Don’t give up on schools, there is still much to be done
By Gary Stager
Dear Mr. Gates:
I write with great admiration and appreciation of your remarkable philanthropic efforts on behalf of health, poverty and education. Changing the world is a spectacular goal. Congratulations on your plans to dedicate more of your time to charity and on Warren Buffett’s enormous contribution to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s efforts.
I know nothing about infectious diseases, vaccines or sustainable agriculture. I defer to you and other experts on those topics. A recent Business Week cover story, Bill Gates Gets Schooled, was eye opening. That article reports the mixed success of your foundation’s efforts in public school reform and your candid admission of disappointing results. It must be depressing to spend a billion dollars on school reform and all you got was a lousy t-shirt. I humbly share the following recommendations to help guide your future initiatives.
Decide what you believe
You and all your advisors should read Seymour Sarason’s book, What Do YOU Mean by Learning? Sarason makes what should be an obvious observation that discussions of learning, teaching and school reform often fail to discuss what the stakeholders mean by learning. Without such a serious ongoing discussion, failure is predictable.
With all due respect, the Gates Foundation needs to decide what it means by learning and stop funding competing organizations. Investing in the Met Schools (see “Radical Reformer,” November 2005, page 46) and Achieve, Inc., simultaneously is like funding both sides of a war.
Apparently it is rocket science
The Business Week article tells the story of a Denver High School that received Gates Foundation funds. The school was broken up into four smaller schools in an attempt to make schooling more personal and have fewer students fall through the cracks. However, the school’s award-winning choir, a perennial source of pride and excellence, crumbled when students were dispersed to four different schools within the building. Surely, some smart adult could have figured out a plan to move children from one corner of a school to another for choir practice?
Schools are complex organisms full of unintended consequences
A recent Los Angeles Times article chronicled how the noble goal of breaking large high schools into small, more personal, learning communities does foster school pride. However, it also may cause those communities to become tribes hostile to one another and result in limited elective options for students.
The impossible is easy, the easy is often impossible
This is my axiom to explain the chaotic nature of schools. It may indeed be easier to build a residential campus in Paris for New York City ninth graders than to hire a French teacher for their neighborhood school.
When seeking clarity, ask yourself a simple question: “Would I proudly send my child to this school?”
Drop the business metaphors
Stop talking about schools as businesses and using terms like efficiency, productivity, supply chain and measurable outcomes. Such metaphors are weak and create needless tension among your “partners” in education.
Drop the school metaphors
The clich?s used by educators to describe their practices and objectives can prove just as stifling and counterproductive as business metaphors. Reflexive mantras like “Sage on the stage” and “You must invest in professional development” fail to acknowledge the complexities of education and provide alibis for failure.
Stop talking about results
Such short-term language may be appropriate for quarterly profit statements, but not education. Learning is messy, individual and natural. Schools do not manufacture widgets, but create an environment in which children and teachers may grow.
If you do wish to focus on results, be honest about what works. Education is notorious for having ideology trump evidence. Your talk of “more rigorous curriculum” and scores directly contradicts research funded by your foundation. The Met/Big Picture schools are wildly successful despite the complete absence of any traditional notion of curriculum. If you want results, build a lot more schools like the Met and let go of the fantasy of one-size-fits-all magical curricula.
You need to meddle
If you pay the bills, then you have a right and responsibility to run the school. A hands-off approach to schools you fund creates confusion among the stakeholders. Your support, insight, expertise and clear expectations must be apparent and consistent.
Work with the living and do no harm
You have acknowledged that it is easier and more effective to build new schools than fix some existing ones. Keep creating great schools where children can flourish and building models others can follow.
Solve the college readiness problem
If you find that preparing poor, urban, rural and minority students for college is too difficult, then build some colleges with open enrollment in those communities to offer opportunities students would otherwise be deprived of.
