Three little words that I have dreaded since 1968. I remain haunted by the hideous nature of my own school experience. Each back-to-school commercial and increasingly premature retail display fills me with dread. As a parent, “Back-to-School Night,” was too often a torturous affair filled with the recitation of gum rules, awful presentations, and assorted violations of the Geneva Convention.
However, I look forward to going back to school tomorrow. This is my second year as the Special Assistant to the Head of School for Innovation at The Willows Community School in Culver City, California.
The Willows is a lovely twenty-one year-old PK-8 progressive independent school filled with truly happy children and terrific educators who know each child. The school is filled with play, the arts, and inquiry. The kids crack me up and my colleagues are genuinely interested in collaboration. Their willingness to learn and try things differently creates a context in which I can do good work on behalf of the kids we serve. I am truly grateful for their generosity of spirit and hospitality. The school is a lovely place for kids to learn because it is a great place for teachers. This also results in virtually zero faculty turnover.
Happy & school need not be contradictory terms.
My responsibilities at The Willows include teacher mentoring, curriculum design, professional development, working with groups of kids, and organizing special events. Much of what I do consists of wandering into classrooms, asking, “Hey, whatcha doing?” and then suggesting, “Why don’t you try this instead?”
On any given day my work might include recommending Australian fiction, integrating Romare Beardon into the curriculum, turning the kindergarten “bee unit” upside down, teaching math or programming to 2nd graders, brainstorming project ideas with teachers, participating in a learning lunch, or organizing a Superheroes of the Maker Movement event. I help out with the school’s extensive “making” opportunities and even enjoy meetings. One rewarding aspect of the job is when I excite a teacher about trying some nutty idea and then sell the administration on supporting that R&D. I adore being an advocate for teachers.
My calendar is plenty full and I do not need to work in a school on a regular basis. Few of my peers on the “circuit” do so. But, I love to teach, particularly to teach teachers, and I cherish having a canvas on which to paint my ideas for making schools more hospitable to the intentions of children. I am not willing to give up on schools because that’s where the kids are.
The Willows has viewed Constructing Modern Knowledge as a critical piece of their extensive professional learning portfolio. Each year, between 6 and 10 Willows educators participate in CMK. This builds community around shared experiences and brings cutting-edge ideas and expertise back to the school. Several young teachers who attended CMK for the first time this past July have been eager to seek my advice on everything from classroom decor to writing prompts to project ideas for the coming school year.
I am enormously grateful to the founding Head of The Willows Lisa Rosenstein for having the flexibility, vision, and sense of humor required to make me part of their team. As a keynote speaker, consultant, teacher educator, author, and clinician, I spend 1/3 – 1/2 of each year on the road. When I’m home, I rush back to The Willows. My travel provides diverse experience, an ability to identify patterns, and experience that I hope benefits our school.
A great part of working at The Willows is I get to be an educational leader, not computer boy. I am unconstrained by the edtech ghetto while getting to use technology the way I always have to amplify human potential and to provide learners with opportunities that would not exist without access to computation. I relish the chance to help fourth grade teachers create a 3D thematic tableau outside of their classroom window and prefer it to the trivia consuming too much of what is know currently as educational technology. That said, The Willows is a leader in the continuous use of constructive, creative, computationally-rich technology from PK -8.
Aside from the children I have the pleasure of hanging out with and the great colleagues I work with, the greatest joy associated with my job at The Willows is sharing an office with my friend, former student, and colleague Amy Dugré, Director of Technology. Amy is a spectacular educator, fine leader, and among the best practicing constructionists working in schools anywhere. I cherish her selflessness, friendship, and support.
Wherever or whatever you teach, here’s to a great new year! Please remember to do the right thing. If you won’t stand between kids and the madness, who will?
Note: You will find no greater advocate for public education than myself. Regrettably, the current political climate makes it impossible for a public school to demonstrate the sort of hiring flexibility that I have experienced at The Willows. What I learn each day, is shared with every school and educator I have the privilege of working with anywhere in the world.
I’ve been teaching boys and girls to program computers professionally since 1982 when I created one of the world’s first summer camp computing programs. I led professional development at Methodist Ladies’ College in Melbourne, Australia for a few years beginning in 1990. Girls at MLC used their personal laptops to program in LogoWriter across the curriculum. (read about the history of 1:1 computing and programming here). That work led to perhaps as many as 100,000 Australian boys and girls learning to program computers in the early 1990s.
I taught incarcerated kids in a teen prison to program as part of my doctoral research and currently teach programming to K-8 girls and boys at The Willows Community School
Along the way, I’ve found it easy to engage girls and their teachers in computer programming. Ample access to computers. high expectations, and a competent teacher are the necessary conditions for girls to view themselves as competent programmers. Such confidence and competence unlocks the world of computer science and gaining agency over the machine for learners.
That said, there is plenty of evidence that girls view computer science like kryptonite. Mark Guzdial, Barbara Ericson, and others have done a yeoman job of documenting the dismal rates of female participation in school or higher-ed computer science. This reality is only aggravated by the sexism and misogyny commonplace in high-tech firms and online.
Programming is fun. It’s cool. It’s creative. It may not only lead to a career, but more importantly grants agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world. Being able to program allows you to solve problems and answer Seymour Papert’s 47 year-old question, “Does the computer program the child or the child program the computer?”
All of that aside, girls in the main just don’t find computer science welcoming, relevant, or personally empowering. Entire conferences, government commissions, volumes of scholarship, and media decry the crisis in girls and S.T.E.M. Inspiring girls to embrace computer science remains the holy grail. But…
I found the key!
Girls love to program drones to fly.
I recently purchased an inexpensive small drone, The Parrot Rolling Spider Mini Drone. ($80 US) If flying drones is cool. Programming them to fly is even cooler.
Thanks to a lovely dialect of Scratch called Tickle, you can use an iPad to program a flying machine! Most drones have virtual joystick software for flying the plane in real-time, but programming a flight requires more thought, planning, and inevitable debugging. Programmer error, typos, a breeze, or physical obstacles often result in hilarity.
Earlier this week, I brought my drone and iPad to a workshop Super-Awesome Sylvia and I were leading. Primary and secondary school students from a variety of schools assembled to explore learning-by-making.
Late in the workshop, I unleashed the drone.
Kids were immediately captivated by the drone and wanted to try their hand at programming a flight – especially the girls!
I truly love how such natural play defies so many gender stereotypes. Programming to produce a result, especially control is super cool for kids of all ages. (It’s also worth mentioning that this one of the few “apps” for the iPad that permits actual programming, not just “learning about coding.”)
In November, I had a the great honor of working with my colleagues at the Omar Dengo Foundation, Costa Rica’s NGO responsible for computers in schools. For the past quarter century, the Fundacion Omar Dengo has led the world in the constructionist use of computers in education – and they do it at a national level!
While there, I delivered the organization’s annual lecture in the Jean Piaget Auditorium. The first two speakers in this annual series were Seymour Papert and Nicholas Negroponte.
The first video is over an hour in length and is followed but the audience Q & A. The second portion of the event gave me the opportunity to tie a bow on the longer address and to explore topics I forgot to speak about.
