Join Dr. Gary Stager in a free Twitter Chat about computer programming in schools December 7, 2016. Learn more here.
by Gary S. Stager
Adjunct Professor – Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology (USA)
This September our school, Pepperdine University in Los Angeles, California, began requiring all new students in our veteran teachers Masters degree programs to own a laptop along with modem and Internet Service Provider. Practicing teachers entering our Master of Arts in Educational Technology and Master of Arts in Teaching as a Profession would not only own a personal laptop computer, but also participate in the reinvention of education. The new Masters degree programs were initiated after two years of offering an educational computing doctoral program with 60% of all contact time spent online. Teachers in our Masters program spend more than 40% of all “course” time online away from campus. The percentage is hard to quantify. Although we reduced face-to-face (f2f) class time from thirteen to eight sessions spread out across the thirteen week trimester, students spend far more time online engaging with each other and faculty than occurred during the typical graduate level uni course.
The implementation of laptops was based on three objectives:
1) To professionalize computer-use among educators enrolling in our degree program
2) To provide anywhere, anytime computing opportunities for our students and to help them experience the learning benefits of personal computing
3) To end our reliance on computer labs run by the university bureaucracy. Despite the quality of the labs professors are constantly frustrated by the unpredictability of public computers and questionable oversight.
It is clear after just one term that we are on the right track. 100% of our education faculty regularly uses email, the web, newgroups and MOOs. Faculty members have a private web page from which we can automatically establish a new newsgroup.
My 32 students and I posted 2034 newsgroup messages during a three month period. Many of these messages are several pages in length and final projects were submitted as web sites. We have learned the following lessons about learning online.
Scarcity is a major obstacle to use
All of my suspicions about teacher ownership of computing were realized this term. I have always believed that teachers didn’t have enough access to computers to make learning to use them worthwhile. Students attended a Friday night and all-day Saturday “tech camp” where they learned to use their laptops, go online and create simple web pages. The following Monday classes began and students were expected to collaborate online. Technological fluency was acquired at a rapid pace.
We are educators, not telephone companies or software developers
We use off-the-shelf email, web server, and newsgroup software in addition to a MOO environment designed by Xerox PARC. Students use standard browsers, email clients, and Claris Home Page for communication purposes. Pepperdine provides no remote student Internet access. Students are offered a $12/month ISP or are expected to arrange for their own service provider. Face-to-face classes use a mini Ethernet hub and cables to connect student laptops to the Internet. The beauty of the Internet is that it isn’t dependent on any of us. It existed before us and doesn’t require us to reinvent the wheel.
Learning in an online community of practice is more personal, thoughtful and social
Instead of relegating learning to a two hour and forty-five minute class once a week students have access to each other and the professor at all times. One student commented that “class travels with me all week.” Students and faculty can share news items and issues faced in their classrooms in a timely manner. Exciting discussions emerged from such current events and personal experiences.
When one has the opportunity to edit their messages, the resulting thoughts tend to be more thoughtful. Students have exhibited an enhanced willingness to take a stand on controversial issues online and routinely share what might have been considered private thoughts and work with their peers. Assignments are routinely posted to the public newsgroup when private email to the professor would have been acceptable. Students provide a great deal of support, praise and assistance to each other via the net. Marital engagement announcements and email from lawmakers were shared online by students. Students would tell you that they became very close online.
Newsgroups are fantastic!
What if all of your year 10 history classes were able to continue discussing a topic with all of the other students taking that course at night? What if they were able to collaborate on projects with non-classmates and share original source material freely? Simple newsgroup technology allows for public one-to-many discussions complete with attached web pages and multimedia resources. Newsgroup postings are public, asynchronous and archived so learners can interact with them at anytime from anywhere. Assignments, readings and course announcements may be posted in the newsgroup. Email and listservs don’t allow such seamless integration of text, HTML and multimedia resources.
The power of cross-posting
On occasion, professors post a message to several classes at once. A wonderfully unintended consequence is that when a student replies, that response is shared with other classes. This encouraged all sorts of collaborations and discussions between students from other courses, campuses and sections.
Access to experts
I emailed authors of books assigned in my course and asked for them to “talk” with students. The ability to interact with students on their own terms encouraged “master teacher” Susan Ohanian, leading teacher educator Linda Darling-Hammond and Seymour Papert to converse with students. From now on I will try to adopt books by authors willing to interact with my students. One problem is that most academics and authors are not as wired as my students. Therefore email, specially focused newsgroups and “getting started” manuals need to be in our bag of tricks.
Professors drop by to chat
Curiosity and collegiality caused faculty members to “lurk” in each other’s class newsgroups. When a professor felt he/she had something to contribute to a discussion they were free to jump in. This was a wonderful unintended consequence of going online. Imagine the history teacher from across the hall spending their free period chatting with another teacher’s class about Japanese bombing of Darwin. Such collaborations between learners and teachers is possible when the teacher can teach “in their pyjamas.”
The web is my secretary
Course syllabi, articles, assigned readings, downloadable software tools, links to interesting sites and online textbook purchasing is available on my web site at: http://moon.pepperdine.edu/~gstager/home.html
The net and personal computing can play a major role in the improvement of education if we let it. I look forward to discovering that future alongside my students.
From the archives…
We must address behavior and not technology
© 2001 Gary S. Stager
Published in the November 2001 issue of District Administrator Magazine
Parent: Are you going to wear your new hat today?
Child: No because fifth graders are not allowed to wear hats to school
Parent: Why can’t fifth graders wear hats?
School administrator: Because sixth graders can’t wear hats
Parent: OK, now I understand better. May I ask, “why can’t sixth graders wear hats?”
School administrator: Gangs!
Parent: Do we have gang problems?
School administrator: No, because we don’t let sixth graders wear hats.
The preceding dialogue (experienced by my own family) typifies the wacky rule making increasingly found in American schools. Back-to-school time often coincides with the arbitrary banning of toys, apparel and assorted nick-knacks from our classrooms and playgrounds. It seems as if instinct takes over whenever administrators encounter something kids care about. The reflexive impulse is to forbid these objects from the educational environment.
There are several reasons for taking a deep breath and exercising caution before enforcing the next pog embargo.
We risk alienating children from school and missing potential curriculum connections.
As the world becomes more complex, violent and distinct from the life of the school, educators should look for opportunities to establish closer relationships with their students. Arbitrarily banning objects embraced by children needlessly erects barriers between teachers and students, school and the real-world. Baseball cards may be used to explore powerful ideas in probability, statistics, graphing, sorting and geography. Pogs, and Pokemon cards are excellent manipulatives for sorting, pattern recognition. Virtual pets could be used to explore life cycles, emotions and causal relationships. Hotwheels cars may be used in physics experiments. Even the social equity issues often used to justify prohibition may be explored when children feel that their teachers respect their world. Positive relationships with caring adults will outlast the latest fad.
