One seventh grader’s journey includes learning math through Scooby Doo
©2001 Gary S. Stager/Curriculum Administrator Magazine


A version of this was published in the August 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine

 

At our annual family dinner to celebrate the end of another school year each of our children reflected upon the lessons learned and the obstacles overcome during the previous ten months. Our seventh-grade daughter, who will be referred to by the top-secret code name of Miffy, shared with us a new pedagogical strategy and use of educational technology not yet conceived of  during my school years. What was this innovation? Was it project-based learning, multiage collaboration, constructionism, online publishing, modeling and simulation? No, it was Disney films.

Yup, that’s right. Disney films (and several others too). The following is a partial list of the films shown this year during class time by my daughter’s teachers.

1st period Science 2nd period Math 3rd/4th period Language Arts 6th period Physical Education (rainy days) 7th period Social studies 8th period Band
Mulan
The Lion King
Babe Angels in the Outfield*
Young Frankenstein
Mighty Joe Young Little Giants* Babe
The Nightmare Before Christmas Aladdin The Big Green* Charlotte’s Web Rocky & Bullwinkle
Contact Cinderella The Sandlot* The Lion King II A Touched by an Angel episode dealing with racism & prejudice The Emperor’s New Groove
The Andromeda Strain The Little Mermaid Planet of the Apes Aladdin Remember the Titans Grease
MTV videos Mighty Joe Young The Road to Eldorado Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
VH1 videos The Nightmare Before Christmas Dinosaur Mr. Holland’s Opus
Scooby Doo
The Nightmare Before Christmas
[The list is based on what my daughter could remember at the end of a school year. So, it is likely to be incomplete.]

I know by now that you must be marveling at the interdisciplinary nature of The Nightmare Before Christmas. You may also be wondering why there were no movies shown during fifth period. That’s because they don’t show movies during lunch.

Now I’m as fond of wasting time and goofing-off as the next guy, but Miffy was able to remember watching at least 34 films having no educational value whatsoever in one school year. In case you were thinking that they could be studying film criticism or visual storytelling you should know that they only watched half of most films because the periods are too short. Others were watched over several days.

This remarkable waste of class time occurred in a school where requests for meaningful projects, hands-on experiments, field-trips, drama and other productive learning experiences are abandoned because of an oft-repeated “lack of time.” Sure the standardized tests and top-down curricular pressures wreak havoc with creating a productive context for learning, but we can’t blame this one on Princeton or the President. Somewhere along the line educators determined that the demanding curriculum was elastic enough for the illegal showing of countless commercial films.

My Daughter the Rodeo Clown

Miffy also told me that due to the SAT-9 exams, “Career Day” had been cancelled. I’m not sure which part of that statement is most tragic, so let’s state it in the form of a standardized test question.

Which is most pathetic?

  1. a) Canceling Career Day because of SAT-9 testing
  2. b) Career Day
  3. c) The school’s remedy for having cancelled career day

The ingenious remedy chosen was to spend much of the last week of school watching a series of instructional videos called, “Real Life 101.” While hardly as educational as Mulan, these shows turned out to be far more entertaining. The audience was repeatedly reminded, “you don’t need a college degree for this career, but it wouldn’t hurt! ”

The hosts of the series, Maya, Megan, Zooby and Josh (there always seems to be a Josh) introduced exciting career options for the high-tech interconnected global economy of the 21st century. The career options included the following: Snake handler, projectionist, naval explosive expert, skydive instructor, rafting instructor, diamond cutter, roller coaster technician, exterminator, auctioneer, alligator wrestler and my personal favorite growth industry – rodeo clown!

Actual Career Day worksheet used in the Torrance, CA Unified School District

You can’t make this stuff up! The worksheet that followed the Career Day substitute asked each child to rank these careers in order of preference and write a few sentences explaining their number one choice.

If I wanted my children to watch television, I’d let them stay home. At least at home they could watch something educational like “Behind the Music: The Mamas and the Papas”or learn about Beat poetry from the “Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. ”  At least then they would have a chance to learn something more than the unfortunate lessons being modeled by their schools.


Notes: *My kid explained that all of these films share the same plot about a group of fat kids working hard together to win the big game. Somewhere in there’s a lesson for us all.

About the author

Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He is also the curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, The Daily Papert. Learn more about Gary here.

Before accepting overtesting as inevitable, try debating the issue with parents and students
By Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Originally published in District Administration Magazine – July 2003

Our schools are in the midst of a mass panic not seen since the swine flu epidemic–standardized testing. We are swept up in a wave of “the tests are important,” “parents demand accountability,” and “they make us do it.” This uncritical groupthink will destroy public education unless we wake up, form alliances and tell the public the truth.

