful ways.
“Number theory, at one time considered the purest of pure mathematics is simply the study of whole numbers, including prime numbers. This abstract field, once a playground for a few mathematicians fascinated by the curious properties of numbers, now has considerable practical value… in fields like cryptography.”(Peterson, 1988) Software environments, such as MicroWorlds, provide a concrete environment in which students may experiment with number theory. “Experimental math” projects benefit from Logo’s ability to control experiments, easily adjust a variable and collect data. Kids control all of the variables in an experiment and can swim around in the beaker with the molecules. Intellectual immersion in large pools of numbers is possible due to computer access. The scientific method comes alive through mathematical experimentation.
A fascinating experimental math problem to explore with students is known as the 3N problem. The problem is also known by several other names, including: Ulam’s conjecture, the Hailstone problem, the Syracuse problem, Kakutani’s problem, Hasse’s algorithm, and the Collatz problem. The 3N problem has a simple set of rules. Put a number in a “machine” (Logo procedure) and if it is even, cut in half – if it is odd, multiply it by 3 and add 1. Then put the new value back through the machine. For example, 5 becomes 16, 16 becomes 8, becomes 4, 4 becomes 2, 2 becomes 1, and 1 becomes 4. Mathematicians have observed that any number placed into the machine will eventually be reduced to a repeating pattern of 4…2…1…
While this is an interesting pattern, what can children explore? Well, it seems that some numbers take a long time to get to 4…2…1… I call each of the numbers that appear before 4, a “generation.” I often expose students to this problem by trying a few starting numbers and leading a discussion. Typing SHOW 3N 1 takes 1 generation to get to 4. Students may then predict that the number 2 will take two generations and they would be correct. They may then hypothesize that the number entered will equal the number of generations required to get to 4. However, 3N 3 takes 5 generations! I then ask, “how can we modify our hypothesis to save face or make it look like we were at least partially right?” Kids then suggest that the higher the number tried, the longer it will take to get to 4…2…1… They may even construct tables of the previous data and make numerous predictions for how the number 4 will behave only to find that 4 takes zero generations (for obvious reason that it is 4).
I then tell the class that they should find a number that takes a long time to get to 4…2…1… I do not specify what I mean by a “long time” in order to let the young mathematicians agree on their own limits. The notion of limits is a powerful mathematical concept which helps focus inquiry and provides the building blocks of calculus. Students often test huge numbers before realizing that they need to be more deliberate in their experimentation. The working definition of “long time” changes as the experiment continues. Eleven generations may seem like a long time until a group of kids test the number 27. Gasps and a chorus of wows can be heard when 27 takes 109 generations. Then I ask the class to tell me some of the characteristics of 27. Students often list some of the following hypotheses:
It’s 3 * 3 * 3 (an opportunity to introduce the concept of cubed numbers)
The sum of the digits = 9
The number is greater than 25
We then test each of the hypotheses and discard most of them. The cubed number hypothesis is worthy of further investigation. If we test the next cubed number, 4, with SHOW 3N 4 * 4 * 4 we find that it does not take long to get to 4. One student may suggest that only odd perfect cubes take a long time. I then suggest that the other students find a way to disprove this hypothesis by finding either an odd perfect cube that doesn’t take a long time or an even cube that does. Both exist.
to 3n :number
ifelse even? :number [3n :number / 2] [3n (:number * 3) + 1]
to even? :number
output 0 = remainder :number 2
A simple tool procedure may be added to count the number of generations for the “researcher.” The more you play with this problem, the more questions emerge. A bit more programming allows you to ask the computer to graph the experimental data or keep track of numbers that take longer than X generations to reach 4…2…1… Running such experiments overnight may lead to other interesting discoveries, like the numbers 54 and 55 each take 110 generations. What can adjacent numbers have in common? 108, 109 and 110 each take 111 generations. Could this pattern have something to do with place value? How could you find out? (see figures 4a & 4b)
The joy in this problem for kids and mathematicians is connected to the sense that every time you think you know something, it may be disproven. This playfulness can motivate students to view mathematics as a living discipline, not as columns of numbers on a worksheet. For many students, problems like 3N provide a first opportunity to think about the behavior of numbers. “For the most part, school math and science becomes the acquisition of facts that have been found by people who call themselves scientists.” (Goldenberg, 1993) Logo and experimental math provides another opportunity to provide children with authentic mathematical experiences.
Fractal Geometry and Chaos Theory
The contemporary fields of fractal geometry and chaos theory are the result of modern computation. Many learners find the visual nature of fractal geometry and the unpredictability of chaos fascinating. Logo’s turtle graphics and recursion make fractal explorations possible. The randomness, procedural nature and parallelism of MicroWorlds brings chaos theory within the reach of students.
Fractals are self-similar shapes with finite area and infinite perimeter. Fractals contain structures nested within one another with each smaller structure a miniature version of the larger form. Many natural forms can be represented as fractions, including ferns, mountains and coastlines.
Chaos theory suggests that systems governed by physical laws can undergo transitions to a highly irregular form of behavior. Although chaotic behavior appears random, it is governed by strict mathematical conditions. Chaos theory causes us to reexamine many of the ways in which we understand the world and predict natural phenomena. Two simple principles can be used to describe Chaos theory:
- From order (a predictable set of rules), chaos emerges.
- From a random set of rules, order emerges.
MicroWorlds may be used to explore both chaos and fractal geometry simultaneously. Figure 3shows two similar fractals called the Sierpinski Gasket. The fractal on the left is created by a complex recursive procedure. The fractal on the right is generated by a seemingly random algorithm discovered by Michael Barnsley of Georgia Institute of Technology. The Barnsley Fractal is created by placing three dots on the screen and then randomly choosing one of three points, going half way towards it and putting another dot. This process is repeated infinitely and a Sierpinski Gasket emerges. In fact, if you grab the turtle from the “chaos fractal” and move it somewhere else on the screen, it immediately finds its way back into the “triangle” and never leaves again. The multiple turtles and parallelism of MicroWorlds makes it possible to explore the two different ways of generating a similar fractal simultaneously. Experimental changes can always be made to the procedures and the results may be immediately observed.
One of the most attractive aspects of MicroWorlds is its ability to create animations. Students are excited by the ease with which they can create even complex animations. MicroWorlds animations require the same mathematical and reasoning skills as turtle graphics. The difference is that the turtle’s pen is up instead of down and the physics of motion comes into play. Multiple turtles and “flip-book” style animation enhance planning and sequencing skills. Even the youngest students use Cartesian coordinates and compass headings routinely when positioning turtles and drawing elaborate pictures.
Perhaps the best part of MicroWorlds animation is that the student-created animation and related mathematics are often employed in the service of interdisciplinary projects. Using animation to navigate a boat down the ancient Nile, simulate planetary orbits, design a video game or energize a book report provides a meaningful context for using and learning mathematics.
Functions and Variables
Logo’s procedural inputs and mathematical reporters give kids concrete practice with variables. Functions/reporters/operations are easy to create in MicroWorlds and can even be the input to another function. For example, the expression SHOW DOUBLE DOUBLE DOUBLE 5 or REPEAT DOUBLE 2 [fd DOUBLE DOUBLE 20 RT DOUBLE 45] are possible by writing a simple procedure, such as:
to double :number
output :number * 2
Many teachers are unaware of Logo’s ability to perform calculations (up through trigonometric functions) in the command center or in procedures. SHOW 3 * 17 typed in the command center will display 51 and REPEAT 8 [fd 50 rt 360 / 8] will properly draw an eight-sided regular polygon.
A favorite project I like to conduct with fifth and sixth graders creates a fraction calculator. First we decide to represent fractions as a (Logo) list containing a numerator and a denominator. Then we write procedures to report the numerator and denominator of a fraction. From there, the class can easily collaborate to write a procedure which adds two fractions. Some kids can even make the procedure add fractions with different denominators. From there, all of the standard fraction operations can be written as Logo procedures by groups of children. The next challenge the kids typically tackle is the subtraction of fractions.
One day, a fifth grader, Billy, made an interesting discovery while testing his subtraction “machine.” Billy typed, SHOW SUBTRACT [1 3] [2 3] (meaning 1/3 – 2/3), and -1 3 appeared in the command center. I noticed the negative fraction and mentioned that when I was in school we were taught that fractions had to be positive. Therefore, there is no such thing as a negative fraction.
Billy exclaimed, “Of course there is! The computer gave one to us!” This provoked a discussion about “garbage in – garbage out,” the importance of debugging and the need for conventions agreed upon by mathematicians and scientists. We even discussed the difference between symbols and numbers. Billy listened to this discussion impatiently and announced, “That’s ridiculous because I can give you an example of a negative fraction in real-life.”
Billy said, “I have a birthday cake divided into six slices and eight people arrive at my party. I’m short two sixths of a cake – negative 2/6!” He went on to say, “If the computer can give us a negative fraction and I can provide a real-life example of one, then there must be negative fractions.” The hazy memory of my math education diminished the confidence required to argue with this budding mathematician. Instead, I agreed to do some research.
I looked in mathematics dictionaries, but found more ambiguity than clarity. I also spent several weeks consulting with math teachers. Most of these people either dismissed the question of negative fractions as silly or complained that they lacked the time to adequately deal with Billy’s dilemma. After a bit more time, I ran into a university mathematician at a friend’s birthday party. Roger did not dismiss Billy’s question. Instead he asked for my email address. The next morning the following email message awaited me.
Date: Sun, 06 Nov 1994 09:52:44 -0400 (EDT)
It was fun to have a chat at Ihor’s party. This morning I got out my all time favorite source of information on things worthwhile, the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. (With its articles by James Clerk Maxwell et al.) It is very clear. Fractions come about by dividing unity into parts, and are thus by definition positive.
Now what should a teacher tell Billy? In the past, you might hope that he forgot the matter. Today, Billy can post his discovery on the Internet and engage in serious conversation – perhaps even research with other mathematicians. Access to computers and software environments like MicroWorlds makes it possible for children to make discoveries that may be of interest to mathematicians and scientists. It is plausible that kids can contribute to the construction of knowledge deemed important by adults.
New Data Structures
MicroWorlds has two new data structures that contribute to mathematical learning. With the click of the mouse, sliders and text boxes can be dropped on the screen. As input devices, sliders are visual controls that adjust variables. Each slider has a name and a range of numbers assigned to it. Like a control on a mixing board the slider can be set to a number in that range. The slider’s value can then be sent to a turtle whose speed or orientation is linked to the value of the slider. The slider can also be used to set the values of variables used in a simulation.
