- As I often tell friends, if you’re not on track to be a principal by age 35, you are screwed. Education is at least as ageist a field as any other.
- Selective high schools are bad for democracy.
- What the hell is the “High School of Teaching, Liberal Arts and the Sciences?” They left out lunch and P.E. in the school’s name. Again, I remind you that children of privilege attend schools named for poets, Dead Presidents, and trees.
- Nothing trumps an educator of color super dedicated to test-prep.
- Of course the current Principal of the vulgar Stuyvesant is going to head a military boarding school. That’s what Stuyvesant creates.
- WOWEE!!!! A former teacher becomes a principal!!!! There must be a shortage of 7-11 night managers with Broad training.
- 4% of Stuyvesant students are children of color in NYC!
Progressive Education and The Maker Movement – Symbiosis or Mutually Assured Destruction
Published paper of keynote address at 2014 FabLearn Conference at Stanford University by
Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Constructing Modern Knowledge
21825 Barbara Street Torrance, CA 90503 USA
Keywords: Progressive education, education reform, mathematics education, constructionism, educational computing, maker movement
In this paper, the author shares three societal trends that validate and vindicate decades of leadership by constructionist educators. The growing acceptance of learning-by-making represented by the maker movement, a newfound advocacy for children learning computer programming, and even the global education crisis, real or imagined, are evidence of predictions and efforts made by constructionists being realized. The paper also asserts that the survival of progressive education and the maker movement are mutually dependent. This conference offers a brief opportunity for celebration before returning to the “hard fun” required to harness the momentum of these trends and improve the learning ecology.
Three societal trends afford members of the constructionism community with cause for optimism. While two of these trends are positive and one negative, their trajectory is towards a greater acceptance of constructionist learning by formal and informal communities of practice. Recognition of the symbiotic relationship between progressive education, its learning theory constructionism, and the long-term survival of what has come to be known as “the maker movement” is critical for the long-term survival of each. Progressive education and the maker movement are at a crossroads when both rely on the other for relevance and acceptance.
The general population has begun to recognize that knowledge is a consequence of experience and that technology can play a role in the construction of knowledge. This revelation is an act of constructionism in and of itself. Despite our decades of paper writing, conference attendance and teacher training, people unfamiliar with the term are constructing constructionism without being taught. Such “popular constructionism,” is manifest in explosive growth of the global maker movement and a revaluing of children learning to program. Such progress is accompanied by a backlash by the formal system of schooling, just as Seymour Papert predicted nearly a quarter century ago. (Papert, 1991)
THE MAKER MOVEMENT
At Constructionism 2012, there were concerns expressed about the maker movement that to be candid, smacked of elitism. While it may be true that the moms, dads, and teachers advocating for making may lack a scholarly vocabulary for expressing principles of constructionist learning, they are not hostile to that information. The popularity of Maker Faire, Hour of Code, Scratch, and books like, “Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” are proof of a desire to learn more about learning. It is also the case that academics in the constructionism community would benefit from learning what members of the maker movement know and can do. The elements of community organization and creative spirit of the maker movement are to be admired.
As we assert in our book, (Martinez & Stager, 2013) Papert is not only the “father” of constructionism, but of the maker movement as well. In “Computer as Material: Messing About with Time” (Papert & Franz, 1987) and earlier, “Computer as Mudpie,” (Papert, 1984) Papert described a new role for the computer as part of a continuum of construction materials, albeit one imbued with protean qualities. (Papert, 1980)
“If you can use technology to make things you can make a lot more interesting things. And you can learn a lot more by making them. This is especially true of digital technology.” (G. S. Stager, 2006)
Papert not only provided the basis for constructionism as a learning theory, but also played a pivotal role in predicting, inventing, and advocating for the constructive technology now being popularized by the maker movement. Long before his involvement in the development of programmable LEGO robotics kits or being an advocate for one-to-one computing, made the case for such innovations and even expressed the importance of hardware extensibility.
In 1970, Papert and Solomon described the sophisticated technological needs of young children engaged in making things with computers.
“The school computer should have a large number of output ports to allow the computer to switch lights on and off, start tape recorders, actuate slide projectors and start and stop all manner of little machines. There should also be input ports to allow signals to be sent to the computer.
In our image of a school computation laboratory, an important role is played by numerous “controller ports” which allow any student to plug any device into the computer… The laboratory will have a supply of motors, solenoids, relays, sense devices of various kids, etc. Using them, the students will be able to invent and build an endless variety of cybernetic systems.” (Papert & Solomon, 1971)
Neil Gershenfeld, one of the leaders of the personal fabrication movement who predicted much of the current maker movement, recounts how Papert viewed the inability of children to construct their own computers as a “thorn in our flesh.” (Gershenfeld, 2005) The availability of the $35 Raspberry Pi and its offspring the Beaglebone, Yun, Gallileo, and other low-cost Linux computers, all with an ability to interface with the world, removes that thorn. Each of these tiny computers are capable of running Scratch, Snap!, Python, and Turtle Art. They also feature a range of inputs and outputs for extensibility. Scavenging for peripherals to use with such a computer, customizing it, and programming it to solve personally important problems is consistent with both maker and constructionist ideals. The computer hardware industry and leaders in the educational computing world have spent decades deriding Papert’s claims that children should build, program, maintain, and repair their own computers, not merely to reduce costs, but as an expression of agency over an increasingly complex, technologically sophisticated world. Emerging technology, like the Raspberry Pi, is resonant with the maker ethos of “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it,” (Jalopy, Torrone, & Hill, 2005) and ideals expressed by Seymour Papert long ago.
