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.
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?
- The Daily Papert
- The Case for Computing
A chapter from the book, Snapshots! Educational Insights from the Thornburg Center
- What’s a Computer For? Part II
- What’s a Computer For? Part 1
In 1990, I had the great opportunity to lead professional development at the world’s first “laptop” schools. Australia’s Methodist Ladies’ College and Coombabah State Primary School were the first schools anywhere to embrace 1:1 computing. MLC is a large independent school that committed to 1:1 computing in 1989. Coombabah is a public school and often overlooked for its place in edtech history. The efforts of the teachers at both schools changed the world and I am enormously proud to have played a major role in that effort.
In the early 1990s, I spent months working at MLC, and then numerous other schools eager to embrace 1:1 and the constructionist principles demonstrated by this pioneering school. In 1993, the MLC faculty and principal wrote a book to share their expertise, philosophy and wisdom with educators in other schools. I hope you find the nearly twenty year-old learning stories, recommendations and tips useful to you. I especially call your attention to the audacity of embracing 1:1 computing more than 20 years ago and the fact that laptops were a way of bringing Papertian constructionism to life.
The book, Reflections of a Learning Community: Views on the Introduction of Laptops at Mlc by Methodist Ladies’ College is long out-of-print and sadly removed from the Web where it resided for several years. As a public service to researchers, educators and historians (and with the help of the Wayback Machine) I am able to share the complete book here. Check out how hip the title of this book is for 1993, since “learning community” has just became all the rage twenty years later!
With any luck (and lots of effort) I will soon be able to publish the first doctoral dissertation evaluating the efficacy of 1:1 computing, originally published in 1992!
You should also read Bob Johnstone’s history of educational computing up to and including the early days of innovation at MLC, Never Mind the Laptops: Kids, Computers, and the Transformation of Learning!
The chapters marked by an * indicate that the text describes some of my specific work at MLC.
Reflections of a Learning Community:
Views on the Introduction of Laptops at MLC
Section one: Computing at MLC
- Reconstructing an Australian School by David Loader, Principal at MLC
- The Promises of Educational Technology by Margaret Fallshaw, Computing Consultant, MLC
- The Audacity of Sunrise by David Loader, Principal at MLC
- A Laptop Revolution An interview with Pam Dettman, Head of Junior School
- Educational Computing: Resourcing the Future by by David Loader, Principal, MLC & Liddy Nevile, Senior Lecturer RMIT.
- A Practitioner’s Viewpoint by Maggie James, JSS (junior secondary school, grades 7-8) History Co-ordinator
- Computers for Kids ..Not Schools by Gary S. Stager *
- Initial Research Report by Helen McDonald
- A Technology School for the Future: A Proposal by Ruth Baker, Jeff Burn and Di Fleming
- Design and Technology: The Next Challenge by Ruth Baker, Head of Junior Secondary School, 20.9.1992
- Using Laptops in Schools: The Administrative Implications by Margaret Fallshaw, Computing Consultant, MLC
- Learning with Laptops: Who Pays? by Roger Dedman, Director of Finance, MLC
- Junior School Computing Curriculum by Steve Costa, Deputy Head, MLC Junior School (K-6)
- Computing and the New Teacher by Alison Brown, Teacher, MLC Junior School
- Holiday Program by Alison Brown, Teacher, MLC Junior School *
- Professional Development at MLC:Requirements for Teachers by David Loader, Principal, MLC
- Computer Pathways: A Model for Change by Di Fleming, Head of Middle School
- MLC Community Education and Technological Developments by Joan Taylor, Head of Community Education MLC
- An Elaborate Pyjama Party by Alison Brown, Teacher, MLC Junior School *
- Teacher Change: Philosophy & Technology by Helen McDonald, secondary English teacher & PhD. student from Monash University *
- Staff Development by Pam Dettman, Head of Junior School, MLC
Section 3 : Appendix
- MLC College Computing Policy
- A Constructionist Environment by Jeff Burn, Di Fleming & Margaret Fallshaw
Uber-edublogger Will Richardson recently published a blog post entitled, Valuing Change. In the article, he reiterated the frequent lament that teachers don’t “consider” or “value” change especially when the Web allows students to “connect outside of the classroom.” The who, what or why of connecting isn’t discussed.
Will’s article illustrates a teacher’s unwillingness to embrace change by showing how a topic like gerrymandering could be made more engaging through the use of information technologies. Will recognizes the challenges facing teachers and offers an olive branch by suggesting that we can “do both” – teach what will likely be on the test and do so more meaningly.
It should come as no surprise that I disagree, especially given the example used.
As I write this, there are two dozen comments in addition to the few I contributed. Either blog commenters don’t consider the ideas of other commenters or my argument was not clear enough.
Perhaps, as much as you would like it to be otherwise, the incrementalism of “doing both” is really the problem.
Why would you Skype someone involved “in the process?” What process? Who? State legislators? What are they likely to tell a student that can’t be found out in a book or article?
The connections you speak of, now matter how much you yearn for them may be as inauthentic as the task itself. Perhaps they just make a task nobody cares about even more arduous. The “you can use Google ____ or Skype with someone” suggestions have become as automatic and meaningless as when a politician says, “We need to pay teachers more, but hold them accountable.”
One of the lessons I learned from Seymour Papert (http://dailypapert.com) was that you cannot transform school just by changing teaching practices or even the technology used. You must rethink, challenge or reinforce the content of the curriculum. The “what” has a great deal of impact on the how and the why of learning something.
Papert once asked me, “What are you thinking about doing with the students next?” When I replied, “We were thinking of doing some geography…,” he shot back with, “And what can they DO with that?”
“Whatever you ‘teach’ kids should have a high liklihood of leading to the construction of a bigger question or a larger theory (NOW – not later), otherwise, why bother?”
Like so much of schooling, the topic of gerrymandering is really just a vocabulary exercise. Memorize the definition and move on. I’m not sure you can put lipstick on that pig.
I do not believe that it is possible to make schools more productive contexts for learning (the how we teach) without calling the curriculum into question (the what we teach).
When Will requested “The Stager Plan,” I replied…
If I wasn’t clear enough above, a substantial aspect of “The Stager Plan” includes expending some serious effort at every school to determine what is worth being taught.
Pedagogical strategies should reflect the content and the learning styles of students.
The ideas proposed for making gerrymandering more engaging only add false complexity to what is a vocabulary term, likely taught in isolation as the curriculum whizzes by.
My other concern is how we tend to reduce education to information access (or trading information) and how the emphasis on using computers as information appliances reinforces the status quo while depriving learners of authentic experiences.
In addition to commenters reminding us of the wonders of Web 2.0 technology, the author repeates the familiar cliché, “We need to use technology to get kids engaged in the curriculum, not just in the technology.”
Why is this so? Should teachers be so compliant and teach anything they’re told to, regardless of context or value?
Also, why is engaging with the “technology” so quickly dismissed as being inferior to the curriculum?
Here’s a thought experiment…
What if we DID do everything in our power to engage kids in the technology? (I don’t think you can engage someone else, but I’ll leave that aside)
This might be the first real engagement kids experience.
Learning computer programming might actually lead to different thinking, different thinking about thinking, student agency and provide a window for teachers into the intellectual capabilities of kids.
I wish there was a way for me to run a hands-on workshop for every teacher in the world during which they could experience the intellectual rigor and creative joy experienced while computing. Not only is this workshop necessary for teachers who don’t use “technology” in the ways Will’s post urges, but educators excited by Web 2.0 would do well to expand their computing fluency as well.