I hope these videos inspire some thought and discussion.
Gary Stager “This is Our Moment “ – Conferencia Anual 2014 Fundación Omar Dengo (Costa Rica)
San José, Costa Rica. November 2014
Gary Stager – Questions and Answers Section – Annual Lecture 2014 (Costa Rica)
San José, Costa Rica. November 2014
I started teaching Logo to kids in 1982 and adults in 1983. I was an editor of ISTE’s Logo Exchange journal and wrote the project books accompanying the MicroWorlds Pro and MicroWorlds EX software environments. I also wrote programming activities for LEGO TC Logo and Control Lab, in addition to long forgotten but wonderful Logo environments, LogoExpress and Logo Ensemble.
Now that I’m working in a school regularly, I have been working to develop greater programming fluency among students and their teachers. We started a Programming with Some BBQ “learning lunch” series and I’ve been leading model lessons in classrooms. While I wish that teachers could/would find the time to develop their own curricular materials for supporting and extending these activities, I’m finding that I may just need to do so despite my contempt for curriculum.
One of the great things about the Logo programming language, upon which Scratch and MicroWorlds are built, is that there are countless entry points. While turtle graphics tends to be the focus of what schools use Logo for, I’m taking a decidedly more text-based approach. Along the way, important computer science concepts are being developed and middle school language arts teachers who have never seen value in (for lack of a better term) S.T.E.M. activities, have become intrigued by using computer science to explore grammar, poetry, and linguistics. The silly activity introduced in the link below is timeless, dating back to the 1960s, and is well documented in E. Paul Goldenberg and Wally Feurzig’s fantastic (out-of-print) book, “Exploring Language with Logo.”
I only take credit for the pedagogical approach and design of this document for teachers. As I create more, I’ll probably share it.
My goal is always to do as little talking or explaining as humanly possible without introducing metaphors or misconceptions that add future confusion or may need to remediated later. Teaching something properly from the start is the best way to go.
Commence the hilarity and let the programming begin! Becoming a programmer requires more than an hour of code.
Modifications may be made or bugs may fixed in the document linked above replaced as time goes by.
Laptop Schools Lead the Way in Professional Development
Gary S. Stager is a teacher educator and adjunct professor at Pepperdine University. He has spent the past ten years working with a dozen Australian schools in which every student and teacher has a laptop computer.
Educational reform is too often equated with plugging students into anything that happens to plug in. Technology-rich Australian schools lead the way in helping teachers use technology thoughtfully.
Many educators believe that technology alone will lead to innovation and restructuring in schools. Unfortunately, they either do not include staff development in the equation, or they provide programs that do little more than ensure that teachers are able to unjam the printer or use one piece of canned instructional software.
Having developed a number of professional development models for a dozen schools in Australia and more in the United States, I believe computer-related staff development should immerse teachers in meaningful, educationally relevant projects. These activities should encourage teachers to reflect on powerful ideas and share their educational visions in order to create a culture of learning for their students. In brief, teachers must be able to connect their computer experience to constructive student use of computers.
In 1989, Methodist Ladies’ College, an independent pre-K-12 school with 2,400 students, embarked on an unparalleled learning adventure. At that time, the Melbourne school made a commitment to personal computing, LogoWriter, and constructivism. The governing principle was that all students, grades 5-12, should own a personal notebook computer on which they could work at school, at home, and across the curriculum. Ownership of the notebook computer would reinforce ownership of the knowledge constructed with it. Approximately 2,000 Methodist Ladies’ College students now have a personal notebook computer.
The school made personal computing part of its commitment to creating a nurturing learning culture. It ensured that teachers were supported in their own learning by catering to a wide range of learning styles, experiences, and interests. All involved agreed that personal computing was a powerful idea, one more important than the computers themselves. What students actually did with the computers was of paramount importance. LogoWriter was the schools’s primary software of choice. (MicroWorlds is now used.)
Dozens of Australian schools (called “laptop schools”) are now in various stages of following the lead of Methodist Ladies’ College in computing and are now using some of the professional development models created during my five years of work there.
Staff Development Innovations
Many schools find the task of getting a handful of teachers to use computers at even a superficial level daunting. The laptop schools expect their teachers not only to be comfortable with 30 notebook computers in their classroom, but also to participate actively in the reinvention of their school. In such progressive schools, staff development does not mean pouring information into teachers’ heads or training them in a few technical skills. Staff development means helping teachers fearlessly dream, explore, and invent new educational experiences for their students.
I have employed three staff development strategies – in-classroom collaboration, “slumber parties,” and build-a-book workshopsæin many laptop schools. All three model constructivism by providing meaningful contexts for learning, emphasizing collaborative problem solving and personal expression, and placing the learner (in this case the teacher) at the center of the learning experience. Each school values and respects the professionalism of the teachers by acknowledging the knowledge, skills, and experience each teacher possesses.
Several Australian laptop schools have used the in-classroom model I developed working in the Scarsdale, New York, and Wayne, New Jersey, public schools. This collaborative form of teacher development places the trainer in the teacher’s classroom to observe, evaluate, answer questions, and model imaginative ways in which the technology might be used. The collaborative spirit and enthusiasm engendered by the trainer motivates the teacher, who feels more comfortable taking risks when a colleague is there to help. Implementation is more viable because this professional development occurs on the teacher’s turf and during school hours.
Residential “Slumber Parties”
This approach allows teachers to leave the pressures of school and home behind for a few days to improve their computing skills in a carefully constructed environment designed to foster opportunities for peer collaboration, self-expression, and personal reflection, and to encourage a renewed enthusiasm for learning. These workshops have taken place at hotels, training centers, a monastery with lodging facilities, even at a school. These learner-centered workshops stress action, not rhetoric. The workshop leader serves as a catalyst, and creates opportunities for participants to connect personal reflections to their teaching. These connections are powerful when they come from the teacher’s own experienceæmuch like the types of learning opportunities we desire for students. The slumber parties use three key activities:
- Project brainstorming. Before we are even sure that the teachers know how to turn on their computers, we ask them to identify projects they wish to undertake during the workshop. The projects may be collaborative, personal, or curriculum-related, and they need not relate to the subjects they teach.
- Powerful ideas. Each day begins with a discussion of a relevant education issue or philosophical concern. Topics might include the history of Logo and your role in technological innovation (what the school has already accomplished); process approaches to learning; or personal learning stories. The topic for the final day, “What does this have to do with school?” is designed to help teachers reflect on their workshop experiences and make connections to their role as teachers.
- Problem solving off the deep end. One or two problem-solving activities are planned to demonstrate how teachers can solve complex open-ended problems through collaborative effort. These exercises help the participants to understand that not every problem has only one correct answer and that some problems may have no answers.
Slumber parties are offered on a regular basis. Because the primary goal of the workshops is to support a learning community, teachers and administrators are encouraged to participate in more than one. Participants gain appreciation for the power and expressive potential of LogoWriter. And, they are reminded that their colleagues are creative, imaginative learners like themselves.