Sliders may also be used as output devices. A procedure can change the value of a slider to indicate an experimental result. If a slider named, counter, is in a MicroWorlds project then the command, SETCOUNTER COUNTER + 1, can be used to display the results of incrementing the counter.
MicroWorlds text boxes also function as both input and output devices. A text box is like a little word processor drawn on the MicroWorlds page to hold text. Text boxes also have names that when evoked report their contents. If a user types the number 7 in a text box named FOO, then typing SHOW FOO * 3 will display 21 in the command center. FD FOO * 10 will move the turtle forward 70 steps. The command, SETFOO 123 will replace the contents of the text box, FOO, with 123. Therefore, text boxes may be used as experimental monitors or calculator displays. Constructing a garden-variety calculator with a text box and MicroWorlds buttons or turtles is deceptively simple, but provides one illustration of how text boxes could be used in a mathematical context.
A basic spreadsheet can be built in MicroWorlds with just one line of Logo code. If three text boxes are named, cell1, cell2 and total, then a button with the instruction, SETTOTAL CELL1 + CELL2, will put the sum of the first two cells in the third. Making the button run many times will cause the “spreadsheet” to perform automatic calculations. A bit more programming will allow you to check for calculation efforts, graph data or cause a turtle to change its behavior based on the result of a calculation. Building a model spreadsheet helps students understand how a commercial spreadsheet works, develop computation skills and add automatic calculation to their Logo toolbox.
Instructional Software Design
Children can use Logo as a design environment for teaching others mathematical concepts. Idit Harel’s award-winning research (Harel, 1991) and the subsequent research by her colleague, Yasmin Kafai (Kafai, 1995), demonstrated that when students were asked to design software (in LogoWriter or MicroWorlds) to teach other kids about “fractions” they gained a deeper understanding of fractions than children who were taught fractions and Logo in a traditional manner. These students also learn a great deal about design, Logo programming, communication, marketing and problem solving. Harel and Kafai have confirmed that children learn best by making connections and when actively engaged in constructing something meaningful. Their research provides additional evidence of Logo’s potential as an environment for the construction of mathematical knowledge.
Increased access to computers and imaginative teachers will open up an infinite world of possibilities for Logo learning. Software environments, such as MicroWorlds provide children with an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression. MicroWorlds inspires serendipitous connections to powerful mathematical ideas when drawing, creating animations, building mathematical tools or constructing simulations.
Excursions into the worlds of number theory, fractal geometry, chaos and probability rely on MicroWorlds’ ability to act as lab assistant and manager. Paul Goldenberg suggests that it is difficult to test out ideas unless one has a slave stupid enough not to help. (Goldenberg, 1993) The computer plays the role of lab assistant splendidly, yet the student still must do all of the thinking. MicroWorlds makes it possible to manage large bodies of data by running tedious experimental trials millions of times if necessary, collecting data and displaying it in numerical or graphical form. The procedural nature of MicroWorlds makes it possible to make small changes to an experiment without having to start from scratch.
MicroWorlds provides schools with a powerful software package flexible enough to grow with students. In days of tight school budgets it is practical to embrace a software environment with which students can address the demands of numerous subject areas. The sophistication with which students confront intellectual challenges improves along with their fluency in MicroWorlds.
Seymour Papert was horrified at how the simple example of commanding a turtle to draw a house, depicted in Mindstorms, became “official Logo curriculum” in classrooms around the world. However, providing students with a rich “mathland” in which to construct mathematical knowledge has always been one of the goals in the design and implementation of Logo. This paper attempts to provide simple examples of how MicroWorlds may be used to explore a number of mathematical concepts in a constructionist fashion. Those interested in additional ideas should read (Abelson & diSessa, 1981), (Cuoco, 1990), (Clayson, 1988), (Goldenberg & Feurzeig ,1987), (Lewis, 1990) and (Resnick, 1995). More detailed examples and teacher materials related to this paper are available on my World-Wide-Web site at: http://moon.pepperdine.edu/~gstager/home.html.
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- Kafai, Y. (1995) Minds in Play – Computer Design as a Context for Children’s Learning. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.
- Lewis, P. (1990). Approaching Precalculus Mathematics Discretely. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. (1989). Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics. Reston, VA: NCTM.
- Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. (Second Edition, 1993) New York: Basic Books.
- Peterson, I. (1988). The Mathematical Tourist – Snapshots of Modern Mathematics. NY: W.H. Freeman and Company.
- Poundstone, W. (1985). The Recursive Universe… Chicago: Contemporary Books.
- Resnick, M. (1995). Turtles, Termites and Traffic Jams – Explorations in Massively Powerful MicroWorlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Silverman, B. (1987). The Phantom Fishtank: An Ecology of Mind. Montreal: Logo Computer Systems, Inc. (book with software for Apple II or MS-DOS)
- Stager, G. (October, 1988). “A Microful of Monkeys.” The Logo Exchange .
- Stager, G. (1990). “Developing Scientific Thought in a Logo-based Environment.” Proceedings of the World Conference on Computers in Education. Sydney, Australia: IFIP.
- Stager, G. (1991). “Becoming a Scientist in a Logo-based Environment.” Proceedings of the Fifth International Logo Conference. San José, Costa Rica: Fundacion Omar Dengo.
- Suydam, M. N. (1990). Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for Mathematics Education. (ERIC/SMEAC Mathematics Education Digest No. 1, 1990) Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse for Science, Mathematics and Environmental Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED319630 90).
I often explain to graduate students that I don’t play devil’s advocate or any other clever games. Just because I may say something unsaid by others, does not mean that I don’t come to that perspective after careful thought and introspection.
Being an educator is a sacred obligation. Those of us who know better, need to do better and stand between the defenseless children we serve and the madness around us. If a destructive idea needs to be challenged or a right defended, I’ll speak up.
My career allows me to spend time in lots of classrooms around the world and to work with thousands of educators each year. This gives me perspective. I am able to identify patterns, good and bad, often before colleagues become aware of the phenomena. I have been blessed with a some communication skills and avenues for expression. I’ve published hundreds of articles and spoken at even more conferences.
People seem interested in what I have to say and for that I am extremely grateful.
The problem is that I am increasingly called upon to argue against a popular trend. That tends to make me unpopular. In the field of education, where teachers are “nice,” criticism is barely tolerated. Dissent is seen as defect and despite all of my positive contributions to the field, I run the risk of being dismissed as “that negative guy.”
Recently, I have written or been quoted on the following topics:
- Against Khan Academy in Wired magazine
- Against BYOD in Learning and Leading with Technology
- Against interactive whiteboards in Technology and Learning magazine
- Against tablet computers in education (in-press) for Scholastic Administrator magazine
- Against video games in education in Parade magazine
- Against Bill Gates’ influence on school policy in GOOD and The Huffington Post
- Against Daniel Pink’s dubious learning theories on my personal blog
- Against Education Nation in The Huffington Post
I’ve also written against homework, NCLB, RTTT, Michelle Rhee, Eli Broad, Joel Klein, standardized testing, Education Nation, Common Core Curriculum Standards, Accelerated Reader, merit pay, Arne Duncan, union-busting, Cory Booker, Teach for America, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, mayoral control, the ISTE NETs, Hooked-on-Phonics, President Obama’s education policies, etc… You get the idea.
These are perilous times for educators. When once bad education policy was an amuse-bouche you could easily ignore, it has become a Carnegie Deli-sized shit sandwich. Educators are literally left to pick their own poison, when choice is permitted at all. If I take a stand against a fad or misguided education policy, my intent is to inform and inspire others to think differently or take action.
So why, pray tell am I boring my dear readers with my personal angst? An old friend and colleague just invited me to write a magazine article about the “Flipped Classroom.” Sure, I think the flipped classroom is a preposterous unsustainable trend, masquerading as education reform, in which kids are forced to work a second unpaid shift because adults refuse to edit a morbidly obese curriculum. But….
The question is, “Do I wish to gore yet another sacred cow?” Is speaking truth to power worth the collateral damage done to my career?
In the 1960s, the great Neil Postman urged educators to hone highly-tuned BS and crap detectors. Those detectors need to be set on overdrive today. I’m concerned that I’m the only one being burned.
What to do? What to do?
I don’t know what they have to say
It makes no difference anyway
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
No matter what it is
Or who commenced it
I’m against it!
Your proposition may be good
But let’s have one thing understood
Whatever it is, I’m against it!
And even when you’ve changed it
Or condensed it
I’m against it!Whatever It Is, I'm Against It by Harry Ruby & Bert Kalmar From the Marx Bros. film "Horse Feathers" (1932)
Girls and Technology – Overcoming Myths and Malpractice1
Presented at the 2002 Alliance For Girl Schools
Girls and Technology Conference
© May 2002 Gary S. Stager
It is indeed an honor to speak at this conference and share my experiences and expectations with such an august audience. My qualifications for this conference could be based on my two decades of work with technology and kids, the work I did in the early days of school laptop computing right here in Australia or the fact that I am the parent of two teenage girls. I originally suggested that this talk be titled, “I’m not sure why Dale Spender hates me,” based on my experience as Ms. Spender’s human piñata at an MLC dinner and the ironic fact that she went on to quote me extensively in one of her books.
The theme of this conference, girls and technology, implies a problem. Neither girls nor technology are the problem. If a problem does exist, it is with the men and women commonly identified as educators and to a lesser extent, parents. It is the intellectual timidity, professional indolence, imagination gap and what Seymour Papert calls, idea aversion that prevents us from meeting the needs of all digital age children. The greatest number of victims of such idea aversion may be girls since for reasons real and imagined. The prevailing myths that girls don’t like computers; girls need different technology; girls should learn to criticize technology; girls have adequate access and ample role models; school leaders are qualified to make technological decisions; and schools should be used as social sieves lead to the creation of pedagogical decisions ultimately detrimental to girls themselves.
Microcomputers and the global information infrastructure offer unprecedented opportunities for expanding the learning community and for children to engage with powerful ideas. The choice is between an increasingly irrelevant system of schooling or the realization of John Dewey’s dream for a learning environment in which children can achieve their full creative and intellectual potential. Computational and communication technology may be used as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression or as a tool for oppression. The first option makes schools better places for teachers and kids to learn, the second will hasten the demise of school’s monopoly on education.
