Last year, my friends at Intel invited me to participate in a breakfast summit at the Museum of Contemporary Art overlooking the Sydney Opera House. The other invited guests seated around the table represented captains of industry, distinguished academics, and leaders of assorted acronyms. We each had 2-3 minutes to solve the problems with school, 21st Century skills, S.T.E.M, S.T.E.A.M. girls and technology, economic development, Coding in the classroom, teacher education, and a host of other challenges that normally require 5-6 minutes of breathless rhetoric or clever slogans.

I had the luxury of speaking last. I began by saying, “The first thing we need to do is find a cure for amnesia.” Those armed with “solutions” or prescriptions for “reforming” education do not lack for chutzpah. A sense of perspective and awareness of history are their greatest deficits.

I once heard President Clinton tell the National School Boards Association, “Every problem in education has been solved somewhere before.” We do indeed stand on the shoulders of giants, but Silicon Valley smart-alecks and the politicians they employ behave as if “history begins with me.”

During the Intel breakfast I pointed out a few historic facts:

  1. 1:1 computing began at a girls school in Australia a quarter century ago for the express purpose of reinventing education by programming across the curriculum and that work led to perhaps a few hundred thousand Australian children and their teachers learning to program (“coding”). For those scoring at home. That one statement ticks the boxes for 1) personal computing in education; 2) programming across the curriculum; 3) girls and technology; 4) success in building teacher capacity; 5) evidence of successful (at least temporary) school reinvention; 5) appealing to hometown pride.
  2. None of the expressed goals were possible without abandoning the heavy-handed medieval practices of national curricula, terminal exams, ranking, sorting, and inequity that are cornerstones of Australian education. Progressive education is a basic condition for achieving any of the desires shared by my esteemed colleagues.
  3. There are many examples of people who have not only shared similar concerns throughout history, but who have overcome the seemingly insurmountable hurdles. We have even demonstrated the competence and curiosity of teachers. For example, my friend Dan Watt sold more than 100,000 copies of a book titled, “Learning with Logo,” circa 1986. Let’s say that 10% of the teachers who bought such a book taught kids to program, that’s still a much bigger impact than “Hour of Code.” (Of course there were dozens of other books about how to teach children to program thirty years ago.)
  4. Perhaps the reason why so few students are taking “advanced” high school math courses is because the courses are awful, irrelevant, and toxic.
  5. If it is truly a matter of national security that more children enroll in “advanced” science and math courses, it seems curious that such courses are optional. Perhaps that is because we are quite comfortable with a system that creates winners and losers.
  6. I have been teaching computer science to children for thirty-four years professionally and forty years if you count my years as a kid teaching my peers to program.

The other day, President Obama announced $4 billion dollars available to teach computer science/coding and mathematics (now that’s a novel idea) for the vulgar purpose of creating “job-ready” students. Never mind the fact that there remains no consensus on what computer science is or how such lofty goals will be achieved, especially by a lame duck President. If history is any guide and if the promised funds are ever appropriated, this seemingly large investment will disappear into the pockets of charlatans, hucksters, and a proliferation of “non-profits” each suckling on the government teat. (See eRate)

To make matters worse, one of our nation’s leading experts on computer science education reports that the national effort to design a K-12 Computer Science Framework has is focused on consensus.

“The goal is to create a framework that most people can agree on.  “Coherence” (i.e., “community buy-in”) was the top quality of a framework in Michael Lach’s advice to the CS Ed community (that I described here). As Cameron Wilson put it in his Facebook post about the effort, “the K-12 CS Framework is an effort to unite the community in describing what computer science every K-12 student should learn.”  It’s about uniting the community.  That’s the whole reason this process is happening.  The states want to know that they’re teaching things that are worthwhile.  Teacher certificates will get defined only what the definers know what the teachers have to teach. The curriculum developers want to know what they should be developing for.  A common framework means that you get economies of scale (e.g., a curriculum that matches the framework can be used in lots of places).