Build-a-Book Residential Workshops
The origin for these workshops is based in the book, Build-a-Book Geometry. The book chronicles the author’s experience as a high school geometry teacher who spent an entire year encouraging his students to write their own geometry text through discovery, discussion, debate, and experimentation. It provides an exciting model for taking what teams of students know about a concept and then giving them challenges built upon their understanding or misunderstanding of it. The teacher then uses the responses to elicit a set of issues to which another team will respond, and so on. Throughout the process, each team keeps careful notes of hypotheses, processes, and conclusions, then shares these notes with the other teams during the process of writing the class book.
Healy’s ideas inspired a format that addresses confusing topics through discussion, problem solving, collaboration, and journal writing. Before the workshop, I ask each participant to identify three LogoWriter programming issues that they do not understand or that they need to have clarified. Small teams of teachers spend hours answering the questions and explaining numerous programming (and often mathematical) issues to one another. This exercise stresses the most important component of cooperative learningæinterdependence. When each group has answered all questions to its collective satisfaction, each teacher meets with a member of another team to explain what his or her group has accomplished.
Participants explore emerging questions through projectsædesigned by the leaderæthat are intended to use increasingly sophisticated skills. For example, teachers discuss the concept of programming elegance as they review student projects, and they keep careful notes of their programming processes, questions, and discoveries. These collective notes are included in the class book (disk). This disk becomes a valuable personal reference that the teachers can use in their own classrooms.
Teacher assessments of the residential workshops have been extremely positive. And, the quality of the experience makes the cost quite low when compared with the cost of providing an ongoing series of two-hour after-school workshops. Schools routinely spend much more time teaching concepts in bite-size chunks, while leaving real learning to chance.
Suggestions for Success
Following are some guidelines for successful technology implementation.
- Work with the living.
Because schools have limited technological and teacher development resources, those that do exist should be allocated prudently. If energy and resources are focused on creating a few successful models of classroom computing each year, the enthusiasm among teachers will be infectious. Of course, the selection of models must be broad enough to engage teachers of differing backgrounds and subject areas.
- Eliminate obstacles.
It should not be surprising that teachers without sufficient access to computer technology don’t embrace its use. How many workshops must a teacher attend to get a new printer ribbon? How long must a teacher wait to get enough lab time for his or her students to work on a meaningful project? The idea that schools should not buy computers before the teachers know what to do with them must be discarded.
- Stay on message.
Administrators must articulate a clear philosophy regarding how the new technology is to be used and how the culture of the school is likely to change. Communication between teachers and administrators must be honest, risk-free, and comfortable. Administrators must constantly clarify the curricular content and traditions the school values, as well as specify the outdated methodology and content that is to be eliminated. Teachers must be confident that their administrators will support them through the transitional periods.
- Work on the teacher’s turf.
Those responsible for staff development should be skilled in classroom implementation and should work alongside the teacher to create models of constructive computer use. It is important for teachers to see what students can do; this is difficult to accomplish in a brief workshop at the end of a long workday.
- Plan off-site institutes.
Schools must ensure that teachers understand the concepts of collaborative problem solving, cooperative learning, and constructivism. Accordingly, teachers must have the opportunity to leave behind the pressures of family and school for several days in order to experience the art of learning with their colleagues. Off-site residential “whole learning” workshops can have a profoundly positive effect on a large number of teachers in a short period of time.
- Provide adequate resources.
Nothing dooms the use of technology in the classroom more effectively than lack of support. Administrators can support teacher efforts by providing and maintaining the technology requested and by providing access to a working printer and a supply of blank disks.
- Avoid software du jour.
Many educators feel considerable pressure to constantly find something new to do with their computers. Unfortunately, this newness is equated with amassing more and more software. It is reckless and expensive to jump on every software bandwagon. The use of narrow, skill-specific software provides little benefit to students. Choose an open-ended environment, such as MicroWorlds, in which students can express themselves in many ways that may also converge with the curriculum.
- Practice what you preach.
Staff development experiences should be engaging, interdisciplinary, collaborative, heterogeneous, and models of constructivist learning.
- Celebrate initiative.
Recognize teachers who have made a demonstrated commitment to educational computing. Free them from some duties so they can assist colleagues in their classrooms; encourage them to lead workshops; and give them access to additional hardware.
- Offer in-school sabbaticals.
Provide innovative teachers with the in-school time and the resources necessary to develop curriculum and to conduct action research.
- Share learning stories.
Encourage teachers to reflect on significant personal learning experiences. Encourage them to share these experiences with their colleagues and to discuss the relationship between their own learning and their classroom practices. Formal action research projects and informal get-togethers are both effective. Teachers routinely relate that their most beneficial professional development experience is the opportunity to talk with peers.
- Help teachers purchase technology.
Schools should help fund 50-80 percent of a teacher’s purchase of a personal computer. This support demonstrates to teachers a shared commitment to educational progress. Partial funding gives teachers the flexibility to purchase the right computer configuration. Consider offering an annual stipend for upgrades and peripherals.
- Cast a wide net.
No one approach to staff development works for all teachers. Provide a combination of traditional workshops, in-classroom collaborations, mentoring, conferences, and whole-learning residential workshops from which teachers can choose.
Although many administrators dream of providing only a handful of computers in their schools, the reality of what is happening in schools across Australia requires serious consideration. Universal computing is in our future, and staff development programs must be geared to that fact. Modern staff development must help teachers not only embrace the technology, but also anticipate the classroom change that will accompany widespread use.
We must recognize that the only constant on which we can depend is the teacher. Our schools will only be as good as the least professional teacher. Staff development must enhance professionalism and empower teachers to improve the lives of their students. Our children deserve no less.
The Case for Computing
By Gary S. Stager
The personal computer is the most powerful, expressive and flexible instrument ever invented. At its best, the PC offers learners a rich intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression. Although computing has transformed nearly every aspect of society, schools remain relatively untouched.
This chapter is not about predicting the future. It is about the learning opportunities that exist today and may be overlooked. Computers and creativity are in dangerously short supply. The dearth of compelling models of using computers in deeper ways has created a vacuum now filled by a Dickensian approach to schooling.
When I read the growing mountain of educational technology standards I can’t help but wonder if these objectives could be satisfied without the use of a computer. The unimaginative use of school computers is symptomatic of larger crises in schooling, including what Seymour Papert calls, “idea aversion.” Over the past few decades I have enjoyed working at key moments in the intersection of learning and computers. My daily work is guided by an optimism rooted in experiences learning with computers and observing children doing the same. As much as this is the story of great promise and great disappointment, the children we serve sustain our enthusiasm to work harder to realize the learning potential of the digital age.
Ancient History – My Early Years of Computing
In 1976 I got to touch a computer for the first time. My junior high school (grades 6-8) had a mandatory computer-programming course for seventh and eighth graders. More than a quarter century ago, the Wayne Township Public Schools in New Jersey thought it was important for all kids to have experience programming computers. There was never any discussion of preparation for computing careers, school-to-work, presentation graphics or computer literacy. Computer programming was viewed as a window onto a world of ideas given equal status as industrial arts, music appreciation, art and oral communications.
The scarcity of classroom computers made programming a highly social activity since we were often leaning over each other’s shoulders in order to get in on the action.