Admit that math education is a disaster
Almost nothing done in the past 50 years has helped students be more numerate. Work with Seymour Papert to invent a mathematics curricula that students could love, rather than coming up with tricks to help a few more memorize algorithms irrelevant to their lives and the complex world in which they learn. Computers have a clear role to play in learning about such sciences of complexity.
Show some courage
You are the richest man in the world. That’s like having tenure. You may work without fear! You and Oprah spent two hours on television alerting the public that too many schools are failing too many children. However, you seem reluctant to discuss the underlying causes of poverty, inequitable funding formulas and the resegregation of our nation’s public schools. The Gates-funded Manual Arts High School in Denver that has now closed was destroyed by the resegregation of the school. Civil rights are critical for students and you need to lend your voice to that struggle.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings likes to say, “Schools are the same as they were 25 years ago.” That is demonstrably false. I graduated high school 25 years ago and enjoyed a full-range of electives, three music classes per day, great bands, fabulous plays, no AP courses, little tracking and teachers did not soil themselves over the need to raise scores on deeply flawed standardized tests. The climate of fear, name-calling and punishment paralyzing schools today is a recent phenomena produced by those professing to help.
We will have achieved success when all schools are demonstrably great places where children prefer to be and authentic learning exceeds our expectations. I wish you well in your quest to create such a reality.
Gary Stager on International Ed Comparisons
John Dewey is Ours!
By Gary Stager
Put on your dunce caps! It’s international education comparison season again. I know. I know… Eritrea is kicking our butt in long division. If we don’t get tough quickly, all of our best fast-food jobs will be outsourced overseas.
During this somber season of atonement, assorted windbags take to the airwaves to decry the callous incompetence of American teachers and to label our students as fat, lazy and stupid. We learn that country X focuses on the basics; country Y spends more time on fewer topics; while country Z has a longer school year. Don’t you just love how after careful review of the data, the prescription for American public schools is always more testing, increased sanctions, louder name-calling and longer seat-time?
We know that simplistic proclamations about superior schools far away are incomplete at best, yet we continue to wring our hands about our inferiority. Japan is one of the favorite pedagogical bogeymen, but on a trip to Tokyo I witnessed four people employed to complete every retail transaction and two women required to operate an automatic elevator. I suspect that the four people making change at every department store checkout counter or the two women piloting one elevator did not succeed in calculus class. Like in Houston, students who might lower the average must just disappear.
While others can challenge their validity, the greatest risk posed by the international education comparisons is the underlying assumption that learning is (or should be) uniform. This premise is absurd and destructive for every state engaged in the standardized arms race. No human endeavor can or should be standardized. This is especially true across different cultures with dissimilar needs, goals, motivations, resources and belief systems.
The Stager Perspective
My work in public and private schools across a dozen or so countries entitles me to proclaim myself a scholar on global educational comparisons. My experience and humble analysis leads me to the following conclusion. Schools stink everywhere!
As long as citizens around the world strive to embrace the following myths and practices schools will continue to lose relevance and offer fewer benefits to children.
Artificial curricular hierarchy
The notion that a committee of bureaucrats can prescribe a specific sequence of curricular topics and skills for all learners defies everything we know about learning theory and will always lag behind societal shifts.
Assuming knowledge is static
Just as every learner is different, the nature of knowledge is fluid. Educational success is not measured by recitation and recall.
Testing is not teaching and teaching is not learning
Until we abandon the obsession with quantifying knowledge without even engaging a discussion of, “what we mean by learning,” schools will continue to treat children as rounding errors.
Rows of uncomfortable desks nailed to the floor, bells, grades, age segregation, decontextualized content, sorting by similar levels of incompetence and zero-tolerance policies must give way to more flexible learning environments.
Communication is weak
Parents, still largely unwelcome educational partners, find it increasingly difficult to receive timely answers to simple questions despite enormous investments in data aggregation and school-to-home accountability systems.
