Bob Tinker at CMK 2008

The world lost a remarkable educator on June 22, 2017 when Dr. Robert Tinker passed away at the age of 75.

If your students have ever worked on a collaborative online project, taken a virtual class, used a science probe, played The Zoombinis, or used any terrific materials created by TERC or The Concord Consortium, Bob is the reason why.

A gifted scientist, Bob was brilliant, kind, patient, joyous, and generous. Like our mutual friend, Seymour Papert, Bob spent his life helping others to learn and love science and math just as much as he did. He possessed the rare empathy that allowed him to wonder why others might not learn this or that as naturally or easily as he did. Rather than blame or shame learners, Bob designed tools not to teach, but for learning. At Seymour Papert’s memorial celebration, Tod Machover quoted Papert as saying, “Everyone needs a prosthetic.” Bob Tinker was in the business of creating remarkable prosthetics useful for embracing the wonders of scientific inquiry.

I just learned that Bob fought on the front lines of the civil rights movement in Alabama, just as Papert did in South Africa. This news came as no surprise.

“My Dad was the probably the smartest man I knew (MIT PhD), and he decided to pass on earning a big salary with a Defense Contractor in order to positively impact change. With my mom at his side, during the civil rights movement they moved to the South to teach at a University that could hardly afford textbooks. They marched in dangerous areas. They worked to expose climate change. They personally funded the arts and those less fortunate. They then built the two largest science/match educational non-profits in the USA. The two NGOs employ hundreds, have trained thousands of teachers, and have educated millions of kids.” (Bob’s daughter, Facebook, June 22)

A life well lived… Online, Bob’s friends remember him as a mensch.

Long before politicians and hucksters began alarming the citizenry about the need to teach Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S.T.E.M.) subjects as a vulgar ticket to careers, real or imagined, Bob Tinker created tools and technology that not only raised the standards for student participation in those fields, but did so in a progressive constructivist context. Not only didn’t his approach to S.T.E.M. exceed empty rhetoric and vocabulary acquisition, Bob’s work brought a broad spectrum of modern scientific domains to life in classrooms. Biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, earth science, electronics, engineering, and computational thinking were all in the mix.

Dr. Tinker delighting in a teacher’s scientific discovery

One could make a compelling argument that Bob Tinker is the father of S.T.E.M. However, I think of him as the Thomas Edison of S.T.E.M. Beyond his remarkable academic preparation, Bob was not resigned to a life of writing pretentious papers to be published in overpriced conference proceedings read by six colleagues. While there was nobody better at writing successful grant proposals, Bob and his colleagues had a stunning track record of “commercializing” their ideas. At both TERC, where he was Director of Educational Technology and The Concord Consortium he founded, Bob Tinker personified Edison’s notion of research AND development. An idea could be tested, refined, manufactured, and distributed in a reasonable timeframe. Unlike so many researchers cloistered in university departments and think tanks, Bob and his colleagues turned ideas into actual products enjoyed by millions of students around the world. Like Edison, Dr. Tinker didn’t work alone. He assembled and led an incredibly competent band of “muckers” who could bring impossible ideas to life.

Those products were sound, timely, reliable, open-ended, fun and teachable without succumbing to “teacher proofing” or dumbing down the science. There was never anything condescending about Dr. Tinker’s prolific work. Bob’s considerable charm and passion undoubtedly played a role in the creation of public/private partnerships, including with The National Geographic and Broderbund, required to successfully distribute his inventions to classrooms and homes everywhere. Bob was also a pioneer in making powerful software tools freely available online. He also preceded the DIY ethos of the maker movement by advocating for the creation of one’s own science probes in 2007!

In Bob’s world, there was no reason to add an A for Arts to S.T.E.M., since the doing of science and mathematics was itself, beautiful, wondrous, playful, creative, and relevant. Papert and Tinker shared a desire for children to be mathematicians and scientists, rather than being taught math or science. They both worked to make complexity possible by making the frontiers of mathematics and science accessible and usable by children. Bob went a step further and created programs where students could collaborate with scientists online as colleagues back in 1989, two years before the World Wide Web was released to the public. My fourth grade class participated in the National Geographic Kids Network Acid Rain project back in 1990.

In an interview Bob said:

“I became inspired to teach by tutoring two kids for two years in a black college in the South. It was the best education (for me!) anyone could design because it showed me exactly how science education could reach far more learners. I’ve dedicated my life to realizing that dream and it’s been wonderful working with smart people who share that dedication. There’s always been a sense of mission. We make important advances that will affect kids all over the world and—this was my initial motivation—bring cutting-edge educational resources to under-resourced kids.”

