I recently discovered this “fantastic” music video while trolling through YouTube (probably instead of working).

It’s a music video by Eddie Murphy, called Whazupwitu? Not only does it include every conceivable music video cliché (clouds, notes floating through the air, spinning, hearts, black and white singer in a colorful world, peace signs, doves, gravity-defying walking, etc…), but the backup singer on the cut is Michael Jackson (in full regalia).

If you can get past the sad clown exclaiming “The elephant is dying” and the 80s “Cameo-style” vocal-effects, something amazing happens at the 1:48 point – right before the Harlem Boys Choir appears (the best cliché of them all). That’s when Michael Jackson realizes that he is Eddie Murphy’s backup singer and decides to mop the heavens with the ostensible star of the production, Mr. Murphy.


Try getting the song out of your head! I dare you!

bodemillerseymourpapertThree-time Olympic skier, Bode Miller of the USA won three medals at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics – a Gold, Silver and Bronze. When added to the two silver medals he earned in the 2002 Winter Olympics, Miller is the most decorated Olympic Alpine skier in United States history. He is also controversial based on legendary media interviews (apology here) and a failure to win any medals during the 2006 Winter Olympics when some predicted he would win five events.

There are countless things I learned over twenty years of working with my friend and mentor Professor Seymour Papert. This week, I remembered that I first learned about Bode Miller from Dr. Papert way back in 2002. Papert had published a newspaper column Bode Miller: World’s Most Creative Skier, for the Bangor Daily News.

This isn’t the first time Papert wrote about skiing in the context of learning. His seminal book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas (1980), features a discussion of how technology has changed skiing.

In the 2002 column, Papert shared his enthusiasm for Bode’s fearless style, unconventional education and sense of independence. Bode Miller’s skiing is offered as a metaphor for the tough choices parents and teachers must make in educating children in the 21st Century. (This column was written near the end of a several year period during which Dr. Papert worked tirelessly to convince the citizens of Maine to provide a laptop computer for every 7th and 8th grader in the state.)

Many aspects of Bode would serve well for practicing the art of seeing the world through a lens focused on learning…

…We want our children to have Bode’s kind of independence. But we don’t want them to fall for lack of mastery of well-tried ways of doing things.

Re-reading this article by my old friend Seymour reminded me of the many characteristics that make him special. First of all, your average MIT professor doesn’t write local newspaper columns in praise of a renegade skier – many may not have heard of Bode Miller, fewer still eight years ago. What struck me is how much Dr. Papert and Bode Miller have in common. They are both driven by a desire to revolutionize their domain through a fearless combination of high-risk and high-reward.

Bode Miller crashing at 2010 Olympics

That’s right, MIT Professor Seymour Papert is a bad-ass!

Over the course of his life he has been a South African dissident forced to flee his country due to his anti-Apartheid activities, earned two mathematics Ph.Ds, worked with Jean Piaget, was a co-founder of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, inspired Alan Kay to invent what became known as the personal computer, created Logo (with Cynthia Solomon and Wally Feurzig) was a co-founder of the MIT Media Lab, led the effort to help Maine be the first state in the world with a laptop computer for every student, has been a leading voice in school reform and was a driving force behind the creation of One Laptop Per Child and their effort to create the “$100 laptop.” Papert began talking about the potential high reward reward for learners if every one of them were to be provided a personal computer with constructive open-ended software more than forty years ago and worked tirelessly to realize that dream across the globe.

I was inspired to write this article when an old friend sent me an email saying that “Bode Miller is the Lee Morgan of slalom skiing.” If you don’t get the reference, you’ve got some shedding to do!

I go back a long way with Generation YES, I used to read Dennis Harper‘s articles in The International Logo Exchange journal back in the 1980s before he contributed articles when I became Editor of Logo Exchange in the early 1990s. He brought microcomputers to schools in dozens of developing countries, had taught all over the world and was one of the earliest promoters of microcomputers in education

While Dennis was leaving his last school district position and transitioning the successful Federal Challenge Grant, Generation WHY, into a company, Generation YES, I suggested that he hire my partner Sylvia Martinez to help make the trains run on time. Sylvia is now the President of Generation YES.