It doesn’t ultimately matter if you agree with my hypothesis about the ill-health of schools and schooling. What you must celebrate is that the American ideal is for every child to enjoy a free and excellent K-12 education, followed by unparalleled opportunities for higher education. While our practice does not always measure up to our rhetoric, our democratic ideals are noble and our schools have served many children well. Rather than waste our energy worrying about global competition we should rededicate ourselves to helping every child reach their potential as a well-rounded human with a thirst for knowledge and creative expression.
How much more abuse are public school educators willing to accept? Where is all of the nation-strangling reform-stopping teacher union power that demagogues rail against at election time?
When is enough enough? How can we expect you to stand between defenseless kids and the madness when you won’t even defend your paycheck, pride, or liberty? Deborah Meier is fond of saying, “Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions.”
America doesn’t need fewer unionized teachers it needs more. We don’t need weaker unions, we need to replace the Vichy leadership and get tough. We needsmore strikes too. How many kids have to die in Philadelphia schools before teachers walk out?
- You want to steal my pension? Shut the sucka down.
- You want to deny me due process rights? I hope you know how to work the ditto machine
- You want to slash the school budget to a dangerous level? The kids and I will be in the street.
- You want me to spend several months each year proctoring standardized tests? I’ll be in my car.
- Want to replace teachers with YouTube videos? I’ll trip over the power cord.
I know, most of you reading this are Americans. Ronald Reagan taught you that going out on strike makes Jesus weep and the evil doers win.
I”ve been working across Australia for decades and have gained a different perspective on teachers and protest. When a state minister of education said something that offended teachers, they shut the system down.
I know. I know. Strikes are “not allowed.” Standing up for what’s right wipe away our patina of martyrdom, However, a wise Aussie colleague of mine said that withholding one’s labor is a fundamental human and civil right. Otherwise, we are just slaves.
A Not-So-Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future
© 2004 Gary S. Stager
Published by the NECC Daily Leader conference newspaper on June 22, 2004
The computer is not just an advanced calculator or camera or paintbrush; rather, it is a device that accelerates and extends our processes of thought. It is an imagination machine, which starts with the ideas we put into it and takes them farther than we ever could have taken them on our own.” (Daniel Hillis, 1998)
This is an incredibly dark period for education. Perennial challenges are now accompanied by name-calling and public policy based on “getting tough” with third graders. Perhaps decision-makers just don’t know what learning in the digital age could look like. They need to see how kids not only learn old things in new ways, but construct personal understanding of powerful ideas in a rigorous computationally-rich fashion. Computers are today’s dominant intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression.
Computers offer kids the means of production for learning via previously off-limit domains, including: music composition, filmmaking, robotics, computer science, journalism and engineering.
If only there were a place where compelling models of new educational practice could be shared… Welcome to NECC!
A few years ago, educators ceased talking about computing and started talking about technology. Suddenly computing, this remarkable invention of 20th century ingenuity, capable of transforming every intellectual domain, was dead without so much as an obituary. Conference speakers soon spoke of computers being just technology – like a zipper or Pez dispenser. This rhetorical shift liberated educators from learning to use computers, rethink the nature of curriculum or change practice to embrace the expansive opportunities afforded by computing. Information became the focus, not what kids do with computers.
In the mid-1970s my junior high required every 7th grader to learn to program a computer in nine weeks. The feelings of intellectual elation I experienced programming are indescribable. I didn’t know what was impossible so everything was possible. The computer amplified my thinking and the habits of mind I developed in Mr. Jones’ class serve me every day.
Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak enjoyed similar experiences. Imagine how the world would be different if some smart adults had not procured a mainframe and some terminals and said to Gates and Wozniak, “See what you can figure out. Have fun. Lock up when you’re done.”
How do your children’s school computing experiences compare? Do all students have access to creative tools anytime anyplace? Does the school culture inspire a thirst for knowledge and support authentic project-based work?
We’ve lowered standards when twelve year-olds in my junior high are NOW being taught to find the return key in a mandatory keyboarding class. Someday they may be “taught” to surf a filtered locked-down crippled Web incapable of downloading, rich media or collaboration all in the name of preparing them for the future. Some future.
