Following my presentation at the March ASCD National Conference, Sarah McKibben of ASCD interviewed me for an article, If You Build It: Tinkering with the Maker Mind-Set, published in the June 2014 issue of ASCD Education Update.

As is often the case, just a few of my comments made it into the final publication. Since I responded to a number of interview questions via email, I am publishing my full interview here.  The questions posed are in green.

How would you define making? I talked to Steve Davee at the Maker Education Initiative, and he says that making is more of a mind-set. “Where things that are created by people are recognized, celebrated, and there’s a common interdisciplinary thread.”  Would you agree?

I like to say that the best makerspace is between your ears. I agree that it’s a stance that prepares learners to solve problems their teachers could never have predicted with a strong sense of confidence and competence, even if only to discover that there is much more to learn.

Seymour Papert calls the learning theory underlying the current interest in “making,” constructionism. He asserts that learn best occurs when the learner is engaged in the process of constructing something shareable.

In our book, we argue that my friend and mentor Papert, is the father the maker movement as well as educational computing.

In a webinar on your website, Sylvia Martinez said that with making, assessment is intrinsic within the materials.” That it’s more “organic, formative, and internally motivated.” If you’re working with a material like cardboard, without any technology involved (and you can’t base success on something lighting up), how do you assess learning?

First of all, it would be best to take a deep breath and not worry about assessing everything. All assessment interrupts the learning process. Even just asking, “Hey, whatcha doing?” interrupts the learning process. It is up to reasonable adults to determine an acceptable degree of interruption. Perhaps building stuff out of cardboard is just fun.

The best problems and projects push up against the persistence of reality. One could observe a student’s habits of mind. Speak with them about her goals and what she has accomplished. One could imagine thinking about the understanding of physics involved in building a structure, understanding of history in their cardboard Trojan horse, or storytelling ability.

There isn’t anything magical about technology when it comes to a teacher understanding the thinking of each student. That said, we find over and over again that in productive learning environments, kids may combine media, like cardboard, lights, and microcontrollers in interesting and unpredictable ways. The computer is part of an expansive continuum of constructive material.

It seems that there’s a wide gamut of materials in making. From cardboard to Arduinos to expensive laser cutters. You mentioned in a presentation, something about “low threshold, high-ceiling materials.” Can you describe what you mean?

Sure, Tinkering and engineering requires a dialogue with materials in which it is possible for young or inexperienced users to enjoy immediate feedback so they continue to grow as fluency increases. Think of paint and brushes in that context or programming languages, such as Scratch or MicroWorlds. Like with LEGO, simple elements or tools may be used to create infinite complexity and expressiveness.

Can you give me an example of how, for instance, a high school English teacher might bring making into the classroom?

Making real things that matter with a real potential audience. Kids should write plays, poems, newspaper articles, petitions, manuals, plus make films, compose music, etc…  We need to stop forcing kids to make PowerPoint presentations on topics they don’t care about for audiences they will never encounter. Kids have stories to tell. They should act, write, sing, dance, film those stories AND learn to write the sort of scientific, technical and persuasive writing that nearly every career demands.

At our Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute, middle school humanities teacher, Kate Tabor of Chicago, used MicroWorlds to “make” the computer generate random Elizabethan insults. Teachers have used versions of Logo for decades to explore grammatical structure and conjugation rules by writing computer programs to generate random poetry or create the plural possessive form of a word.

Steve Davee also mentioned that a key to successful making in schools is to empower students to become the experts–to learn how to use a 3d printer on their own, for example, and to share that knowledge with others. He said that when a teacher has to be involved with a technology or material, it creates a “creative bottleneck.” On the other hand, you’ve mentioned that teachers need to tap into their own expertise to guide students. Can these two approaches coexist peacefully?

Kids are competent. I believe that teachers are competent too. I find it unfortunate that so many educators behave as if teachers are incapable of adapting to modernity.

There is a fundamental difference in stance between assuming that as a teacher I know everything as a fountain of knowledge and that the kids are smarter than me. There may be a “creative bottleneck,” but giving up on teachers or schools is an unacceptable capitulation.

Great things are possible when the teacher gets out of the way, but even greater possibilities exist when the teacher is knowledgeable and has experience they can call upon to help a kid solve a tough problem, connect with an expert, or toss in a well-timed obstacle that will cause the student encounter a powerful idea at just the right teachable moment.