Since that time I have worked on various projects with Generation YES, including a science and technology improvement project in Brooklyn, NY and as one of the designers of TechYES, the ground-breaking peer-to-peer technology literacy certification program.


While giant testing companies sell multiple-choice tests challenging students to identify the parts of a computer – cassette drive, floppy disk, dot-matrix printer – as a way to satisfy the NCLB 8th grade tech literacy requirement and ISTE standards, TechYES starts from the premise that children are competent and can demonstrate their technological fluency through the creation of personallly meaningful projects that impress their peer mentors.

There are very few companies outside of the members of The Contructivist Consortium committed to student empowerment, creativity, collaboration and computing. It is much easier to sell products that do things to students, rather than amplify their voice and  potential. Generation YES is the rare exception.

I recently found a VHS tape about Generation WHY that includes a stunning appearance by my friend, colleague and mentor Dr. Seymour Papert, saying some very flattering things about what is now known as Generation YES and their educational approach to 21st Century student empowerment, leadership and service.

The short video clip below is well worth watching. You might even take a look at Generation YES and TechYES.

Incidentally, the host of the 1998 video (below) is now serving in the Peace Corps in Africa.

Seymour Papert on Generation YES and Kid Power from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Related articles by Dr. Seymour Papert

MacArthur Grant

Over the past 28 years, my work with children, teachers and schools has been based on personal entrepreneurism, volunteerism and the PD budgets of schools. I have rarely been constrained by or blessed with grant money. During these tough times of tightening school budgets and draconian education policies it is even more critical to create compelling models reminding policy-makers, citizens and educators that things need not be as they seem.

That is why I have been involved in four modest, but creative, proposals for the HASTAC Digital Media and Learning Competition supported by the MacArthur Foundation. “Reimagining Learning” is the theme of the competition and describes what I do.

Part of the selection process for the awarding of grant money is based on public support and comments regarding the proposals. That’s where you come in!

I would be most grateful if you could take a few minutes to setup an account on the HASTAC DMLC web site (at the bottom of any page linked below) and offer enthusiastic comments (constructive suggestions are welcome as well) on the following proposals.

One of the proposals, Virtual CMK, directly benefits YOU by sharing presentations from the upcoming Constructing Modern Knowledge event via the web.

The other three proposals are intended to create learning opportunities for bilingual children in terrific progressive urban charter schools founded by one of my former grad students. Despite project-based learning, bilingualism, authentic assessment and weekly field trips, the New City Schools are cash-strapped and their students would really benefit from one or more of these projects being funded.

One of the proposals would create a 21st Century (digital) instrumental music program for the school and the other two are focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) with 1:1 computing.

Virtual Constructing Modern Knowledge
Constructing Modern Knowledge is a minds-on institute for educators committed to creativity, collaboration and computing. Participants have the opportunity to engage in intensive computer-rich project development with peers and a world-class faculty. Virtual CMK will make video of speaker-led conversations and capture participant collaboration, construction and reflections available online free-of-charge.

Urban Engineering – Revolutionizing S.T.E.M. for Young Children
Robotics, Scratch and MicroWorlds programming on personal computers allow young children to have concrete experiences with engineering principles that support the learning of more abstract concepts in the future. This project’s significance is in making 1:1 computing, robotics, computer programming and engineering the new basic skills for bilingual elementary students.

The Urban Laptop Orchestra – Musical Performance for All
Imagine an orchestra composed of inner-city children performing classical, jazz, latin and popular music when the only instrument is a laptop computer. Public charter school students will make music using a laptop and small keyboard while developing interdisciplinary habits of mind and enhancing literacy, history, mathematics, technology and communication skills.

Off-the-Shelf-Games as a Platform for Student Game Development and Interdisciplinary Learning
“Off the shelf games,” Little Big Planet and Spore [games specified by the grant] not only offer opportunities to develop problem-solving skills and other habits of mind, they also provide a context for exploring science concepts in the classroom. This project uses these titles to inspire student game design and the rich multidisciplinary learning that results.


The worlds of education and psychology lost another giant January 28th. Dr. Seymour Sarason passed away at the Seymour Sarasonage of 91.