Adults talk of how kids know so much about computers, how they are so competent, confident and fluent. Then those kids come to school and are treated like imbeciles or felons. Kid power is a gift to educators. We need to build upon those gifts and channel their students in directions they might not know exist. If kids came to school readers, we wouldn’t grunt phonemes at them. We would read better literature.
When many of us first attended NECC, we viewed the personal computer as not only a window on the future, but a microscope on the past. We knew how all sorts of learners exceed our wildest expectations when equipped with computers and constructionist software. Personal experience illuminated how the existing pencil-based curriculum was failing kids. Optimism filled the air.
Look around and you might conclude that the state-of-the-art includes: classrooms as game shows; data mining to justify standardized testing; reading as a winner-take-all race; and hysterical network security. “Technology” is being touted as a way to centralize control and breathe life into the least effective teaching practices of yore.
Widespread consensus is hard to achieve, especially on complex matters like education. Nonetheless, the educational computing community seems to have decided that our children should look forward to a future filled with testing and Microsoft Office instruction. Tests about Microsoft Office could achieve two national goals.
NECC attendees are pioneers entrusted with helping schools realize the potential of the imagination machine and as Gladwell suggests serve as the 10th Fleet in revolutionizing the context for learning. Go home and share the fabulous ideas you collect here in the Big Easy, but remember that the kids you serve expect big things from you and it won’t be easy.
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.
Digital Leadership and boondoggles like “Digital Learning Day” are just meaningless word salad. If you were to define it, I’d likely weep at the reality of our shocking low expectations.
While we’re at it, I don’t think “educational leadership” is much of an academic discipline either.
In the absence of a clear and publicly articulated vision for a school or district and a misguided quest for the holy grail of balance, the weeds will always kill the flowers. If you are a school leader with a coherent vision for educational progress, you must articulate your vision clearly and publicly so people will follow. Why make others guess what you want and stand for?
Affluent schools often suffer from this syndrome because they can afford to buy lots of stuff. However, you can’t embrace whole language and Hooked-on-Phonics, the ISTE Standards and the Maker Movement, or the Common Core and student agency. The weeds will kill the flowers!
Bad ideas in education are timeless. Good ones are incredibly fragile.
Any good school leader knows that they can’t keep piling new mandates on teachers and kids. Yet, few school leaders and policy makers seemingly refuse to lighten the load. Editing is critical. Less is more.
However, there is an even more pressing failure of literacy than never getting around to taking out the curricular trash. While school principals continue to ask more and more of teachers, it is the rare school leader with the courage to tell a teacher to STOP doing something.
Allow me to describe a quite common scenario. A school community decides to invest in a more progressive, creative, or learner-centered mathematics. Curriculum kits are purchased (even the ancillary materials) and professional development juice is sprinkled on the staff.
Later that school year one cannot notice the presence of arithmetic worksheets being used during class and for homework. The worksheets were not part of the “Big Box ‘o Fun” that came with the school’s math curriculum. The teacher purchased them behind the local laundromat or downloaded them off the Web.
You ask “Why are you using all of these awful math worksheets when our school has embraced a different vision of mathematics education?” Teachers almost always answer in the same way. “I’m supplementing the curriculum.” Implied is a concern that there will be life-altering gaps in a child’s eleven times table.
Ask the same teacher if she uses the manipulatives, games, or projects that came with the textbook and she’ll reply, “Nah. No time.” There’s always time for Frank Schaffer!”
I have worked in hundreds of schools over my career and I have yet to meet a principal who will go into a classroom and say, “Stop using those worksheets.” You purchased a curriculum because you didn’t believe teachers were clever enough to know what or how to teach. Why allow them to go rogue and make decisions that do violence to children’s learning?
Leadership is not only about subtraction, but having the integrity to tell a teacher to stop doing something.
It seems to me that “school reformer” is not a title one gets to bestow upon herself. Like genius and artist, “reformer,” is a title granted to you by experts familiar with your talent, expertise, knowledge, wisdom, or accomplishment.
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.
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