Mr. Jones, the computer programming teacher, was scary in a Dr. Frankenstein sort of way. However, I was attracted by the realization that this guy could make computers do things!
Mr. Jones knew how elaborate computer games worked and would show us the code afterschool if we were interested. Once I understood how to read a computer program, I could THINK LIKE THE COMPUTER! This made me feel powerful.
The feelings of intellectual elation I experienced programming are indescribable. The computer amplified my thinking. I could start with the germ of an idea and through incremental success and debugging challenges build something more sophisticated than I could have ever imagined.
The self-awareness that I was a competent thinker helped me survive the indignities of high school mathematics classes. Mr. Jones helped me learn to think like a computer. The ability to visualize divergent paths, anticipate bugs, and rapidly test mental scenarios is the direct result of computer programming. This gift serves me in everyday life when I need hack my way through a voicemail system to reach a knowledgeable human, or get my car out a locked parking structure.
Perhaps Mr. Jones was such a great teacher because he was learning to program too – maybe just slightly ahead of us. (This never occurred to me as a kid since Mr. Jones knew everything about computers.)
A strong community of practice emerged in the high school computer room. We learned from each other, challenged one another and played with each other’s programs. We altered timeshare games, added ways to cheat and programmed cheap tricks designed to shock classmates. I even ran after school classes in BASIC for kids interested in learning to program.
Computers were to be used to make things at my high school, not as a subject of study. There was never a mention of computer literacy and owning a computer was unthinkable. The school computers were a place to lose our selves in powerful ideas.
We never saw a manual for a piece of software although we treasured every issue of Creative Computing – working hard to meticulously enter hundreds of lines of computer code only to have every single program be buggy. Since we had little idea what was impossible, we thought anything was possible. We felt smart, powerful and creative. We took Fortran manuals out of the public library for no other reason than to hold a connection to a larger world of computing – a world we were inventing for ourselves.
Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak, were involved in similar little ventures at the time. Many of the computing visionaries who changed the world had similar early experiences with computers. I remember the explosion of thinking and creativity I experienced programming computers and try to recreate the spirit of that computer-rich learning culture in every school I visit. Kids deserve no less.
In the mid-80s I was welcomed into the global “Logo community” and asked to present papers at places like MIT. This was pretty heady stuff for a failed trumpet player and mediocre student. Logo programming offered a vehicle for sharing my talents, expressing my creativity and engaging in powerful ideas with some of the leading thinkers in education. Seymour Papert’s scholarship gave voice to my intuitions visa-a-vis the tension between schooling and learning.
To this day, my work with adults and kids is centered around using computers as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression. To experience the full power of computing, the tools need to be flexible extensible and transparent. The user needs to be fluent in the grammar of the system whether it is text based, symbolic or gestural.
In 1989, Methodist Ladies’ College, an Australian PK-12 school already recognized for its world-class music education, committed to every student having a personal laptop computer. By the time I began working with MLC a year later, 5th and 7th graders were required to own a laptop. The “P” in PC was taken very seriously. Personal computing would not only solve the obvious problems of student access, low levels of faculty fluency and the costs associated with the construction of computer labs – the PC would embody the wisdom of Dewey, Vygotsky and Piaget. Logo, because of its open-endedness and cross-curricular potential, was the software platform chosen for student learning. The potential of Logo as a learning environment that would grow with students across disciplines and grade levels could only be realized with access to ubiquitous hardware. This justified the investment in laptops.
MLC principal, David Loader, understood that the personal was at the core of any efforts to make his school more learner-centered. He was not shy in his desire to radically reinvent his school. Bold new thinking, epistemological breakthroughs, sensitivity to a plurality of learning styles, increased collaboration (among teachers and children) and student self-reliance were expected outcomes of the high-tech investment. Teachers learning to not only use, but program, computers would acquaint themselves with the type of “hard fun” envisioned for student learning.
If the computer were to play a catalytic role in this educational shift, it was obvious that the computers needed to be personal. Truly creative and intellectual work requires freedom and a respect for privacy. Quality work is contingent on sufficient time to think, to experiment, to play. The laptop can only become an extension of the child when it is available at all times. Therefore, there was never any debate about laptops going home with students. Time and time again, the most interesting work was accomplished during the student’s personal time.
Laptops were a way to enable student programming “around the clock” and make constructionism concrete.
MLC was a magical place during the early nineties. Every aspect of schooling was open for discussion and reconsideration.
When I expressed concern over the gap between classroom reality and the rhetoric proclaiming the school’s commitment to constructionism, the principal supported my desire to take dozens of teachers away for intensive residential professional development sessions. After all, constructionism is something you DO as well as believe. You cannot be a constructionist who subcontracts the construction. “Do as I say, not as I do,” would no longer cut it.
A renaissance of learning and teaching catapulted MLC and the subsequent Australian “laptop schools” to the attention of school reformers around the world.
We were ecstatic when “laptop” students began to adorn their computers with their names written in glitter paint. This signaled appropriation. The computers mattered. Success.
The early success of MLC and the many other “laptop schools” to follow were a realization of the dream Seymour Papert and Alan Kay held for decades. In 1968, computer scientist Alan Kay visited Seymour Papert at MIT. Papert, a protégé of Jean Piaget, a mathematician and artificial intelligence pioneer was combining his interests by designing computing environments in which children could learn. Kay was so impressed by how children in Papert’s Logo Lab were learning meaningful mathematics that he sketched the Dynabook, a dream of portable computers yet to be fully realized, on the flight home to Xerox PARC, a leading high-tech thinktank.
Kay set out to design a portable personal computer for children on which complex ideas could come alive through the construction of simulations. Dr. Kay recently remembered this time by saying, “More and more, I was thinking of the computer not just as hardware and software but as a medium through which you could communicate important things. Before I got involved with computers I had made a living teaching guitar. I was thinking about the aesthetic relationship people have with their musical instruments and the phrase popped into my mind: an instrument whose music is ideas.”
Kay’s poetic vision resonated with my memories of Mr. Jones, summer camp and my own experiences programming in Logo.
“One of the problems with the way computers are used in education is that they are most often just an extension of this idea that learning means just learning accepted facts. But what really interests me is using computers to transmit ideas, points of view, ways of thinking. You don’t need a computer for this, but just as with a musical instrument, once you get onto this way of using them, then the computer is a great amplifier for learning.”
At-risk and high tech
For three years, beginning in 1999, I worked with Seymour Papert to develop a high-tech alternative learning environment, the Constructionist Learning Laboratory (CCL), inside the Maine Youth Center, the state facility for adjudicated teens. This multiage environment provided each student with a personal computer and access to a variety of constructive material. The experience of trying to reacquaint or acquaint these previously unsuccessful students with the learning process teaches us many lessons about just how at-risk our entire educational system has become.
The intent of the project was to create a rich constructionist learning environment in which severely at-risk students could be engaged in long-term projects based on personal interest, expertise and experience. Students used computational technologies, programmable LEGO and more traditional materials to construct knowledge through the act of creating a personally meaningful project. The hypothesis was that the constructionist philosophy offers students better opportunities to learn and engage in personally meaningful intellectual development. The computer was the magic carpet that would allow these children to escape their history of school failure.