Papert’s colleagues or former students created many of the favorite technologies of the maker movement, including Scratch, Makey Makey, the Lilypad, and LEGO robotics. The FabLab and FabLab@School efforts to spread learning through digital fabrication also acknowledge Papert’s inspiration.
Modern making is a brew of new technologies, computation, and timeless craft traditions. The artificial boundaries between disciplines blur and enrich each other.
“So, too, the mega-change in education that will undoubtedly come in the next few decades will not be a “reform” in the sense of a deliberate attempt to impose a new designed structure. My confidence in making this statement is based on two factors: (1) forces are at work that put the old structure in increasing dissonance with the society of which it is ultimately a part, and (2) ideas and technologies needed to build new structures are becoming increasingly available.” (Papert, 2000b)
Attend a Maker Faire and you will marvel at the ingenuity, creativity, passion for learning, and desire to share knowledge on display. Maker Faire provides a venue for collaboration, showing-off, and sharing personal inventions. The creation of shareable artifacts is a basic tenet of constructionism. (Ackermann, 2001) Maker Faires, Make Magazine, and web sites like instructables.com provide unprecedented venues for sharing technological project ideas and products.
Look in any direction at a Maker Faire and you will discover children and adults learning and creating together “samba school style.” (Papert, 1980) Kids like Super-Awesome Sylvia, Joey Hudy, Quin Etnyre, Caine Monroy, and Schuyler St. Leger embody Papert’s belief in “kid power.” (Generation_WHY, 1998; Papert, 1998) These, and other children, are beloved heroes, legends, and leaders of the maker movement, not because they are cute, but due to their demonstrable talent, knowledge, and expertise. Like in a samba school, these young experts value their interaction with elders because they share a common goal of continuous growth.
There were one hundred officially sanctioned Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires around the world in 2013. These events attracted over 530,000 participants. Attendance increased 64% since 2012 and 335% since 2011. “Maker Faire organizers are influencing local education initiatives, encouraging hands-on learning in Science, Technology, Math, Science (STEM) and Art (STEAM) curricula.” 27% of Maker Faire organizers in 2013 were museums and many Maker Faire organizers are creating or expanding community-based makerspace-type facilities where the community may learn together outside of a school setting. (Merlo, 2014)
Those explosive numbers only tell part of the story of the explosive growth in making and its influence on winning hearts and minds for constructionism. Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires are official events sanctioned by Maker Media resulting from a formal application process. Countless other events led by local hackerspaces, clubs, scout troops, plus school-based maker days and Invent to Learn workshops are doing an impressive job of laying the groundwork for a rise in the appeal of constructionism.
Parents in highly competitive independent schools are becoming champions of constructionism based on the benefits of making they witnessed in their own children. Such parental enthusiasm gives lie to the notion that parents want joyless schools focusing on increasing test scores and provide much needed support for educators sympathetic to constructionism, but beaten down by the status quo. After parents at The American School of Bombay participated in a half-day “Invent To Learn” workshop with their children, they began demanding that classroom practice change to incorporate more making.
The maker movement and its accompanying “constructible” technology has resuscitated constructionism in a New York City public school started by Carol Sperry and Seymour Papert in the early 1980s. (Papert & Franz, 1987) Without Tracy Rudzitis’ impromptu lunchtime “Maker Space,” where the folding tables and freedom transform the learning experience for middle school students, computing would be dead at “The Computer School.” (G. Stager, 2014) In countless settings, the “neat phenomena” associated with popular maker technologies, such as 3D printing, Arduino, Makey Makey, squishy circuits, wearable computing, and conductive paint have caused schools to revive school art and music programs, otherwise sacrificed on the altar of budget cuts, tougher standards, or global competitiveness.
The publication of the Next Generation Science Standards, authored by the National Academy of Sciences, (Quinn, Schweingruber, & Keller, 2012) includes specific demands for computer science, engineering, tinkering, and hands-on scientific inquiry to be part of the diet of every American. These standards, written by actual scientists, add gravitas to what some might deride as the playful act of making.
“I think the technology serves as a Trojan horse all right, but in the real story of the Trojan horse, it wasn’t the horse that was effective, it was the soldiers inside the horse. And the technology is only gong to be effective in changing education if you put an army inside it which is determined to make that change once it gets through the barrier.” (Papert, 1999)
BILLIONAIRES DISCOVER CODING
Since Constructionism 2012, Silicon Valley executives, pop-stars, basketball players, politicians, government ministers, and the President of the United States have called for children to learn to code. (note: apparently computer programming is now called, “coding.”)
If you view programming as an intellectually rewarding activity, then it is surely good news that countless millions of dollars are being spent on initiatives like Code.org, Code Academy, and the creation of computer science instruction via Khan Academy.
Mark Guzdial identifies three reasons for learning to program:
- That’s where the future jobs are, in the mix of computing with other disciplines.
- The second reason is that a liberal education is about understanding one’s world, and computing is a huge part of today’s world. We ask students to take laboratory sciences (like biology, chemistry, and physics) in order to better understand their world and to learn the scientific method for learning more about their world. The virtual world is an enormous part of the daily lives of today’s professionals. Understanding computing is at least as important to today’s students as understanding photosynthesis.
- If you understand something well, you should be able to define its process well enough for a machine to execute it. If you can’t, or the execution doesn’t match the observed behavior, we have a new kind of feedback on our theories.
Regrettably, the impetus behind the current desire for “kids to code” seems more rooted in economic insecurity and foreign job killers than recognition that programming is a good way to understand formal systems, make sense of the world or answer Papert’s timeless question, “Does the child program the computer or the computer program the child?”