On a personal note

I do not remember exactly when I first met Bob Tinker, but it was at a conference approximately thirty years ago. Back then, the smartest people in the world spoke at educational computing conferences. I was familiar with his work prior to meeting him. In fact, I was a big fan of The Science Toolkit, distributed by home recreational software publisher, Broderbund. The Science Toolkit was a low-cost ($79 master module with two probes and $39 add-on sets) software package with external sensors that plugged into the joystick port of a microcomputer to allow children to conduct, measure, and record science experiments at home. This was an example of what Bob pioneered and called Micro-Based Labs (MBL).

Check out the video clip from the Christmas 1983 episode of the PBS show Computer Chronicles. Note how clean and simple the software it is and compare it some of the probeware software sold to schools today.

Prior to meeting Bob, I owned my own Science Toolkit. I was especially pleased with myself for figuring out how to program LogoWriter to read data from the kit’s probes without using the accompanying software. I could now write my own programs for collecting data, graphing it, and controlling my own experiments. I nailed using the light sensor, but my temperature data I received wasn’t particularly accurate. I eventually rationalized this as being the fault of the sensor or based on the limitations of the Science Toolkit, despite the fact that the probe worked just fine with the software provided. 

Not much time passed before I ran into Bob Tinker in one of those “V.I.P.” receptions, in the crummy “suite” of the conference chair in the forgettable hotel where the conference was being held. As I told Bob about my struggles with temperature data, he grabbed a napkin and wrote calculus formulas across all of the quadrants of the unfolded napkin. Bob mentioned that reading the temperature data was non-linear, a concept this C- science student could vaguely comprehend. While I never figured out how to translate the napkin math to a working LogoWriter program, Bob’s good cheer, gentle mentoring, and generosity reminded meow something I wrote in an essay a couple of years ago, “Math teachers often made me feel stupid; mathematicians never did.”

Maria Knee & Bob Tinker at CMK 2008

When I started the Constructing Modern Knowledge institute for educators ten years ago, Bob was the first speaker I secured. He had agreed  to return in a few weeks to help us celebrate our 10th anniversary this July.

I will never forget the joy he brought to kindergarten teacher extraordinaire, Maria Knee, who was euphoric while manipulating molecules in software Bob created (The Molecular Workbench). He and his colleagues made the impossible accessible to generations of teachers and children.

I am gutted by Bob’s passing. Losing Bob, Seymour Papert, Marvin Minsky, and Edith Ackermann within an 18-month period is almost too painful to bear. They were fountains of powerful ideas extinguished in anti-intellectual age hostile to science, even wonder. The education community does not enjoy a proud record of honoring the contributions of its pioneers or standing on their shoulders. Instead we continuously rediscover that which already exists, without attribution and with diminished expectations.

More than twenty-five years ago, Seymour Papert and Bob Tinker led a crazy or courageous session at the National Educational Computing Conference in Boston. If memory serves me, the presentation had a title along the lines of “Enemies of Constructionism.” I remember them taking turns placing acetates on the overhead projector proclaiming the name and photo of one of their enemies, including their NSF project manager who happened to be in the audience. This session had to be Seymour’s idea because Bob was too nice, but I suspect that Bob wrote the proposal.

I considered Bob a friend and dear colleague, even though we never really hung out or worked together formally. We often discussed collaborating on an elementary school project of some sort even though Bob modestly claimed not to know anything about little kids. Less than a year ago, Bob introduced me to a colleague and recommended that I be an advisor for an NSF proposal. I was honored to be asked and the grant* has been funded. While searching my email database, I found another proposal Bob himself included me in eleven years ago. I am humbled by his faith in me and respect for my work.

I wonder if ISTE will honor Bob in any way or if they even know who he is? I still await even a tweet about the passing of Dr. Papert. Like Papert, Bob Tinker was never invited to be a keynote speaker at ISTE or its predecessor, NECC.

Rest-in-power Bob. We will miss you forever and the struggle against ignorance continues!


Seminal articles by Robert Tinker, Ph.D.

Read more by searching for Tinker.

The Concord Consortium is assembling a collection of tributes to Bob Tinker here.

Read Bob Tinker’s Wikipedia page.

Notes

* Read the text of the funded NSF proposal, Science and Engineering Education for Infrastructure Transformation.

 

I like Sphero and am impressed by their ability to execute as a company. Their customer service is terrific and their ability to attract the Star Wars license, publicity, and this recent New Yorker profile are unprecedented.
Sphero makes terrific toys. However, companies and reporters would be well-served by speaking with educators who understand learning and have paid some dues before making grand pronouncements about education. Simply comprehending the differences between teaching and learning would be a welcome first step.
 