The result is that the framework is not about vision, not about what learners will need to know in the future.  Instead, it’s about the subset of CS that most people can agree to.  It’s not the best practice (because not everyone is going to agree on “best”), or the latest from research (because not everybody’s going to agree with research results).  It’s going to be a safe list.

…That’s the nature of frameworks.  It’s about consensus, not about vision. [emphasis mine]  That’s not a bad thing, but we should know it for what it is. We can use frameworks to build momentum, infrastructure, and community. We can’t let frameworks limit our vision of what computing education should be.  As soon as we’re done with one set of frameworks and standards, we should start on the next ones, in order to move the community to a new set of norms. Guzdial, M. (2016) Developing a Framework to Define K-12 CS Ed: It’s about consensus not vision.

That’s right, mountains of money and human capital will be expended to determine the status quo. Consultant will be enriched while school children are treated to “coding” curricula so good that you don’t even need a computer! Powerful ideas are viewed as distractions and vision may be addressed at indeterminate date in the future.

“The future must be dreamed, desired, loved, created. It must be plucked from the soul of the present generations with all the gold gathered in the past, with all the vehement yearning to create the great works of individuals and nations.” – Omar Dengo

From Melbourne to Massachusetts to the UK, large scale state and national edicts to teach “coding” or “computer science” K-12 has resulted in laundry lists of unrelated nonsense, full of “off-computer” programming activities, keyboarding instruction, file saving, posture lessons, digital citizenship, identification of algorithms, counting in binary, bit, byte, and vocabulary acquisition. In more than one jurisdiction, the computer science curricula is touted as “not even needing a computer!”

There is far too little discussion of programming a liberal art – a way of having agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world. There is no discussion of Seymour Papert’s forty-eight year-old question, “Does the computer program the child or the child program the computer?”

There is no talk about changing schooling to accommodate powerful ideas or even add programming to the mathematics curriculum as my Wayne, NJ public schools did forty years ago. Instead, we’re renaming things and chanting slogans.

Frequent readers of my work might be surprised that I only include one mention of Seymour Papert in this article. Instead, I end with the words of another old friend of mine, Arthur Luehrmann. Arthur coined the term computer literacy. After three decades of his term being segregated to justify the most pedestrian of computer use (Google Apps, IWBs, online testing, looking up answers to questions you don’t care about, etc…), it is worth remembering what he meant when he invented the term, computer literacy. The following is from a 1984 book chapter, Computer Literacy: The What, Why, and How.

“A few years ago there was a lot of confusion about what computer literacy meant. Some people were arguing that a person could become computer literate merely by reading books or watching movies or hear- ing lectures about computers. That viewpoint probably came out of a time when computer equipment was expensive and, therefore, not often found in classrooms. Teachers had to teach something, so they taught “facts” about computers: their history, social impact, effect on jobs, and so forth. But such topics are more properly called “computer awareness,” I believe.

Even the fact that a school or district possesses one or more com- puters must not be taken as evidence that education in computer literacy is taking place. Many schools use computers for attendance and grade reporting, for example. These administrative uses may improve the cost- effectiveness of school operations, but they teach children nothing at all about computers.

Other schools may be using computers solely to run programs that drill their students on math facts, spelling, or grammar. In this kind of use, often called Computer-Assisted Instruction, or CAI, the computer prints questions on the display screen, and the student responds by typing answers on the keyboard. Except for rudimentary typing skills and when to press the RETURN key, the student doesn’t learn how to do anything with the computer, though. Here again, a mere count of computers doesn’t tell anything about what students may be learning.

A third kind of use comes closer to providing computer literacy, but it too falls short. In this mode, the computer, together with one or more programs, is used to provide some kind of illumination of material in a regular, noncomputer course. A social studies teacher, for example, might use The Oregon Trail simulation program to illustrate the difficul- ties pioneers encountered in trekking across the American West. Such an application not only teaches American history, it also shows students that computers can be made to simulate things and events—a powerful notion. Yet neither in this, nor in any of the other educational uses of the computer I have mentioned so far, does a student actually learn to take control of the computer.