You can’t be taken seriously as a school reformer, transformer or agent of change without an understanding of Sarason’s work and having read some of the 40+ books he published. His work often asks more questions than it answers, reflecting the reality that humans and school systems are complex. Sarason taught us that serious thought must be given to notions of learning, leadership, governance and change if we are to do better as a society.

Seymour Sarason was not a phony baloney expert on school change or self-proclaimed educational leader, he was a serious scholar who left behind words to guide our thinking and our actions for decades to come.

As a young psychologist working with the mentally retarded in a Massachusetts state institution, Sarason challenged the conventional wisdom that psychological problems were inside of the individual and needed to be treated as such. Sarason became convinced that many psychological problems were created or impacted by social settings and institutional cultures. Sarason investigated whether settings could be created or modified to prevent psychological problems in the first place.

“Stricken with polio in high school, Sarson wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt for treatment his family couldn’t afford. Roosevelt’s secretary promptly responded and arranged a comprehensive six-month, in-patient treatment program.

Those experiences hammered home the importance of the role that social context plays in realizing one’s potential.” (“Colleagues pay respects,” 2010)

Sarason taught at Yale for forty-five years and founded the Psycho-Educational Institute, a clinic developing new approaches to treating the psychological problems of children and adolescents. Sarason and his graduate students went into schools, day care centers and prisons to work with personnel in those facilities to create settings that minimized psychological and learning pathologies. He came to believe that institutions intended to help individuals could do more harm than good, while consistently being reminded of human potential when an individual finds herself in the right environment. This work led Dr. Sarason to be credited as the founder of the field of community psychology.

This was the basis for his critical work on learning, educational institutions and school reform. Andy Hargreaves of Boston College says about Sarason, “He was one of the very first people to write in an explicit way about educational reform and the culture of the school from the perspective of the people who experience the change — teachers and students.” (Grimes, 2010)

Sarason coined a phrase, “productive contexts for learning,” that shapes much of my work. Despite his education as a clinical psychologist, Sarason weighed-in on complex political issues surrounding public education, the change process and even charter schools.

His optimism regarding each human’s potential to create, learn and grow was tempered by his understanding of how the institutions we find ourselves in can inhibit our progress.

I met Sarason a decade or so ago at the American Association of School Administrators Conference in San Diego. I attended the conference so I could hear him speak. I remember the setting vividly. Sarason spoke in a cavernous room with more than 500 chairs and a handful of people in attendance. I suppose the thousands of school superintendents attending the conference were investigating the “vending machine solution” or playing golf. Sarason was brilliant and very kind during the brief conversation we had about his current interest in race and economic deprivation.

When we met, Sarason had just published his first of two books on charter schools, Charter Schools: Another Flawed Educational Reform? (1998) A decade before charter schools would enter the public consciousness, Dr. Sarason was asking us to think more deeply about such changes in public school governance. In 2002, his second book on the subject, Questions You Should Ask About Charter Schools and Vouchers, was published.

In 1990, Sarason published The Predictable Failure of School Reform: Can We Change Course Before It’s Too Late? 1990! The first part of the book’s title predicted failure, but the second part asked if we could change the result. Several of Sarason’s book titles ended in question marks as a way of asking us to decide if we were up to the challenge of doing the right thing. Sarason also published, Revisiting “the Culture of the School and the Problem of Change” (1996) and Educational Reform: A Self-Scrutinizing Memoir (2002) in which he reflects on the evolution of his thinking over the decades of writing about school reform.

Sure, at times Seymour Sarason could be quite the curmudgeon, but what separated him from other cranky critics of school reform, such as Larry Cuban, was Sarason’s faith that it is possible to build better classrooms, institutions and social systems. Like Seymour Papert, Sarason wasn’t just complaining, he knew that the potential existed for us to do better by the children in our care.