It would be a shame if we missed the chance to revolutionize the learning environment if we were simply ignorant. It would be a sin to ignore the remarkable possibilities demonstrated right under our noses in order to preserve some quaint notion of 19th century education. We know how the combination of elevated expectations, respect for epistemological pluralism, a dash of creativity and ubiquitous can produce a learning renaissance because we’ve seen it in schools a tram-ride away.
The most important educational technology innovation in the past two decades began at Methodist Ladies’ College in 1989 when David Loader, a giant in girls’ education, committed his school to the proposition that every child should own a personal laptop computer. This was never intended as a stunt, experiment or project. David noticed that computers were getting more portable and affordable while anticipating that such a bold investment would pay great dividends for educators concerned with making schools what James Britton would describe as, “more hospitable to the intentions of children.”
Six years before the World Wide Web, Loader shared these provocative thoughts with his school community.
Apparently the sun cannot rise in present schools…
Unlike David Suzuki who dismisses computers as information processors, we see knowledge not so much as being processed but as being constructed in the classroom. John Dewey’s observation that the content of the lesson is the less important thing about learning, is relevant (here). – David Loader
Almost every child, on the first day he sets foot in a school building, is smarter, more curious, less afraid of what he doesn’t know, better at finding and figuring things out, more confident, resourceful, persistent and independent, than he will ever be again in his schooling – John Holt
This was the shot heard ‘round the world. Soon after laptops were delivered to MLC, impressive student LogoWriter projects inspired teachers to rethink their notions of curriculum, assessment, scheduling and most importantly, the under-appreciated learning abilities of their students. Humanities teachers demanded long uninterrupted blocks of time to accomplish interdisciplinary collaborative projects. French teachers ventured into the uncharted waters of maths classrooms, boatloads of educators from around the world visited Kew and the idea of Marshmead was born.
Steve Costa, was patient zero – the first teacher in history to teach a class of girls each equipped with a laptop. Steve’s extraordinary teaching abilities coupled and willingness to share his talents with colleagues has made his classroom one of the most visited in the world. Not only did Steve Costa possess the confidence and courage to invent the future, he has demonstrated a remarkable focus over the past thirteen years. He has not been seduced by the latest technological fad or gimmick, but has continued to help students maximize the potential of their minds and computers by remaining committed to the hard fun of programming in Logo (MicroWorlds). Steve’s work continues to inspire me. What he and his girls have accomplished is remarkable. If there were any justice, Mr. Costa would appear on an Australian postage stamp. He is arguably one of the most important teachers in this nation’s history.
I am delighted that Steve Costa and David Loader will keynote a conference in Maine, USA this August between Alan Kay, the inventor of the personal computer, and Seymour Papert, the educator who predicted thirty-five years ago that every child would have a personal computer. Maine has built upon the foundation laid by these educational giants by passing a law requiring the provision of an iBook computer and 24/7 net access for every seventh and eighth grade student in the state.
This however is not an all-male history lesson. Many female teachers at MLC and Coombabah State Primary School in Queensland helped the world rethink the role of computers in schools. Merle Atherton, a quiet humanities teacher two years from retirement, embraced Logo and laptops with enormous enthusiasm and inspired countless colleagues to enjoy thinking about thinking. She was given an “in-school sabbatical” so she could work in classrooms alongside her colleagues.
Joan Taylor’s world-class Community Education department played an enormous role in the organization of holiday computer camps, global conferences and professional opportunities for teaching staff. The holiday computer camps provided parents with a creative child-care service and benefited the school in two important ways. The first benefit of the camp was as a “strongly suggested” prerequisite to attending the school as a new student. Four days of project-based computer use, the arts and a bit of sport provided adequate preparation for new children to succeed when they joined existing classrooms. Another benefit of the camps was that members of the teaching staff served as counselors. More “expert” teachers would lead robotics or Logo classes and less experienced teachers would apprentice. The casual nature of the camp allowed teachers to gain new knowledge and develop increased levels of consequence. Apprentices often replaced the experts in subsequent camps.
Community education also provided a venue for teachers interested in learning basic computing skills or finding out how to use computers for administrative tasks. This way the school could dedicate its professional development resources to using computers in ways that reformed education and benefited kids.
Merle and Joan are unsung heroes in the history of school computing.
I remember bringing some student projects back to the USA from MLC. When I shared them with one of America’s most accomplished computing-using teachers he remarked, “Oh, that’s what it looks like when the kids have time.” The ability to learn and work anywhere anytime is an obvious, yet important rationale for laptop use.
MLC was a magical place during the early nineties. Every aspect of schooling was open for discussion and reconsideration. I spent as long as three months at a time at the school with a brief to do anything I thought would contribute to educational excellence. I worked with teachers and kids in classrooms, consulted with staff, created the holiday computer camps, built a LogoExpress system to facilitate telecommunications from home and within school and had constant access to the principal. 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, fondly remembered as pyjama parties. 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,” will no longer cut it.
Not all was perfect, even during these halcyon days. I remember needing a small bit of electronic tinkering done while at MLC and saying, “I’ll just get a girl to solder this for me.” My colleagues looked nervously around the room before someone said, “our girls don’t solder.” Concern for gender equity apparently ended at the point where students use tools, learn about electronics or perform actual service to the school community. The school musical theatre production hired professional musicians to provide accompaniment rather than utilizing talented student musicians. Ted Sizer, Deborah Meier and others write elegantly about the benefits of students assuming more responsibility for sustaining the intellectual culture and accepting responsibility for the operation of their school. We need to work harder
Soon after the pioneering efforts of MLC, two other groups of laptop schools emerged. The “marketeers” were schools more concerned with the marketing and publicity benefits of “doing laptops” than with reforming schools while nearly every other school found laptops in its future by inertia. The “marketers” and their “neighbours “ lacked the vision of the pioneer schools and found that they could differentiate themselves by embracing less empowering uses of computers and cynical assessment schemes like the International Baccalaureate. Some principals became more concerned with schmoozing hardware vendors and rising software version numbers than with educational innovation.
I am most disappointed at how little impact the laptop volcano has had on the structure of schooling. I assumed ten years ago that any educator with common sense would recognize the need for new school environments incorporating multiage, learner-centred, interdisciplinary learning. The creation of fantastic alternative learning environments at Marshmead and Clunes are evidence of a failure to bring about substantive school reform in traditional schools. The need for a school to build a new campus in order to be more learner-friendly suggests the institution’s incapacity for self-correction.
Perhaps I was naïve, but in the early nineties I had the following expectations for today’s schools.
The easy stuff
Schools would feature:
Basic productivity tool fluency
Electronic publishing of student work
Electronically-mediated parent/teacher communication
Teachers using the computer for personal productivity/school paperwork
Every child and teacher would have a personal computer
We would stop referring to computers as technology
I.T. would cease to exist as a school subject
The hard stuff
Kids would be:
All laptop owners
Writing powerful computer programs
Freely communicating online
Conducting scientific investigations with probeware
Publishing in a variety of convergent media
|The hard stuff
School leaders would be:
Using computers in personally powerful ways
Supporting the imaginative use of emerging technology
Participating in the professional development they impose on teachers
No longer using computers to quiz or test students
The really hard stuff
Principals would no longer be able to get their photo in the newspaper just for standing next to a kid and a computer
School would be learner-centered and educators would be able to articulate what that means
School leaders would spend less time making computer deals and more time collaborating with other learners
Students would be able to program and construct their own software tools
The supremacy of curriculum would be abandoned & no one would speak of delivery
School leaders would join the community of practice
Kids would collaborate with other kids and experts around the world
|The really really hard stuff
Multi-age interdisciplinary “classrooms” would be widespread
External forms of assessment would be replaced by more effective humane forms of authentic assessment
Kids would spend less time in school
Schools would stop viewing the needs of children as an impediment to the enterprise
There would be far fewer technology coordinators in schools
The advent of the World Wide Web in the mid-nineties allowed schools never particularly committed to constructionism to embrace a vehicle for reinforcing the primacy of curriculum and instruction. Despite the unrivaled power of the net to democratize publishing and offer unprecedented opportunities for collaboration, it has been assimilated by schools in the name of curriculum delivery and the status quo. Throw in the incredible expense of networking and the disasters caused by the unprecedented authority given to the non-educators running school technology infrastructures and the results were bound to be disappointing. It seems to many that the golden days of Australian school computing may be sadly behind us.
I invented Murray’s Law to describe the current state of school computing. Murray’s Law combine’s Moore’s Law and Murphy’s Law to state that every 18 months schools will purchase computers with twice the processor power of today and do things twice as trivial with those computers. Things need not be, as they seem. I will share glimpses of the opportunities some of your schools may be missing during this presentation.
MLC was clearly on the right side of history. Rather than give long-winded educational rationales for portable computers I suggest that the reason your school should provide laptops is because it’s training wheels for the adults in the school. It is inevitable that every kid will have her own full-featured portable computer, although it may not look like a laptop. Embracing laptops gives your teachers a few years to prepare for that eventuality on their terms.
I am not a cyber-utopian. I want children to have the widest possible range of high-quality experiences regardless of the medium. However, computers do offer new things to know and new ways to know new things. They can be intellectual prosthetic devices that enable people to learn and express themselves in unprecedented ways. For at-risk students the computer may provide the first opportunity to experience the satisfaction of having a wonderful idea.
For girls’ schools, the computer offers rare opportunities for young women to invent their futures. Such schools will be successful only when they embrace constructionism, computers and put the needs of learners ahead of those held by curriculum designers. The women charged with the education of girls need to model the most fearless, creative and intellectually-rich use of computers if they are to inspire girls to be their very best.
Myths We Need to Overcome
#1 Girls Don’t Like Computers
Girls use computers in all sorts of ways ignored by schools. They use the technology to sustain and establish relationships via instant messaging, a technology needlessly prohibited by many schools. They publish web pages about bands and television shows they love. They share music and rip MP3s. Girls even play video games when those games are more playful and less violent.
We need to look for opportunities to build software environments and computer activities that engage girls. Many more peer-to-peer products need to be developed.
#2 Children Use Computers in School
Some of your schools have gone to great expense in order to produce glossy brochures exclaiming, “We have computers!” What may been news in 1979 is no longer newsworthy. That race has been won. What do your girls DO with those computers?
It is not your job to sort children, to decide which ones will have certain opportunities. It is your job to ensure that all children are exposed to the widest possible range of possibilities within a supportive caring environment.