Students in this alternative learning environment routinely suffered from what Seymour Papert called,“the curious epidemic of learning disabilities.” Kids with low or non-existent literacy skills were able to invent and program robots capable of making decisions and interacting with their environment. Robo Sumo wrestlers, interactive gingerbread houses, card dealing robots, luggage sorting systems and temperature-sensitive vending machines capable of charging a customer more money on hot humid days were but a few of the ingenious inventions constructed with programmable LEGO materials. Students also designed their own videogames, made movies and explored the universe via computer-controlled microscopes and telescopes. They wrote sequels to Othello and published articles in programming journals. These kids proved that computing offered productive learning opportunities for all kinds of minds.
One child, said to be completely illiterate, wrote a page of program code the night before class because an idea was burning inside of him. Another “illiterate” youngster, incarcerated for more than half of his life, was capable of building dozens of mechanisms in the blink of an eye and installing complex software. His ability to program complicated robots presented clues about his true abilities. A week before he left the facility, this child, so accustomed to school failure, sat down and typed a 12,000-word autobiography.
Tony’s adventure is also a tale worth telling. He had not been in school since the seventh grade and indicated that none of his peer group attended school past the age of twelve or thirteen. In the CLL he fell in love with robotics and photography at the age of seventeen.
During the spring of 2001, the MYC campus was populated with groundhog holes. To most kids these familiar signs of spring went unnoticed, but not for the “new” Tony.
Tony and his new assistant, “Craig,” spent the next few weeks building a series of what came to be known as “Gopher-cams.” This work captured the imagination of the entire Maine Youth Center. Tony and Craig learned a great deal about how simple unanticipated obstacles like a twig could derail days of planning and require new programming or engineering. These students engaged in a process of exploration not unlike the men who sailed the high seas or landed on the moon. While they never really found out what was down the hole, they learned many much more important lessons.
Robotics gives life to engineering, mathematics and computer science in a tactile form. It is a concrete manifestation of problem solving that rewards debugging, ingenuity and persistence. The LEGO robotic materials promote improvisational thinking, allowing even young children to build a machine, test a hypothesis, tinker, debug, and exceed their own expectations. As often experienced in programming, every incremental success leads to a larger question or the construction of a bigger theory. This dialogue with the machine amplifies and mediates a conversation with self.
Digital technology is a critical variable in the transformation of reluctant learners. Self-esteem, or even academic grades, might have been enhanced through traditional activities. However, the availability of computationally-rich construction materials afforded the learners the opportunity to experience the empowerment associated with the feeling of wonderful ideas. For the first time in their lives, these children experienced what it felt like to be engaged in intellectual work. This feeling required a personal sustained relationship with the computer and computationally-rich objects to think with such as LEGO and MicroWorlds. All students deserve the chance to make important contributions to the world of ideas, and must be given the means to do so.
State of the art?
Much needs to be done to ensure that all students enjoy the quality of experience offered by the best laptop schools, online environments and the CLL.
Somewhere along the line, the dreams of Kay, Papert and Loader were diluted by the inertia of school. Detours along the road to the Dynabook were paved by the emergence of the Internet and corporate interest in the laptop miracle.
Until the explosion of interest in the Internet and Web, individual laptops offered a relatively low-cost decentralized way to increase access to computers and rich learning opportunities. The Net, however, required these machines to be tethered to centralized servers and an educational bureaucracy pleased with its newfound control. Computing costs soared, data and children were either menaced or menaces. Jobs needed to be protected. The desires of the many often trumped the needs of the learner.
Microsoft generously offered to bring the laptop message to American schools, but their promotional videos pushed desks back into rows and teachers stood at the front of classrooms directing their students to use Excel to calculate the perimeter of a rectangle. Over emphasis on clerical “business” applications – were manifest in elaborate projects designed to justify (shoehorn) the use of Excel or Powerpoint in an unchanged curriculum. Many of these projects have the dubious distinction of being mechanically impressive while educationally pointless. Our gullible embrace of false complexity increases as the work is projected in a darkened classroom.
I’ve developed Murray’s Law to describe the way in which many schools assimilate powerful technology. “Every 18 months schools will purchase computers with twice the processing power of today, and do things twice as trivial with those computers.”
There is a fundamental difference between technology and computing, which can be seen in the words themselves. One is a noun, the other a verb, What we saw students do with technology at the CCL was active, engaged, compelling, sophisticated learning. They were computing, and similar experiences for all students can transform the experience of school.
What are you really saying?
I know that many of you must be thinking, “Does Gary really believe that everyone should be a programmer?” My answer is, “No, but every child should experience the opportunity to program a computer during her K-12 education.” Critics of my position will say things like, “Not every person needs to program or will even like it.” To these people I suggest that not every kid needs to learn to write haiku or sand a tie rack in woodshop. However, we require millions of children to do so because we believe it is either rewarding, of cultural value or offers a window onto potential forms of human expression.
Despite our high-tech society’s infinite dependence on programming and the impressive rewards for computing innovation, many people find the notion of programming repulsive. Everyone wants their child to earn Bill Gates’ money, but only if they never have to cut a line of code. Educators especially need to get past this hysteria rooted in fear and ignorance for the sake of the children in our care. (this sentence is optional if you feel it is inflammatory)
I do not understand why anyone would question the value of offering programming experiences to children.
It is unseemly for schools to determine that a tiny fraction of the student population is capable of using computers in an intellectually rich way. The “drill for the test” curriculum of the A.P. Computer Science course serves only a few of the most technically sophisticated students. That is elitism.
Children enjoy programming when engaged in a supportive environment. The study of other disciplines may be enhanced through the ability to concretize the formal. For example, complex mathematical concepts become understandable through playful manipulation, graphical expression of abstractions or the application of those concepts in service of a personal goal. It would be difficult to argue that mathematics education, at the very least, would not be enriched through programming.
Schools need to make a sufficient number of computers with powerful software available for the transparent use of every child across all disciplines. Schools also have an obligation to offer a more inclusive selection of courses designed for a more diverse student body interested in learning with and about computers. Courses in software design, digital communication, robotics, or computer science are but a few options. The Generation Y program, in which students lend their technological expertise to teachers who want to integrate technology into their lessons provides another outlet for authentic practice.
I wonder when the educational computing community decided to replace the word. computing, with technology? The Computing Teacher became Learning and Leading with Technology, Classroom Computer Learning begot Technology and Learning Magazine. Conference speakers began diminishing the power of the computer by lumping all sorts of objects into the catch-all of technology. Computers are in fact a technology, but they are now spoken of in the same breath as the blackboard, chalk, filmstrip projector or Waterpik. Computing was never to be mentioned again in polite company.
I recently read the conference program for a 1985 educational computing conference. The topics of discussion and sessions offered are virtually the same as at similar events today. The only difference is that all mentions of programming have disappeared from the marketplace of ideas.
It seems ironic that educators fond of reciting how kids know so much about computers act as if the computer was just invented. We should be unimpressed by breathless tales of children web surfing or using a word processor to write a school report. My standards are much higher. We will cheat a second generation of microcomputer-age students if we do not raise our game and acknowledge that so much more is possible.