My three favorite books by Seymour Sarason ask deceptively simple questions in the best Socratic tradition:

  1. And What do YOU Mean by Learning? (2004) suggests that we cannot change a classroom, let alone the entire educational system, if we ourselves cannot articulate a definition of learning. This book shaped my thinking deeply and led me to notice how many people can’t manage the distinction between teaching and learning.
  2. Political Leadership and Educational Failure (1998) Once again, Sarason doesn’t blame the child or teachers for the “failure” of the system, but asks a simple question. Why is it that when we hear a Mayor, Governor, President or Prime Minister discuss tax policy, sewerage or road construction we expect that they are being well-informed on the subject by the best and brightest, but have little expectation that the same will occur when education policy is formed?
  3. American Psychology and Schools: A Critique (2001) In this book, Sarason focuses his laser on his peers in the psychology community and asks why they have been silent on two of the most pressing issues facing children, school violence and standardized testing mania?

Teaching as a Performing Art (1999), The Case for Change: Rethinking the Preparation of Educators (1993) and Parental Involvement (1993) and the Political Principle: Why the Existing Governance Structure of Schools Should Be Abolished (1995) are also worthy of your attention.

For those looking for a “quick course” of Sarason, there is an anthology you can read – The Skeptical Visionary: A Seymour Sarason Educational Reader edited by Robert Fried (2002)

Dr. Sarason spent the past couple years of his life in an assisted living facility and had just finished a book designed to blow the lid off of elder care at the time of his death. Centers for Endings. The Coming Crisis in Caring for Aged People (2010), may be downloaded for personal use. Sarason wrote and published his first novel at the age of 86.

Constructing Modern Knowledge Guest Speaker, Deborah Meier, a renowned school reformer and professor of education at New York University, called Sarason an “unusual treasure.”

“He placed our work as teachers within a realistic context, reminding us of both how important it was, and, at the same time, how modest our contribution could be to the larger picture,” Meier said.

“To combine that humility with the insights needed to still influence individual children and colleagues, and being influenced by them is important enough. That skepticism and passion for the task rarely exists within the same person, and above all rarely among academics.” (“Colleagues pay respects,” 2010)


Colleagues pay respects to innovative psychologist [new haven register, conn.] . (2010, February 1). Retrieved from http://behavioralhealthcentral.com/index.php/20100201188896/Latest-News/colleagues-pay-respects-to-innovative-psychologist-new-haven-register-conn.html

Grimes, W. (2010, February 8). Seymour b. sarason, leader in community psychology, dies at 91 . Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/08/education/08sarason.html

The following opinion column from the October issue of District Administration Magazine caused the owner (and Editor-in-Chief) of the magazine to publish an apology in the very next issue. The mea culpa was published before any reader or advertiser complained. None did. This column never appeared on the magazine’s web site, so it is published here.

In August 2004, District Administration Magazine published my critique of Senator John Kerry’s education plan. It may be read here.

In other words, the following fact-checked article was deemed unfair when an article critical of the political opponent two months earlier was fair game.

I remain incredibly proud of this article because it was timely, witty and predicted the ultimate disaster caused by the policies I criticized.

Gary Stager on Direct Instruction
Perhaps it’s time to end political social promotion
From the October 2004 issue of District Administration Magazine

Michael Moore got it wrong.

In his film, Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore shows President Bush in a Florida classroom on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The film’s narration said that while America was being attacked, the president read the book, My Pet Goat, to a room full of young children. This is factually inaccurate in three important ways.

  1. The story is actually titled, The Pet Goat.
  2. It is not a book, but an exercise in a heavily scripted basal.
  3. The president did not read the story to the children.

Any perceptive educator watching this would quickly realize what was going on. The president was not in that Bush Reading on 9/11classroom to demonstrate his love of reading. Being read to is a powerful literacy experience. Having a wonderful story read to you by the president of the United States could create a memory to last a lifetime.

Unlike his wife, mother and Oval Office predecessors, this president had a more important agenda than demonstrating affection for children or for reading. The trip was part of a calculated campaign to sell No Child Left Behind. In what Michael Moore rightly observed as a photo opportunity, young children were used as props to advance the administration’s radical attack on public education.