Each year, teachers at Constructing Modern Knowledge construct projects that two years ago would have earned them a TED Talk and five years ago, a Ph.D. in engineering, and yet so much teacher PD is focused on compliance, textbook page turning or learning to “use the Google.”

How does making align with Piaget’s understanding, as you’ve mentioned, that knowledge is a consequence of experience?

Piaget said that knowledge is a consequence of experience. Papert said, “If you can make things with computers, then you can make a lot more interesting things and you can learn more by making them.” Both ideas serve as strong justification for making.

In a webinar, Sylvia Martinez mentioned that instead of looking at standards and creating projects around them, teachers might work backward by creating an educational experience, then filling in the standards. Do you agree with this approach? How would this look with making?

I agree with Papert that at best school teaches a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the universe yet our entire educational system is hell-bent on arguing endlessly over which 1 billionth of a percent is important. As an educator, my primary responsibility is create a productive context for learning that democratizes access to experience and expertise while doing everything I can to make private thinking public in order to ready the environment for the student’s next intellectual development. Making is wholly consistent with this view.

As we have mechanized and standardized teaching over the past generation, teachers have been deprived of experience in thinking about thinking. Their agency has been robbed by scripted curricula, test-prep, the Common Core, and other nonsense I believe to be on the wrong side of history. As a result, they can’t help but become less thoughtful in their practice. My work is concerned with creating experiences during which teachers become reacquainted with learning in order to become more sensitive to the individual needs, passions, talents, and expertise of each student. The emerging tools of the Maker Movement provide an exciting basis for such experiences.

As I said at ASCD, you can’t teach 21st Century learners, if you haven’t learned this century.

The future viability of public education is dependent on a system of creative competent educators trusted to provide rich learning experiences for children.

Almost daily, a colleague I respect posts a link to some amazing tale of classroom innovation, stupendous new education product or article intended to improve teaching practice. Perhaps it is naive to assume that the content has been vetted. However, once I click on the Twitter or Facebook link, I am met by one of the following:

  1. A gee-whiz tale of a teacher doing something obvious once, accompanied by breathless commentary about their personal courage/discovery/innovation/genius and followed by a steam of comments applauding the teacher’s courage/discovery/innovation/genius. Even when the activity is fine, it is often the sort of thing taught to first-semester student teachers.
  2. An article discovering an idea that millions of educators have known for decades, but this time with diminished expectations
  3. An ad for some test-prep snake oil or handful of magic beans
  4. An “app” designed for kids to perform some trivial task, because “it’s so much fun, they won’t know they’re learning.” Thanks to sites like Kickstarter we can now invest in the development of bad software too!
  5. A terrible idea detrimental to teachers, students or public education
  6. An attempt to redefine a sound progressive education idea in order to justify the status quo

I don’t just click on a random link from a stranger, I follow the directions set by a trusted colleague – often a person in a position of authority. When I ask them, “Did you read that article you posted the link to?” the answer is often, “I just re-read it and you’re right. It’s not good.” Or “I’m not endorsing the content at the end of the link, “I’m just passing it along to my PLN.”

First of all, when you tell me to look at something, that is an endorsement. Second, you are responsible for the quality, veracity and ideological bias of the information you distribute. Third, if you arenot taking responsibility for the information you pass along, your PLN is really just a gossip mill.

If you provide a link accompanied by a message, “Look at the revolutionary work my students/colleagues/I did,” the work should be good and in a reasonable state of completion. If not, warn me before I click. Don’t throw around terms like genius, transformative or revolutionary when you’re linking to a kid burping into Voicethread!! If you do waste my time looking at terrible work, don’t blame me for pointing out that the emperor has no clothes.

Just today, two pieces of dreck were shared with me by people I respect.

1) Before a number of my Facebook friends shared this article, I had already read it in the ASCD daily “Smart” Brief. Several colleagues posted or tweeted links to the article because they yearn for schools to be better – more learner-centered, engaging and meaningful.

One means to those ends is project-based learning.  I’ve been studying, teaching and speaking about project-based learning for 31 years. I’m a fan. I too would like to help every teacher on the planet create the context for kids to engage in personally meaningful projects.

However, sharing the article, Busting myths about project-based learning, will NOT improve education or make classrooms more project-based. In fact, this article so completely perverts project-based learning that it spreads ignorance and will make classroom learning worse, not better.