If we concur that kids are at least comfortable with computers, if not fluent, then teachers have a responsibility to build on the fluency of computer-savvy kids. This is a classroom gift, like an early reader, a natural soprano or a six year-old dinosaur expert. It is incumbent on schools and their personnel to steer such students in more challenging and productive directions. Teachers have an obligation to respect the talents, experience and knowledge of students by creating authentic opportunities for growth.
If the youngest children can “play” doctor, lawyer, teacher or fireman, why can’t they imagine themselves as software designers? Open-ended software construction environments designed for children, like MicroWorlds, make it possible for children of all ages to view themselves as competent and creative producers of knowledge. Too few students know that such accomplishments are within reach. This failure results from a leadership, vision, and professional knowledge deficit.
While school computing fades from memory, keyboarding instruction inexplicably remains a K-12 staple from coast to coast. Computer assisted instruction, schemes designed to reduce reading to a high-stakes race and low-level technical skills dominate the use of computers in schools. In the hands of a clever curriculum committee, “uses scroll bars” can be part of a nine-year scope and sequence.
Examples of kids composing music, constructing robots, or designing their own simulations are too hard to find. More than a quarter century has passed since Mr. Jones taught me to program. Yet, children in that school are now compelled to complete a keyboarding class. There can be no rational justification for so blatant a dumbing-down of the curriculum.
Computing Changes Everything
There are so many ways in which children may use computers in authentic ways. Low-cost MIDI software and hardware offers even young children a vehicle for musical composition. The 1990 NCTM Standards indicated that fifty percent of mathematics has been invented since World War II. This mathematics is visual, experimental and rooted in computing. It may even engage kids in the beauty, function and magic of mathematics.
In Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril, author Timothy Ferris describes how amateur astronomers armed with telescopes, computers and Net connections are making substantive contributions to the field of astronomy. For the first time in history, children possess the necessary tools to be scientists and to engage in scientific communities.
MacArthur Genius Stephen Wolfram has written a revolutionary new 1,280 page book, A New Kind of Science. The book illustrates his theory that the universe and countless other disciplines may be reduced to a simple algorithm. Scientists agree that if just a few percent of Wolfram’s theories are true, much of what we thought we knew could be wrong and many other cosmic mysteries may be solved. Wolfram believes that a human being is no more intelligent than a cloud and both may be created with a simple computer program.
A New Kind of Science starts with very a big bang.
“Three centuries ago science was transformed by the dramatic new idea that rules based on mathematical equations could be used to describe the natural world. My purpose in this book is to initiate another such transformation, and to introduce a new kind of science that is based on the much more general types of rules that can be embodied in simple computer programs.”
You do not have to take Wolfram’s word for it. With the $65 A New Kind of Science Explorer software, you and your students can explore more than 450 of Wolfram’s experiments. The visual nature of cellular automata – the marriage of science, computer graphics and mathematics – allows children to play on the frontiers of scientific thought while trying to prove, disprove or extend the theories of one of the world’s greatest scientists. The intellectual habits required to “think with” this tool are rooted in computer programming.
I recently told Alan Kay that while I was hardly a mathematician, I knew what it felt like to have a mathematical idea. He generously replied, “Then you are a mathematician, you’re just not a professional.” The work of Seymour Papert shows us that through the explicit act of computing children can too be mathematicians and scientists.
“If you can use technology to make things you can make a lot more interesting things. And you can learn a lot more by making them. …We are entering a digital world where knowing about digital technology is as important as reading and writing. So learning about computers is essential for our students’ futures BUT the most important purpose is using them NOW to learn about everything else. “ (Papert 1999)
We can neutralize our critics and improve the lives of kids if we shift our focus towards using school computers for the purpose of constructing knowledge through the explicit act of making things – including: robots, music compositions, digital movies, streaming radio and simulations. Children engaged in thoughtful projects might impress citizens desperate for academic rigor. Examples of competent children computing bring many current educational practices into question. Emphasizing the use of computers to make things will make life easier for teachers, more exciting for learners and lead schools into what should be education’s golden age.
Why Should Schools Compute?
Computing offers an authentic context for doing & making mathematics
Traditional arithmetic and mathematical processes are provided with a genuine context for use. New forms of mathematics become accessible to learners.
Computing concretizes the abstract
Formal concepts like feedback, variables and causality become concrete through use.
Computing offers new avenues for creative expression
Computing makes forms of visual art and music composition possible for even young children while providing a canvas for the exploration of new art forms like animation. A limitless audience is now possible.
Computer science is a legitimate science
Computer science plays a revolutionary role in society and in every other science. It should be studied alongside biology, physics and chemistry.
Computing supports a plurality of learning styles
There are many ways to approach a problem and express a solution.
Computing offers preparation for a plethora of careers
There is a shortage of competent high-tech professionals in our economy
Computing grants agency to the user, not the computer
Rather than the computer programming the child, the child can control the computer.
Debugging offers ongoing opportunities to enhance problem-solving skills
Nothing works correctly the first time. The immediacy of concrete feedback makes debugging a skill that will serve learners for a lifetime.
Computing rewards habits of mind such as persistence, curiosity and perspective
Computers mediate a conversation with self in which constant feedback and incremental success propels learners to achieve beyond their expectations.
Cavallo, D. (1999) “Project Lighthouse in Thailand: Guiding Pathways to Powerful Learning.” In Logo Philosophy and Implementation. Montreal, Canada: LCSI.
Duckworth, E. (1996) The Having of Wonderful Ideas and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning. NY: Teachers College Press.
Ferris, T. (2002) Seeing in the Dark: How Backyard Stargazers Are Probing Deep Space and Guarding Earth from Interplanetary Peril. NY: Simon and Schuster.
Harel, I., and Papert, S., eds. (1991) Constructionism. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.
Kafai, Y., and Resnick, M., eds. (1996) Constructionism in Practice: Designing, Thinking, and Learning in a Digital World. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Levy, S. (2002) The Man Who Cracked the Code to Everything.Wired Magazine. Volume 10, Issue 6. June 2002.
Papert, S. (1980) Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. New York: Basic Books.
Papert, S. (1990) “A Critique of Technocentrism in Thinking About the School of the Future,” MIT Epistemology and Learning Memo No. 2. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory.
Papert, S. (1991) “Situating Constructionism.” In Constructionism, in Harel, I., and Papert, S., eds. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.
Papert, S. (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. New York: Basic Books.
Papert, S. (1996) The Connected Family. Atlanta: Longstreet Publishing.
Papert, S. (1999) “The Eight Big Ideas of the Constructionist Learning Laboratory.” Unpublished internal document. South Portland, Maine.
Papert, S. (1999) “What is Logo? Who Needs it?” In Logo Philosophy and Implementation. Montreal, Canada: LCSI.
Papert, S. (2000) “What’s the Big Idea? Steps toward a pedagogy of idea power.” IBM Systems Journal, Vol. 39, Nos 3&4, 2000.
Resnick, M., and Ocko, S. (1991) “LEGO/Logo: Learning Through and About Design.” In Constructionism, in Harel, I., and Papert, S., eds. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.