Democrats and Republicans alike caught a bad case of testing fever and voted overwhelmingly for No Child Left Behind, perhaps the greatest intrusion of the federal government into local education in history. NCLB will compel states to test their students every year from grades 2-12 in order to rank schools and shut many of them down. Our Proctor-in-Chief, George W. Bush, is extending the joys of standardized testing into Head Start.

Since many administrators and school board members have no idea how many standardized tests they need to administer, NCLB will undoubtedly add additional tests and draconian consequences to a school year already diminished by weeks of testing and test preparation.

Without so much as a public debate on what we would want for our schools, testing mania has been allowed to spread like a plague on our educational process. If some testing is good, more is better. If the youngest students can’t yet hold a pencil or read, of course they can bubble-in answers to math problems for several hours at a time. Head Start should be a reading program. You got a problem with three-year-olds reading? Why then, you must suffer from “the bigotry of low expectations.” The end of recess does not affect obesity. Replacing art and music with scripted curricula won’t lead to increased school violence or discipline problems. Down is up, black is white.

Education Week’s annual report “Technology Counts,” states an alarming trend–schools are not spending enough money on using computers for the purposes of standardized testing! Apparently, the years I’ve spent helping schools use computers to enhance learning have been wasted. It never occurred to me that computers should be used to replace #2 pencils and scan sheets. Tech-based testing reminds me of the old Gaines Burger commercial that asked, “Is your dog getting enough cheese?”

The Education Week “research” is replete with charts and graphs designed to whip child-centered educators into line. EdWeek loves winners and losers nearly as much as the testing industry. Coincidentally, a giant publisher of standardized tests, textbooks and test preparation systems, funded their “study.”

In such a climate of confusion and hysteria, educators feel powerless. Parents trust that you will do the right thing. Misconceptions about high-stakes testing are amplified by an unwillingness to engage the community in conversation.

Getting Active
Inspired by Juanita Doyon’s terrific new book, Not With Our Kids You Don’t: Ten Strategies to Save Our Schools, and a desire to show my kids that you can make a difference, I decided to try my hand at activism.

I designed a flier answering some of the myths about standardized testing and telling parents that California state law allows them to exempt their child from the STAR tests. Two days before testing was to begin I stood in front of my daughter’s high school and passed out 150 fliers in about 10 minutes. I felt a bit creepy, but the kids told me that I was cool (a first).

I have since learned that 46 students opted out of the tests. That’s a one-third hit-rate. Not since the Pet Rock has a marketing effort been so successful with so little effort Think about it–a kid had to take a piece of paper from a stranger, bring it home, convince his parents to write a letter disobeying the wishes of the school and bring the letter back to school the next day. Perhaps the public isn’t as hungry for increased accountability as we have been led to believe?

One parent said she didn’t know her tax money was spent on standardized testing. Can you imagine the public being less engaged in a matter so important?

It is incumbent upon each of us to tell parents what we know and engage the community in serious discussions about schooling. We may find that we have many more allies than there are politicians telling us what’s best for kids.

 

An old colleague, Dr. Warren Buckleitner, has been reviewing children’s media products and toys for decades. He organizes industry events about the design of products for kids while maintaining a romantic optimism that the next great app is just around the corner. However, he often feels compelled to use Dr. Seymour Papert as a negative example to support a corporate community that Papert held in great repute. It’s a neat rhetorical trick, but Warren and I have discussed what I find to be a disrespectful view of Papert in the past. This morning, I awoke to find the Children’s Technology Exchange newsletter in my inbox. The latest issue dedicates a page to something Dr. Buckleitner calls “Seymour Syndrome.”

So, I decided to set the record straight by clearing up some confusion about issues raised in his essay. (I deleted the table of content links and all of the non-relevant content in the newsletter email below in order to respect the paywall and intellectual property rights. For more information, or to subscribe to his fine publications, go to http://reviews.childrenstech.com/)

Dear Warren,

Your latest discussion caught my eye. Aside from a persistent Papert animus and fondness for negative alliteration, your critique, “Seymour Syndrome” has some bugs in it.