Unless every girl has the opportunity to explore robotics, programming, MIDI composition, digital filmmaking, multimedia web publishing in a culture that values these activities, we cheat them of a thorough and efficient education. While computers should be transparent across all disciplines, it is outrageous how few comprehensive secondary schools offer computer science as a serious course of study. Few girls even know that this is an option as avocation or vocation. IT or ICT classes are just dressed-up computer literacy and outdated business studies courses. They lack rigor and don’t reflect the state of computing.
According to a recent study conducted by the Australian government, 44% of all children spend less than 40 minutes per week and 66% of all children spend less than one hour per week using a computer in school.2 Similar levels of inadequate access would be found in the USA as well. The major implication of this limited access is that many girls will just not use computers at all. Scarcity is a major obstacle to use. It is just not worth it for a girl to fight for an extra few minutes of computer time. 1:1 laptop computing certainly helps overcome this problem.
#3 Girls Need Different Technology
The myth that girls that girls need “pink” technology is unfounded. They need more imaginative examples of how computers and related technology might be used. Girls don’t dislike LEGO robotics and programming. It is just that their mothers and grandmothers do not buy LEGO for them. Their mothers don’t buy much software either.
Girls don’t need purple bricks. They do need project ideas that don’t result in trucks. Time and time again we have seen that girls are quite imaginative competent programmers and engineers when inspired to engage in such activities.
Girls play computer games in ways that attempt to push the boundaries of the rules – to manipulate them. Boys study the rules and try using them to get ahead, to vanquish opponents. I have seen many young girls “play” with the genre of Expanded Books by clicking on words in silly sequences in order to get the computer to say funny things. Their willingness and desire to manipulate systems should make girls the best computer users, not the most at-risk.
Since it is increasingly difficult for companies to earn a profit producing software for children, even less is created for girls. That which is created for girls insults their intelligence and merely pretties up either trivial tasks like coloring or is related to petty chores like storing addresses or diary entries.
There have been a few notable attempts to produce software for girls, but these efforts have borne little fruit. In the late 1980s, SEGA assembled all of their female engineers, artists, authors, programmers and game designers in one building in the hopes that all of this “girl power” would inspire the creation of hit videogame software for girls. It did not.
Brenda Laurel’s company, Purple Moon, was dedicated to producing software for girls and spent unprecedented funds on research into gender play patterns. The problem was that by the end of the research there was no money left to make quality software that offered compelling experiences for girls. I remember my daughter calling Purple Moon technical support to complain that her interactive adventure game crashed. She was informed that it didn’t crash, it just didn’t really have an ending. The last hope of Purple Moon was actually based on a terrific concept, a sports game for girls. The company recognized the rise in popularity in soccer among girls and had an opportunity to develop a soccer computer game for girls. Unfortunately, their soccer program told the story of getting ready for the big match, but never actually let the girls play soccer.
All is not bleak. Innovative examples of game software, such as Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) for the Sony PlayStation,allows players to dance on a physical pad and interact with the screen. Girls love DDR and play it until they lose weight and their dance pads wear-out. They just do so at home with friends. The arcade DDR machines are played primarily by boys who engage in a less playful, more competitive version of the activity.
Perhaps the least understood development in software for girls was the enormous late ‘90s success of Mattel’s Barbie Fashion Designer software. Regardless of how you feel about Barbie, this software title sold more copies than any other piece of “girls” software ever. The industry observed the breakthrough sales of this product and wrongly attributed its success to the fact that Barbie was on the box. This simply is not true.
There has been unsuccessful Barbie software on the market for nearly twenty years and there were other Barbie titles next to Fashion Designer. So, why did FD sell so well? I would argue that its commercial success had far less to do with Barbie than with constructionism. Barbie Fashion Designer allowed girls an opportunity to use their computers to make something cool – in this case clothes you could design, print and dress your doll in. Constructionism trumps even Barbie. This is a lesson we would do well to heed.
#4 There is More to Technology than Notebook Computers
It would be a great mistake to suggest that the latest PDA gizmo or thin-client is superior to a full-featured notebook computer. Many of these devices are intended for professionals with a specific job to do. Kids need better computers than most executives. I am quite unimpressed with those who can turn word processing and web surfing into a nine-year scope and sequence chart.
School computers may be used to do work and to learn. Work consists of writing, calculating, researching and presenting information. Learning consists of being immersed in the constructive processes with a reasonable chance of leading to the construction of a larger theory or bigger question. Microsoft Office is OK for doing work. MicroWorlds Pro is superior for learning.
“These days, computers are popularly thought of as multimedia devices, capable of incorporating and combining all previous forms of media – text, graphics, moving pictures, sound. I think this point of view leads to an underestimation of the computer’s potential. It is certainly true that a computer can incorporate and manipulate all other media, but the true power of the computer is that it is capable of manipulating not just the expression of ideas but also the ideas themselves. The amazing thing to me is not that a computer can hold the contents of all the books in a library but that it can notice relationships between the concepts described in the books – not that it can display a picture of a bird in flight or a galaxy spinning but that it can imagine and predict the consequences of the physical laws that create these wonders. The computer is not just an advanced calculator or camera or paintbrush; rather, it is a device that accelerates and extends our processes of thought. It is an imagination machine, which starts with the ideas we put into it and takes them farther than we ever could have taken them on our own.”3
Those who make claims that schools should use such devices rather than notebooks probably have little experience using computers in creative ways and are probably more concerned with cost than benefit to children. We learn by constructing knowledge in a social context. Such construction is dependent on full-featured computers capable of making all sorts of wondrous things and sharing those things with others. Serendipity should be the goal. It is arrogant and misguided to put too much stock in what we think kids might do with technology. I embrace the wondrous inventions that enliven classrooms and stimulate even greater inquiry.
Software is another cause of confusion. Some educators are impressed by false complexity, software loaded with confusing features, tools and menus. The logic suggests that hard-to-use, expensive, or corporate software must be superior to the silly stuff developed specifically for kids. New need not mean better and pretty need not mean deep. We should endeavor to use as few software packages as possible, if of course those packages are sufficiently flexible, so that students may develop fluency. MicroWorlds use pays dividends after students have ample time to allow the software to become second nature. Jumping from software package to software package may impress adults, but it will cheat students of the benefits paid by fluency.
#5 We Have Good Role Models for Girls
One of the most effective ways to learn is through apprenticeship. Children learn a great deal, with little effort, from spending quality time engaged in authentic activities with adults. These adults inspire, teach and motivate through their example. It makes sense that if we want girls to be competent engaged computer users, then the women in their lives need to be competent engaged computer users. Most of the women known to children are teachers and yet they are among the weakest users of computers in society.
The critical shortage of teachers with demonstrable levels of computer fluency makes it difficult for girls to see the value of computing in their reflection. Carol Gilligan’s research suggests that during the early years of adolescence when girls begin to shape their identity, they also begin to see women marginalized by society. Teachers have a responsibility to be much better high-tech role models, computer clubs for girls need to be created and a public campaign must be waged to attract girls to hobbies and vocations involving computer technology.
#6 Girls Should Study Technology Criticism
Dale Spender once told a room full of educators that schools need to teach girls to criticize technology since for a number of reasons, including that women were being “routinely raped and molested online.” This hysterical proclamation was made prior to the widespread availability of the World Wide Web.
While we should be cautious to ensure the safety of all children, we do not need to raise irrational concerns. Reactionary criticism of “technology” (whatever that means) is like criticizing the weather. You will lead a rather unfulfilling life.
While it may be useful to be knowledgeable of the benefits and consequences of emerging technologies, criticism requires little intimate knowledge of the subject and renders the critic a spectator. Girls cannot afford to remain spectators in the use of the most powerful instruments of science, art and commerce ever invented. If girls wish to lead happy productive lives they will need to learn to cut code, to master the instruments of so much influence. We must move beyond hoping that our daughter will marry Bill Gates to a day in which our daughters compete successfully against him. This is a necessity if computers and software are to ever become more attractive and convivial for the majority gender.
#7 School Administrators are Qualified to Make Important Technology Decisions
School administrators like the marketing benefits associated with standing next to a group of kids and a computer, yet few have ever done anything imaginative with a computer. Unprecedented budgetary and educational discretion have been placed in the hands of technology directors who often have little knowledge of or concern for the learning needs of children. This abdication of responsibility has cost schools billions of dollars and squandered all sorts of good will and opportunity to innovate.
#8 Schools are Designed to Sort Children
American schools are being destroyed by the over-emphasis on higher-meaner-tougher standards and the quest for high-standardized test scores. California spends nearly $2 billion (US) annually on the administration of a testing scheme non-aligned to the curriculum and which can’t even seem to be scored correctly. Teachers are prohibited by law from looking at the test and receive no more than a score reporting on each child’s results yet are expected to improve practice based on this score.
Some schools spend as much as eleven weeks per year in external assessment in addition to the countless wasted hours of test preparation. Recess is being eliminated in some schools. Science, social studies and the arts have disappeared to make way for more literacy and numeracy based on a pedagogy of yelling louder more often. Students are being tortured by this nonsense and great teachers are being driven out of the profession. Schools are deemed failures and susceptible to takeover while children are kept from progressing to the next grade based on norm-reference tests requiring 50% to fail. This is the cruelest of hoaxes perpetrated on children. The publisher of California’s exam includes teacher instructions in the event that a student vomits on her test booklet.
One principal recently committed suicide as a result of her school’s test scores.
These tests serve no productive purpose and are cheating children of a joyous purposeful learning experience. Citizens of conscience must oppose this wholesale deprivation of educational excellence at every opportunity.
Australian independent schools do not have to play this game, yet they do. Complain all you want about the Department of Education, but your schools have the power to reject or at least influence, the trajectory of these accountability schemes.
This is not the case. In the years since I began working with Australian schools, local girls’ schools have not only capitulated to the VCE, but have embraced the odd little International Baccalaureate. Say what you like about American imperialism, but even we don’t have the audacity to dictate your curriculum.
The greatest tragedy is that local independent schools not only lack the courage to fight this scourge, they actively promote their scores in a most cynical attempt to gain market advantage over the competitors.
I spent some time looking at the web sites of local girls’ schools and was sickened by an animation of a cute little girl with text scrolling over her announcing this school’s test scores. Perhaps the advertisement should say things like, “Our school makes more girls cry and nauseous than any other school.” Or “our girls crushed the dumb girls down the street.” How about, “our school wasted more precious resources on cheap marketing stunts than our competition?”
I often feel like the Great Gazoo when I attend educational conferences. If you don’t remember Gazoo, he was the Martian who inexplicably visited Bedrock in the Flintstones. Terms like set tasks, packets of work, VCE scores, marks, CATs, outcomes or league tables are the words of Dickensian shopkeepers, not people who love children.