The article’s ad-hominem attacks on Logo in favor of C for god’s sake shows just how profoundly misguided the “Coding” newbies happen to be. History does not begin with them. Every thought they have, no matter how unimaginative or unoriginal is not automatically superior to the work done by those of us who have taught kids and teachers to program for decades. David Ahl told me that Creative Computing Magazine had 400,000 subscribers in 1984. Thirty years ago, my friend and Constructing Modern Knowledge faculty member, Dr. Dan Watt, sold more than 100,000 books of Learning with Logo. Tens of thousands of educators taught children to program in the 1980s and then again after laptops were introduced in the 1990s. This was not for an hour, but over sufficient time to develop fluency.
 
It takes real balls for every other startup company, politician, and Silicon Valley dilettante to advocate for “coding” with a macho certainty suggesting that learning to program is a novel idea or accomplished in an hour.

Sphero is hardly the first programmable robot. My friend Steve Ocko developed Big Trak for Milton Bradley in the late 1970s. Papert, Resnick, Ocko, Silverman, et al developed LEGO TC Logo, the first programmable LEGO building system in 1987. (Watch Seymour Papert explain the educational benefits in 1987)

Apologies to The New Yorker, but balls don’t teach kids to code. Kids learn to code by teaching balls. Find yourself a copy of Mindstorms, 35 years-old this year, and you’ll understand.
 

Sphero

Sphero is a fun toy that may be programmed IN Logo – the best of both worlds. Tickle for iOS is a version of Scratch (and Scratch is Logo) whose secret sauce is its ability to program lots of toys, several made by Sphero.

 
Logo turns 50 years-old next year. Let’s see what Silicon Valley creates that children learn with for more than 50 days.

Tickle (Scratch/Logo) for iOS and Bluetooth devices

Related articles:

Professional learning opportunities for educators:

Constructing Modern Knowledge offers world-class hands-on workshops across the globe, at schools, conferences, and museums. During these workshops, teachers learn to learn and teach via making, tinkering, and engineering. Computer programming (coding) and learning-by-making with a variety of materials, including Sphero and Tickle. For more information, click here.

My pal Will Richardson asked me to respond to news that the Florida legislature (ground zero for destructive education policies) has passed a bill allowing high school students to substitute “coding” courses for foreign language requirements. (see Florida Senate approves making coding a foreign language)

If you are a toddler learning English as a second language between binge watching seasons of Glitter Force, it’s easy to see how “coding” in a programming language and literacy in a foreign language are equivalent.

For adult legislators entrusted with governance, this policy means two things:

  1. They have no idea what computer coding is.
    • When policy makers say that students should “understand” technology or refer to technology as a “basic skill,” they reveal a profound ignorance of computer science and have reduced a powerful intellectual pursuit to the level of a bicycle safety assembly or “don’t copy that floppy” poster.
  2. They are finally willing to admit that they don’t give a rat’s ass about teaching foreign language.
    • This may also be a tacit recognition that high school foreign language instruction is mostly torturous and unsuccessful.

When Will tweeted me about the news, a fellow twitterit asked, “Why music can’t satisfy foreign language requirements?” While, there is no greater advocate for music education than myself, this newfound willingness to substitute one discipline for a completely unrelated required course is an admission that all course requirements should be abolished. There is so little consensus on what matters. And that may be a very good thing.


Related articles:

I’ve been teaching boys and girls to program computers professionally since 1982 when I created one of the world’s first summer camp computing programs. I led professional development at Methodist Ladies’ College in Melbourne, Australia for a few years beginning in 1990. Girls at MLC used their personal laptops to program in LogoWriter across the curriculum. (read about the history of 1:1 computing and programming here). That work led to perhaps as many as 100,000 Australian boys and girls learning to program computers in the early 1990s.

I taught incarcerated kids in a teen prison to program as part of my doctoral research and currently teach programming to PK-8 girls and boys at The Willows Community School

Along the way, I’ve found it easy to engage girls and their teachers in computer programming. Ample access to computers. high expectations, and a competent teacher are the necessary conditions for girls to view themselves as competent programmers. Such confidence and competence unlocks the world of computer science and gaining agency over the machine for learners.

That said, there is plenty of evidence that girls view computer science like kryptonite. Mark Guzdial, Barbara Ericson, and others have done a yeoman job of documenting the dismal rates of female participation in school or higher-ed computer science. This reality is only aggravated by the sexism and misogyny commonplace in high-tech firms and online.

Programming is fun. It’s cool. It’s creative. It may not only lead to a career, but more importantly grants agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world. Being able to program allows you to solve problems and answer Seymour Papert’s 47 year-old  question, “Does the computer program the child or the child program the computer?”