Stager, G. (2000) “Dream Bigger” in Little, J. and Dixon, B. (eds.) Transforming Learning: An Anthology of Miracles in Technology-Rich Classrooms. Melbourne, Australia: Kids Technology Foundation.
Stager, G. (2001) “Computationally-Rich Constructionism and At-Risk Learners.” Presented at the World Conference on Computers in Education. Copenhagen.
Stager, G. (2002) “Papertian Constructionism and At-Risk Learners.” Presented at the National Educational Computing Conference. San Antonio.
“The Dynabook Revisted” from the website, The Book and the Computer: exploring the future of the printed word in the digital age. (n.d.) Retrieved January 20, 2003 from http://www.honco.net/os/kay.html
Thornburg, D. (1984) Exploring Logo Without a Computer. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.
Thornburg, D. (1986) Beyond Turtle Graphics: Further Explorations of Logo. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.
Turkle, S. (1991) “Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete.” In Constructionism. Idit Harel and Seymour Papert (eds.), Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.
Wolfram, S. (2002) A New Kind of Science. Champaign, IL: Wolfram Media, Inc.
“The Dynabook Revisted” from the website, The Book and the Computer: exploring the future of the printed word in the digital age. (n.d.) Retrieved January 20, 2003 from http://www.honco.net/os/kay.html.
The following new strategy for 1:1 implementation in schools has been based on careful observation of emerging standards and implementation patterns across the globe.
Buy a lot of “devices” containing a rechargeable battery or allow students to bring a random assortment of “devices” to school
Announce that your school, district, state, or nation has “gone 1:1″
Step 3 – Step 1,000,000:
Repeat Step 2 over and over again
“Young people have a remarkable capacity for intensity….”
Those words, uttered by one of America’s leading public intellectuals, Dr. Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, has driven my work for the past six or seven years. It is incumbent on every educator, parent, and citizen to build upon each kid’s capacity for intensity otherwise it manifests itself as boredom, misbehavior, ennui, or perhaps worst of all, wasted potential.
Schools need to raise the intensity level of their classrooms!
However, intensity is NOT the same as chaos. Schools don’t need any help with chaos. That they’ve cornered the market on.
Anyone who has seen me speak is familiar with this photograph (above). It was taken around 1992 or 1993 at Glamorgan (now Toorak) the primary school campus of Geolong Grammar school in Melbourne, Australia. The kids were using their laptops to program in LogoWriter, a predecessor to MicroWorlds or Scratch.
I love this photo because in the time that elapsed between hitting the space bar and awaiting the result to appear on the screen, every ounce of the kid’s being was mobilized in anticipation of the result. He was literally shaking,
Moments after that image was captured, something occurred that has been repeated innumerable times ever since. Almost without exception, when a kid I’m teaching demonstrates a magnificent fireball of intensity, a teacher takes me aside to whisper some variation of, “that kid isn’t really good at school.”
No kidding? Could that possibly be due to an intensity mismatch between the eager clever child and her classroom?
I enjoy the great privilege of working in classrooms PK-12 all over the world on a regular basis. This allows me observe patterns, identify trends, and form hypotheses like the one about a mismatch in intensity. The purpose of my work in classrooms is to model for teachers what’s possible. When they see through the eyes, hands, and sometimes screens of their students, they may gain fresh perspectives on how things need not be as they seem.
Over four days last month, I taught more than 500 kids I never met before to program in Turtle Art and MicroWorlds EX. I enter each classroom conveying a message of, “I’m Gary. We’ve got stuff to do.” I greet each kid with an open heart and belief in their competence, unencumbered by their cumulative file, IEP, social status, or popularity. In every single instance, kids became lost in their work often for several times longer than a standard class period, without direct instruction, or a single disciplinary incident. No shushing, yelling, time-outs, threats, rewards, or other behavioral management are needed. I have long maintained that classroom management techniques are only necessary if you feel compelled to manage a classroom.
In nearly every class I work with – anywhere, teachers take me aside to remark about how at least one kid shone brilliantly despite being a difficult or at-risk student. This no longer surprises me.
In one particular class, a kid quickly caught my eye due to his enthusiasm for programming. The kid took my two minute introduction to the programming language and set himself a challenge instantly. I then suggested a more complex variation. He followed with another idea before commandeering the computer on the teacher’s desk and connected to the projector in order to give an impromptu tutorial for classmates struggling with an elusive concept he observed while working on his own project. He was a fine teacher.
Then the fifth grader sat back down at his desk to continue his work. A colleague suggested that he write a program to draw concentric circles. A nifty bit of geometric and algebraic thinking followed. When I kicked things up a notch by writing my own even more complex program on the projected computer and named it, “Gary Defeats Derrick.” The kid laughed and read my program in an attempt to understand my use of global variables, conditionals, and iteration. Later in the day, the same kid chased me down the hall to tell me about what he had discovered since I left his classroom that morning.
Oh yeah, I later learned that the very same terrific kid is being drummed out of school for not being their type of student.
I learned long ago. If a school does not have bad children, it will make them.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend, colleague, and mentor Dr. Seymour Papert a lot lately. Our new book, “Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” is dedicated to him and we tried our best to give him the credit he deserves for predicting, inventing, or laying the foundation for much of what we now celebrate as “the maker movement.” The popularity of the book and my non-stop travel schedule to bring the ideas of constructionism to classrooms all over the world is testament to Seymour’s vision and evidence that it took much of the world decades to catch up.
Jazz and Logo are two of my favorite things in life. They both make me feel bigger than myself and nurture me. Jazz and Logo provide epistemological lenses through which I view the world and appreciate the highest potential of mankind. Like jazz, Logo has been pronounced dead since its inception, but I KNOW how good it is for kids. I KNOW how it makes them feel intelligent and creative. I KNOW that Logo-like activities hold the potential to change the course of schooling. That’s why I have been teaching it to children and their teachers in one form or another for almost 32 years.
I’ve been teaching a lot of Logo lately, particularly a relatively new version called Turtle Art. Turtle Art is a real throwback to the days of one turtle focused on turtle geometry, but the interface has been simplified to allow block-based programming and the images resulting from mathematical ideas can be quite beautiful works of art. (you can see some examples in the image gallery at Turtleart.org)
Turtle Art was created by Brian Silverman, Artemis Papert (Seymour’s daughter) and their friend Paula Bonta. Turtle Art itself is a work of art that allows learners of all ages to begin programming, creating, solving problems, and engaging in hard fun within seconds of seeing it for the first time. Since an MIT undergraduate in the late 1970s, Brian Silverman has made Papert’s ideas live in products that often exceeded Papert’s expectations.
There aren’t many software environments or activities of any sort that engage 3rd graders, 6th graders, 10th graders and adults equally as Turtle Art. I wrote another blog post a year or so ago about how I wish I had video of the first time I introduced Turtle Art to a class of 3rd graders. Their “math class” looked like a rugby scrum, there was moving, and wiggling, and pointing, and sharing and hugging and high-fiving everywhere while the kids were BEING mathematicians.