The pedagogical approach preferred by the coding proponents appears to be, “kids will go on the Web and figure it out.” In that case, the same paltry percentage of kids is likely to develop programming fluency now than before great wealth and media attention was dedicated to the cause.
Although well intentioned and surely better than another generation of children doing little more with a computer than preparing an occasional PowerPoint presentation on a topic they don’t care about for an audience they will never meet, the advocates of coding seem wholly ignorant that many teachers used to teach children to program during the 1980s. Many of these educators taught Logo and the Logo community developed a great deal of wisdom regarding how, what, why, and when to teach children to program. Dozens of books were written and hundreds of thousands of copies were sold. We danced recursion and acted out procedureality. Now, that knowledge base is largely ignored in favor of catchy slogans and YouTube videos. The constructionism community has a wealth of knowledge to share with coding proponents and a great number of questions as well.
- Which programming languages are best for children to use and why?
- Is computational thinking a fancy term for what Alan Kay calls “computer appreciation?” (Kay, 1996) Is this just a way of providing the illusion of computing without sufficient access or actual experience?
- What are the goals of learning to program?
- How does computer programming support, enhance or build upon other intellectual processes?
- What can kids make with a computer?
- Are computing, coding, and computer science synonymous?
- What should a child at a particular age be capable of programming and which concepts should they be able to put into use?
- What sort of teacher preparation is required in order to realize the dream of computer science for all?
We have no idea what children would be capable of if they programmed computers for a sustained period of time. Although we taught tens of thousands of Australian fifth-seventh graders to program in LogoWriter or MicroWorlds between 1989 and 1995, (Johnstone, 2003) schools substituted computing for report writing, note taking, and office tasks by the time those children reached high school. In many cases, computers once an integral learning appendage, were barely used at all as soon as schooling got “serious” and focused on achievement or careers.
In the current coding for all craze, there is little attention given to the proposition that while programming, students may learn other things or explore powerful ideas concurrently. Programming appears to be a means to an end – becoming a programmer, even if that objective is barely defined or the process is trivial.
Coding advocates also send schizophrenic messages. Somehow, the same people can assert that programming is sufficiently difficult that anyone who manages to learn to code will find herself on economic Easy Street and yet, coding is so simple anyone can do it.
In 2014, code.org launched “Hour-of-Code” in a massive publicity blitz intended to attract the attention of schools. While this sounds like a work of satire, Hour-of-Code attracted President Obama, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and other cultural icons to record messages supporting the initiative. (Betters, 2014)
The idea of learning anything substantive in an hour seems preposterous. No amount of advertising or cheerleading is likely to result in more schools teaching computer science in a fashion that appeals to a wide variety of children or supports multiple learning styles. Hour-of-Code is an example of what Papert called verbal inflation and reminds us that “When ideas go to school, they lose their power.” (Papert, 2000b) By definition, Hour-of-Code must be trivial. Perhaps the goal of “Hour-of-Code” was never really to teach or even inspire kids to program, but to create the illusion that the very same Silicon Valley moguls seeking to dismantle public education aren’t so bad after all. (ASU+GSV Summit, 2014; Severns, 2013; G. Stager, 2011; Strauss, 2013, 2014) The cost of such an effort is trivial. “We’ve now reached 25 million kids, and the entire Hour of Code cost $1.2 million. That’s 5 cents a child,” said code.org co-founder Hadi Partovi. (Delevett, 2014)
If we stipulate that the motives of the coding advocates are pure, new questions arise when coding is proposed as the purview of schools. Although efforts like code.org would love to infiltrate schools, they are less concerned by where kids learn to code. When a role for coding in school is delineated through governmental policy or curricular statements, the concerns become more even more acute for constructionists.
Coding through school-colored glasses
Conservative UK Education Secretary Michael Gove announced in January 2012 that the national ICT curriculum should be scrapped at once because it is “a mess,” “harmful,” and “dull.” (Burns, 2012) Since Gove’s provocative BETT speech several American states, Singapore, and Estonia (Gardiner, 2014) have joined the chorus calling for all students to be taught computer science, even if they have no idea what that means or what is involved in achieving success. The exhaustive Royal Society study commissioned by the UK Government to guide the curricular shift towards every child learning computer science includes thoughts such as, “Computer Science education does not necessarily involve computers.” (Furber, 2012) Progress indeed.
The UK National Curriculum is short on actual examples of what a student might do or make with a computer, but long on vocabulary leaving implementation of the curriculum prone to memorization, not actual computer science. (Berry, 2013; Department of Education, 2013a, 2013b) Regardless of your feelings about the substance of the new UK curriculum, efforts around the world are being met with opposition by the theoretically most “tech savvy” teachers in the system, the existing ICT or computer literacy teachers who are resistant to change. The road ahead seems bleak when you factor in a shortage of qualified teachers, an overstuffed school day, inadequate computer resources and an abysmal participation rate among girls and minorities. (Ericson & Guzdial, 2014; Guzdial, 2006; Guzdial & Reed, 2014) And that doesn’t even include a discussion of why so few students are interested in learning computer science even where it is offered.
In the United States, there are proposals in several states to allow Computer Science to earn Foreign Language course credit. (Edutopia, 2013; Guzdial, 2014) Once again, policy-makers with little understanding of CS hear “language” and think they can check off two boxes at once, foreign language and computer science. Aside from the obvious flaws in this logic, the substitution is as much a symptom of unquestioned curricular heuristics than it is support for high quality computer science offerings. Swapping a subject you have trouble defending for CS is another example of the idea aversion (Papert, 2000b) Papert spoke of.