It’s not good to be a hypocrite
Do unto others as we would have done onto us. If as Seymour Papert asserts, “laptops are today’s prime instrument for intellectual work,” then we should not forbid kids from access to non-violent tools so important to our own work. One school that requires every student to own a laptop banned tamagotchis (handheld programmable virtual pets) from school by enforcing their policy prohibiting electronic devices on campus.
You just can’t keep up
As media spin-offs, high-tech devices and toys proliferate, it will be impossible for school leaders to keep up with all of them in order to enforce subsequent bans. High-tech devices allowed today may integrate prohibited technologies in the future. Convergence will bring increasing power to kids and headaches for administrators. What happens when the book bag contains a laptop, the laptop contains a cell phone or sneakers contain a laptop and a cell phone?
New learning technologies will emerge
Laptops, programmable toys and handheld devices are becoming more affordable, powerful and therefore ubiquitous. Disallowing such devices at school will impoverish the learning environment. While Mr. Dette’s fondness for nostalgia would earn us extra credit for using a slide rule in his physical science class, he never punished us for using a calculator.
This year schools from coast-to-coast are banning Palm and similar handheld computers. An article in Wired News quotes Alan Warhaftig, a coordinator of the nonprofit organization Learning in the Real World (an organization critical of digital technology in education).
“I know when I’m in a faculty meeting that is boring me to tears, I will read The New York Times on AvantGo and look like I’m (concentrating) on the meeting,” said Warhaftig. I say, “duh?” Imagine if kids could vote with their feet. Would classrooms begin to be more reflective of their needs?
Mr. Warhaftig goes on to reveal his belief in the supremacy of the school over the learner when he went on to say, “The magic in the classroom is getting kids to concentrate.”[i]
Surely the availability of powerful personal computation and communications devices offer benefits that outweigh concerns of distracted students.
American educators don’t hold the patent on stupidity. While on a recent working tour of Australia I read a newspaper article announcing that the Western Australia (state) Principals Association was urging a ban on Harry Potter trading cards BEFORE THEY ARE RELEASED. Why even wait to see if kids like the things, let’s ban them just in case!
Some technologies make our students and staff safer
Cell phones are perhaps the most often banned legal devices in American schools. Aside from the obvious convenience they afford, cellular phones have become lifesaving tools. In both Columbine and the terrible terrorist strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, cell phones preserved life, called for help or offered comfort for family members. My childrens’ high school has unilaterally banned cell phones from the campus as have many schools across the country.
I adamantly believe that a school has no right whatsoever to jeopardize the safety of my daughter who is forced to wander a dark locked campus at 10:30 PM after drama practice. The payphones and vending machines are often more secure then the children. As a parent, it is I who should have the right to locate my child and have her call for help in case of an emergency.
Reducing classroom distractions is often cited as the rationale for this rule, but this is nonsense. If you walk into Carnegie Hall or an airplane, a polite adult asks that you please turn off your phone for the comfort or safety of those around you. Why can’t teachers do the same?
If a student disrupts the learning environment then that action should be punished in the same way we address spitballs, note passing or talking in class. It is irrational to have different rules for infractions involving electronic devices. We must address behavior, not technology. This approach will make our schools more caring, relevant, productive and secure. Our kids deserve nothing less.
[i] Batista, Elisa. “Debating Merits of Palms in Class.” Wired News. Aug. 23, 2001. http://www.wired.com/news/wireless/0,1382,45863-2,00.html
The following videos are a good representation of my work as a conference keynote speaker and educational consultant. The production values vary, but my emphasis on creating more productive contexts for learning remains in focus.
- For information on bringing Dr. Stager to your conference, school or district, click here.
- For biographical information about Dr. Stager, click here.
- For a list of new keynote topics and workshops by Dr. Stager, click here
- For a list of popular and “retired” keynote topics by Dr. Stager, click here.
- For family workshops, click here.
- To learn more about the range of educational services offered by Dr. Stager, click here.
View Gary Stager’s three different TEDx Talks from around the world
2016 short documentary featuring Dr. Stager from Melbourne, Australia.
Learning to Play in Education: Joining the Maker Movement
A public lecture by Gary Stager at The Steward School, November 2015
A Broader Perspective on Maker Education – Interview with Gary Stager in Amsterdam, 2015
Choosing Hope Over Fear from the 2014 Chicago Education Festival
This is What Learning Looks Like – Strategies for Hands-on Learning, a conversation with Steve Hargadon, Bay Area Maker Faire, 2012.
Gary Stager “This is Our Moment “ – Conferencia Anual 2014 Fundación Omar Dengo (Costa Rica)
San José, Costa Rica. November 2014
Gary Stager – Questions and Answers Section – Annual Lecture 2014 (Costa Rica)
San José, Costa Rica. November 2014
TEDx Talk, “Seymour Papert, Inventor of Everything*”
Ten Things to Do with a Laptop – Learning and Powerful Ideas
Keynote Address – ITEC Conference – Des Moines, Iowa – October 2011
Plenary Talk at Construtionism 2014 Conference
Vienna, Austria. August, 2014
Children, Computing and Creativity
Address to KERIS – Seoul, South Korea – October 2011
Gary Stager’s 2011 TEDxNYED Talk
NY, NY – March 2011
Gary Stager Discusses 1:1 Computing with leading Costa Rican educators
University of Costa Rica – San José, Costa Rica – June 2011
Progressive Education and The Maker Movement – Symbiosis or Mutually Assured Destruction? (approx 45:00 in)
FabLearn 2014 Paper Presentation
October 2014. Stanford University
Keynote Address: Making School Reform
FabLearn 2013 Conference.
October 2013. Stanford University.
Making, Love, and Learning
February 2014. Marin County Office of Education.
Gary Stager’s Plenary Address at the Constructionism 2010 Conference
Paris, France – August 2010
Gary Stager Excerpts from NECC ’09 Keynote Debate
June 2009 – Washington D.C.
For more information, go to: http://stager.tv/blog/?p=493
Dr. Stager interviewed by ICT Qatar
Doha, Qatar – Spring 2010
Learning Adventures: Transforming Real and Virtual Learning Environments
NECC 2009 Spotlight Session – Washington, D.C. – June 2009
More information may be found at http://stager.tv/blog/?p=531
© 2009-2016 Gary S. Stager – All Rights Reserved Except TEDxNYED & Imagine IT2 clip owned by producers
Progressive Education and The Maker Movement – Symbiosis or Mutually Assured Destruction
Published paper of keynote address at 2014 FabLearn Conference at Stanford University by
Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Constructing Modern Knowledge
21825 Barbara Street Torrance, CA 90503 USA
Keywords: Progressive education, education reform, mathematics education, constructionism, educational computing, maker movement
In this paper, the author shares three societal trends that validate and vindicate decades of leadership by constructionist educators. The growing acceptance of learning-by-making represented by the maker movement, a newfound advocacy for children learning computer programming, and even the global education crisis, real or imagined, are evidence of predictions and efforts made by constructionists being realized. The paper also asserts that the survival of progressive education and the maker movement are mutually dependent. This conference offers a brief opportunity for celebration before returning to the “hard fun” required to harness the momentum of these trends and improve the learning ecology.