Girls deserve schools that do everything possible to create nurturing environments capable of honoring their emotional, intellectual, spiritual and creative needs.
If we believe that children are a blessing entrusted to us, then what we do should be self-evident. The choice of educational direction is not related to education party, region or grade level. We must choose between a belief in constructionism, the notion that learners are central to the learning process, or instructionism, the idea that we can improve education by teaching better. Better teachers will undoubtedly create rich environments in which students feel safe to take risks, explore their curiosity and share their knowledge. However, it is impossible to learn for anyone else no matter how hard you try. Constructionism gives agency to the learner, instructionism to the system/curriculum/teacher. Our goal should be “less us, more them.”
Schools need to do a better job of engaging all learners, listening to them and building upon their natural expertise, knowledge and talent. We need schools in which children are engaged in authentic, personally meaningful tasks in conjunction with adults who can inspire them to greater heights. Abundant computer access and high expectations for the myriad of ways in which computers may be used as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression must be the norm. Adults, particularly women, have a major responsibility as role models who develop and use sophisticated computer users. We need to think less of female students as precious Victorian-era dolls and more as competent citizens who can compute, solder and take responsibility for their own learning. They deserve no less.
1 This is not a scholarly paper. It is intended as a manifesto to accompany a keynote address. This print document cannot reproduce the examples, video clips, anecdotes, humour and passion shared during the conference. The books I love and learned from may be found at http://www.stager.org/books/. A collection of my articles about education may be found at www.stager.org.
2 Real time Computers, Change and Schooling – National sample study of the information technology skills of Australian school students
Merydth, Russel et al.
3 Hillis, Daniel. (1998) The Pattern on the Stone: The Simple Ideas that Make Computers Work.
I enjoyed a lovely lunch today in the Republic of Užupis. In between bites of pizza, I couldn’t help but think of how many teachers are busily assembling the class rule and penalty documents for distribution on the first day of school.With each passing year, these reams of paper begin to resemble the US tax code in size, scope, severity and arbitrariness.Welcome back kids! Here’s the list of ways we expect you to screw-up and be punished over the next 180 days. If you do not bring this document back to school tomorrow, signed by a parent, the cycle of punishment will begin with all due haste!
Don’t strain your back hanging the laminated set of class rules used for decades. Why not consider adopting the Constitution of Užupis for class governance?
Constitution of The Republic of Užupis
- Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, and the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone.
- Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof.
- Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.
- Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
- Everyone has the right to be unique.
- Everyone has the right to love.
- Everyone has the right not to be loved, but not necessarily.
- Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown.
- Everyone has the right to be idle.
- Everyone has the right to love and take care of a cat.
- Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.
- A dog has the right to be a dog.
- A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need.
- Sometimes everyone has the right to be unaware of their duties.
- Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation.
- Everyone has the right to be happy.
- Everyone has the right to be unhappy.
- Everyone has the right to be silent.
- Everyone has the right to have faith.
- No one has the right to violence.
- Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance.
- No one has the right to have a design on eternity.
- Everyone has the right to understand.
- Everyone has the right to understand nothing.
- Everyone has the right to be of any nationality.
- Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.
- Everyone shall remember their name.
- Everyone may share what they possess.
- No one can share what they do not possess.
- Everyone has the right to have brothers, sisters and parents.
- Everyone may be independent.
- Everyone is responsible for their freedom.
- Everyone has the right to cry.
- Everyone has the right to be misunderstood.
- No one has the right to make another person guilty.
- Everyone has the right to be individual.
- Everyone has the right to have no rights.
- Everyone has the right to not to be afraid.
- Do not defeat
- Do not fight back
- Do not surrender
The motto of Užupis, “Don’t Fight! Don’t Win! Don’t Surrender!” would be swell for your school as well. This web site has a terrific tour of Užupis I recommend reading it.
As you begin another school year, my best advice comes from the great American philosopher Gerald Norman Springer, “Take care of yourselves and each other!”
A funny thing happened on the way to writing this article. I realized I had already published it one year ago. Senseless Acts of Homework in The Huffington Post describes my contempt for the loathsome practice of summer homework.
However, this summer, my nephew’s high school cranked the stupid dial up to 11.
I am against homework for lots of reasons.
- The public equates it with education
- Kids hate it
- It encroaches on a student’s private life
- It is coercive
- It is too often busy-work provided by a textbook company who knows nothing about the learner
- It wastes class time when kids swap papers and grade homework; a tedious process that leads to zero benefit for learners
In the face of a glaring absence of evidence, teachers argue that homework is used for practice or reinforcement. (I’ll save how this is a misinterpretation of “practice” for anther day) If homework is for skill development then every student should have different homework each night, right?
Nah, one-size-fits-all kids!
If there was a shred of evidence that homework was good for kids or had anything to do with learning, I would be sympathetic. However, the crazy train has now gone one station beyond forcing kids to do something they hate, that makes them hate school and that robs them of free time.
If homework is intended for reinforcement, how does one possibly justify assigning homework to students during the summer before they set foot in your class? Let me say that again. Schools are giving homework to kids before they start a course!
This is personal
Three years ago, my nephew became fascinated by genealogy and has spent a great deal of time since researching our family history. He has done a remarkable job with the Ancestry.com account I pay $30/month for, has reached out to experts and fellow researchers across the globe in grammatically perfect email messages and has developed sophisticated habits of mind. I’ve long since given up hope that schools (and teachers) at most schools (The Big Picture Schools are an exception) will take notice of student interests, connect with them and provide the intellectual support to go farther than they could have gone on their own.
Kids don’t receive credit for what they are passionate about and school rarely values outside activities, except for assigned homework. I would love for my nephew’s teachers to respect his genealogical research, but it would be even better if they helped him learn what he needs to know in order to be a better historian.
My nephew’s school district does just about everything wrong – endless test prep, tracking, “honors” classes and mountains of homework.
When I realized how serious the kid was about genealogy, I promised to take him to places he learns our family is from. So, I am writing from a hotel lobby in L’Viv, Ukraine. We spent the day touring Zboriv, Ternopil and Zolochow, the villages where the learned that 3/4 of my ancestors came from. My nephew’s clue that that my great great great grandfather owned a mill in Zboriv led us to a small museum where an old historian said that there was a large mill that provided flour for the Austria-Hungarian empire down along the Strypa River. Our guide was our translator and took us to stand on the spot where my ancestors worked and fire killed their young daughter. We walked through the remaining disheveled Jewish cemeteries, visited too many monuments marking the sites of World War II exterminations, ate Ukranian food and learned about the Zboriv battle of 1649. We discussed Eastern European politics, Soviet occupation and US politics. Our guide and driver was Alex Dunai, one of the world’s experts on Jewish life in Galicia and invaluable researcher for Daniel Mendelsohn’s magnificent book. “The Lost – A Search for Six of Six Million.”
Tomorrow night we head to Krakow and Auschwitz, followed by Vilnius, Lithuania before we rush back to the USA so the kid won’t miss a day of school. Prior to this, we spent two days in London, where we saw pieces of the Parthenon at the British Museum, and five in Athens where we went to the Acropolis, Acropolis Museum and Temple of Poseidon. The kid spent a bit of time hanging out at the Constructionism Conference where I presented a paper. My nephew not only had the opportunity to attend a SNAP! programming workshop led by Dr. Brian Harvey, but had dinner with linguists, mathematicians, computer scientists, master educators and with friends of mine who worked with Jean Piaget, Paolo Friere and Seymour Papert. He got to see his uncle speak, watch really smart people argue passionately in a civil fashion and share his work with interested adults.
Sounds good, right? The only problem has been the house the kid has been in a hotel room trying to guess how to respond to open-ended homework prompts from teachers he hasn’t met? Did the teachers spend their summer working an unpaid second shift like my nephew did? Why did we have to schlepp a backpack full of school shit (the technical term) half-way around the world?
Before anyone says, “not every kid has an uncle who does such cool things with his nephew,” I’ll respond by saying that I would rather a kid play basketball, take a trumpet lesson, swim, go to summer cam, read for pleasure or just watch television then memorize a chapter in a science textbook before any science occurs.
I don’t know any nicer way of saying this, but preemptive summer homework seems a lot like a clear case of an abuse victim battering an even less powerful subordinate. This cycle of insanity has to end.
Defend preemptive summer homework! C’mon! I dare you!
Here is the article I published last year…
I’m a big fan of summer. I still have the same “back-to-school” nightmares I experienced as a kid as the days get shorter each August. I think that “Back-to-School” sales before Independence Day are a form of child abuse. I believe that casual neighborhood play, family vacations, scouting and organized camps produce powerful learning experiences unrivaled by school.
When I hire new teachers, I look for people who worked at a summer camp. These are teachers who love kids and know how to engage them in meaningful (and fun) activities without coercion or a scripted curriculum. In 2007, I took issue with then Senator Clinton’s call for more tutoring and suggested that the federal money allocated for tutoring children in “underperforming schools” be spent on summer camp (My Plan to Fix NCLB). The richest nation in the world can afford high-quality summer activities for even its poorest children.
Also in 2007, I published When the Jumbotron says, “Read,” You Read! That article addressed the folly of forced summer reading assigned by schools, the outlandish claims made on behalf of the practice and the punishments meted out for non-compliance. I marveled at the quality of books assigned as summer reading when compared with the standardized drivel “read” during the school year and mourned the absence of meaningful discussion accompanying the reading.
When I was a kid, the only time you heard the combination of the words, “summer” and “school” was if you misbehaved or failed a course during the school year. How I long for the good ol’ days.
Just when I think that schooling can not get any more punitive or heavy-handed, things get worse. Schools no longer feel constrained by the impulse to ask kids to read Homer Price, Holes or Because of Winn-Dixie for pleasure under a tree on a balmy summer day. Now, school leaders view children as their serfs and every waking minute of a child’s life as their property. Such megalomania may be rooted in the paranoia created by the testing uber-alles policies of NCLB and Race To The Top. Whatever the motivation, robbing children of summer is irresponsible, ineffective and malicious.
Wow! Those are strong words, Dr. Stager. What are you talking about?
My “niece,” let’s call her “Miss Summer,” just completed eighth grade in a Northern New Jersey public school district. Miss Summer is an excellent student with perfect attendance and a great many interests she looks forward to pursuing during the summer. They include swimming, playing with her brother, developing friendships, practicing the trumpet, fishing, genealogy, reading and doing nothing at all but staying in her pajamas on rainy days and watching cartoons. When I was a kid, our society valued those activities and embraced childhood. That is no longer the case.
