On Christmas Eve (2016), the world lost one of its most profound thinkers when learning theorist, Dr. Edith Ackermann, left us at age 70. Anyone blessed with even the most casual encounter with Edith embraced her as a mentor, collaborator, and friend. She bestowed boundless respect upon anyone trying to make the world more beautiful, just, or creative. Edith’s grace danced into a room like a cool breeze awakening its occupants and setting their sights towards what truly matters.

Edith was a giant among learning theorists, even if under-appreciated and a best kept secret. Her work focused on the intersection of play, design, childhood, and technology. She worked closely with Jean Piaget, Seymour Papert, and Ernst von Glasersfeld – three of the most important experts on learning ever. Her insights were invaluable to the LEGO Company, MIT students, architects, and educators around the world.

Edith was always there to help me clarify my thinking and to take an idea one stop past my anticipated exit. She was a pal with whom you could walk arm in arm discussing almost anything, laugh boisterously, and gossip quietly. We disliked many of the same ideas and people, but Edith was just much better at hiding her disdain.

Perhaps, Edith’s remarkable perspective came from being an outsider. Despite the profound impact she had on innumerable students and colleagues, I never got the sense that the testosterone-oozing world of MIT afforded her the respect or security she so richly deserved.

Shamefully, I do not know much about Edith’s history or personal life; yet another painful reminder that we should do everything possible to know our friends better. Therefore, I will share some thoughts about her work and what she meant to me.

CMK Intern Walter explains Pokemon Go to Edith

I don’t remember when I first met Edith. I think it was in 2000 when Seymour Papert sent me to sub for him as the keynote speaker at a conference held at the Piaget Archives in Geneva. Papert failed to tell the organizers that 1) he wasn’t coming or 2) that I was his replacement. The entire story is a hilarious comedy of errors that I’ll share another day.

Edith and I attended many EuroLogo (now Constructionism) Conferences and worked together 15+ years ago in Mexico City leading a workshop as members of the MIT Media Lab’s Future of Learning Group. Several years ago, I invited Edith to be a guest speaker at my 2014 Constructing Modern Knowledge institute. I set aside concerns that her Swiss accent, quiet demeanor, and brilliant intellect would not work in a room full of predominantly American educators. Her unrivaled genius made the risk worthwhile.

Edith’s wisdom, passion, humanity, and generosity of spirit made her an immediate favorite of the very educators who others treat as low-skill labor in need of a 7-step plan for raising achievement. The next year, Edith spent most of the institute with us interacting informally with participants and appearing on a panel discussion with two of my other heroes, David Loader and Deborah Meier. Last summer, despite her ongoing battle with Cancer, Edith Ackermann spent all four days of CMK helping each of us make meaning out of our individual and collective experiences.

Heroes – David Loader, Deborah Meier, & Edith Ackermann

Edith taught us so much.

Making as a way of seeing

One powerful idea she shared was that “Making is a way of seeing.” Edith had a gift for bringing into focus what others miss. She invited us to “lean in,” not in the vulgar career climbing form advocated by Sheryl Sandberg, but as a way of becoming one with nature, the community, ideas, beauty, and one’s soul.

I would like to share three very special memories of Edith Ackermann at Constructing Modern Knowledge.

After nine years of effort, I managed to convince Reggio Children President Carla Rinaldi to participate in Constructing Modern Knowledge. Edith and Carla were old friends who greeted each other with great love and respect. Their mutual affection was truly touching. During the institute, I stole a little time to show Carla and Edith how Tickle (an iOS dialect of Scratch) could be used to bring drones and a variety of robots to life. They appreciated the technological wizardry for a split second and then became preschoolers imagining how the different toys could play, communicate and love one another. Both experts were so in tune with the inner lives of children that they were able to wear the spirit of childhood play with great ease and abundant joy.

Edith and Carla Rinaldi playing

Hard fun!

A tacit theme of Constructing Modern Knowledge involves creating the conditions by which each participating educator may think about how their particular learning experience connects with their own priory experience and future classroom practice. Superficially, our speakers may seem to have nothing to do with one another or the sorts of project work undertaken by CMK attendees. In 2015, I invited two National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters, 86 year-old pianist Barry Harris and 89 year-old saxophonist Jimmy Heath, to perform a masterclass at CMK. Edith not only understood immediately why I invited them to perform at an event about learning and making, but she was thrilled to spend time with Barry Harris whose music she knew. Edith had also watched videos of Barry teaching. Just take a look at the joy with which she approached this encounter.