Literacy in English or any language means the ability to read and write: that is, to do something with the language. It is not enough to know that any language is composed of words, or to know about the pervasive role of language in society. Language awareness is not enough. Similarly, “literacy” in mathematics suggests the ability to add numbers, to solve equations, and so on: that is, to do something with mathematics. It is not enough to know that numbers are written as sets of digits, or to know that there are vocational and career advantages for people who can do things with mathematics.

Computer literacy must mean the ability to do something constructive with a computer, and not merely a general awareness offacts one is told about computers. A computer literate person can read and write a computer program, can select and operate software written by others, and knows from personal experience the possibilities and limitations of the computer.”

At least educational policy is consistent, we continuously invent that which already exists, each time with diminished expectations.

Thirty two years after Luhrmann published the words above – longer than the lifespan of many current teachers and our national goal is to create job-ready coders? Off! We should be ashamed.

Luhrmann, A. (1984). Computer Literacy: The What, Why, and How. In D. Peterson (Ed.), Intelligent Schoolhouse: Readings on Computers and Learning. Reston, VA: Reston Publishing Company.

This is undoubtedly a first-draft written during a conference overseas.with kid Gary stager_hkis X 200

Although I’m only 48, I have been working in educational computing for thirty years. When I started, we taught children to program. We also taught tens of thousands of teachers to teach computer science to learners of all ages. In many cases, this experience represented the most complex thinking about thinking that teachers ever experienced and their students gained benefit from observing teachers learning to think symbolically, solve problems and debug. There was once a time in the not so distant path when educators were on the frontiers of scientific reasoning and technological progress. Curriculum was transformed by computing. School computers were used less often to “do school” and more often to do the impossible.

Don’t believe me? My mentor, Dan Watt, sold over 100,000 copies of a book entitled, Learning with Logo in the 1980s when much fewer teachers and children had access to a personal computer.

Things sped downhill when we removed “computing” from our lexicon and replaced it with “technology” (like a Pez dispenser or Thermos). We quickly degraded that meaningless term, technology, further by modifying it with IT and ICT. Once computing was officially erased from the education of young people, teachers could focus on keyboarding, chatting, looking stuff up, labeling the parts of the computer and making PowerPoint presentations about topics you don’t care about for an audience you will never meet. The over-reliance on the Internet and the unreliability of school networks ensures that you can spend half of each class period just logging-in.

Teachers with post-graduate degrees are being compelled to receive iPad training. My 95 year-old grandmother figured it out all by herself. No tax dollars were harmed in the process. Apparently, we also need to provide teachers with interactive white board training so they may hung unused in their classroom, just like all of their peers.

We have National Educational Technology Standards published by the International Society for TECHNOLOGY in Education that are so vague pedestrian that no computing is needed to meet them. In fact, it’s likely one can satisfy the NETs without the actual use of a computer. Despite standards and district tech plans that are a cross between a shopping list and a desperate plea for teachers to consider modernity, most school kids are powerless over the technology so central to their lives. Nobody even bothers to ask the question Seymour Papert first posed 45 years ago, “Does the child program the computer or does the computer program the child?” This is a tragedy.

What kids do get to do with computers tends to be trivial and inservice of the educational status quo. Gone are the days when educational computing conference programs were home to the most progressive thinkers and revolutionary ideas in education. Teachers were considered thought leaders and scholars who were required to write peer-reviewed papers in order to present at such events.  Today one merely has to promise 75 quick and easy things to do in 37 minutes with the hottest product being peddled to schools. Another popular topic is incessantly about how your colleagues won’t or can’t use the latest fad.

I am sorry, but social media is not a school subject. There are conference workshops on using Twitter and masters degrees in educational technology that culminate in a rap about hashtags.  If social media is any damned good, it needs to be as complex and reliable as a dial-tone.  PLN, PLC, PLP, etc… are just fancy alphabet soup for having someone to talk with. We should not need an National Science Foundation grant to make friends.