At the end of eighth grade, Miss Summer received a substantial packet of work to be completed before she sets foot in her new high school. The transition from primary to secondary school is stressful enough, but now a mountain of homework hung over a carefree summer like a rain cloud ruining your beach vacation. Miss Summer’s school district is no longer content with suggested summer reading for parents interested in supplementing a child’s education. Hell no!
Miss Summer has assignments in nearly every subject, is expected to read Dickens’ Great Expectations alone and without teacher support, write a thesis or two and submit the work by assigned due dates via a Web-based plagiarism site, Turnitin.com.
This mountain of homework is not only cruel, it is irresponsible, miseducative and profoundly unfair for the following reasons.
- Miss Summer has not met any of the teachers this work is being submitted to. She neither knows their personalities, values or expectations.
- Great Expectations is pretty heavy for a fourteen year-old without teacher assistance or classroom discussion. Will it inspire or hinder a greater interest in English literature?
- Thesis writing has not yet been taught and is unnecessarily anxiety producing for a kid who has yet to enter your school for the first time.
- Three is an assumption made by the school district that every student knows how to use the specialized web site and has sufficient computer access to complete and submit assignments.
- Due dates assume that children have no plans for the summer. Should camp or family vacations be ruined by these deadlines? Should a student take a laptop and satellite modem on a hike?
- The same impulses to assign massive amounts of homework to students you’ve never met predicts that there will be little follow-up of that work when students return to school.
- These practices are coercive, intrude upon families and seek to overrule parental decisions.
- You are ruining kids’ summer!
I do everything I can to combat to the misguided federal education policies turning schools into joyless test-prep factories. I’ll march. I’ll write. I’ll speak out. I’ll organize. I’ll donate. I’ll provide educators with alternative strategies and help them improve their practice. I will challenge the plutocrats who threaten teachers and children.
What I will not do is defend educators who transfer their misery to innocent children. It is unconscionable for teachers to outsource their corpulent curriculum to children. You have no right to surveillance when a child is at home. If kids cannot count on you to stand between them and madness, who will protect them?
For more arguments against homework, read Alfie Kohn’s book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing or watch his DVD, No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning.
I bought my first modem and Compuserve account in 1982 or 83 and was connecting via acoustic coupler to Timeshare systems several years before that. The first online conference I participated in was in late 1985 or early 1986 and I was creating online projects for kids a couple of years later.
During the summer of 1997, I suggested to Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology Associate Dean, the late great Dr. Terry Cannings, that Pepperdine offer our MA in Educational Technology entirely online. If memory serves, Dr. Cannings called me a charlatan.
The university had already embraced a 60% online/40% face-to-face format for it’s edtech doctoral program and was experimenting with other hybrid models, but in mid-1997, Cannings thought that entirely online was a bridge too far.
Around Christmas of that year, Dr. Cannings called me into his office and asked, “Can we discuss that online Masters idea again in January?” A meeting was scheduled at the end of January on the Malibu (main campus) to pitch the idea to the Dean. (much hilarity ensued) I created the attached proposal as a basis for discussion.
To put things in a historical perspective, this proposal was written the month the Lewinsky scandal broke and before anyone had heard of Ken Starr (former Dean of the Pepperdine Law School)
I’m sorry that I can’t locate the cheesy “clip-art-rich” cover page attached to the document I printed at 3 AM on my kids’ DayGlo colored printer paper, but remarkably my Mac was just able to open the original documents in Appleworks 6 and print a PDF version to share with you. There is crappy clip-art included in the body of the document.
The Dean listened politely to Dr. Cannings, Dr. McManus, Dr. Polin and myself and asked when we proposed to start this new program? We replied, “this Spring.” She nervously smiled and sent us on our our merry way. After all, universities move at a glacial pace, right?
The Online Master of Arts in Educational Technology (called OMAET, OMET & MALT over the years) was fully accredited by the end of May and our first cadre of students was on campus for what became known as VirtCamp early that July. There are lots of stories about that first Virtcamp, but I won’t share them here.
My hard drive also contains a copy of the accreditation proposal Dr. McManus and I wrote for WASC (the accrediting body), but I am not sure if it would be proper to share that document publicly (I’ll await a more informed opinion).
The reason for all of this nostalgia is that the 15th cadre of students in that program arrive for Virtcamp this week and are being greeted by an alumni-organized reunion of former students, all to mark the 15th anniversary of the program.
Regrettably, after eighteen years of teaching as an adjunct and full-time Visiting Professor at Pepperdine, I no longer feel welcome on campus. So, I’m going to sit out this week’s activities. However, I hope those students and the rest of my friends in the Blagosphere (Rod Blagojevich is also a Pepperdine alumnus) enjoy this documentary stroll down memory lane.
I think we got a good deal right in trying to create a constructionist collaborative learning environment online before PLNs, PLCs or social networking existed.
Happy Anniversary to all former and future OMAET/OMET/MALT students! I’m proud of you!
Other files found on my hard drive:
- An incredibly crappy 3-fold brochure promoting the Online Masters program
- A one-page flyer advertising the new program (further evidence of my design prowess)
- A document outlining the advantages of pursuing a degree online
- Suggested texts for the new program (1998). I suspect that colleagues contributed, but I honestly cannot remember. Many of the books may have been in use during traditional courses.
The following is a paper I wrote for a conference in 2006. The problems I identify have become more acute since. One day, I’ll revisit this work. In the meantime, feel free to share this or comment below. (Hopefully the formatting wasn’t made too terrible during the move to this blog)
Has educational computing jumped the shark?
Gary S. Stager
Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology
Presented at ACEC 2006 – Cairns, Australia – October 2, 2006
Incremental approaches to classroom computer use have been slow to produce significant educational benefits. Criticism of educational computing is often validated by a lack of compelling models created in the absence of vision or adequate leadership. However, this paper departs from critics who suggest that computers should play little or no role in the intellectual lives of children by arguing that the opposite. Computational technology needs to play a much greater role in the learning process and is essential to the sustainability of schools.
Despite the societal shifts resulting from widespread access to computers and the Internet, schools and other educational organizations remain committed to outdated notions of computer literacy instruction. Such efforts, along with the allure of online delivery and assessment, serve to centralize curriculum at the very moment the identical technology could be used to revolutionize the learning process. Individuals once at the forefront of the learning revolution promised by the widespread availability of powerful computational and communications technology now preside over the use of that technology to reinforce the least effective educational practices of the past. This leads inevitably to a lowering of educational standards and a diminution in the learning opportunities available to young people.
This paper is not offered as an exhaustive review of the literature regarding the current state of educational technology use in schools around the world. No one paper could possibly do so. It is intended to stimulate discussion among members of the academic and practitioner community regarding current trends and their possible consequences. The author bases his observations on work as a teacher educator, consultant, teacher, researcher and educational journalist in schools across the United States and Australia, in addition to recent efforts in Canada, Brazil and India. The author speaks at more than a dozen educational technology conferences annually, consults with industry and writes a magazine column read by approximately 100,000 educational leaders each month. These various activities afford the author a rare perspective from which to identify patterns of rhetoric, policy-making and pedagogical practice.
Some of the evidence presented in this paper may strain credulity. However, the practices and products in question all exist. Alfie Kohn said, “In education, satire is obsolete.”[i] The confluence of magical new technology, an increasingly high-stakes educational system and the capitalistic desire to profit from this tension results in strange, but real challenges for schools.
This paper attempts to alert educators, members of education-related industries and policy-makers to trends that while at first glance appear to indicate progress, especially since they involve high technology, may actually result in expensive detours, distractions and disasters.
Critics (Alliance for Childhood, Cuban, Oppenheimer) often assert that computers do not belong in school for a variety of ideological, financial or developmental reasons. However, I agree with Seymour Papert that computers are today’s primary instrument for intellectual work, and central to the educational enterprise. If for no other reason than the fact that computers are already a part of the world of kids, we must respect the role they can play in children’s lives and develop ways to maximize the potential of technology. I have spent the past twenty-four years helping students use computers in intellectually rich and creatively expressive ways that defy current notions of curricula or educational standards.
After four decades of advocacy for computers in education, Seymour Papert corrected the record by suggesting that, “Computer scientists weren’t supposed to bring computers into classrooms. They were supposed to bring computer science to children in classrooms.” (Papert 2002) Papert contends that the failure to use computers in new ways as an instrument for educational progress is the result of an imagination gap. (Papert 1997)
Soon after bold creative teachers began tinkering with computers in their classrooms, schools embarked on the well-documented process of assimilating them. Computers were corralled into odd “lab” arrangements and children made an occasional field trip to the lab for the purposes of being taught “computer,” often by a teacher possessing few qualifications. Special computer literacy curricula was developed to meet the needs of inexperienced lab teachers and limited student access. Trivial work done during lab time failed to inspire other teachers to integrate computing into the life of their subjects and motivated teachers were quickly discouraged by too little access to too few computers. Educators with little or no technological fluency are asked to serve on committees where they use a crystal ball and develop “tech plans” not yet invented and students they have not met.
I postulate that the educational technology challenges associated with teacher professional development, inadequate funding and the demand for standards are not our primary problems. They are symptoms of an imagination gap and shortage of honest reflective practice that threatens to rob children of the potential afforded by advances in communications and computational technology.
Some may view this paper as a cautionary tale. Others may find that it affirms their tacit concerns while some will disagree violently with my hypotheses. This paper should not however be misconstrued as an argument against the widespread of use of computers and related technologies in appropriate ways across all subjects and grade levels. Many critics of educational computing alert us to the trivial ways in which computers are used. If school computers are used in dubious ways, the solution is not the abolition of computers, but more thoughtful practice.
It is remarkable that there remain proponents of a view that computers should play no role in education despite the transformational impact they have had on nearly every other aspect of society. Like many other educational innovations, the use of computers in schools may be dismissed as a failure before it was seriously attempted. It is well known, but seldom mentioned, that most children touch a computer for minutes per week in school. It is ridiculous to assign failure to the computer when access is so meagre and a vision for its use eludes most educators.
JUMPING THE SHARK
This author’s body of work challenges conventional arguments against the use of computers in school based on concerns over funding, child welfare and alternative priorities while joining Seymour Papert in offering optimistic scenarios in which computers may create efficacious opportunities for knowledge construction. However, recent observations of educational technology practice within American and Australian classrooms, as well as the changing rhetoric found in professional publications and conferences leads me to conclude that educational technology may have “jumped the shark.”