Three societal trends afford members of the constructionism community with cause for optimism. While two of these trends are positive and one negative, their trajectory is towards a greater acceptance of constructionist learning by formal and informal communities of practice. Recognition of the symbiotic relationship between progressive education, its learning theory constructionism, and the long-term survival of what has come to be known as “the maker movement” is critical for the long-term survival of each. Progressive education and the maker movement are at a crossroads when both rely on the other for relevance and acceptance.
The general population has begun to recognize that knowledge is a consequence of experience and that technology can play a role in the construction of knowledge. This revelation is an act of constructionism in and of itself. Despite our decades of paper writing, conference attendance and teacher training, people unfamiliar with the term are constructing constructionism without being taught. Such “popular constructionism,” is manifest in explosive growth of the global maker movement and a revaluing of children learning to program. Such progress is accompanied by a backlash by the formal system of schooling, just as Seymour Papert predicted nearly a quarter century ago. (Papert, 1991)
THE MAKER MOVEMENT
At Constructionism 2012, there were concerns expressed about the maker movement that to be candid, smacked of elitism. While it may be true that the moms, dads, and teachers advocating for making may lack a scholarly vocabulary for expressing principles of constructionist learning, they are not hostile to that information. The popularity of Maker Faire, Hour of Code, Scratch, and books like, “Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” are proof of a desire to learn more about learning. It is also the case that academics in the constructionism community would benefit from learning what members of the maker movement know and can do. The elements of community organization and creative spirit of the maker movement are to be admired.
As we assert in our book, (Martinez & Stager, 2013) Papert is not only the “father” of constructionism, but of the maker movement as well. In “Computer as Material: Messing About with Time” (Papert & Franz, 1987) and earlier, “Computer as Mudpie,” (Papert, 1984) Papert described a new role for the computer as part of a continuum of construction materials, albeit one imbued with protean qualities. (Papert, 1980)
“If you can use technology to make things you can make a lot more interesting things. And you can learn a lot more by making them. This is especially true of digital technology.” (G. S. Stager, 2006)
Papert not only provided the basis for constructionism as a learning theory, but also played a pivotal role in predicting, inventing, and advocating for the constructive technology now being popularized by the maker movement. Long before his involvement in the development of programmable LEGO robotics kits or being an advocate for one-to-one computing, made the case for such innovations and even expressed the importance of hardware extensibility.
In 1970, Papert and Solomon described the sophisticated technological needs of young children engaged in making things with computers.
“The school computer should have a large number of output ports to allow the computer to switch lights on and off, start tape recorders, actuate slide projectors and start and stop all manner of little machines. There should also be input ports to allow signals to be sent to the computer.
In our image of a school computation laboratory, an important role is played by numerous “controller ports” which allow any student to plug any device into the computer… The laboratory will have a supply of motors, solenoids, relays, sense devices of various kids, etc. Using them, the students will be able to invent and build an endless variety of cybernetic systems.” (Papert & Solomon, 1971)
Neil Gershenfeld, one of the leaders of the personal fabrication movement who predicted much of the current maker movement, recounts how Papert viewed the inability of children to construct their own computers as a “thorn in our flesh.” (Gershenfeld, 2005) The availability of the $35 Raspberry Pi and its offspring the Beaglebone, Yun, Gallileo, and other low-cost Linux computers, all with an ability to interface with the world, removes that thorn. Each of these tiny computers are capable of running Scratch, Snap!, Python, and Turtle Art. They also feature a range of inputs and outputs for extensibility. Scavenging for peripherals to use with such a computer, customizing it, and programming it to solve personally important problems is consistent with both maker and constructionist ideals. The computer hardware industry and leaders in the educational computing world have spent decades deriding Papert’s claims that children should build, program, maintain, and repair their own computers, not merely to reduce costs, but as an expression of agency over an increasingly complex, technologically sophisticated world. Emerging technology, like the Raspberry Pi, is resonant with the maker ethos of “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it,” (Jalopy, Torrone, & Hill, 2005) and ideals expressed by Seymour Papert long ago.
Papert’s colleagues or former students created many of the favorite technologies of the maker movement, including Scratch, Makey Makey, the Lilypad, and LEGO robotics. The FabLab and FabLab@School efforts to spread learning through digital fabrication also acknowledge Papert’s inspiration.
Modern making is a brew of new technologies, computation, and timeless craft traditions. The artificial boundaries between disciplines blur and enrich each other.
“So, too, the mega-change in education that will undoubtedly come in the next few decades will not be a “reform” in the sense of a deliberate attempt to impose a new designed structure. My confidence in making this statement is based on two factors: (1) forces are at work that put the old structure in increasing dissonance with the society of which it is ultimately a part, and (2) ideas and technologies needed to build new structures are becoming increasingly available.” (Papert, 2000b)
Attend a Maker Faire and you will marvel at the ingenuity, creativity, passion for learning, and desire to share knowledge on display. Maker Faire provides a venue for collaboration, showing-off, and sharing personal inventions. The creation of shareable artifacts is a basic tenet of constructionism. (Ackermann, 2001) Maker Faires, Make Magazine, and web sites like instructables.com provide unprecedented venues for sharing technological project ideas and products.
Look in any direction at a Maker Faire and you will discover children and adults learning and creating together “samba school style.” (Papert, 1980) Kids like Super-Awesome Sylvia, Joey Hudy, Quin Etnyre, Caine Monroy, and Schuyler St. Leger embody Papert’s belief in “kid power.” (Generation_WHY, 1998; Papert, 1998) These, and other children, are beloved heroes, legends, and leaders of the maker movement, not because they are cute, but due to their demonstrable talent, knowledge, and expertise. Like in a samba school, these young experts value their interaction with elders because they share a common goal of continuous growth.
There were one hundred officially sanctioned Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires around the world in 2013. These events attracted over 530,000 participants. Attendance increased 64% since 2012 and 335% since 2011. “Maker Faire organizers are influencing local education initiatives, encouraging hands-on learning in Science, Technology, Math, Science (STEM) and Art (STEAM) curricula.” 27% of Maker Faire organizers in 2013 were museums and many Maker Faire organizers are creating or expanding community-based makerspace-type facilities where the community may learn together outside of a school setting. (Merlo, 2014)
Those explosive numbers only tell part of the story of the explosive growth in making and its influence on winning hearts and minds for constructionism. Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires are official events sanctioned by Maker Media resulting from a formal application process. Countless other events led by local hackerspaces, clubs, scout troops, plus school-based maker days and Invent to Learn workshops are doing an impressive job of laying the groundwork for a rise in the appeal of constructionism.