The Pet Goat is an exercise from a literary classic called, Reading Mastery 2, by the father of Direct Instruction, Siegfried (Zig) Engelmann. In the 1960s, Engelmann invented a controversial pedagogical approach that reduces knowledge to bite-]sized chunks presented in a prescribed sequence enforced by a scripted lesson the teacher is to recite to a classroom of pupils chanting predetermined responses. Every single word the teacher is to utter, including permissible and prohibited words of encouragement, are provided. There is no room for individuality. The Direct Instruction Web site states, “The popular valuing of teacher creativity and autonomy as high priorities must give way to a willingness to follow certain carefully prescribed instructional practices.”

Engelmann told The New Yorker in its July 26, 2004 issue, “We don’t give a damn what the teacher thinks, what the teacher feels. On the teachers’ own time they can hate it. We don’t care, as long as they do it. Traditionalists die over this, but in terms of data we whump the daylights out of them.” It is easy to see how a man of such sensitive temperament could author more than 1,000 literary masterpieces such as The Pet Goat.

While I am sure the Florida school visited is a fine one and the classroom teacher loves children, educational excellence was not being celebrated. This was a party on behalf of Direct Instruction. While Moore made a documentary [some suggest artful propaganda] about the Iraq war, he could have made a movie about the United States government’s ideological attack on the public schools.

The War on Public Education
Engelmann’s publisher is a textbook giant with ties to the Bush family dating back to the 1930s. Company namesakes served on George W. Bush’s transition team and the board of his mother’s literacy foundation. The publishers have received honors from two Bush administrations and they in turn have bestowed awards on Secretary Rod Paige, who then keynoted their business conference. The same company’s former executive vice president is the new U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. Direct instruction has become synonymous with the “scientifically based methods” required by No Child Left Behind.

The War on Public Education has ratcheted up parental fear with cleverly designed rhetoric of failing schools, data desegregation, underperforming students, unqualified teachers and clever slogans like, “no excuses.” If you turn public schools, even the best ones, into single-]minded test-]prep factories where teachers drone on from scripted lessons then more people will want that magical voucher. Repeatedly demonize teachers arid the public will lose confidence regardless of their personal experiences with their local school.

So, how are you doing? Is your job now more about compliance than kids? Are sound educational experiences being sacrificed for test­ preparation? Has fear replaced joy in your classrooms? President Reagan might suggest we ask ourselves, “Is your school better off than it was four years ago?”

Note: As time permits, I’m republishing articles I’ve written in the past so they may reach a fresh new audience via my blog. I’m particularly proud of this paper about teacher professional development, originally published in 1992. I wrote this after spending more than two years working in “1:1 schools.” You may just find it timely today!

© 1992 Gary S. Stager*

Many educational leaders and policy makers have grand visions of how computer technology will lead to educational innovation and restructuring. Unfortunately, in 1993 far too many of these people believe that the technology will do the job alone.

If staff development is provided, it is too often superficial and unsuccessful. Teachers and their students may be “using computers” but to what end? What has the computer’s impact been on the learning culture of a school? Is the school any closer to their goal of improving education and institutional change or has the introduction of technology created a foggy detour on the road to innovation? The hard part of this process is not the learning the technology, but thinking about thinking and learning; reflecting on the nature of the curricula; and clearly articulating a collegial strategy for implementing change. Computer-based staff development efforts often assume that teachers need to be only computer literate enough to unjam the printer or to use one piece of “canned software” with their students. This line of reasoning deprives teachers of the types of intellectual empowerment, which their students experience when using the computer as a vehicle for constructing knowledge.

School districts often believe that teachers will begin making computers important well-integrated tools in their classrooms if they attend a two-hour workshop or stand in the computer lab while the computer teacher instructs their class. This is part of what I call “the osmosis effect” Just touch a computer and education will improve. Educational reform is too often equated with plugging students into anything that happens to plug in.

Even in more thoughtful school districts, staff development efforts too often go for the “quick fix.” Speakers and authors like Tom Snyder argue that no significant innovation will succeed in a school without directly benefiting the central group of adults first. I was always troubled by this view and have recently become convinced of how profoundly misguided this view is.