“Computer science for all” is a laudable objective and a welcome change in direction. The constructionist and maker communities possess a great deal of expertise and wisdom that should play a major role in shaping both policy and pedagogical practice. Without such involvement, this rhetorical effort may do more harm than good.
At the very moment when incredible new technologies emerge with the potential to supercharge learning, increase ways of knowing, amplify human expression, forge strange alliances, and empower each teacher and student, the School system has never been more draconian. This too is part of Papert’s prophetic wisdom.
“I have used Perestroika in the Russian political sense as a metaphor to talk about change and resistance to change in education. I use it to situate educators in a continuum: are you open to megachange, or is your approach one of seeking Band-Aids to fix the minor ills of the education system? The dominant paradigm is the Band-Aid–most reform tries to jigger the curriculum, the management of schools, the psychological context of learning. Looking at the Soviet experience gives us a metaphor to talk about why this doesn’t work. For stable change a deeper restructuring is needed–or else the large parts of the system you didn’t change will just bring the little parts you did change back into line.” (Papert, 1991)
Global trends point towards greater public school privatization, addiction to standardized testing, teacher shaming, union busting, savage urban school closures, the rise of charter schools, national curricula, PISA score competition, the suspension of local democracy via mayoral control of school districts, and sacrificing the art of teaching for the mechanics of curriculum delivery and crowd control. (Crotty, 2014; Ravitch, 2013, 2014) Bill Gates tells us that class size does (Vise, 2011) not matter and that teachers may be replaced by YouTube videos. (Tan, 2013) Propagandistic films intended to stoke parental hysteria like, “Waiting for Superman,” play in theatres and on Oprah. (Ayers, 2010; Guggenheim et al., 2011; Karp, 2010; Miner, 2011)
The Rise of Instructionism
In his Perestroika analogy, Papert predicts that constructionism will be met with more instructionism, hopefully until constructionism prevails. One look at the state-of-the-art in educational computing points to a rise in instructionism.
Not only do schools still have computer labs three decades after their creation, but the computers in those labs are increasingly used for computer-assisted instruction, test-prep, standardized testing, and surveillance. Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey said, “Computer programming is quickly becoming an essential career skill. Learning to code is a fantastic opportunity equalizer – if you’re good at it, it can help you achieve your dreams.” He did this while presiding over a scorched-earth “school reform” regime that eliminated Logo programming, art and music in dozens of elementary schools.
When schools do invest in personal computers, they are likely to buy iPads incompatible with making; what Alan Kay calls “symmetric creation” (Greelish, 2013) or make even worse decisions. The Australian state of Victoria invested $180 million and eight years of distractions in a Gosplan-like fantasy called Ultranet. (Tomazin, 2014) The Los Angeles Unified School District just pledged to spend as much as $2 billion for iPads for the sole purpose of standardized testing in a procurement process only Putin could love. (Blume, 2014; Smith, 2014)
The sudden epidemic of bad teachers proclaimed by politicians and the public’s growing dissatisfaction with schooling may be signs of the traditional system crumbling. Can we rise above this period of darkness by lighting a path towards megachange?
“Just 100 years ago, John Dewey was saying things about educational change, not very different from what I believe in. He couldn’t get very far. And the reason why he couldn’t get very far is that he had only philosophical arguments. He didn’t have an army. You must have an army, and it’s an army primarily of children and the adults also are a political force in this.” (Papert, 1999)
Constructionism is a stance and therefore inseparable from politics. Papert might say that the current chaos plaguing education is “the last flick of a dying dragon’s tail.” (Papert, 2000a)
SYMBIOSIS OR MUTUALLY ASSURED DESTRUCTION?
In a toxic era of high-stakes testing, curriculum narrowing, teacher shaming and public school privatizing, the maker movement represents a ray of optimism in an otherwise bleak environment. Simultaneously, the maker movement is poised to go mainstream only if its leaders recognize the benefits of situating “making” in the context of progressive education. An understanding of constructionism and the embattled history of progressive education are necessary for the maker movement to mature.
Quite simply, progressive education requires the energy, passion, new materials, and technology of the maker movement to increase its visibility, relevance, value, and urgency with policy makers, parents, and educational practitioners. For making to mature into a mature movement supporting more than a boutique industry of occasional “faires,” camps, and parties, the members of its community need to understand more about constructionism as well the historic struggle associated with the implementation of progressive education. The maker movement needs to situate their terrific passion, tools, talents, and intuition in a larger context of learning in a politically charged educational system. Both communities have a great deal to learn from one another and should recognize that they stand on the shoulders of giants. Such open-mindedness and knowledge are the minimum conditions under which each community can endure. In order to transcend minority status, a symbiosis of each community’s powerful ideas is required for the aspirations of each to be embraced and sustained by the larger society.
One dilemma for the maker movement is that its major players want it to be both a cause and a profit-center. At FabLearn 2013, Leah Buechley courageously challenged Make™ to take issues of representation, inclusion, gender, race, cost, and accessibility seriously. (Buechley, 2013) Her most easily addressable criticism of Maker Media, owner of Make Magazine™ and Maker Faire™ was the lack of women and people of color on its magazine covers. That concern has been ignored to date. Buechley also pointed out the high cost of entry into “making.” Except for more expensive technology, such as 3D printers, prices do not seem to be falling quickly enough to bring “making” to underserved or poor populations, young or old.