Parents in highly competitive independent schools are becoming champions of constructionism based on the benefits of making they witnessed in their own children. Such parental enthusiasm gives lie to the notion that parents want joyless schools focusing on increasing test scores and provide much needed support for educators sympathetic to constructionism, but beaten down by the status quo. After parents at The American School of Bombay participated in a half-day “Invent To Learn” workshop with their children, they began demanding that classroom practice change to incorporate more making.
The maker movement and its accompanying “constructible” technology has resuscitated constructionism in a New York City public school started by Carol Sperry and Seymour Papert in the early 1980s. (Papert & Franz, 1987) Without Tracy Rudzitis’ impromptu lunchtime “Maker Space,” where the folding tables and freedom transform the learning experience for middle school students, computing would be dead at “The Computer School.” (G. Stager, 2014) In countless settings, the “neat phenomena” associated with popular maker technologies, such as 3D printing, Arduino, Makey Makey, squishy circuits, wearable computing, and conductive paint have caused schools to revive school art and music programs, otherwise sacrificed on the altar of budget cuts, tougher standards, or global competitiveness.
The publication of the Next Generation Science Standards, authored by the National Academy of Sciences, (Quinn, Schweingruber, & Keller, 2012) includes specific demands for computer science, engineering, tinkering, and hands-on scientific inquiry to be part of the diet of every American. These standards, written by actual scientists, add gravitas to what some might deride as the playful act of making.
“I think the technology serves as a Trojan horse all right, but in the real story of the Trojan horse, it wasn’t the horse that was effective, it was the soldiers inside the horse. And the technology is only gong to be effective in changing education if you put an army inside it which is determined to make that change once it gets through the barrier.” (Papert, 1999)
BILLIONAIRES DISCOVER CODING
Since Constructionism 2012, Silicon Valley executives, pop-stars, basketball players, politicians, government ministers, and the President of the United States have called for children to learn to code. (note: apparently computer programming is now called, “coding.”)
If you view programming as an intellectually rewarding activity, then it is surely good news that countless millions of dollars are being spent on initiatives like Code.org, Code Academy, and the creation of computer science instruction via Khan Academy.
Mark Guzdial identifies three reasons for learning to program:
- That’s where the future jobs are, in the mix of computing with other disciplines.
- The second reason is that a liberal education is about understanding one’s world, and computing is a huge part of today’s world. We ask students to take laboratory sciences (like biology, chemistry, and physics) in order to better understand their world and to learn the scientific method for learning more about their world. The virtual world is an enormous part of the daily lives of today’s professionals. Understanding computing is at least as important to today’s students as understanding photosynthesis.
- If you understand something well, you should be able to define its process well enough for a machine to execute it. If you can’t, or the execution doesn’t match the observed behavior, we have a new kind of feedback on our theories.
Regrettably, the impetus behind the current desire for “kids to code” seems more rooted in economic insecurity and foreign job killers than recognition that programming is a good way to understand formal systems, make sense of the world or answer Papert’s timeless question, “Does the child program the computer or the computer program the child?”
The pedagogical approach preferred by the coding proponents appears to be, “kids will go on the Web and figure it out.” In that case, the same paltry percentage of kids is likely to develop programming fluency now than before great wealth and media attention was dedicated to the cause.
Although well intentioned and surely better than another generation of children doing little more with a computer than preparing an occasional PowerPoint presentation on a topic they don’t care about for an audience they will never meet, the advocates of coding seem wholly ignorant that many teachers used to teach children to program during the 1980s. Many of these educators taught Logo and the Logo community developed a great deal of wisdom regarding how, what, why, and when to teach children to program. Dozens of books were written and hundreds of thousands of copies were sold. We danced recursion and acted out procedureality. Now, that knowledge base is largely ignored in favor of catchy slogans and YouTube videos. The constructionism community has a wealth of knowledge to share with coding proponents and a great number of questions as well.
- Which programming languages are best for children to use and why?
- Is computational thinking a fancy term for what Alan Kay calls “computer appreciation?” (Kay, 1996) Is this just a way of providing the illusion of computing without sufficient access or actual experience?
- What are the goals of learning to program?
- How does computer programming support, enhance or build upon other intellectual processes?
- What can kids make with a computer?
- Are computing, coding, and computer science synonymous?
- What should a child at a particular age be capable of programming and which concepts should they be able to put into use?
- What sort of teacher preparation is required in order to realize the dream of computer science for all?
We have no idea what children would be capable of if they programmed computers for a sustained period of time. Although we taught tens of thousands of Australian fifth-seventh graders to program in LogoWriter or MicroWorlds between 1989 and 1995, (Johnstone, 2003) schools substituted computing for report writing, note taking, and office tasks by the time those children reached high school. In many cases, computers once an integral learning appendage, were barely used at all as soon as schooling got “serious” and focused on achievement or careers.
In the current coding for all craze, there is little attention given to the proposition that while programming, students may learn other things or explore powerful ideas concurrently. Programming appears to be a means to an end – becoming a programmer, even if that objective is barely defined or the process is trivial.
Coding advocates also send schizophrenic messages. Somehow, the same people can assert that programming is sufficiently difficult that anyone who manages to learn to code will find herself on economic Easy Street and yet, coding is so simple anyone can do it.
In 2014, code.org launched “Hour-of-Code” in a massive publicity blitz intended to attract the attention of schools. While this sounds like a work of satire, Hour-of-Code attracted President Obama, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and other cultural icons to record messages supporting the initiative. (Betters, 2014)
The idea of learning anything substantive in an hour seems preposterous. No amount of advertising or cheerleading is likely to result in more schools teaching computer science in a fashion that appeals to a wide variety of children or supports multiple learning styles. Hour-of-Code is an example of what Papert called verbal inflation and reminds us that “When ideas go to school, they lose their power.” (Papert, 2000b) By definition, Hour-of-Code must be trivial. Perhaps the goal of “Hour-of-Code” was never really to teach or even inspire kids to program, but to create the illusion that the very same Silicon Valley moguls seeking to dismantle public education aren’t so bad after all. (ASU+GSV Summit, 2014; Severns, 2013; G. Stager, 2011; Strauss, 2013, 2014) The cost of such an effort is trivial. “We’ve now reached 25 million kids, and the entire Hour of Code cost $1.2 million. That’s 5 cents a child,” said code.org co-founder Hadi Partovi. (Delevett, 2014)
If we stipulate that the motives of the coding advocates are pure, new questions arise when coding is proposed as the purview of schools. Although efforts like code.org would love to infiltrate schools, they are less concerned by where kids learn to code. When a role for coding in school is delineated through governmental policy or curricular statements, the concerns become more even more acute for constructionists.
