I just received the following email from my nephew, a conscientious and excellent student currently enrolled at an East Coast university costing $68,000/year – before textbooks, etc…

The subject line in the email was PISSED

Since I know how much you love Pearson…

I’m taking a math course and an accounting course this term, each requires the completion of weekly online homework assignments. In order to gain access to these assignments, each student must make an account using a course ID so that our scores will automatically be sent to the professors, and purchase access to the e-books online. The accounting textbook is McGraw-Hill, and the math book is Pearson.

Each e-book will cost me $100, only because we are required to use these websites for our homework. I’m literally buying homework.

I thought Pearson’s death-grip on my throat was over, but alas…

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It is worth noting that all of my nephew’s other coursework thus far has been project-based and authentic.

OF COURSE, a required math course and math-adjacent “Accounting,” rely on the same-old shitty “answer the odd numbered questions” alternative to an actual productive education experience. This is not a small point.

As Seymour Papert told me, [paraphrase] “If you are not concerned that not a single progressive development in education has had an impact on ‘math,” it means ultimately that no matter what else your school does to make education relevant, there is some part of the day or week where you introduce coercion, irrelevance, and misery into the system.” This coercion is corrosive and ultimately undermines any other learner-centered efforts. As I like to say, “the weeds will always kill the flowers.”

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.

Recently, 5th and 6th grade girls in the school where I work came up to me in the hallway and volunteered, “I want to be an engineer.” While this is heartwarming, especially given the political rhetoric behind the importance of S.T.E.M. and the challenges of gender underrepresentation in the sciences, I would like to draw a totally different lesson for educators.

Anyone who knows anything about my teaching knows that I would never spend any time on “career education” with kids I teach. I create the context, conditions and projects   during which children are engaged in engineering. When building and programming robots, the kids are engineers – not contemplating a career for a dozen years later. The kids are smart enough to connect the dots and identify interest in a career related to their talent, interests or present mood, even if that interest is short-lived.

Time is the rarest of currencies in school. Therefore, time should be focused on authentic experiences, not meta experiences.

Affective qualities like collaboration, passion, curiosity, perseverance and teamwork are certainly desirable for teachers and students. However, these traits may be developed while engaged in real pursuits, even within the existing curriculum. All that is required is a meaningful project. This is why I question the use of “meta” activities like ropes courses, ice-breakers or trust-building exercises as a form of professional development or separate curriculum. Professional development resources are also scarce. Therefore, PD should be focused on learning to do or know. The affective skills should be byproducts of meaningful experiences intended to improve teaching.

Adults become better teachers when they enjoy firsthand learning adventures like they desire for their students. You can’t teach 21st Century Learners  if you haven’t learned this century. That is why I created Constructing Modern Knowledge.

Some educators have recognized that schools are too impersonal and that teachers should get to know their students. I could not agree more. However, the prescription is often to create advisory courses or extend homeroom to deal with pastoral care issues. The result is one teacher who gets to “know” students and time is borrowed from other courses where teachers should get to know their students formally and informally in the process of constructing knowledge together.

Sit next to a student engaged in a science experiment and talk with them. Lead vigorous discussions or chat with a kid about the book they’re reading. You don’t need a class period set aside for asking “How was your weekend?” or for building trust. Join a group of students for lunch. Say, “hi,” while passing in the hallway. Dennis Littky tells the story of making Time Magazine because as a school principal he greeted students when they entered school in the morning. Have we lowered our expectations so much that knowing students is some sort of awesome systemic accomplishment? Humane, thoughtful, even casual interaction between teachers and students does not require an NSF grant or special class.

When educators create a productive context for learning, achievement improves, students feel more connected and behavioral problems evaporate. For three years, Seymour Papert, colleagues and I created a learner-centered, project-based alternative learning environment for at-risk learners inside of a troubled prison for teens. When the needs, interests, passions, talents and curiosity of our students were put ahead of a random list of stuff, they were not only capable of demonstrating remarkable competence, but there was not a single discipline incident in ever that required a kid to leave the classroom.

Students can develop self-esteem by engaging in satisfying work. Classroom management is not required when teachers don’t view themselves as managers. Kids can learn “digital citizenship” while learning to program, sharing code and interacting online. They can feel safe at school by forming relationships with each of their teachers. Study skills are best gained within a context of meaningful inquiry.

Learning is the best way to learn. Accept no substitutes!