I had an educator approach me at a conference recently to volunteer that “Our school is not ready for Google Docs.” Set aside whatever you happen to think about Google Docs; it’s a word processor in a Web browser, right? I told the tech director, “Congratulations, your school district has apparently managed to employ the last breathing mammals in the solar system incapable of using a word processor.” Isn’t it odd that technology directors are not held accountable for such failure over three decades? Could they possibly be enabling co-dependent behavior and helplessness in the teachers they are meant to lead?

If the percentage of teachers using computers remains constant over time, regardless of how we lower expectations, shouldn’t we ask a great deal more of them and set our sights higher?

I’m so old that I knew the guy responsible for “Guide on the side, sage on the stage” (Chris Held) and “Ask three before me,” (Leslie Thyberg) I even knew the gentleman responsible for “computer literacy.” (originally called computing literacy) His name was Arthur Luehrmann. I often find myself mumbling, “I knew Arthur Luehrmann. Arthur Luehrmann was a friend of mine. You sir are no Arhur Luehrmann.”

When Luerhmann coined the term, “computer literacy,” he intended it to mean computer programming the intellectual pursuit of agency over the computer and a means for solving problems.

Don’t believe me? Read this 1980 paper transcribed  from a 1972 talk.

I know what some of you are thinking. Not every kid needs to learn programming. You don’t have to be able to fix a transmission to drive a car, blah blah blah…

First of all, the educational technology community and schools seem to have decided that no kids should learn to program. I’d be happy with the same nine-week programming class I was required to take in 1975.

Second, computer programming is not like fixing a car. It’s much more like designing the car, making sure all of its systems work in an integrated fashion, mitigating the environmental impact of cars and imagining their impact on society. Computer science is a legitimate science that has profound implications for learning all sorts of other powerful ideas, working in diverse fields and making sense of the world. You just would not know this if you go to school.

Why would it even occur to educators to deprive children of such rich learning opportunities?

If you have the audacity to speak of digital literacy or technology literacy and do not teach computer science, then this is the first time in the history of education when the functional definition of “literacy” has been so devalued, diminished and degraded. All other expectations for literacy increase over time.

There you go Stager, you radical crank. How dare you ask teachers to develop new knowledge and empower students? You’re just some stupid utopian who happened to have a great 7th grade computer programming teacher 35 years ago. Well, I’m not alone.

In January, I was in London to keynote at BETT. At the same event, the Secretary of State Michael Gove announced that the UK government was scrapping the “harmful and dull” national ICT curriculum and replacing it with computer science at all grade levels. He called the current curriculum a mess and wondered aloud why schools bother to teach Excel or PowerPoint to bored students? Coincidentally, I wondered in 1996 why we were investing so heavenly in ensuring that we create a generation of fifth graders with terrific secretarial skills?

When a conservative politician and I agree on education policy, who could possibly be on the other side?


Related reading:

Warning: Educators will be criticized below! You have been warned.

Recently, a friend sent me a link to an episode of Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show.  In this whimsical YouTube video, eight year-old Sylvia teaches you about designing, engineering and programming a variety of projects using the open-source Arduino robotics controller. With the poise, wit and clarity of a seasoned television host, Sylvia explains the electronic principles of light–emitting diodes, resisters, potentiometers, grounds and compiling the program you download to create a strobe light. Next, she teaches viewers how to construct a Randomly Influenced Finger Flute that uses a square wave at a variable number of hertz to make the Arduino play music.

This is no burping into VoiceThread!

Sylvia disposes of the ISTE technology standards in the first fourteen seconds of her video. By following her motto, “Have fun, play around and get out there and make something,” she learns a host of powerful ideas, engages countless habits of mind and demonstrates her knowledge by constructing something shareable. Sylvia’s video embodies Seymour Papert’s theory of constructionism. In fact, many of the fluencies displayed by Sylvia are discussed in Papert and Solomon’s 1971 paper, “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer.”