Buechley rightly described how making and Make™ have been conflated in the mind of the population while Maker Media attempts to create an illusion of public service by placing their educational initiatives in a MakerEd non-profit. However, when the White House wishes to celebrate learning by making and its role in an innovative economy, they hosted a Maker Faire™ not a maker fair.
It should come as no surprise that there is a tension between commerce and changing the world. Maker Media is the 1,000 pound for-profit gorilla that creates a venue for makers to share their ingenuity in a commercial environment where others pay to interact with makers. There is nothing wrong with that. It has fueled the explosive rise in making. However, when one company controls the venue, narrative, access to market, and publishes products that compete directly with the creations of other makers, claims of a social mission need to be taken with a grain of salt. Monopolistic tendencies are incompatible with the democratic ideals of both making and progressive education.
Alas, the futures of the maker movement and progressive education are at a crossroads. While the maker movement currently benefits from media attention and the public’s fascination with cool new tech toys, progressive education has been a political punching bag for generations. It is blamed for educational failures disproportionate to its influence. Without great care, the maker movement may find itself susceptible to similar mocking, derision, or marginalization. Sure, that’s nice as a summer camp arts of crafts project, but what does it have to do with raising test scores. Political and social alliances need to be strengthened between each community or the fate of both will be uncertain at best.
Papert reminds us that we need to shift our self-concept in order to bring about the change children deserve.
“Now there is an opportunity to become the person whose job is to facilitate rethinking the whole learning environment of the school, the whole structure of education. We are entering a period in which the person who was “the computer teacher” has the chance to become the educational philosopher and the intellectual leader of the school, of the education world.” (Papert, 1991)
It is inadequate to dismiss schools as relics of the past because that is where you will find millions of kids who need us. Fellow travelers in the maker movement and the unlikely allies behind the coding campaign might be just the army we need inside of a cardboard horse, with LED eyes, and synthesized speech all controlled by a tiny microcontroller running Scratch.
Let us spend our days at Stanford celebrating a growing acceptance of our ideas, but then return home to lead and engage in the hard work of improving the learning ecology.
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[April 2016] At last week’s #asugsv Summit, the annual bacchanal where dilettantes, amateurs, libertarians, billionaires, and Silicon Valley mercenaries gather to plot the destruction of public education in plain view, Dr. Condoleeza Rice of 9/11 and Iraqi war infamy shared her expertise on “reforming” public education. Like many simpletons and profiteers, Dr. Rice seeks salvation in dystopian technology and reportedly demonstrated a level of understanding of educational technology similar to her imaginary “mushroom cloud” in Baghdad.
“Technology is neutral,” Rice observed. “It’s how it is applied that matters.” Technology can be used to support a world in which a child’s zip code or color or gender or age doesn’t shape their future—just their commitment to getting an education, she said. (Edsurge – Heard & Overheard at the ASU+GSV Summit. April 19, 2016.)
No. You are profoundly wrong Dr. Rice!
In fact I detailed how wrong you are three years ago. Perhaps you didn’t read my daily brief entitled, “Technology is Not Neutral!” You may read it below…
Larry Ferlazzo invited me to share a vision of computers in education for inclusion in his Classroom Q&A Feature in Education Week. The text of that article is below.
You may also enjoy two articles I published in 2008:
Technology is Not Neutral
Educational computing requires a clear and consistent stance
© 2013 Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
There are three competing visions of educational computing. Each bestows agency on an actor in the educational enterprise. We can use classroom computers to benefit the system, the teacher or the student. Data collection, drill-and-practice test-prep, computerized assessment or monitoring Common Core compliance are examples of the computer benefitting the system. “Interactive” white boards, presenting information or managing whole-class simulations are examples of computing for the teacher. In this scenario, the teacher is the actor, the classroom a theatre, the students the audience and the computer is a prop.
The third vision is a progressive one. The personal computer is used to amplify human potential. It is an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression that allows each child to not only learn what we’ve always taught, perhaps with greater efficacy, efficiency or comprehension. The computer makes it possible for students to learn and do in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. This vision of computing democratizes educational opportunity and supports what Papert and Turkle call epistemological pluralism. The learner is at the center of the educational experience and learns in their own way.
Too many educators make the mistake of assuming a false equivalence between “technology” and its use. Technology is not neutral. It is always designed to influence behavior. Sure, you might point to an anecdote in which a clever teacher figures out a way to use a white board in a learner-centered fashion or a teacher finds the diagnostic data collected by the management system useful. These are the exception to the rule.
While flexible high-quality hardware is critical, educational computing is about software because software determines what you can do and what you do determines what you can learn. In my opinion the lowest ROI comes from granting agency to the system and the most from empowering each learner. You might think of the a continuum that runs from drill/testing at the bottom; through information access, productivity, simulation and modeling; with the computer as a computational material for knowledge construction representing not only the greatest ROI, but the most potential benefit for the learner.
Piaget reminds us ,“To understand is to invent,” while our mutual colleague Seymour Papert said, “If you can use technology to make things, you can make more interesting things and you can learn a lot more by making them.”
Some people view the computer as a way of increasing efficiency. Heck, there are schools with fancy-sounding names popping-up where you put 200 kids in a room with computer terminals and an armed security guard. The computer quizzes kids endlessly on prior knowledge and generates a tsunami of data for the system. This may be cheap and efficient, but it does little to empower the learner or take advantage of the computer’s potential as the protean device for knowledge construction.
School concoctions like information literacy, digital citizenship or making PowerPoint presentations represent at best a form of “Computer Appreciation.” The Conservative UK Government just abandoned their national ICT curriculum on the basis of it being “harmful and dull” and is calling for computer science to be taught K-12. I could not agree more.
