The Atlantic featured a really good piece of reflection on the lost art of teaching by the great magician Teller, half of Penn and Teller.
“The first job of a teacher is to make the student fall in love with the subject. That doesn’t have to be done by waving your arms and prancing around the classroom; there’s all sorts of ways to go at it, but no matter what, you are a symbol of the subject in the students’ minds.”
This fits nicely with my oft-repeated statement, “Schools have an obligation to introduce children to things they don’t yet know they love.”
Americans have a nutty notion that experts are bad teachers. My experience is quite to the contrary. You become an expert by obsessively focusing on often tiny, yet continuous growth. That precision and focus is easy converted into an ability to explain a learning process.
More than 20 years ago, a graduate student of mine, named Beth, (surname escapes me, but she had triplets and is a very fine high school math teacher) used an early version of MicroWorlds to program her own version of a toolkit similar to Geometer’s Sketchpad. Over time, I ran a similar activity with kids as young as 7th grade. I’ve done my best to piece together various artifacts from my archives into a coherent starting point for this potentially expansive activity. Hopefully, you’ll be able to figure out how to use the tools provided and improve or expand upon them.
As students build functionality (via programming) into a tool for creating and measuring geometric constructions, they reinforce their understanding of important geometric concepts. As the tool gets more sophisticated, students learn more geometry, which in turn leads to a desire to explore more complex geometric issues. This is an ecological approach to programming. The tool gets better as you learn more and you learn more as the tool becomes more sophisticated.
Along the way, students become better programmers while using variables, list processing, and recursion in their Logo procedures. They will also engage in user interface design.
- Teacher and student project instructions
- MicroWorlds EX Geometry Toolkit starter template file
- An example of a more elaborate Geometry Toolkit created by Beth
 I would not show commercial models of the software to students until after they have programmed some new functionality into their own tools.
The debate about technology’s place in classrooms might vanish if the machines are used to expand students’ self-expression
Be sure to read to bottom!
I recently attended attended Apple Computer CEO Steve Job’s keynote address at the annual Macworld Conference in San Francisco. Amidst the demonstrations of OS X, the launch of the sexy new Titanium Powerbook and the obligatory race between a Pentium IV and Macintosh G4 (you can guess which won), Jobs said some things that I believe will be critically important to the future of computing.
Quotations from the CEOs of Gateway and Compaq decrying the death of the personal computer were rebuffed by Jobs who not only asserted that the PC is not dead, but that we are entering a new age of enlightenment. Steve Jobs declared that the personal computer is now “the digital hub for the digital lifestyle.”
While everyone is excited about new handheld organizers, video cameras, cell phones and MP3 players, these devices not only require a personal computer for installing software, backing up files and downloading media – they are made more powerful by the PC. The personal computer is the only electronic device (at least for the foreseeable future) capable of multimedia playback, supercomputer-speed calculations and massive data storage. Most importantly, the personal computer is required for those who wish to create, rather than be passive recipients of bits generated by others.
Jobs discussed how video cameras are cool, but iMovie makes them much more powerful. Boxes full of videotapes are no longer lost in the attic, because you can easily produce edited movies shareable with friends, relatives and the world. Jobs then launched iDVD, Apple’s stunning new technical breakthrough that allows anyone to create their own DVDs in minutes. Think about what this could mean in a classroom! Class plays, science experiments and sporting events could be shared with the community and playable with state-of-the-art quality on the home television. Video case studies of best practice can be used in teacher education complete with digital quality audio/video. Zillions of digital photos and scanned images of student work can be assembled as portfolios stored on one disk and viewed anywhere.
A company representative from Alias Wavefront was brought to the stage to demonstrate their software package, Maya. Maya is the 3D graphics tool used by George Lucas to make the most recent Star Wars film and by all of last year’s Oscar nominees for best special effects to work their artistic magic. The quick demo showed how a flower paintbrush could be chosen and with the wave of the mouse flowers could be drawn in 3D on the computer screen. These were no ordinary flowers though. The software knew to make each flower slightly different from the others, as they would appear in nature. The software also knew how they would behave if wind were to be added to the scene. Clouds drawn knew to move behind the mountains. Until now, Maya required a specially configured graphics workstation. It now runs on a Macintosh G4. While the software is currently too expensive for most kindergarten classrooms, it occurred to me that the world will be a much cooler place when five year-olds can use Kid-Pix-level fluency to create with the same tools as George Lucas. Perhaps then they will stop blowing up their Kid-Pix creations and express themselves through film.