It’s a moment. A defining moment when you know that your favorite television program has reached its peak. That instant that you know from now… it’s all downhill. Some call it the climax. “We call it jumping the shark.” (Jon Hein – www.jumptheshark.com)
In this case, jumping the shark applies to the possibility that we have reached the tipping point where even exuberant proponents of educational technology must question whether the system’s implementation of it is now causing as much harm as good. This radical view goes beyond Papert’s predictions of assimilation in which the school system will naturally attempt to use new technology to support old practices and the “assimilation blindness” (Papert 1977) in which critics simplistically compare the computer to other classroom objects. At first glance the proposition that “educational technology may now do more harm than good” would seem to agree with critics of computers in the classroom. However, the common ground is limited to concerns about the quality of education afforded children.
While much criticism of educational computing is concerned with an erosion of control, uniform curriculum, traditional assessment instruments and industrial notions of efficiency, my fear is that educational technology is now being used to strengthen such instructionist tendencies at the expense of children. In other words, the current trajectory of educational technology is dominated by practices and objectives that succeed in making schooling much more like the desires of the technology critics and therefore squanders the enormous potential to revolutionize education that inspired so many ed tech pioneers for more than a generation.
Much of the rhetoric now embraced by an increasing number of people who previously advocated exciting visions of children using computers in personally liberating ways treats students in an instrumental fashion subordinate to the goals of the system. What some in the past may have deemed the utopian aspirations of educational computing proponents have now been silenced by classroom practices more inflexible and reactionary than before microcomputers entered schools.
These Are Not Happy Days
Unlike in the television show, Happy Days, when Fonzie jumped a shark while waterskiing in a leather jacket, the precise moment in which educational technology began its decline is not easily identified. A number of trends, marketing triumphs and political conditions converge to create the current malaise. Anyone of these variables alone would be troublesome, but together they create an alternative educational reality where friends and foes do little to realize the transformative promise of learning technology.
Just a few of these variables will be explored due to space constraints.
The Dominance of Information Technology – Our Homemade Straightjacket
Educational computing has experienced a semantic sea change over the past fifteen years. In fact, the word computing is hardly mentioned in the literature. Educational computing gave way to terms like informatics, ICT, information technology and just technology. When the vast capabilities of computing are reduced to, “just another technology,” we are then safe to make comparisons to a zipper or Pez dispensers.
It was the educational technology community, not external forces that debased the language we use to describe our efforts. Computing is a verb connoting action, technology is a noun – one more checkbox on an arbitrary list of curricular objectives. The C in ICT is at best cosmetic when the vast majority of students remain unable to email, collaborate or publish online despite the lofty (and readily ignored) goals of official technology standards. Our noble profession is increasingly referred to as “the industry.” Language matters. It shapes practice.
Since the widespread deployment of the Internet in schools during the mid 1990s, the function of the school computer has been reduced to that of information appliance or worse. Contemporary literature, popular and academic, focuses almost exclusively on the use computer for information retrieval and the occasional regurgitation of that information in the form of PowerPoint presentations or web pages. The false complexity associated with designing a web page or slideshow lulls spectators into believing that the students were engaged in an intellectually meaningful activity, when that assumption is often incorrect.
Recent doubts about such activities have not led to wide-scale challenges to the practice of digital book reports. Instead a new pedagogy of information literacy has emerged, complete with workshops, workbooks and literature attempting to fortify and justify the use of computers to support dubious educational practices. Edward Tufte, Seymour Papert and very few others outside of the practitioner community, have taken the unpopular step of revealing that this emperor has no clothes. The genuine effort expended by children creating such products is difficult to disregard, but the context of those efforts and the validity of the task needs to be challenged.
Another unintended consequence of this IT imbalance is the emphasis placed on student research. Actual research in the spirit of the work conducted by historians or scientists is an enormously valuable intellectual enterprise. The process skills associated with authentic research should be a universal part of every child’s education. The Internet offers unparalleled opportunities for students to engage in research in ways never before possible, particularly the ability to publish for a limitless audience and engage in collaboration with others across time and space. This is where the majority of the Internet’s power as a new learning medium resides. However, schools tend to focus on “looking stuff up,” delivering content and monitoring student progress. These uses are not only antithetical to the extraordinary power of the Internet, but their dominance creates unintentional consequences regarding Internet safety, censorship and security.
Simply stated, if the dominant metaphor for using a computer is looking things up, then it should come as no surprise when children look up in appropriate stuff. This eventuality consumes scarce resources and diverts our attention away from using computers in ways that ennoble a creative and intellectual renaissance in children. The hysteria caused by both fear of using the Internet and the fear of not using the Internet causes schools to employ legions of network managers who are given unprecedented budgetary and educational discretion, along with very little oversight. Teachers wishing to do the “right thing” are often precluded to using the school network in educationally justifiable ways due to policies and technical obstacles created by non-educators with unilateral power.
The Total Cost of Dependency
I call this phenomenon, the total cost of dependency. It relates to the unintended learning costs of over-promising and under-delivering reliable Internet functionality and subsequent benefits. TCOD also applies to situations that result from settings in which the network functions perfectly. Educators accustomed to unreliable network access abandon the use of computers and those lucky enough to have access to fully functional networks too often focus on the use of the Internet to the exclusion of other forms of computing. The popular advertising slogan, “the network is the computer,” is inapplicable to K-12 education.
Proponents of the network-centric view often tell educators that as soon as there is enough bandwidth, everything they ever dreamed of will be possible. There is plenty already possible for learners to do with computers and the fixation on the Internet is depriving too many children of those rich experiences. If there ever is limitless bandwidth, computers will be television, not a constructive medium for active learning. For children trying to make a movie, program a robot, animate a poem, build a simulation or design a video game, regular ubiquitous access to a sufficiently powerful computer is far more important to both the job at-hand and a student’s intellectual development, than is net access.
Hooked on Office
A web browser and Microsoft Office are the most used software applications. Both applications represent critical tools for personal productivity and communication. However, learners should also use computers in constructive ways – as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression. Adults seem amused by the sight of children playing Donald Trump dress-up, “Look how cute she is! She’s wearing mommy’s heals and using Excel!” However, the dominance of Office applications in schools places a disproportionate emphasis on using computers to get “work” done[ii], versus using computers to learn. While the two goals are not mutually exclusive, I assert that the balance of educational experiences should tilt towards learning and process rather than product.
It is impossible to predict which specific technologies or pedagogical practices that will withstand the test of time. However, there are several technologies popular in schools that warrant review.
The growing assault on public education led by the Bush and Howard administrations is manifest in the obsession with testing, data, standardization and punishment. The dissection of learning into sequential bite-sized decontextualized fragments directly benefits the textbook, testing and integrated learning system companies. These are divisions of the same multinational behemoths. These conspicuous relationships advocate for Orwellian schemes like, “No Child Left Behind,” and have expensive technological “solutions” at the ready.
The market for inexpensive drill-and-practice software evaporated long before the enduring fantasy that if you get the software just right, every toddler will master long division subsided. Today, expensive instructional management systems are sold to poor schools terrorized by the threat of sanctions accompanying low performance on standardized tests. Although these systems have not changed much in forty years, they are no longer seen as a window onto the future as much as a life-saving attempt by desperate underprivileged schools.
The folly of teaching machines, personalized learning and continuous assessment date back to the invention of computers. Bad ideas are timeless. Government policies and easy-to-produce high-profit teaching systems from well-heeled corporations create a perfect storm for using computers in low-level disempowering ways.
Early advocates rebelled against CAI when excitement about computers in education was infectious. Today is different in that that these pioneers now make purchasing decisions and create a climate in which these systems dominate the landscape. Today, membership organizations purporting to represent educational progress, such as ISTE, are engaged in “monetizing” the testing craze and rushing to create “high-stakes” computer literacy examinations.[iii] Every child must now be above average every minute of the day.
Such regressive practices are no longer typified by children sitting at banks of computers wearing headphones or in the back of the classroom playing Math Blaster. Teaching systems have gone wireless and centralized simultaneously.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S LESS!
Two categories of such systems dominate the marketplace and classrooms; “smart” boards and “clickers.”
“Intelligent” white boards may appear as cost-effective strategies for advancing a school’s technological capability, yet these Pre-Gutenberg technologies may ultimately reinforce the worst of existing classroom practices. They reinforce the dominance of the front of the room and omniscience of the teacher. Facilitating increased lecturing and reducing education to notes on a board represents a step backwards. We should question the widespread appeal of these products. The sales success of clever furniture is undeniable, but its actual use is less clear.[iv]
Classroom as Game Show, Teacher as Huckster
A new category of products has hit the educational technology market and enjoys remarkable sales. The more academic-sounding acronym, classroom performance systems (CPS), has been created to bestow. With a CPS, each child watches typically unattractive multiple-choice questions displayed on a screen in-front of them and on-cue punches what they think is the correct answer into a handheld remote-control device. The software can then present the teacher and class with the correct answer and a tabulation of student results. Such a system requires learning be reduced to its simplest, most binary form and gives aid and comfort to the misguided notion that continuous assessment is synonymous with teaching.
Teachers report to me that their “colleagues” find it difficult to design their own quizzes for these systems. The result of this difficulty marketing agreements with textbook publishers who happily provide, for a fee, questions that require little more than a smile from the classroom teacher. This contributes further to the deprofessionalization of educators and does little to help them embrace the constructive use of computers in their classrooms.
One vendor, eInstruction, reports sales of 1.8 million “response pads”[v] and is suing a rival over their patent entitled “System and Method for Communicating with Students in an Education Environment.” That’s funny; I didn’t realize that teachers need remote control devices in order to communicate with students.
One corporation, Qwizdom, announces on its website that “Instant data just got even faster!” What’s faster than instant? Qwizdom refers to being part of the “audience response industry.”[vi] There is no illusion that teachers are more than performers and students spectators. Furthermore, emphasis on faster instants does violence to the promise of personal computers as incubators for project-based learning and deep intellectual engagement.
David Thornburg, reminds us that a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” is allowed to think about a problem, poll the audience or phone a friend before pulling the trigger on her answer. CPS systems prohibit such thinking practices.
Both “intelligent boards” and “clickers” reduce education to the delivery and regurgitation of information and make it simple for centralized authorities to monitor classroom activity and reduce individual students to data.