Coding through school-colored glasses
Conservative UK Education Secretary Michael Gove announced in January 2012 that the national ICT curriculum should be scrapped at once because it is “a mess,” “harmful,” and “dull.” (Burns, 2012) Since Gove’s provocative BETT speech several American states, Singapore, and Estonia (Gardiner, 2014) have joined the chorus calling for all students to be taught computer science, even if they have no idea what that means or what is involved in achieving success. The exhaustive Royal Society study commissioned by the UK Government to guide the curricular shift towards every child learning computer science includes thoughts such as, “Computer Science education does not necessarily involve computers.” (Furber, 2012) Progress indeed.
The UK National Curriculum is short on actual examples of what a student might do or make with a computer, but long on vocabulary leaving implementation of the curriculum prone to memorization, not actual computer science. (Berry, 2013; Department of Education, 2013a, 2013b) Regardless of your feelings about the substance of the new UK curriculum, efforts around the world are being met with opposition by the theoretically most “tech savvy” teachers in the system, the existing ICT or computer literacy teachers who are resistant to change. The road ahead seems bleak when you factor in a shortage of qualified teachers, an overstuffed school day, inadequate computer resources and an abysmal participation rate among girls and minorities. (Ericson & Guzdial, 2014; Guzdial, 2006; Guzdial & Reed, 2014) And that doesn’t even include a discussion of why so few students are interested in learning computer science even where it is offered.
In the United States, there are proposals in several states to allow Computer Science to earn Foreign Language course credit. (Edutopia, 2013; Guzdial, 2014) Once again, policy-makers with little understanding of CS hear “language” and think they can check off two boxes at once, foreign language and computer science. Aside from the obvious flaws in this logic, the substitution is as much a symptom of unquestioned curricular heuristics than it is support for high quality computer science offerings. Swapping a subject you have trouble defending for CS is another example of the idea aversion (Papert, 2000b) Papert spoke of.
“Computer science for all” is a laudable objective and a welcome change in direction. The constructionist and maker communities possess a great deal of expertise and wisdom that should play a major role in shaping both policy and pedagogical practice. Without such involvement, this rhetorical effort may do more harm than good.
At the very moment when incredible new technologies emerge with the potential to supercharge learning, increase ways of knowing, amplify human expression, forge strange alliances, and empower each teacher and student, the School system has never been more draconian. This too is part of Papert’s prophetic wisdom.
“I have used Perestroika in the Russian political sense as a metaphor to talk about change and resistance to change in education. I use it to situate educators in a continuum: are you open to megachange, or is your approach one of seeking Band-Aids to fix the minor ills of the education system? The dominant paradigm is the Band-Aid–most reform tries to jigger the curriculum, the management of schools, the psychological context of learning. Looking at the Soviet experience gives us a metaphor to talk about why this doesn’t work. For stable change a deeper restructuring is needed–or else the large parts of the system you didn’t change will just bring the little parts you did change back into line.” (Papert, 1991)
Global trends point towards greater public school privatization, addiction to standardized testing, teacher shaming, union busting, savage urban school closures, the rise of charter schools, national curricula, PISA score competition, the suspension of local democracy via mayoral control of school districts, and sacrificing the art of teaching for the mechanics of curriculum delivery and crowd control. (Crotty, 2014; Ravitch, 2013, 2014) Bill Gates tells us that class size does (Vise, 2011) not matter and that teachers may be replaced by YouTube videos. (Tan, 2013) Propagandistic films intended to stoke parental hysteria like, “Waiting for Superman,” play in theatres and on Oprah. (Ayers, 2010; Guggenheim et al., 2011; Karp, 2010; Miner, 2011)
The Rise of Instructionism
In his Perestroika analogy, Papert predicts that constructionism will be met with more instructionism, hopefully until constructionism prevails. One look at the state-of-the-art in educational computing points to a rise in instructionism.
Not only do schools still have computer labs three decades after their creation, but the computers in those labs are increasingly used for computer-assisted instruction, test-prep, standardized testing, and surveillance. Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey said, “Computer programming is quickly becoming an essential career skill. Learning to code is a fantastic opportunity equalizer – if you’re good at it, it can help you achieve your dreams.” He did this while presiding over a scorched-earth “school reform” regime that eliminated Logo programming, art and music in dozens of elementary schools.
When schools do invest in personal computers, they are likely to buy iPads incompatible with making; what Alan Kay calls “symmetric creation” (Greelish, 2013) or make even worse decisions. The Australian state of Victoria invested $180 million and eight years of distractions in a Gosplan-like fantasy called Ultranet. (Tomazin, 2014) The Los Angeles Unified School District just pledged to spend as much as $2 billion for iPads for the sole purpose of standardized testing in a procurement process only Putin could love. (Blume, 2014; Smith, 2014)
The sudden epidemic of bad teachers proclaimed by politicians and the public’s growing dissatisfaction with schooling may be signs of the traditional system crumbling. Can we rise above this period of darkness by lighting a path towards megachange?
“Just 100 years ago, John Dewey was saying things about educational change, not very different from what I believe in. He couldn’t get very far. And the reason why he couldn’t get very far is that he had only philosophical arguments. He didn’t have an army. You must have an army, and it’s an army primarily of children and the adults also are a political force in this.” (Papert, 1999)
Constructionism is a stance and therefore inseparable from politics. Papert might say that the current chaos plaguing education is “the last flick of a dying dragon’s tail.” (Papert, 2000a)
SYMBIOSIS OR MUTUALLY ASSURED DESTRUCTION?
In a toxic era of high-stakes testing, curriculum narrowing, teacher shaming and public school privatizing, the maker movement represents a ray of optimism in an otherwise bleak environment. Simultaneously, the maker movement is poised to go mainstream only if its leaders recognize the benefits of situating “making” in the context of progressive education. An understanding of constructionism and the embattled history of progressive education are necessary for the maker movement to mature.
Quite simply, progressive education requires the energy, passion, new materials, and technology of the maker movement to increase its visibility, relevance, value, and urgency with policy makers, parents, and educational practitioners. For making to mature into a mature movement supporting more than a boutique industry of occasional “faires,” camps, and parties, the members of its community need to understand more about constructionism as well the historic struggle associated with the implementation of progressive education. The maker movement needs to situate their terrific passion, tools, talents, and intuition in a larger context of learning in a politically charged educational system. Both communities have a great deal to learn from one another and should recognize that they stand on the shoulders of giants. Such open-mindedness and knowledge are the minimum conditions under which each community can endure. In order to transcend minority status, a symbiosis of each community’s powerful ideas is required for the aspirations of each to be embraced and sustained by the larger society.