This hideous article uses PBL, which the author lectures us isn’t just about projects (meaningless word soup), as a compliment to direct instruction, worksheets and tricking students into test-prep they won’t mind as much. That’s right. PBL is best friends with standardized testing and worksheets (perhaps on Planet Dummy). There is no need to abandon the terrible practices that squeeze authentic learning out of the school day. We can just pretend to bring relevance to the classroom by appropriating the once-proud term, project-based learning.

Embedding test-prep into projects as the author suggests demonstrates that the author really has no idea what he is talking about. Forcing distractions into a student’s project work robs them of agency and reduces the activity’s learning potential. The author is also pretty slippery in his use of the term, “scaffolding.” Some of the article doesn’t even make grammatical sense.

Use testing stems as formative assessments and quizzes.

The  article was written by a gentleman who leads professional development for the Buck Institute, an organization that touts itself as a champion of project-based learning, as long as those projects work backwards from dubious testing requirements. This article does not represent innovation. It is a Potemkin Village preserving the status quo while allowing educators to delude themselves into feeling they are doing the right thing.

ASCD should be ashamed of themselves for publishing such trash. My colleagues, many with advanced degrees and in positions where they teach project-based learning, should know better!

If you are interested in effective project-based learning, I’m happy to share these five articles with you.

2) Another colleague urged all of their STEM and computer science-interested friends to explore a site raising money to develop “Fun and Creative Computer Science Curriculum.” Whenever you see fun and creative in the title of an education product, run for the hills! The site is a fund-raising venture to get kids interested in computer science. This is something I advocate every day. What could be so bad?

Thinkersmith teaches computer science with passion and creativity. Right now, we have 20 lessons created, but only 3 packaged. Help us finish by summer!

My experience in education suggests that once you package something, it dies. Ok Stager, I know you’re suspicious of the site and the product searching for micro-investors, but watch the video they produced. It has cute kids in it!

So, I watched the video…

Guess what? Thinkersmith teaches computer science with passion and creativity – and best of all? YOU DON’T EVEN NEED A COMPUTER!!!!!!

Fantastic! Computer science instruction without computers! This is like piano lessons with a piano worksheet. Yes siree ladies and gentleman, there will be no computing in this computer science instruction.

A visitor to the site also has no idea who is writing this groundbreaking fake curriculum or their qualifications to waste kids’ time.

Here we take one of the jewels of human ingenuity, computer science, a field impacting every other discipline and rather than make a serious attempt to bring it to children with the time and attention it deserves, chuckleheads create cup stacking activities and simplistic games.

There are any number of new “apps” on the market promising to teach kids about computer science and programming while we should be teaching children to be computer scientists and programmers.

At the root of this anti-intellectualism is a deep-seated belief that teachers are lazy or incompetent. Yet, I have taught thousands of teachers to teach programming to children and in the 1980s, perhaps a million teachers taught programming in some form to children. The software is better. The hardware is more abundant, reliable and accessible. And yet, the best we can do is sing songs, stack cups and color in 2013?

What really makes me want to scream is that the folks cooking up all of these “amazing” ideas seem incapable of using the Google or reading a book. There is a great deal of collected wisdom on teaching computer science to children, created by committed experts and rooted in decades worth of experience.

If you want to learn how to teach computer science to children, ask me, attend my institute, take a course. I’ll gladly provide advice, share resources, recommend expert colleagues and even help debug student programs. If you put forth some effort, I’m happy to match it.

There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.
-Sir Joshua Reynolds

Don’t lecture me about the power of social media, the genius of your PLN, the imperative for media literacy or information curation if you are unwilling to edit what you share. I share plenty of terrible articles via Twitter and Facebook, but I always make clear that I am doing so for purposes or warning or parody. The junk is always clearly labeled.

Please filter the impurities out of your social media stream.You have a responsibility to your audience.

Thank you


* Let the hysterical flaming begin! Comments are now open.

Come hear me speak or lead a workshop at the following events:

  • January 14 – Orlando Florida Speaker A Vision of 1:1 Computing Worth Sustaining at Florida Educational Technology Conference
  • January 29 – Atlantic City, FL Keynote speaker Ten Things to Do with a Laptop: Learning and Powerful Ideas at NJ Techspo (superintendents), along with Alan November

Educon 2.2