My work with children, teachers and computers over the past thirty years has been focused on increasing opportunity and replacing “quick and easy” with deep and meaningful experiences. When I began working with schools where every student had a laptop in 1990, project-based learning was supercharged and Dewey’s theories were realized in ways he had only imagined. The computer was a radical instrument for school reform, not a way of enforcing the top-down status quo.
Now, kindergarteners could build, program and choreograph their own robot ballerinas by utilizing mathematical concepts and engineering principles never before accessible to young children. Kids express themselves through filmmaking, animation, music composition and collaborations with peers or experts across the globe. 5th graders write computer programs to represent fractions in a variety of ways while understanding not only fractions, but also a host of other mathematics and computer science concepts used in service of that understanding. An incarcerated 17 year-old dropout saddled with a host of learning disabilities is able to use computer programming and robotics to create “gopher-cam,” an intelligent vehicle for exploring beneath the earth, or launch his own probe into space for aerial reconnaissance. Little boys and girls can now make and program wearable computers with circuitry sewn with conductive thread while 10th grade English students can bring Lady Macbeth to life by composing a symphony. Soon, you be able to email and print a bicycle. Computing as a verb is the game-changer.
Used well, the computer extends the breadth, depth and complexity of potential projects. This in turn affords kids with the opportunity to, in the words of David Perkins, “play the whole game.” Thanks to the computer, children today have the opportunity to be mathematicians, novelists, engineers, composers, geneticists, composers, filmmakers, etc… But, only if our vision of computing is sufficiently imaginative.
1) Kids need real computers capable of programming, video editing, music composition and controlling external peripherals, such as probes or robotics. Since the lifespan of school computers is long, they need to do all of the things adults expect today and support ingenuity for years to come.
2) Look for ways to use computers to provide experiences not addressed by the curriculum. Writing, communicating and looking stuff up are obvious uses that require little instruction and few resources.
3) Every student deserves computer science experiences during their K-12 education. Educators would be wise to consider programming environments designed to support learning and progressive education such as MicroWorlds EX and Scratch.
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In addition to being a veteran teacher educator, popular speaker, journalist, author, and publisher, Gary is co-author of the bestselling book called the “bible of the maker movement in schools”, Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. He also leads the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute and is Publisher at CMK Press.
My pal Will Richardson asked me to respond to news that the Florida legislature (ground zero for destructive education policies) has passed a bill allowing high school students to substitute “coding” courses for foreign language requirements. (see Florida Senate approves making coding a foreign language)
If you are a toddler learning English as a second language between binge watching seasons of Glitter Force, it’s easy to see how “coding” in a programming language and literacy in a foreign language are equivalent.
For adult legislators entrusted with governance, this policy means two things:
- They have no idea what computer coding is.
- When policy makers say that students should “understand” technology or refer to technology as a “basic skill,” they reveal a profound ignorance of computer science and have reduced a powerful intellectual pursuit to the level of a bicycle safety assembly or “don’t copy that floppy” poster.
- They are finally willing to admit that they don’t give a rat’s ass about teaching foreign language.
- This may also be a tacit recognition that high school foreign language instruction is mostly torturous and unsuccessful.
When Will tweeted me about the news, a fellow twitterit asked, “Why music can’t satisfy foreign language requirements?” While, there is no greater advocate for music education than myself, this newfound willingness to substitute one discipline for a completely unrelated required course is an admission that all course requirements should be abolished. There is so little consensus on what matters. And that may be a very good thing.
- President Obama Discovers Coding – Yippee!
- Code.org – Oy Veh
- Education’s Most Dangerous Idea: Curriculum
- The Secret Key to Girls and Computer Science
Last year, my friends at Intel invited me to participate in a breakfast summit at the Museum of Contemporary Art overlooking the Sydney Opera House. The other invited guests seated around the table represented captains of industry, distinguished academics, and leaders of assorted acronyms. We each had 2-3 minutes to solve the problems with school, 21st Century skills, S.T.E.M, S.T.E.A.M. girls and technology, economic development, Coding in the classroom, teacher education, and a host of other challenges that normally require 5-6 minutes of breathless rhetoric or clever slogans.
I had the luxury of speaking last. I began by saying, “The first thing we need to do is find a cure for amnesia.” Those armed with “solutions” or prescriptions for “reforming” education do not lack for chutzpah. A sense of perspective and awareness of history are their greatest deficits.
I once heard President Clinton tell the National School Boards Association, “Every problem in education has been solved somewhere before.” We do indeed stand on the shoulders of giants, but Silicon Valley smart-alecks and the politicians they employ behave as if “history begins with me.”
During the Intel breakfast I pointed out a few historic facts:
- 1:1 computing began at a girls school in Australia a quarter century ago for the express purpose of reinventing education by programming across the curriculum and that work led to perhaps a few hundred thousand Australian children and their teachers learning to program (“coding”). For those scoring at home. That one statement ticks the boxes for 1) personal computing in education; 2) programming across the curriculum; 3) girls and technology; 4) success in building teacher capacity; 5) evidence of successful (at least temporary) school reinvention; 5) appealing to hometown pride.
- None of the expressed goals were possible without abandoning the heavy-handed medieval practices of national curricula, terminal exams, ranking, sorting, and inequity that are cornerstones of Australian education. Progressive education is a basic condition for achieving any of the desires shared by my esteemed colleagues.
