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.

The Creative Educator has published my fifth article in a series on effective project-based learning, A Good Prompt is Worth 1,000 Words. The text of this article is below. PDFs of the entire series may be downloaded and shared.

I hope you and your colleagues enjoy it!

Previous articles in the series:

  1. What Makes a Good Project?
  2. Developing Projects That Endure
  3. The Genius of Print
  4. Less Us, More Them!
  5. A Good Prompt is Worth 1,000 Words.

A Good Prompt is Worth 1,000 Words
© June 2012 – Gary S. Stager

Over the past thirty years I have written curricula and taught curriculum writing. During the course of my career, I have seen curriculum used as a weapon and as a security blanket. Curriculum is often arbitrary, created far away from the students subjected to it.

Seymour Papert used to ask why, if we understand that at best the curriculum covers a billionth of a percent of the knowledge in the universe, do we spend so much time quibbling over which billionth of a percent is so important?

A Good Prompt
I know that much is expected of today’s teachers and students. I also know that the richest learning experiences and greatest demonstrations of student mastery have emerged from situations where maximum flexibility is exercised. If deep learning is the goal, then when it comes to curriculum, less is more!

For years, I have watched kids in my classes do remarkable work without being taught to do so. I marveled at how participants in the Constructing Modern Knowledge institute could write a crazy project idea on the wall and then accomplish it within a matter of hours or days. I watched as graduate students told 10th grade English students to use their computers to compose a piece of instrumental music telling the story of Lady Macbeth; and regardless of the student’s range of expertise, they nailed it.

During my doctoral research I formed a pedagogical hypothesis which I believe answers the question of how a learner is able to accomplish more, often in a short period of time, than they could have ever achieved following a traditional curricular scope and sequence. I call this hypothesis A Good Prompt is Worth 1,000 Words!

With the following four variables in place, a learner can exceed expectations.

1. A good prompt, motivating challenge, or thoughtful question
2. Appropriate materials
3. Sufficient time
4. Supportive culture, including a range of expertise

The genius of this approach is that it is self-evident. If you lack one of the four elements, it is obvious what needs to be done.

Us or Them?
In my article “Less Us, More Them,” I argue that anytime an adult feels it necessary to intervene in an educational transaction, they should take a deep breath and ask, “Is there some way I can do less and grant more authority, responsibility, or agency to the learner?”

The same is true for prompt setting. The best prompts emerge from a learner’s curiosity, experience, discovery, wonder, challenge, or dilemma. However, all too often teachers design prompts for student inquiry or projects.

If you absolutely must design a prompt for students, here are three tips you should follow.

1. Brevity. The best prompts fit on a Post-It! Note. They are clear, concise, and self-evident.

2. Ambiguity. The learner should be free to satisfy the prompt in their own voice, perhaps even employing strategies you never imagined.

3. Immunity to assessment. The best projects push up against the persistence of reality. What is a B+ poem or musical composition? How does an engineering project earn an 87? Most mindful work succeeds or fails. Students will want to do the best job possible when they care about their work and know that you put them ahead of a grade. If students are collaborating and regularly engaged in peer review or editing, then the judgment of an adult is really unnecessary. Worst of all, it is coercive and often punitive.

Good prompts do not burden a learner, but set them free. Add thematic units, interdisciplinary projects, and a classroom well equipped with whimsy, objects-to-think-with, and comfort, and you set the stage for authentic student achievement.

Attend Constructing Modern Knowledge, the world’s premiere project-based learning event!