Yesterday, I taught a sixth grade class in Mumbai to use Turtle Art for the first time. They worked for 90-minutes straight. Any casual observer could see the kids wriggle their bodies to determine the right orientation of the turtle, assist their peers, show-off their creations, and occasionally shriek with delight in a reflexive fashion when the result of their program surprised them or confirmed their hypothesis. As usual, a wide range of mathematical ability and learning styles were on display. Some kids get lost in one idea and tune out the entire world. This behavior is not just reserved to the loner or A student. It is often the kid you least expect.
Yesterday, while the rest of the class was creating and then modifying elaborate Turtle Art programs I provided, one sixth grader went “off the grid” to program the turtle to draw a house. The house has a long and checkered past in Logo history. In the early days of Turtle Graphics, lots of kids put triangles on top of squares to draw a house. Papert used the example in his seminal book, “Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas,” and was then horrified to discover that “making houses” had become de-facto curriculum in classrooms the world over. From then on, Papert refrained from sharing screen shots to avoid others concluding that they were scripture.
It sure was nice to see a kid make a house spontaneously, just like two generations of kids have done with the turtle. It reminded me of what the great jazz saxophonist and composer Jimmy Heath said at Constructing Modern Knowledge last summer, “What was good IS good.”
Love is all you need
This morning, I taught sixty 10th graders for three hours. We spend the first 75 minutes or so programming in Turtle Art. Like the 6th graders, the 10th graders had never seen Turtle Art before. After Turtle Art, the kids could choose between experimenting with MaKey MaKeys, wearable computing, or Arduino programming. Seymour would have been delighted by the hard fun and engineering on display. I was trying to cram as many different experiences into a short period of time as possible so that the school’s teachers would have options to consider long after I leave.
After we divided into three work areas, something happened that Papert would have LOVED. He would have given speeches about this experience, written papers about it and chatted enthusiastically about it for months. Ninety minutes or so after everyone else had moved on to work with other materials, one young lady sat quietly by herself and continued programming in Turtle Art. She created many subprocedures in order to generate the image below.
Papert loved love and would have loved this expression of love created by “his turtle.” (Papert also loved wordplay and using terms like, “learning learning.” I’m sure he would be pleased with how many times I managed to use love in one sentence.) His life’s work was towards the creation of a Mathland where one could fall in love with mathematical thinking and become fluent in the same way a child born in France becomes fluent in French. Papert spoke often of creating a mathematics that children can love rather than wasting our energy teaching a math they hate. Papert was fond of saying, “Love is a better master than duty,” and delighted in having once submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation with that title (it was rejected).
The fifteen or sixteen year old girl programming in Turtle Art for the first time could not possibly have been more intimately involved in the creation of her mathematical artifact. Her head, heart, body and soul were connected to her project.
The experience resonated with her and will stay with me forever. I sure wish my friend Seymour could have seen it.
Turtle Art is free for friends who ask for a copy, but is not open source. It’s educational efficacy is the result of a singular design vision unencumbered by a community adding features to the environment. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to request a copy for Mac, Windows or Linux.
I suppose that school IT departments are a necessary evil, but that does not change the fact that 999 out of 1,000 of them are just evil.
Too many school leaders are so terrified of anything that plugs in that they surrender unprecedented budgetary authority and power to folks unworthy of such responsibility. Rather than provide support for the professional educators and children one would think they are there to serve, far too many school IT personnel add unnecessary complication and obstacles to the mission of a school. In way too many schools, teachers report to IT staff who put in place cumbersome policies that conflict with educational priorities and make computers too unreliable to have a significant impact on teaching or learning.
In 1990, I led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools. Over the next several years, I helped countless schools “go 1:1.” Until around 1995-96, most schools with 1,000 laptops employed one nice lady you went to when your computer broke. She patted you on the head, wiped your tears and called the vendor to repair the machine. In the mid-90s, everything changed. The World Wide Web decentralized computing by tying computers back together via networks, schools spent a king’s ransom worrying about nonsense like backing up kids’ data, securing the 7th grade computer lab against the Soviets, and installing draconian filtering systems that with each passing year made the Web less reliable or useful to students. Administrative ignorance of computers now had a new friend, paralyzing fear of what kids might find online. Now schools suddenly required an army of IT gatekeepers who if incompetent enough could convince their schools to hire all of their friends.
In the K-6 school where I work regularly, we managed approximately 60 laptops last year with no security, networked storage or IT personnel. I wrote the number of each laptop on its underside with a Sharpie and kids knew that if they wanted to continue working on yesterday’s file, they should go back to the same laptop they were using. Everything worked just swell. There were no maintenance issues and computers behaved as one would expect, not the figment of a computer kids have come to expect after the IT Department is done “fixing them.” Schools routinely buy a $1,000 computer and quickly turn it into a $200 “device.” I know we constantly have to defend computers for students, but does anyone EVER question the ROI for school IT personnel?
The scenario I just described often leads me to wonder if schools really possess the maturity to have computers. We’re not preparing kids for the future if the computers they’re forced to use don’t function normally or if we confiscate a kid’s machine after they make it operational (see LAUSD iPad clown show). It’s no wonder we can’t have nice things.
Today, I saw the promised land.
I’m in Mumbai working at the American School of Bombay for a week. This is my third trip here since 2004 when I was hired by the school board to perform an audit of their computer use. This morning, I taught 60 tenth graders for three hours. We began by having all of the students spend an hour or so programming in Turtle Art and then set up three areas where kids could choose to work on MaKey MaKey projects, Arduino engineering, or wearable computing/soft-circuits.
Great stuff happened, not just because I’m a badass who can teach 60 kids I’ve never met before to program, build robots and make wearable computers, but because the school’s IT Department was there to help! Let me say that again real slowly… “The ———— IT ———- Department ——— Was —— There —— To —— Help!” Mull that over a few times.
When I arrived, the materials I requested were waiting for me. When kids hadn’t bothered to download and install the software last night, the team helped me get software onto individual laptops. When we needed Arduino manuals, the team downloaded and printed ten copies. When we were missing an item, it arrived minutes later without an interruption in the instructional program. When kids needed help, the team pitched-in and they did so with a smile on their face and pride in a job well done. They love what the kids are able to do with the materials they support. (I should also mention the terrific science and math teachers who demonstrated genuine interest and delight in the work of their students.)
The leader of the IT Team received a second-hand note from me saying that I needed some sort of bucket-shaped item for use in one of the MaKey MaKey projects I hoped to interest kids in. He went to KFC last evening and scored a half-dozen chicken buckets for our use – EXACTLY what I needed, but didn’t know where to source in India.
I see kids go to the Help Desk and (wait for it) receive help. Yup. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Every kid who has approached the Help Desk has left happy. Every time I go to the Apple Store “Genius” Bar, I want to take hostages.
The school IT Team here at ASB is fantastic, but there is obviously a culture in place that expects and supports such greatness. There must be great clarity in their customer service mission. I am honored to work with them.
PS: The network works perfectly and as a guest I have complete access to Facebook and Twitter – booyah!
* ASB is a BYOD school, but the device is a laptop of a minimum standard. This adds complexity to keeping every user up and running, but again, no problem at all.