The conventional wisdom is too often, “If I teach the teacher to put the students’ arithmetic problems into Math Blaster, then they will learn to assist their students in creating collaborative inter-disciplinary multimedia reports in LogoWriter…” If the teacher can write parental letters using a word processor, then they will fall in love with the writing process and change their language arts curriculum to a whole language process…” “If I teach a math teacher to use a gradebook program, he/she will begin to use manipulatives and symbol manipulators as an integral part of the math curriculum…”

There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that this all too prevalent strategy of pandering has any positive impact on the growth process of teachers or schools. In fact, I have seen this approach to staff development degrade teachers by assuming that they were not capable of learning new skills or sharing powerful ideas. It is incredibly insulting to believe that teachers are so selfish that the only way in which to get them to appropriate new technologies and methodologies is to “train” them to do trivial administrative tasks. The implication is that teachers are too “burnt-out” or detached to care about the exciting educational potential of new technologies. Too often elementary school teachers are sentenced to a lifetime of . word processing and word processing only because of a lack of respect for teachers and a subtle gender bias towards female teachers.

The way in which you directly benefit teachers is by helping them directly benefit kids. You improve the lives of teachers by helping them become better teachers.

Even the “bad” teachers our society is so fond of discussing will be inspired by seeing students engaged in exciting new ways – with no materials, ideas, processes, and content. After all, is that not the reason for ongoing staff development? It seems ridiculous to suggest that teachers are the only group of professionals incapable of using computers in meaningful ways. This view is a result of the way in which schools often approach the use of computers by students.

Over the past decade schools sought to make computers, which are transparent in the world and the life of the child, into a discipline – hard and worthy of study. Terms such as computer literacy, computer lab, computer coordinator, and courses in information technology have become commonplace in primary and secondary schools. These ideas, at best, are rooted in the educational bureaucracy’s deeply-held paranoia about only teaching what is testable and at worst is designed to create an artificial range (bell curve) of good computer users and bad computer users.

Neither case respects what students already know. It seems as ridiculous to think that a sixteen year-old student in an information technology class needs to be taught what a mouse is as it is to assume that a professional educator is incapable of using technology used routinely by Burger King employees.

So, what should we do? I would argue that computer-based staff development activities should focus on the change process and immerse teachers in meaningful, educationally relevant activities, in which he/she will be encouraged to reflect on powerful ideas and share their educational visions in order to create a culture of learners for their students.


• Work With the Living
Schools have limited technological and teacher development resources and they should be allocated prudently. Good teachers who have yet to recognize how computer technology may enhance their teaching are not evil. If a school focuses its energy and resources on creating a few successful models of classroom computing each year, then the enthusiasm among the teaching staff will be infectious. When fifteen teachers in a school or district joyfully use technology more teachers are likely to have found a comfortable path towards implementation. Within a few years the most recalcitrant of teachers will recognize that they are in the minority and may seek other employment. It is important that a variety of models be created for teachers of differing backgrounds and subject areas to choose from. The school should be cautious not to create negative models of computing use.

• Work On Teachers’ Turf
Educators responsible for staff development should be skilled in classroom implementation and should work along-side the teacher in his/her classroom to create models of constructive computer use. It is important for teachers to see what students are capable of and this is difficult to do in brief workshop at the end of a long workday.

• Off-site Institutes
Schools must ensure that teachers not only understand the concepts of collaborative problem solving, cooperative learning, and constructionism – they must be given the opportunity to leave behind the pressures of family and school for several days in order to actually re-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 Support
Nothing dooms the use of technology in the classroom quicker than not supporting the teacher who worked hard to develop new skills. Be sure that the school does eveiything humanly possible to support the teacher’s efforts by providing the technology requested, maintaining it, and by having access to a working printer and a supply of blank disks.

• Practice What You Preach
Staff development experiences should be engaging, interdisciplinary, collaborative, heterogeneous, and models of constructionist learning.

• Share Learning Stories
Teachers should be encouraged to reflect on personal significant learning experiences from their lives and the staff development experience. They should share these experiences with their colleagues and discuss the relationship between their profound learning experiences and their classroom practices.

• Celebrate Initiative
Teachers who have made a demonstrative commitment to educational computing should be recognized by being freed of some duties in order to assist colleagues in their classrooms, encouraged to lead workshops, and given access to additional hardware.