Jobs argued that iMovie makes video cameras more powerful and iDVD enhances the value of both the video camera and DVD player. Therefore, the personal computer not only powers digital devices, but empowers our lives. This is a profoundly liberating and enabling vision for society.
As I left the auditorium I thought, “Steve Jobs really gets it!” However my admiration for his vision and desire for the new “toys” was quickly tempered by thoughts regarding the imagination gap guiding the use of computers in schools. Not once did Jobs compare the PC to the pencil or refer to it as a tool for getting work done. No standards for computer-use were offered. Instead, he challenged us to view the computer as a way of inspiring a renaissance of human potential.
Just Make Something
The personal computer is the most powerful, expressive and flexible instrument ever invented. It has transformed nearly every aspect of society, yet schools remain relatively untouched. Rather than be led by technological advances to rethink models of schooling, schools and the software industry have chosen to use computers to drill for multiple-choice tests, play games and find answers to questions available in reference books via the Internet. While the Internet is an incredibly powerful and handy reference tool, it’s real potential lies in its ability to democratize publishing and offer unprecedented opportunities for collaboration and communication. The dominant practice is to restrict or forbid this openness through filtering software, acceptable-use policies and overzealous network administrators. When the paradigm for Internet use is “looking stuff up” it should come as no surprise that kids are going to look at inappropriate content.
The results of this imagination paralysis are too numerous to mention. The hysteria over Internet use, growing disenchantment with schooling and calls to reduce tech funding are clearly the consequences of our inability to create more explicit, creative and public models of computers being used by children to learn in magnificent ways. The recent dubious report, Fool’s Gold, by the Alliance for Childhood, takes aim at school computer-use by illustrating the trivial and thoughtless ways computers are used in schools. A moment of candor requires us to admit that most of their criticisms are valid. Schools do use computers in dopey ways. However, that is not a legitimate argument for depriving kids of the opportunity to learn and express themselves with computers. It is however an indictment of the narrow ways in which schools use technolology. Experts advocating the use of handheld devices as “the perfect K-12 computer” so that students may take notes or have homework assignments beamed to them are cheating our young people out of rich learning adventures.
It’as if schools have forgotten what computers do best. Computers are best at making things – all sorts of things. Educational philosophers including Dewey, Piaget, Papert, Vygotsky, Gardner have been telling us forever that the best way to learn is through the act of making things, concrete and abstract. The PC is an unparalleled intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression yet schools seem ill-equipped or disinclined to seize that potential.
Kids can now express their ideas through film-making, web broadcasting, MIDI-based music composition and synchronous communication. They can construct powerful ideas (even those desired by the curriculum) through robotics, simulation design and computer programming.
While there is much rhetoric about kids making things with computers, those projects tend to reinforce old notions of teaching. Hyperstudio book reports or databases containing the pets owned by classmates are not what I have in mind. Kids should make authentic things borne of their curiosity, interests and reflecting the world in which they live.
I cannot imagine that the critics of public education and the investment in educational technology would object to kids using computers in such authentic, deeply intellectual and creative ways. Rather than creating unproductive standards for computer use, educational computing organizations should be building, documenting and sharing compelling models of how computers may be used to inspire joyful learning throughout the land.
Seymour Papert has proposed that we “view the computer as material.” This material may be used in countless wonderful and often unpredictable ways. Teachers are naturally gifted with materials of all sorts and the computer should be part of that mix. This change in focus should reap rewards for years to come.
We can do good and do well by exercising a bit more creativity. We can neutralize our critics and move education forward if we shift our focus towards using school computers for the purpose of constructing knowledge through the explicit act of making things. Children engaged in thoughtful projects might impress citizens desperate for academic rigor. Emphasizing the use of computers to make things will make life easier for teachers, more exciting for learners and lead schools into this golden age. [Emphasis 2016]
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.