- There are many examples of people who have not only shared similar concerns throughout history, but who have overcome the seemingly insurmountable hurdles. We have even demonstrated the competence and curiosity of teachers. For example, my friend Dan Watt sold more than 100,000 copies of a book titled, “Learning with Logo,” circa 1986. Let’s say that 10% of the teachers who bought such a book taught kids to program, that’s still a much bigger impact than “Hour of Code.” (Of course there were dozens of other books about how to teach children to program thirty years ago.)
- Perhaps the reason why so few students are taking “advanced” high school math courses is because the courses are awful, irrelevant, and toxic.
- If it is truly a matter of national security that more children enroll in “advanced” science and math courses, it seems curious that such courses are optional. Perhaps that is because we are quite comfortable with a system that creates winners and losers.
- I have been teaching computer science to children for thirty-four years professionally and forty years if you count my years as a kid teaching my peers to program.
The other day, President Obama announced $4 billion dollars available to teach computer science/coding and mathematics (now that’s a novel idea) for the vulgar purpose of creating “job-ready” students. Never mind the fact that there remains no consensus on what computer science is or how such lofty goals will be achieved, especially by a lame duck President. If history is any guide and if the promised funds are ever appropriated, this seemingly large investment will disappear into the pockets of charlatans, hucksters, and a proliferation of “non-profits” each suckling on the government teat. (See eRate)
To make matters worse, one of our nation’s leading experts on computer science education reports that the national effort to design a K-12 Computer Science Framework has is focused on consensus.
“The goal is to create a framework that most people can agree on. “Coherence” (i.e., “community buy-in”) was the top quality of a framework in Michael Lach’s advice to the CS Ed community (that I described here). As Cameron Wilson put it in his Facebook post about the effort, “the K-12 CS Framework is an effort to unite the community in describing what computer science every K-12 student should learn.” It’s about uniting the community. That’s the whole reason this process is happening. The states want to know that they’re teaching things that are worthwhile. Teacher certificates will get defined only what the definers know what the teachers have to teach. The curriculum developers want to know what they should be developing for. A common framework means that you get economies of scale (e.g., a curriculum that matches the framework can be used in lots of places).
The result is that the framework is not about vision, not about what learners will need to know in the future. Instead, it’s about the subset of CS that most people can agree to. It’s not the best practice (because not everyone is going to agree on “best”), or the latest from research (because not everybody’s going to agree with research results). It’s going to be a safe list.
…That’s the nature of frameworks. It’s about consensus, not about vision. [emphasis mine] That’s not a bad thing, but we should know it for what it is. We can use frameworks to build momentum, infrastructure, and community. We can’t let frameworks limit our vision of what computing education should be. As soon as we’re done with one set of frameworks and standards, we should start on the next ones, in order to move the community to a new set of norms. Guzdial, M. (2016) Developing a Framework to Define K-12 CS Ed: It’s about consensus not vision.
That’s right, mountains of money and human capital will be expended to determine the status quo. Consultant will be enriched while school children are treated to “coding” curricula so good that you don’t even need a computer! Powerful ideas are viewed as distractions and vision may be addressed at indeterminate date in the future.
“The future must be dreamed, desired, loved, created. It must be plucked from the soul of the present generations with all the gold gathered in the past, with all the vehement yearning to create the great works of individuals and nations.” – Omar Dengo
From Melbourne to Massachusetts to the UK, large scale state and national edicts to teach “coding” or “computer science” K-12 has resulted in laundry lists of unrelated nonsense, full of “off-computer” programming activities, keyboarding instruction, file saving, posture lessons, digital citizenship, identification of algorithms, counting in binary, bit, byte, and vocabulary acquisition. In more than one jurisdiction, the computer science curricula is touted as “not even needing a computer!”
There is far too little discussion of programming a liberal art – a way of having agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world. There is no discussion of Seymour Papert’s forty-eight year-old question, “Does the computer program the child or the child program the computer?”
There is no talk about changing schooling to accommodate powerful ideas or even add programming to the mathematics curriculum as my Wayne, NJ public schools did forty years ago. Instead, we’re renaming things and chanting slogans.
Frequent readers of my work might be surprised that I only include one mention of Seymour Papert in this article. Instead, I end with the words of another old friend of mine, Arthur Luehrmann. Arthur coined the term computer literacy. After three decades of his term being segregated to justify the most pedestrian of computer use (Google Apps, IWBs, online testing, looking up answers to questions you don’t care about, etc…), it is worth remembering what he meant when he invented the term, computer literacy. The following is from a 1984 book chapter, Computer Literacy: The What, Why, and How.
“A few years ago there was a lot of confusion about what computer literacy meant. Some people were arguing that a person could become computer literate merely by reading books or watching movies or hear- ing lectures about computers. That viewpoint probably came out of a time when computer equipment was expensive and, therefore, not often found in classrooms. Teachers had to teach something, so they taught “facts” about computers: their history, social impact, effect on jobs, and so forth. But such topics are more properly called “computer awareness,” I believe.
Even the fact that a school or district possesses one or more com- puters must not be taken as evidence that education in computer literacy is taking place. Many schools use computers for attendance and grade reporting, for example. These administrative uses may improve the cost- effectiveness of school operations, but they teach children nothing at all about computers.
Other schools may be using computers solely to run programs that drill their students on math facts, spelling, or grammar. In this kind of use, often called Computer-Assisted Instruction, or CAI, the computer prints questions on the display screen, and the student responds by typing answers on the keyboard. Except for rudimentary typing skills and when to press the RETURN key, the student doesn’t learn how to do anything with the computer, though. Here again, a mere count of computers doesn’t tell anything about what students may be learning.