One dilemma for the maker movement is that its major players want it to be both a cause and a profit-center. At FabLearn 2013, Leah Buechley courageously challenged Make™ to take issues of representation, inclusion, gender, race, cost, and accessibility seriously. (Buechley, 2013) Her most easily addressable criticism of Maker Media, owner of Make Magazine™ and Maker Faire™ was the lack of women and people of color on its magazine covers. That concern has been ignored to date. Buechley also pointed out the high cost of entry into “making.” Except for more expensive technology, such as 3D printers, prices do not seem to be falling quickly enough to bring “making” to underserved or poor populations, young or old.
Buechley rightly described how making and Make™ have been conflated in the mind of the population while Maker Media attempts to create an illusion of public service by placing their educational initiatives in a MakerEd non-profit. However, when the White House wishes to celebrate learning by making and its role in an innovative economy, they hosted a Maker Faire™ not a maker fair.
It should come as no surprise that there is a tension between commerce and changing the world. Maker Media is the 1,000 pound for-profit gorilla that creates a venue for makers to share their ingenuity in a commercial environment where others pay to interact with makers. There is nothing wrong with that. It has fueled the explosive rise in making. However, when one company controls the venue, narrative, access to market, and publishes products that compete directly with the creations of other makers, claims of a social mission need to be taken with a grain of salt. Monopolistic tendencies are incompatible with the democratic ideals of both making and progressive education.
Alas, the futures of the maker movement and progressive education are at a crossroads. While the maker movement currently benefits from media attention and the public’s fascination with cool new tech toys, progressive education has been a political punching bag for generations. It is blamed for educational failures disproportionate to its influence. Without great care, the maker movement may find itself susceptible to similar mocking, derision, or marginalization. Sure, that’s nice as a summer camp arts of crafts project, but what does it have to do with raising test scores. Political and social alliances need to be strengthened between each community or the fate of both will be uncertain at best.
Papert reminds us that we need to shift our self-concept in order to bring about the change children deserve.
“Now there is an opportunity to become the person whose job is to facilitate rethinking the whole learning environment of the school, the whole structure of education. We are entering a period in which the person who was “the computer teacher” has the chance to become the educational philosopher and the intellectual leader of the school, of the education world.” (Papert, 1991)
It is inadequate to dismiss schools as relics of the past because that is where you will find millions of kids who need us. Fellow travelers in the maker movement and the unlikely allies behind the coding campaign might be just the army we need inside of a cardboard horse, with LED eyes, and synthesized speech all controlled by a tiny microcontroller running Scratch.
Let us spend our days at Stanford celebrating a growing acceptance of our ideas, but then return home to lead and engage in the hard work of improving the learning ecology.
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[April 2016] At last week’s #asugsv Summit, the annual bacchanal where dilettantes, amateurs, libertarians, billionaires, and Silicon Valley mercenaries gather to plot the destruction of public education in plain view, Dr. Condoleeza Rice of 9/11 and Iraqi war infamy shared her expertise on “reforming” public education. Like many simpletons and profiteers, Dr. Rice seeks salvation in dystopian technology and reportedly demonstrated a level of understanding of educational technology similar to her imaginary “mushroom cloud” in Baghdad.
“Technology is neutral,” Rice observed. “It’s how it is applied that matters.” Technology can be used to support a world in which a child’s zip code or color or gender or age doesn’t shape their future—just their commitment to getting an education, she said. (Edsurge – Heard & Overheard at the ASU+GSV Summit. April 19, 2016.)
No. You are profoundly wrong Dr. Rice!
In fact I detailed how wrong you are three years ago. Perhaps you didn’t read my daily brief entitled, “Technology is Not Neutral!” You may read it below…
Larry Ferlazzo invited me to share a vision of computers in education for inclusion in his Classroom Q&A Feature in Education Week. The text of that article is below.
You may also enjoy two articles I published in 2008:
Technology is Not Neutral
Educational computing requires a clear and consistent stance
© 2013 Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
There are three competing visions of educational computing. Each bestows agency on an actor in the educational enterprise. We can use classroom computers to benefit the system, the teacher or the student. Data collection, drill-and-practice test-prep, computerized assessment or monitoring Common Core compliance are examples of the computer benefitting the system. “Interactive” white boards, presenting information or managing whole-class simulations are examples of computing for the teacher. In this scenario, the teacher is the actor, the classroom a theatre, the students the audience and the computer is a prop.
The third vision is a progressive one. The personal computer is used to amplify human potential. It is an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression that allows each child to not only learn what we’ve always taught, perhaps with greater efficacy, efficiency or comprehension. The computer makes it possible for students to learn and do in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. This vision of computing democratizes educational opportunity and supports what Papert and Turkle call epistemological pluralism. The learner is at the center of the educational experience and learns in their own way.
Too many educators make the mistake of assuming a false equivalence between “technology” and its use. Technology is not neutral. It is always designed to influence behavior. Sure, you might point to an anecdote in which a clever teacher figures out a way to use a white board in a learner-centered fashion or a teacher finds the diagnostic data collected by the management system useful. These are the exception to the rule.
While flexible high-quality hardware is critical, educational computing is about software because software determines what you can do and what you do determines what you can learn. In my opinion the lowest ROI comes from granting agency to the system and the most from empowering each learner. You might think of the a continuum that runs from drill/testing at the bottom; through information access, productivity, simulation and modeling; with the computer as a computational material for knowledge construction representing not only the greatest ROI, but the most potential benefit for the learner.
Piaget reminds us ,“To understand is to invent,” while our mutual colleague Seymour Papert said, “If you can use technology to make things, you can make more interesting things and you can learn a lot more by making them.”
Some people view the computer as a way of increasing efficiency. Heck, there are schools with fancy-sounding names popping-up where you put 200 kids in a room with computer terminals and an armed security guard. The computer quizzes kids endlessly on prior knowledge and generates a tsunami of data for the system. This may be cheap and efficient, but it does little to empower the learner or take advantage of the computer’s potential as the protean device for knowledge construction.
School concoctions like information literacy, digital citizenship or making PowerPoint presentations represent at best a form of “Computer Appreciation.” The Conservative UK Government just abandoned their national ICT curriculum on the basis of it being “harmful and dull” and is calling for computer science to be taught K-12. I could not agree more.
My work with children, teachers and computers over the past thirty years has been focused on increasing opportunity and replacing “quick and easy” with deep and meaningful experiences. When I began working with schools where every student had a laptop in 1990, project-based learning was supercharged and Dewey’s theories were realized in ways he had only imagined. The computer was a radical instrument for school reform, not a way of enforcing the top-down status quo.