Don’t you dare tell me that the demands of the curriculum preclude time for such classroom projects. Kids like Sylvia remind us of the authentic nature of learning and the efficiency of project-based learning. Several years worth of lectures on physics, electronics, engineering, computer science and video production would not result in the understanding demonstrated by Sylvia; that is if elementary schools bothered to teach such subjects at all.

Engineering is concrete. Engineers make things. They experiment and tinker. If you know anything about development you recognize that knowledge construction follows a progression from concrete to the abstract. Yet, most kids are deprived of engineering experiences until they endure twelve years of abstractions. If the creative inclinations of young children were nurtured in an engineering context, their understanding of the increasingly elusive math and science facts would be developed in a meaningful natural context.

Sylvia’s father is an accomplished technology expert. So what? Public schools are designed to democratize specialized learning experiences for all children. If Sylvia was doing little more than reading off a teleprompter, then her performance would still exceed our expectations. Yet, she demonstrates so much more.

Sylvia embodies the spirit of the exploding DIY movement with the creativity of the Little Rascals and curiosity of Mr. Wizard. She’s just using the construction materials of her era. The difference is the power of computational thinking and microprocessors. Arduino microcontrollers are the Barbies of her generation.

The high crime is that kids like Sylvia will be in seventh grade, four years from now, where the curriculum awaiting them will be worthless concoctions like keyboarding instruction or “using the Google.” We insult children’s intelligence and squander their potential by serving up a curriculum of “computer appreciation” dependent on adult inadequacies or misallocated resources.

There are lots of computers in schools, but very little computing! Three decades ago, I dedicated my life to using computers constructively to amplify human potential. Back then, educational computing was built on progressive learning theories, propelled by passion of the civil rights movement and based on a notion that children could invent a better world than existed for previous generations. Sadly, I no longer recognize my own field. The powerful ideas of Dewey, Holt, Papert, not to mention Al Rogers, David Thornburg, Tom Snyder, Fred D’Ignzaio and Tom Snyder – have been replaced by a focus on filtering policies, meaningless clichés about 21st Century skills and funding concerns. I often wonder, “is edtech/ICT a legitimate discipline or just a shopping club?” Too many educational technology conferences, like ISTE, seem like a busload of foreign tourists speeding past historical monuments in order to get to the next duty-free shop.

While your district tech team wrestles with the earth-shattering decision over whether kids should write their five-paragraph essay in Microsoft Word or Google Docs, kids could be doing and learning like Sylvia. While you bathe in the warmth of your PLN with self-congratulatory tweets, Sylvia is sharing serious expertise with the world.

Tens of thousands of district tech directors, coordinators and integrators have done such a swell job that after thirty years, teachers are the last adults in the industrialized world to use computers. I feel compelled to ask, “Are the very same employees charged with inspiring teachers to use computers creating dependency and helplessness instead?”

Teachers are not imbeciles incapable of growth or felons who can’t be trusted to show Sylvia’s YouTube video in class. Each summer’s Constructing Modern Knowledge Institute demonstrates the creativity and intellectual capacity of educators when they are engaged in projects involving programming, robotics materials, microcontrollers, drawing tablets, musical bananas, soda can orchestras, bike powered LEGO iPhone chargers, animation, filmmaking, authentic problems and whimsy. During the 1980s, we taught tens of thousands of teachers computer programming and how to teach it to children.

Educators love the stories of the eleven year-old dot.com millionaire and Web stars, like Sylvia, but would you really want her in your class? Can you build upon the gifts the kids bring to you or will you force them to comply with someone else’s curriculum? Would you punish her or classify her with a learning disability for a failure to sit quietly as school repeals the 20th Century?

Failure to embrace the kids’ competence, capacity and creativity leads educators to deprive children of opportunities to achieve their potential. Worst of all, it cheats children out of the rich 21st Century childhood they deserve.