• In-School Sabbaticals
Innovative teachers should be provided with the school time and resources necessary to develop curricula and conduct action research in her/his school.

• Assist Teacher Purchases of Technology
Schools should help fund 50- 80% of a teacher’s purchase of a personal computer for use in school and home. This act demonstrates to teachers that you value computers as an important aspect of the school and that they should share this commitment. Partial funding also provides teachers with the flexibility to purchase the right personal computer configuration. The school may offer an annual stipend for upgrades and peripherals.

• Have Abundant Technology Available
A teacher in a school with hundreds of computers quickly recognizes that the school values classroom computing.

• Cast a Wide Net
No one method of staff development works for all teachers. A combination of traditional workshops, in-classroom collaborations, mentoring, conference participation, and whole learning residential workshops must be available for teachers to choose from at their own pace. Teachers should be made to feel comfortable growing at their own rate. Therefore, a variety of staff development options may need to be offered regularly.

• Avoid Software Dujour
The people responsible for paying for school computing are made to feel guilty by the media and other administrators if they do not constantly do something “new” with their computers. Unfortunately newness is equated with lots of software. It is reckless and expensive to jump on every software bandwagon. Using narrow skill-specific software has little benefit to students and undermines staff comfort with computing. Choose an open-ended environment, such as LogoWriter, [now MicroWorlds] in which students express themselves in many ways that may also converge with the curriculum.

• Never Satisfied – Only Gratified
Staff development must always be dedicated to continuing educational excellence. If we desire to restructure schools then we must recognize that the only constant we can depend on is teachers. Our schools will only be as good as the least professional teacher. Staff development must enhance that professionalism and empower teachers to improve the lives of their students. Our children deserve no less.

• A version of this article will appear in the Proceedings of the 1993 International Conference on
Technology and Education at MIT

A variation on the old joke goes,

Question: “How do you get to perform for the President of the United States?

Answer: Don’t ask Jessica Simpson. She has no idea.

According to “news” reports Jessica Simpson was a performer in this year’s Kennedy Center Honors program attended by President Bush and countless other dignitaries. Ms. Simpson was to sing the operatic classic, “Nine-to-Five,” as a tribute to Dolly Parton, but ended the song abruptly, muttered, “nervous,” and burst off the stage in tears.

While hardly cause for indefinite detention in Guantanamo, this sorry incident offers lessons for educators.

James Carville once said, “In America the last job you ever have is being famous.” Too many young people in our country see fame, the quicker the better, as their goal. Yet, Jessica Simpson has proven that fame doesn’t prepare you to perform in front of music legends, millions of viewers and the leader of the free world. Maybe she just had a bad night, but I don’t think so.

Once your failed reality TV marriage and B-movie career fades from the spotlight you are sustained by what musicians call “chops.” You develop chops by paying dues, studying and practicing for hours and hours each day for years. You don’t pay your dues by being photographed exiting a nightclub with your BFFs or by dating musicians. You are not entitled to be rich and famous just because you want to be.

Every great artist knows this.  Even successful pop stars learned it along the road to fame. Motown artists spent countless hours studying music, dance and comportment before they left the studio. They spent weeks on the road honing each song before appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera and yes, even Britney Spears developed a similar work ethic from working on The Mickey Mouse Club. Like the pop-stars of yore, they come “ready to play” regardless of the venue – in concert or in a variety show skit. I can see you wince when I say this, but they may be this generation’s Sammy, Dean, Frank, Diana Ross or Dolly Parton. Ask any musician in the know and they will tell you that Dolly Parton can play her…. uh, butt off.

This isn’t the first public meltdown in the Simpson family. Remember that little sister, Ashley, (the “punk” one) stunk up Saturday Night Live last year when she began lip-synching to the wrong recorded music track. She too ran off the stage in tears. Ashley was quick to blame everyone, but Milli Vanilli for her humiliation, but after a quick makeover came back for what was left of her fifteen minutes of fame.

Memo to Daddy Simpson…. No amount of reconstructive surgery or blonde/brunette ambition is a substitute for talent. Talent is the result of effort. Doh!