Now, kindergarteners could build, program and choreograph their own robot ballerinas by utilizing mathematical concepts and engineering principles never before accessible to young children. Kids express themselves through filmmaking, animation, music composition and collaborations with peers or experts across the globe. 5th graders write computer programs to represent fractions in a variety of ways while understanding not only fractions, but also a host of other mathematics and computer science concepts used in service of that understanding. An incarcerated 17 year-old dropout saddled with a host of learning disabilities is able to use computer programming and robotics to create “gopher-cam,” an intelligent vehicle for exploring beneath the earth, or launch his own probe into space for aerial reconnaissance. Little boys and girls can now make and program wearable computers with circuitry sewn with conductive thread while 10th grade English students can bring Lady Macbeth to life by composing a symphony. Soon, you be able to email and print a bicycle. Computing as a verb is the game-changer.
Used well, the computer extends the breadth, depth and complexity of potential projects. This in turn affords kids with the opportunity to, in the words of David Perkins, “play the whole game.” Thanks to the computer, children today have the opportunity to be mathematicians, novelists, engineers, composers, geneticists, composers, filmmakers, etc… But, only if our vision of computing is sufficiently imaginative.
1) Kids need real computers capable of programming, video editing, music composition and controlling external peripherals, such as probes or robotics. Since the lifespan of school computers is long, they need to do all of the things adults expect today and support ingenuity for years to come.
2) Look for ways to use computers to provide experiences not addressed by the curriculum. Writing, communicating and looking stuff up are obvious uses that require little instruction and few resources.
3) Every student deserves computer science experiences during their K-12 education. Educators would be wise to consider programming environments designed to support learning and progressive education such as MicroWorlds EX and Scratch.
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In addition to being a veteran teacher educator, popular speaker, journalist, author, and publisher, Gary is co-author of the bestselling book called the “bible of the maker movement in schools”, Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. He also leads the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute and is Publisher at CMK Press.
Since I know nothing about NCAA basketball, I’ll congratulate Villanova and tell a personal anecdote about my connection to the team.
Five or so years ago, I got hired to do a keynote at an education conference held at Villanova. I arrived several hours early, just in time to realize that I would be speaking in their basketball arena and following a speech by their (apparently beloved and talented) basketball coach.
I thought to myself, “How the hell am I supposed to follow a god-like basketball coach on his home court?” I crafted an opening joke that I still think is a killer. I may have even tested the joke on friends before my time to speak.
I opened my keynote address by saying, “I’d like to dedicate this presentation to all of the kids who had special gym.”*
Man, did that joke bomb!
* I had special gym for a couple of years during elementary school
More than 20 years ago, a graduate student of mine, named Beth, (surname escapes me, but she had triplets and is a very fine high school math teacher) used an early version of MicroWorlds to program her own version of a toolkit similar to Geometer’s Sketchpad. Over time, I ran a similar activity with kids as young as 7th grade. I’ve done my best to piece together various artifacts from my archives into a coherent starting point for this potentially expansive activity. Hopefully, you’ll be able to figure out how to use the tools provided and improve or expand upon them.
As students build functionality (via programming) into a tool for creating and measuring geometric constructions, they reinforce their understanding of important geometric concepts. As the tool gets more sophisticated, students learn more geometry, which in turn leads to a desire to explore more complex geometric issues. This is an ecological approach to programming. The tool gets better as you learn more and you learn more as the tool becomes more sophisticated.
Along the way, students become better programmers while using variables, list processing, and recursion in their Logo procedures. They will also engage in user interface design.
- Teacher and student project instructions
- MicroWorlds EX Geometry Toolkit starter template file
- An example of a more elaborate Geometry Toolkit created by Beth
 I would not show commercial models of the software to students until after they have programmed some new functionality into their own tools.
The debate about technology’s place in classrooms might vanish if the machines are used to expand students’ self-expression
Be sure to read to bottom!
I recently attended attended Apple Computer CEO Steve Job’s keynote address at the annual Macworld Conference in San Francisco. Amidst the demonstrations of OS X, the launch of the sexy new Titanium Powerbook and the obligatory race between a Pentium IV and Macintosh G4 (you can guess which won), Jobs said some things that I believe will be critically important to the future of computing.
Quotations from the CEOs of Gateway and Compaq decrying the death of the personal computer were rebuffed by Jobs who not only asserted that the PC is not dead, but that we are entering a new age of enlightenment. Steve Jobs declared that the personal computer is now “the digital hub for the digital lifestyle.”
While everyone is excited about new handheld organizers, video cameras, cell phones and MP3 players, these devices not only require a personal computer for installing software, backing up files and downloading media – they are made more powerful by the PC. The personal computer is the only electronic device (at least for the foreseeable future) capable of multimedia playback, supercomputer-speed calculations and massive data storage. Most importantly, the personal computer is required for those who wish to create, rather than be passive recipients of bits generated by others.
Jobs discussed how video cameras are cool, but iMovie makes them much more powerful. Boxes full of videotapes are no longer lost in the attic, because you can easily produce edited movies shareable with friends, relatives and the world. Jobs then launched iDVD, Apple’s stunning new technical breakthrough that allows anyone to create their own DVDs in minutes. Think about what this could mean in a classroom! Class plays, science experiments and sporting events could be shared with the community and playable with state-of-the-art quality on the home television. Video case studies of best practice can be used in teacher education complete with digital quality audio/video. Zillions of digital photos and scanned images of student work can be assembled as portfolios stored on one disk and viewed anywhere.
A company representative from Alias Wavefront was brought to the stage to demonstrate their software package, Maya. Maya is the 3D graphics tool used by George Lucas to make the most recent Star Wars film and by all of last year’s Oscar nominees for best special effects to work their artistic magic. The quick demo showed how a flower paintbrush could be chosen and with the wave of the mouse flowers could be drawn in 3D on the computer screen. These were no ordinary flowers though. The software knew to make each flower slightly different from the others, as they would appear in nature. The software also knew how they would behave if wind were to be added to the scene. Clouds drawn knew to move behind the mountains. Until now, Maya required a specially configured graphics workstation. It now runs on a Macintosh G4. While the software is currently too expensive for most kindergarten classrooms, it occurred to me that the world will be a much cooler place when five year-olds can use Kid-Pix-level fluency to create with the same tools as George Lucas. Perhaps then they will stop blowing up their Kid-Pix creations and express themselves through film.
Jobs argued that iMovie makes video cameras more powerful and iDVD enhances the value of both the video camera and DVD player. Therefore, the personal computer not only powers digital devices, but empowers our lives. This is a profoundly liberating and enabling vision for society.
As I left the auditorium I thought, “Steve Jobs really gets it!” However my admiration for his vision and desire for the new “toys” was quickly tempered by thoughts regarding the imagination gap guiding the use of computers in schools. Not once did Jobs compare the PC to the pencil or refer to it as a tool for getting work done. No standards for computer-use were offered. Instead, he challenged us to view the computer as a way of inspiring a renaissance of human potential.