Edith with the great Barry Harris

I work all year organizing Constructing Modern Knowledge and try to steal an hour to indulge a passion of mine, taking great friends and colleagues to Cremeland, an “al fresco” roadside stand in Manchester, New Hampshire known for its fabulous fried fish and ice cream. The first year Edith joined the CMK team, I took her and a couple of colleagues for our secret lunch at Cremeland. You order food at one window, eat at picnic tables in the parking lot, and then return to a window at the opposite end of the building for decadent ice cream.

There is always a bit of chaos when a group of people are ordering from an unknown menu through a tiny window, but throw Edith’s Swiss accent into the mix and watch hilarity ensue.

Server: Can I take your order?
Edith: I’ll have the haddock platter.
Server: Hot Dog?
Edith: Haddock
Server: Hot Dog?
Edith: Haddock
Server: Hot Dog?
Edith: NO! Haddock not Hot Dog!

Haddock, not hot dog!

Fried fish & ice cream with great friends

This became a private joke between us and when I gave the CMK faculty and speakers t-shirts with chalkboards printed on them, Edith wrote, “Haddock, not hot dog,” on hers.

Au revoir dear Edith…. We love you and will miss you more than you could ever know.

For further reading…

Exploratorium Talk – The craftsman, The trickster, and the Poet — Conference Art as a way of knowing. San Francisco, 2011

Constructionism 2010 Talk – Constructivism(s): Shared roots, crossed paths, multiple legacies

You must not tell a 17 year-old that she needs to “figure out who you are as an artist.”

That really cheapens the notion of an artist.

My tricky little pal and fellow suffering Jets fan, Will Richardson, recently tweeted asking for TED Talk suggestions to share with his family on “TED Talk” Tuesdays. Will and his wife are embarking on an interesting family event featuring dinner, a TED Talk and conversation with their teenage kids. I know how much my family learns watching Jersey Shore together, so I decided to share my parental expertise with the Richardson family via the following TED Talk recommendations.

You might find my small selection surprising:

#1 Margaret Wertheim on the Beautiful Math of Coral

This talk is all about connections and contrasts – beauty and science, math and art, problem solving and creativity. As a result, this brilliant presentation challenges many of the sterotypes about learning, knowledge and the scientific method perpetuated by school. You will be amazed by how the craft of crocheting led to the visualization and understanding of  centuries old theorems at the frontier of mathematics.

#2 Greening the Ghetto

Majora Carter’s TED Talk explores the connections between economic justice, poverty and environmentalism through community activism. Aside from the importance of this message, I selected this TED Talk because marketing and communications genius Guy Kawasaki does a masterful job of analyzing the talk line-by-line in his book, Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition. Kawasaki demonstrates how Ms. Carter breaks many of the rules of public speaking while persuasively delivering a world-changing presentation. (Kawasaki’s book is a must-read for educators and even high school students.)

This talk is also all about connections.

#3 The Sixth Sense

MIT Media Lab Pattie Maes and her graduate student, Pranav Mistry, demonstrate how $300 worth of consumer electronics may be worn and woven into daily life as we face a new world in which ubiquitous information is available to you as if it were a sixth sense. This video is mind-blowing and should inspire kids to learn to program computers and embrace tinkering.

#4 Tony Robbins Asks Why We Do What We Do

You do not need to buy into any of the new age hokum being peddled by Tony Robbins to recognize that he is one of the greatest communicators alive today. His presentation style is remarkable and the impromptu exchange precipitated by Vice President Gore’s heckling makes this one for the ages. There is much to learn stylistically and affectively from this performance.

#5 Dave Eggers & 826 Valencia

Best-selling author Dave Eggers’ desire to give back to his community is only matched by his passion for whimsy and sharing his love of writing with young people. This TED Talk celebrating Eggers winning the TED Prize explores how pirate supply shops and superhero stores may serve as incredibly rich non-school learning environments where children become writers by writing with expert adult writers. Put aside Eggers’ nod towards school and homework and consider the powerful ideas of apprenticeship, access to expertise, community of practice and how we might all create productive contexts for learning.

If you want to go beyond five recommendations, might I suggest the two TED videos exploring El Sistema, the Venezuelan Youth Orcestra program and remind yourself of what the performing arts mean to a culture.