Australia’s greatest contribution to the world of computing was the pioneering embrace of laptops in education. Back in 1989-90, MLC and the State of Queensland embraced laptops as personal knowledge machines that brought the theories of Dewey and Papert to life. Today, laptops are no longer about powerful ideas, personal responsibility and the decentralization of knowledge, but tools for information delivery, constant assessment and global competitiveness. Some schools now promise that when they implement 1:1 computing, they will not change the curriculum at all. This is not virtuous; it’s idiotic and a waste of money.
Politicians propose laptops for teachers as if they were not the last workers in society afforded such luxury. Teachers performing clerical tasks and other chores, not transforming education, justify the investment.
The Governor of Maine needed to allow local schools to decide whether student laptops could go home as a matter of petty political expedience. Now other jurisdictions slavishly debate the merits of laptops going home as if this were a reasonable issue and 50% of Maine schools expand the digital divide by tethering mobile computers to the schoolhouse. If one student in one classroom looks at an inappropriate webpage, skittish vendors will render laptops useless in order to sell them to a school 2,000km away. Policy should not be predicated on historical accident or local politics.
It took more than a decade before defeatist language like pilot, initiative, project or experiment followed “laptop” in discussions of school computing. Now it’s the norm. This implies that the decision to embrace ubiquitous computing may have been a mistake rather than on the right side of history.
Schools are increasingly purchasing large quantities of student laptops without any constructive software, like MicroWorlds, and doing so with the encouragement of computer manufacturers. Some student laptops don’t even have a paint program installed. This is a brilliant strategy if the school teaches the humanities only. Mathematics and science learning stand to gain the most from the problem solving and computation afforded by the laptop, but such innovation is impossible in many schools.
Hardware manufacturers peddle laptop carts and governors propose a laptop on every desk fifteen years after thousands of students responsibly cared for their own portable computer at home, school and in the community. The metaphoric, as well as physical, locking-down of student laptops disempowers students and frustrates teachers needlessly. This hysteria represents a systemic backlash to the unprecedented creative and intellectual freedom bestowed upon learners.
One American school district had more than sixty million dollars (US) in-hand for student laptops. The educational goals accompanying the laptop purchase were so unimaginative and incremental that one politician was able to derail the entire initiative. Too little was done to excite the hearts and minds of citizens who want the most for children. (Stager 2005c)
Many new laptop schools pretend they invented the idea and disregard the lessons of their predecessors. They will recklessly change platforms just to get mentioned in the newspaper. Many Australian independent schools realized that changing their blazer colour was as useful a marketing ploy as integrating student laptops and didn’t require any institutional effort. The endless demands for evidence that laptops “work” demonstrates our community’s lack of capacity for growth and resistance to progress.
Computers are remarkably flexible devices capable of use in a wide range of contexts. A recent article in Technology and Learning Magazine profiled what the magazine’s editors determined to be the ten best returns on school technology investments. Not a single recommendation involved a learner doing something with a computer. This is a historic opportunity to seize powerful technology to help reinvent the nature and diversity of learning. We should embrace every opportunity to do so by keeping our “eyes on the prize” and avoiding detours. The needless focus on superficial planning, support for retrograde technologies, information addiction and welding laptops to furniture are symptoms of conservatism, ignorance and fear. Not long ago, the educational technology community were the warriors boldly leading schools towards an uncertain future filled with unprecedented learning opportunities for the children they serve. Somewhere along the line we have become reactionary and distracted by self-interest and costly detours.
We are duty bound to create compelling models of innovation and must define our terms, challenge accepted norms and set a course that amplifies the potential of children.
- The Alliance for Childhood. (2004) Tech Tonic: Towards a New Literacy of Technology. Available online at http://allianceforchildhood.org/projects/computers/pdf_files/tech_tonic.pdf
- Cuban, L. (2001) Oversold and Underused. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Harel, I., and Papert, S., editors. (1991) Constructionism. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.
- Kafai, Y., and Resnick, M., editors. (1996) Constructionism in Practice: Designing, Thinking, and Learning in a Digital World. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Kohn, Alfie. (2000) Transcript of the talk “The Deadly Effect of Tougher Standards.” The Harvard Education Letter. March/April 2000. Available online at http://www.edletter.org/past/issues/2000-ma/forum.shtml.
- Mclester, Susan. (2004) Top 10 Returns on Investment. In Technology and Learning Magazine, November 2004 issue.
- Oppenheimer, Todd. (2003) The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can be Saved. NY: Random House.
- Papert, Seymour. (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, Seymour (1981) Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. NY: Basic Books.
- Papert, Seymour (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. New York: Basic Books.
- Papert, Seymour. (1997) Why School Reform Is Impossible” In The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 6(4), pp. 417-42. Available online at http://www.papert.org/articles/school_reform.html
- Papert, Seymour (2002) “Papert Misses ‘Big Ideas’ of the Good Old Days in AI,” from a press release published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. July 10, 2002. http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2002/papert.htm
- Stager, Gary. (2001) “Computationally-Rich Constructionism and At-Risk Learners.” In Computers in Education 2001: Australian Topics – Selected Papers from the Seventh World Conference on Computers in Education. McDougall, Murnane & Chambers editors. Volume 8. Sydney: Australian
- Stager, Gary. (2002) “Papertian Constructionism and At-Risk Learners.” In the Proceedings of the 2002 National Educational Computing Conference. Eugene, OR: ISTE.
- Stager, Gary. (2003) “The ISTE Problem” In District Administration Magazine, February 2003 issue.
- Stager, Gary. (2005a) “Gary Stager on the State of Ed Tech.” In District Administration Magazine, January 2005 issue.
- Stager, Gary. (2005b) “Gary Stager on Effective Ed Tech.” In District Administration Magazine, February 2005 issue.
- Stager, Gary (2005c) “Laptop Woes. Bungling the World’s Easiest Sale.” In District Administration Magazine, October 2005 issue.
- Tufte, Edward. (2003) The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, LLC. Information available online at http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint
[i] Kohn has repeated a version of this quip in numerous contexts. One is available online at http://www.edletter.org/past/issues/2000-ma/forum.shtml
[ii] Despite the often underwhelming quality of such “work”
[iii] I am in possession of a December 2004 email sent by ISTE’s Washington D.C. office asking state ed tech directors to contribute to the creation of a “high-stakes” computer literacy test that ISTE would then sell back to them on behalf of a corporate partner. After months of denials, the ISTE CEO admitted to scheme at NECC 2005 and indicated that regardless of the propriety of the initiative, his membership organization needed to monetize this trend before others did. You may read the memo at http://www.stager.org/istememo
[iv] According to a March 30, 2006 press release, one manufacturer, “Smart Technologies,” has sold more than 250,000 whiteboards in every U.S. state and 75 countries.
I first published the blog post below in June of 2007. In that post, I shared my concerns about how commercial interests were being given priority over powerful ideas or professional dialogue at the NECC (now ISTE) annual conference.
Such concerns have only grown during the intervening five years. Keynote speakers have been selected based on popularity contests and a greater emphasis is being placed on fads than reflection.
I love ISTE and want the annual conference to realize its potential as a place where serious issues and policies are debated – where minds are blown. The June 2012 ISTE Conference will be my 25th NECC/ISTE as a presenter. I go at my own expense because I think it is critical to be part of the largest gathering of colleagues in my chosen field.
However, how is it possible that such an enormous educational event has failed to announce its keynote speakers two months before we all travel to San Diego?
I have a long history of queasiness about the National Educational Computing Conference. I go because it’s the largest event in my field and to catch-up with old friends who too are attracted to NECC like a moth to a flame. NECC and its sponsoring organization, the International Society for Technology in Education, suffers from an epic struggle to serve two masters – it’s members and the companies from which it receives large sums of money. The members want ISTE to represent their needs for inspiration, advocacy and promotion of best classroom practices. The corporate sponsors want to sell products to the ISTE members.
Educational technology “conferences” are unique in education due to the size and dominance of the exhibit hall. Ed Tech success seems to be based more on what you buy than what kids do. The technology director with the most toys wins and gets to go to all the best parties at NECC. Everyone loves to see the latest and greatest gizmos at a conference, but I fear that the balance between the educational mission of a conference and the crass commercialism of a boat show.
For the youngsters out there in cyberspace, it was not many years ago that you could not appear on the NECC program without writing a peer-reviewed paper. The NECC program rules used to explicitly ban corporate speakers, even if that prohibition was often ignored. In 1992 I leafletted NECC when all three keynote addresses were by the corporate vice presidents of sponsoring companies. I’m so glad I invested an hour in listening to Tandy’s vision for the future. Apparently that future didn’t include the company’s own demise.
Has NECC sold it’s soul?
To its credit, ISTE labels its commercial NECC sessions. However, each program slot set aside for a corporate spokesperson denies one or more practicing educators the opportunity to share their ideas with colleagues in a professional setting. Some sessions are difficult to categorize. Take this one for example…
ISTE President’s Panel at Educational Computing Conference to Discuss Technology Use in Classrooms
WHAT: ISTE will sponsor a one-hour roundtable discussion between top business and education leaders on technology in schools.
Among topics to be discussed: How can we lead local and national dialogue toward tools that positively change the K-12 learning environment, encouraging innovation, creativity, and critical thinking skills? What is the best way to engage governors, state legislators and higher education officials to alter the course of teacher education?
WHO: Kurt Steinhaus, outgoing president, ISTE
Don Knezek, chief executive office, ISTE
Gary Bitter, Cheryl Williams, Jan Van Dam, Cathie Norris,
and Paul Resta – ISTE past presidents
Cheryl Hewett – Education Marketing Manager, Hewlett Packard
Megan Stewart – Director of Worldwide K-12 Education, Adobe
Karen Cator – Director, Education Leadership and Advocacy, Apple
Dan Meyer – CEO, Atomic Learning
Helen Soulé – Executive Director, Cable in the Classroom
Paige Kuni – Worldwide K-12 Education Manager, Intel
WHEN: Wednesday, June 27
1:30 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.
WHERE: National Educational Computing Conference Georgia World Congress Center, Conference room B203
This session could be great. Whether I agree with the past ISTE Presidents or not, assembling six of them in one room for an hour could make for fascinating conversation. History is important.
The only question is why would ISTE choose to add six corporate representatives to a panel already comprised of seven educators? Thirteen-member panel discussions do not allow for much conversational depth. Why are marketing executives being asked to address the “course of teacher education?”
Read a similar blog by Sylvia Martinez, NECC – Buyer Beware.