A third kind of use comes closer to providing computer literacy, but it too falls short. In this mode, the computer, together with one or more programs, is used to provide some kind of illumination of material in a regular, noncomputer course. A social studies teacher, for example, might use The Oregon Trail simulation program to illustrate the difficul- ties pioneers encountered in trekking across the American West. Such an application not only teaches American history, it also shows students that computers can be made to simulate things and events—a powerful notion. Yet neither in this, nor in any of the other educational uses of the computer I have mentioned so far, does a student actually learn to take control of the computer.
Literacy in English or any language means the ability to read and write: that is, to do something with the language. It is not enough to know that any language is composed of words, or to know about the pervasive role of language in society. Language awareness is not enough. Similarly, “literacy” in mathematics suggests the ability to add numbers, to solve equations, and so on: that is, to do something with mathematics. It is not enough to know that numbers are written as sets of digits, or to know that there are vocational and career advantages for people who can do things with mathematics.
Computer literacy must mean the ability to do something constructive with a computer, and not merely a general awareness offacts one is told about computers. A computer literate person can read and write a computer program, can select and operate software written by others, and knows from personal experience the possibilities and limitations of the computer.”
At least educational policy is consistent, we continuously invent that which already exists, each time with diminished expectations.
Thirty two years after Luhrmann published the words above – longer than the lifespan of many current teachers and our national goal is to create job-ready coders? Off! We should be ashamed.
Luhrmann, A. (1984). Computer Literacy: The What, Why, and How. In D. Peterson (Ed.), Intelligent Schoolhouse: Readings on Computers and Learning. Reston, VA: Reston Publishing Company.
“Equity demands access to a greater range of intellectual & creative experiences, not merely access to same crap rich White boys don’t need either.” – Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
A response to the plethora of articles spouting hooey similar to this article – Saving Computer Science from Itself
(Regrettably, I will undoubtedly be compelled to write more on this topic in the future. In the meantime, here is my answer to the “should we teach kids to code” argument)
As someone who has taught countless children (from preschool) and their teachers to program across the curriculum for 34 years, I disagree with lots of the arguments in this article. I agree that we have done an awful job of defining CS AND reaching any rational consensus of why it is critical that every child learn computer science.
The larger argument I would like to make is that this is not a matter of opinion.
Programming gives children, every child, agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world. Computer science is a legitimate science; perhaps the most significant advancement in science of the past century. It is foundational for all other science. THEREFORE, IT MUST BE TAUGHT AND USED WELL BY EVERY CHILD. Computer science gives kids access to complexity and provides an authentic context for learning the crummy mathematics content we dispense to defensless children.
One might also discuss the terrible (or nonexistent) job we do of teaching ANY science to children (below secondary grades). Oh yeah, add art, instrumental music, civics, mathematics, and history to that list as well.
The difference between Computer Science and all of the other stuff we don’t bother to teach is the vehemence with which nearly two generations of educators have fought to democratize computer science and keep it out of the classroom. There are countless examples of far less relevant and less fun bullshit we fill kids’ school days with.
Furthermore, ISTE cannot be trusted to play any leadership role in this effort. They have disqualified themselves from having any voice in discussions about the future of computing in schools. I signed the ISTE charter, edited their last computer science journal for several years, and have spoken at the last 28 of their conferences. I even co-authored the cover story for the last issue of their magazine, “Learning and Leading with Technology.” However, ISTE’s self-congratulatory pathetic “standards” for educational computing do not contain the word, “programming,” anywhere. There are no powerful ideas they embrace, just some mindless notion of “technology good.”
I’ve written about ISTE before:
Refreshing the ISTE Technology Standards
Senior Editor Gary Stager interviews Don Knezek, CEO of ISTE, on the revised National Educational Technology Standards(NETS). Plus: Stager’s perspective.
Published in the June 2007 issue of District Administration
Why not ask the Wolfram brothers or Seymour Papert about the value of children programming? Why are we relying on the “vision” of politicians or tech directors whose primary concerns are about plumbing and getting Math Blaster to run on Chromebooks connected to an interactive whiteboard?
The UK example is exactly NOT what we should be doing. Their curriculum (scope, sequence, content) makes no sense and bares very little resemblance to computer science. Like other “Coding” or ill conceived computer science curricula written by government committee, the UK curriculum doesn’t even need a computer. AND when you make a hierarchical curriculum, IF needs to be in 2nd grade while THEN gets introduced in a subsequent year. The only way you become good at computer science is by revisiting ideas and techniques in lots of projects – just like in any other medium.
Puzzles are not CS. An hour of “code” is not CS. Using Scratch for a few sessions or storyboarding are not CS.
There is no length to which people will not resort to deprive children of learning to program computers.
Oh yeah, the issues of efficacy, equity, etc you mention have been studied for decade. We know what to do.
I could go on….
Gary Stager’s work and educational philosophy are based on four ideas.
- The Piagetian idea that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.”
- Xenophon’s admonition that “nothing beautiful can ever be forced.”
- Schools have a sacred obligation to introduce children to things they don’t yet know they love.
- Computational technology makes complexity accessible to children and allows them to solve problems their teachers may never have anticipated.
The slide below is being passed around the Internet by well-meaning educators.
However, such “don’t do this, do that” statements from startup-culture and Silicon Valley education “experts” almost always reveal their profound ignorance of how learning occurs and children develop.
Neither question is developmentally appropriate, although the first (bad one) at least includes a chance for play, fantasy, and imagination. The latter is designed to train workers to be cogs in a system dominated by the good folks at companies like Google.