El Sistema: Music to Change Life

No educator's library is complete without this DVD

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Originally published in the September 2000 issue of Australia’s Hotsource online newsletter

I recently attended the American Association of School Administrators Conference. The wares being plied on the exhibit hall floor were at once both amusing and appalling. Everything being sold to the school superintendents was advertised as a solution. Next to the curriculum solution was the testing solution. Within walking distance you could find the technology solution and the vending machine solution. Why exert the effort required to solve education’s intractable problems? A solution to any problem could be exchanged for a purchase order.

Recently, the Logo list-serv, logo-l@gsn.org,** was the site of a discussion begun by teachers in search of Logo workbooks and clip-art to be used in Logo projects. While slightly disappointing, this discussion is not unexpected. Teachers have been conditioned to follow lesson plans prepared far from their classrooms and their newfound enthusiasm for Logo leads to the inevitable quest for ancillary materials. Logo is not about solutions. It’s about problems – good hard ones.

Instead of dismissing the concerns of these teachers I think we should spend some time responding to their perceived and actual needs.

In Search of Ideas

Logo-using teachers do not need workbooks, worksheets, or multiple choice tests. They need good ideas, courage and permission to use their imaginations and value the interests of their students. There are not enough good books about learning Logo, Brian Harvey’s series, Computer Science Logo Style 1-3, is among the best ever written, but it is of little help for a beginning MicroWorlds user. The standard Logo books require enough translation of the Logo syntax to make the transition to MicroWorlds difficult. Adults interested in learning MicroWorlds would be well-served to spend the time working through the project booklets provided by LCSI. They should be encouraged to experiment with and extend the ideas in those student booklets. Teachers can also learn more in workshops and from colleagues online. HotSource, SchoolKit and the Logo Exchange journal are good sources of additional project ideas.

Children can learn a great deal from these carefully designed projects as well. They will quickly master the elementary programming skills introduced and should then apply this knowledge in service of their own project ideas. Logo is not intended to follow a prescribed scope and sequence-style curriculum. Logo, by its very nature, is anti-curriculum which in no way means that it may not be used to serve the school’s curriculum.

Teachers need to trust the skills, experience and imagination of kids and use Logo to enrich the learning process. If kids develop sufficient Logo fluency, they will be able to enrich a curricular topic with graphics, text, animation, interactivity and multimedia elements. This should become natural and expected of students with appropriate access to computers.

Those teachers interested in using Logo beyond the boundaries of the traditional curriculum should follow the interests and talents of their students? What would the kids like to design in MicroWorlds? Conduct a technology survey. Ask yourself sorts of video games, computer programs, web pages do you find in the community? What sorts of simulations could be built to concretize an abstract concept or historical event? Once you and your students have a problem-solving goal, start working towards solving it. Remember that one of the strengths of Logo is the ability to solve a problem in a number of ways. Share the knowledge, talents and breakthrough discoveries of your students within your community of practice and seek assistance from the online Logo community when necessary.


The question about using clip-art in a learning project is a bit more complex. As a general rule, kids should draw, paint, photograph or record any content required by their project. Illustrations too complex to be created on the computer may be scanned from traditional media into the computer. Original work should be the educational goal. It also eliminates any questions about copyright. I am horrified by the school reports consisting of photocopied illustrations from encyclopedias and am no more impressed by cut-and-paste reports created via World Wide Web plagiarism.

The issue of when to use clip-art is primarily a matter of balance. Ask yourself what the primary educational goal of the project is. If your students are developing sophisticated mathematics and computer science knowledge through the design of an interactive card game, then the educational outcomes far outweigh the virtue of hand-drawing 52 different playing cards. In that case, find some graphics on a CD or the web and paste those graphics in the turtle’s shape centre. If students are using MicroWorlds to tell a story, simulate a scientific concept or report on a historical event, they should design their own graphics (perhaps in collaboration with others).

The same logic applies to the use of music and audio in student projects. Narrations and simple musical accompaniment should be prepared by the learner. When a recording by Churchill is required, use the real thing – unless of course you think the kid would benefit from learning the speech and recording it herself.

Kids should be encouraged to derive satisfaction from their own creativity and not be compared to professionally created products. The neurotic needs of teachers craving error-free teaching should not be allowed to interfere with the learning and creative expression of their students.

Go on try something new. Take some risks. I dare you!

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