Just Make Something
The personal computer is the most powerful, expressive and flexible instrument ever invented. It has transformed nearly every aspect of society, yet schools remain relatively untouched. Rather than be led by technological advances to rethink models of schooling, schools and the software industry have chosen to use computers to drill for multiple-choice tests, play games and find answers to questions available in reference books via the Internet. While the Internet is an incredibly powerful and handy reference tool, it’s real potential lies in its ability to democratize publishing and offer unprecedented opportunities for collaboration and communication. The dominant practice is to restrict or forbid this openness through filtering software, acceptable-use policies and overzealous network administrators. When the paradigm for Internet use is “looking stuff up” it should come as no surprise that kids are going to look at inappropriate content.
The results of this imagination paralysis are too numerous to mention. The hysteria over Internet use, growing disenchantment with schooling and calls to reduce tech funding are clearly the consequences of our inability to create more explicit, creative and public models of computers being used by children to learn in magnificent ways. The recent dubious report, Fool’s Gold, by the Alliance for Childhood, takes aim at school computer-use by illustrating the trivial and thoughtless ways computers are used in schools. A moment of candor requires us to admit that most of their criticisms are valid. Schools do use computers in dopey ways. However, that is not a legitimate argument for depriving kids of the opportunity to learn and express themselves with computers. It is however an indictment of the narrow ways in which schools use technolology. Experts advocating the use of handheld devices as “the perfect K-12 computer” so that students may take notes or have homework assignments beamed to them are cheating our young people out of rich learning adventures.
It’as if schools have forgotten what computers do best. Computers are best at making things – all sorts of things. Educational philosophers including Dewey, Piaget, Papert, Vygotsky, Gardner have been telling us forever that the best way to learn is through the act of making things, concrete and abstract. The PC is an unparalleled intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression yet schools seem ill-equipped or disinclined to seize that potential.
Kids can now express their ideas through film-making, web broadcasting, MIDI-based music composition and synchronous communication. They can construct powerful ideas (even those desired by the curriculum) through robotics, simulation design and computer programming.
While there is much rhetoric about kids making things with computers, those projects tend to reinforce old notions of teaching. Hyperstudio book reports or databases containing the pets owned by classmates are not what I have in mind. Kids should make authentic things borne of their curiosity, interests and reflecting the world in which they live.
I cannot imagine that the critics of public education and the investment in educational technology would object to kids using computers in such authentic, deeply intellectual and creative ways. Rather than creating unproductive standards for computer use, educational computing organizations should be building, documenting and sharing compelling models of how computers may be used to inspire joyful learning throughout the land.
Seymour Papert has proposed that we “view the computer as material.” This material may be used in countless wonderful and often unpredictable ways. Teachers are naturally gifted with materials of all sorts and the computer should be part of that mix. This change in focus should reap rewards for years to come.
We can do good and do well by exercising a bit more creativity. We can neutralize our critics and move education forward if we shift our focus towards using school computers for the purpose of constructing knowledge through the explicit act of making things. Children engaged in thoughtful projects might impress citizens desperate for academic rigor. Emphasizing the use of computers to make things will make life easier for teachers, more exciting for learners and lead schools into this golden age. [Emphasis 2016]
Let’s trick ‘em into learning!
© 2006 Gary S Stager
A friend called a few months back and asked me to tell him my most dangerous idea. What a great question! My answer, “Curriculum is bad.”
Allow me to make the case.
I can turn to almost any page in a textbook, article or website and find an outlandish, inaccurate or confusing idea some curriculum writer thought was brilliant. Even the most well intentioned efforts at relevance or context stretch credulity, often in a hilarious fashion.
A recent article in Edutopia (July 2006) presented a new method for making connections between art and math, called Aesthetic Computing. The following example demonstrates how the method might be used to teach teens about slope intercept form.
Aesthetic computing attempts to reach those frustrated by traditional math instruction by presenting abstract mathematical concepts in a more creative and personal way… For example, a standard equation for graphing lines on a slope such as y = mx + b might become a hamburger, with y representing the whole burger, m referring to the meat, and x standing in for spices. Multiplication is indicated by the fact that the meat and spices are mixed together, and b is added to represent hamburger buns. Students then write a story about the burger or draw a picture of it.
What? How is drawing a burger related to slope? One abstraction (slope) is replaced by even greater abstractions. The concept of variable is muddled and equations are presented wrongly as recipes. Worst of all, this is referred to as a hands-on project when it’s just coloring. (Note: If you think this is just one out-of-context example, I encourage you to read the primary sources on aesthetic computing. There you will find profoundly confusing examples of pedagogical tricks masquerading as constructivism.)
Corporations often write curriculum tie-ins to their products. Some are shameless marketing ploys while others are more altruistic. The NFL recently announced a $1.5 million marketing campaign to get kids more active and fight obesity – a noble public service gesture. It’s not their fault that curriculum is bad. They’re just playing along.
A language arts lesson has students create and perform a rap that demonstrates action verbs. A science lesson has kids play scooter tag, with one group of students representing cholesterol and another representing healthy hearts. (Associated Press, 10/19/06)
The NFL might solve two problems simultaneously. The Kansas City Chiefs can become the Cholesterols and the Redskins, the Healthy Hearts. Racist mascots could be replaced with scientific models while local school kids rap about vascular plaque. Multiple-choice comprehension questions appear on the Jumbotron.
Lola Falana Math
Textbook publishers use graphics and word problems to recycle old content. Units often begin with “real-life” content to help students make “connections.” One 7th grade math text has a photo of Walter Matthau dressed as Einstein. I know what the curriculum designers are thinking. Kids are just nuts for Walter Matthau!
The text below the photo reads something like, “In the classic motion picture, I.Q., Matthau plays Albert Einstein. Meg Ryan is his niece and Tim Robbins is a mechanic with a crush on her… Later in the film Tim Ryan’s character asks the niece, ‘How old is your uncle?’ Einstein overhears the question and yells from the other room, ’10 times 2 to the third.’”
Get it? They’re teaching exponents. What a hoot! All of the film stuff was unnecessary trivia that distracts from what should have been a simple arithmetic problem – not that anyone would ever express their age in exponential form.
The point of exponential notation is what? How does it work? Why?
Surely, the mere invocation of Einstein in the passage makes this a science lesson too.
I Know What You’re Thinking
Gary is against “bad” curriculum like the examples above. No, I oppose all of it. Curriculum is the arrogant folly of adults who don’t know the children who will play cholesterol scooter soccer, yet are self-ordained to prescribe what those students should know and when they should know it. Curriculum is the weapon of choice for ranking, sorting and labeling children. It is indifferent to individual needs, talents or desires. Worst of all, curriculum creates an impermeable barrier between teacher and student. Without curriculum, failure would be more difficult as would the assorted pathologies of discipline problems, drop-out rates and violence that plague far too many schools.