So, what does this have to do with school?
My nine year-old nephew has played the trumpet for about six weeks. He recently came home with four pieces of music to learn in order to perform in a public concert a week later. Without any instruction he had to figure out several unfamiliar notes and practice the new songs. Nobody taught him what “practice” means. After one short rehearsal he was to join a group of other children in concert.

While I fully appreciate the power of audience and the inspiration it provides for children, why do we indulge kids by offering the fame of the concert before the requisite investment of effort? I love my nephew and there is nothing cuter than seeing little kids in concert but what message are we sending? IS it true that we should have to sit in an uncomfortable gymnasium and listen to anything they play, regardless of the quality or effort just because the children want us to? Concerts are not rehearsals. They are special and should be held to a higher standard.

During the week preceding my nephew’s inaugural concert, I helped him practice the new songs – something his teacher left to chance. He plays OK for a beginner. He knows around six notes, some of which he manages to string together in a sequence. After playing four or five consecutive notes in a fashion only an uncle could love, he proclaimed, “I really nailed it!”

How does a kid develop such a false sense of triumph? The media is partially responsible, but the gold star, instant gratification of our school’s worksheet culture is culpable as well.

Every student should be made to watch Dolly Parton perform and then Jessica Simpson’s Kennedy Center disaster. They could then write a five-paragraph essay in which they compare and contrast the two performances.

Originally published December 04, 2006 in The Pulse: Education’s Pace for Debate

It’s Superbowl Sunday (Go Saints!) and I just saw the first of what will undoubtedly be many public service Play60announcements for Play 60, the NFL’s campaign to encourage play.

Are there children averse to play? Seems to me that play is the natural state of children.

So, who stole play? Is a play-eating virus ravishing our nation?

The real enemies of play are the folks who set school policy from the President of the United States down to some local school principals. That’s who is responsible for turning classrooms into joyless test-prep sweatshops free of recess, blocks, dress-up corners and increasingly, even physical education.

For too many American public school students, playing 60 minutes per day is as big of fantasy as a Detroit Lions Superbowl threepeat.

Consider my nephews, named “94th Percentile” and “Exceeds Expectations.” They live in a community 40 miles from New York City. There has NEVER been recess in their elementary or middle schools. After a rushed 20-minute silent lunch ( school is about socialization, right?), the kids are forced to participate in some forced march, called “Walk/Run.”

Due to a 45-minute commute.  94th and Exceeds board the school bus at 7 AM and return home at dusk. They then rush through a meal with their parents, followed by an hour or two of their parents yelling at them to complete their meaningless homework and then bedtime. Sometimes, there’s even time for a shower.

What there isn’t time for is play – or trumpet practice, bike riding, answering their uncle’s email, reading a book, karate or Scouts.

Obama for Play 60My young nephews hear President Obama call for a longer school day and think he should lay off the Gummy Bears. He just can’t be thinking clearly!

Playing for 60 minutes per day is a swell idea. I think kids should play as much as possible – all sorts of play, not just sports. That’s how kids learn, create, develop interpersonal skills and become productive citizens. The NFL Play60 campaign targets childhood obesity. Could school violence and the epidemic of attention deficit disorders possibly be rooted in a lack of play?

It’s also ironic that the NFL is combatting childhood obesity while simultaneously encouraging teenagers to weigh 300 pounds and sign 13 year-olds to USC football.

In Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, John Taylor Gatto reminds us that one of the lessons of school is surveillance:

I teach children that they are being watched. I keep each student under constant surveillance and so do my colleagues. There are no private spaces for children; there is no private time. Class change lasts 300 seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at low levels. Students are encouraged to tattle on each other, even to tattle on their parents. Of course I encourage parents to file their own child’s waywardness, too.

I assign “homework” so that this surveillance extends into the household, where students might otherwise use the time to learn something unauthorized, perhaps from a father or mother, or by apprenticing to some wiser person in the neighborhood. (Gatto, 1991)

We would not have to “Save the Music” or create a charity advocating childhood play if we adults did the right thing and cared for children! Why don’t we try that at least 60 minutes per day?


Apropos of nothing, this video clip from Jimmy Fallon’s latenight show makes me laugh.