  1. Papert’s lifework can hardly be reduced to the foreword in Mindstorms.
  2. Dr. Papert would dislike most of the crappy “products” you feel compelled to share with the world as much, if not more so than you do. (see Does Easy Do It? Children, Games and Learning)
  3. There is not a millimeter of daylight between Piaget and Papert. (see Papert on Piaget)
  4. Piaget’s work wasn’t about hands-on, it was focused on learning through concrete experiences. That’s not the same thing. (See The Conservation of Piaget: The Computer as Grist to the Constructivist Mill or even Ian’s Truck.)
  5. Papert was not Piaget’s student. Papert had earned two mathematics Ph.D.s by the time Piaget hired him as a collaborator.
  6. What is considered “getting kids to code” today is a denatured view of Papert’s vision about democratizing agency over computers.
  7. I’m not sure what a direction variable is, but 1) kids play games and sing songs using syntonic body geometry (like the turtle) from a very early age and 2) lots and lots of kids can use RIGHT and LEFT to learn directionality long before they’re eight or nine years-old.
  8. Papert’s “gear” story is a metaphor. His life’s work was dedicated to creating the conditions in which children could fall in love with powerful ideas naturally and with lots of materials, technologies, and experiences. His book, The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer, discusses the importance of sharing learning stories.
  9. Papert wasn’t “led to Logo.” He, along with Wally Feurzig and Cynthia Solomon invented Logo. The fact that you’re still talking about it 50 years later points to at least its durability as an “object to think with.” (Here is a video conversation about Logo’s origins with two of its inventors.)
  10. Scratch can be considered Papert’s grandchild. I’m glad you like it.
  11. Most of the products you review make “exaggerated” claims about their educational properties. Why should this one be any different? Why blame Papert? (Dr. Papert wrote an entire book of advice for parents on avoiding such products and substituting creative activities instead. See The Connected Family – Bridging the Digital Generation Gap)
  12. The current CS4All, CSEdWeek, Hour-of-Code efforts are almost entirely “idea averse” (a great Papert term) and could really stand to learn a few things from Dr. Papert.

BTW: Thanks for your review of the CUE robot. It was helpful. Imagine if these toys had the extended play value of a programming language, like Logo? I’ve been using and learning with Logo for close to 40 years and have yet to tire of it. I sure wish you could have seen me teach Logo programming to 150 K-12 educators last week in Virginia. It was magnificent.

Happy holidays!

Gary

PS: I wonder why so many people feel so comfortable calling Dr./Professor Seymour Papert by his first name? Nobody calls Dewey, “John,” or Piaget, “Jean.”

On December 7, 2017 at 8:31 AM Children’s Technology Review wrote:

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RECOGNIZING SEYMOUR SYNDROME
See page 4 Recognizing “Seymour Syndrome”  Seymour Papert was a gifted individual. I mean no disrespect to his legacy by this article. I’ve seen how his ideas about children and coding have misled well-intentioned adults in the past.  Fast forward 40 years, and history is repeating itself. From reading Seymour Papert’s 1980 book, Mindstorms, we learn that he was fascinated by gears as a child. “Playing with gears became a favorite pastime. I loved rotating circular objects against one another in gearlike motions and, naturally, my first ‘erector set’ project was a crude gear system.” Papert wanted every child to have such mindstorms, which led him to Logo; an early programming language. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, many educators suffered from “Seymour Syndrome” — meaning an idealistic optimism that coding was the key to a better future. There was a rush to enroll children in coding camps. I know this because I was one of the teachers. I started calling all the hype “Seymour Syndrome” people trying to get young children to code, before they can understand what is going on. Today’s market has once again flooded with commercial coding-related apps, robots and games being sold with the promise that they can promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Cubetto is one of these. The symptoms are in the marketing materials that name-drop Montessori, and claim that time with this rolling cube will  “teach a child to code before they can read.” Cubetto’s coding means finding six AA batteries and plotting out the course of a slow moving rolling cube on a grid. You do this by laying direction tiles on a progress line and pressing a transmit button.  I shudder to think that teachers are spending time attempting to “teach” children how to “code” thinking that this actually as something to do with “teaching” children how to “code” to fulfill a STEM objective. Students of child development know that preschool and early elementary age children learn best when they are actively involved with hands on, concrete materials. Papert’s teacher — Jean Piaget called the years from 3 to 7 “concrete operations” for a reason. The motions of the cube should be directly linked to the command, or better yet, the child should be in the maze, for a first-person point of view. ‘ Good pedagogy in the early years should be filled with building with blocks, playing at the water table filling and emptying containers, moving around (a lot) and testing language abilities on peers. If you want to use technology, get them an iPad and let them explore some responsive Sago Mini apps. Spend your $220 (the cost of a Cubetto) on several a low cost, durable RC vehicles that deliver a responsive, cause and effect challenge. Let the direction variables wait until the child is eight- or nine-years of age, when they can use a program like Scratch to build an entire program out of clusters of commands. As far as the “coding” part, save your pedagogical ammo for materials that match a child’s developmental level.

LITTLECLICKERS: PROJECTION MAPPING
Do you like to play with shadows? If so, you’ll love projection mapping. That’s when you use a computer projector to create a cool effect on a ceiling or building. Let’s learn some more.   1. What is projection mapping? According to http://projection-mapping.org/whatis/ you learn that it’s simply pointing a computer projector at something, to paint it with light. You can play a scary video on your house a Halloween, or make Santa’s sled move across your ceiling during a concert. The possibilities are endless. Visit the site, at www.littleclickers.com/projectionmapping


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About the author

Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He is also the curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, The Daily Papert. Learn more about Gary here.