Add the ubiquity of microcomputers to accessibility of programming languages like Turtle Art, MicroWorlds, Scratch, or Snap! and there is no excuse for every kid to make things “out of code.”

All of that aside, girls in the main just don’t find computer science welcoming, relevant, or personally empowering. Entire conferences, government commissions, volumes of scholarship, and media decry the crisis in girls and S.T.E.M. Inspiring girls to embrace computer science remains the holy grail. But…

Screen Shot 2015-06-11 at 5.19.20 PM

The Rolling Spider Minidrone

I found the key!

Drones

Girls love to program drones to fly!

Seriously. Drones.

There is a big in this simple Tickle program intended to fly away and back to its operator. Can you find it? This is an opportunity to reinforce geometric concepts.

There are 2 bugs in this simple Tickle program intended to fly away and back to its operator. Can you find them?
This is an opportunity to reinforce geometric concepts.

I recently purchased an inexpensive small drone, The Parrot Rolling Spider Mini Drone. ($80 US) If flying drones is cool. Programming them to fly is even cooler.

Thanks to a lovely dialect of Scratch called Tickle, you can use an iPad to program a flying machine! Most drones have virtual joystick software for flying the plane in real-time, but programming a flight requires more thought, planning, and inevitable debugging. Programmer error, typos, a breeze, or physical obstacles often result in hilarity.

Earlier this week, I brought my drone and iPad to a workshop Super-Awesome Sylvia and I were leading. Primary and secondary school students from a variety of schools assembled to explore learning-by-making.

Late in the workshop, I unleashed the drone.

Kids were immediately captivated by the drone and wanted to try their hand at programming a flight – especially the girls!

I truly love how such natural play defies so many gender stereotypes. Programming to produce a result, especially control is super cool for kids of all ages. (It’s also worth mentioning that this one of the few “apps” for the iPad that permits actual programming, not just “learning about coding.”)

Primary students program the drone while a boy patiently awaits his turn.

Primary students program the drone intensely while a boy patiently awaits his turn.

look up drone

Secondary school girls track the drone

Can you read this program and predict the drone's behavior?

Can you read this program and predict the drone’s behavior?

Check out some of the programmable toys and other devices you can control with Tickle!

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — -

In addition to being a veteran teacher educator, popular speaker, journalist, author, and publisher, Gary is co-author of the bestselling book called the “bible of the maker movement in schools”, Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. He also leads the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute and is Publisher at CMK Press.

PBL 360 Overview – Professional Development for Modern Educators

Gary S. Stager, Ph.D. and his team of expert educators travel the world to create immersive, high-quality professional development experiences for schools interested in effective 21st century project-based learning (PBL) and learning by doing. Whether your school (or school system) is new to PBL, the tools and technologies of the global Maker Movement, or looking to sustain existing programs, we can design flexible professional learning opportunities to meet your needs, PK-12.

Our work is based on extensive practice assisting educators on six continents, in a wide variety of grade levels, subject areas and settings. Dr. Stager has particular experience working with extremely gifted and severely at-risk learners, plus expertise in S.T.E.M. and the arts. The Victorian State of Victoria recently offered a highly successful three-day PBL 360 workshop for members of their “New Pedagogies Project.”

PBL 360 captures the spirit of the annual Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute in a local setting.

Options

Professional growth is ongoing, therefore professional development workshops need to be viewed as part of a continuum, not an inoculation. The PBL professional development workshops described below not only reflect educator’s specific needs, but are available in one, two or three-day events, supplemented by keynotes or community meetings, and may be followed-up with ongoing mentoring, consulting or online learning. Three days is recommended for greatest effect and capacity building.

While learning is interdisciplinary and not limited to age, we can tailor PD activities to emphasize specific subjects or grade levels.

These experiences embrace an expanding focus from learner, teacher, to transformational leader with a micro to systemic perspective. Video-based case studies, hands-on activities and brainstorming are all part of these highly interactive workshops.

Guiding principles

  • Effective professional development must be situated as close to the teacher’s actual practice as possible
  • You cannot teach in a manner never experienced as a learner
  • Access to expertise is critical in any learning environment
  • Practice is inseparable from theory
  • We stand on the shoulders of giants and learn from the wisdom of those who ventured before us
  • Modern knowledge construction requires computing
  • Learning and the learner should be the focus of any education initiative
  • Children are competent
  • School transformation is impossible if you only change one variable
  • Things need not be as they seem

PBL 360

Effective project-based learning requires more than the occasional classroom project, no matter how engaging such occasional activities might be. PBL 360 helps educators understand the powerful ideas behind project-based learning so they can implement PBL and transform the learning environment using digital technology and modern learning theory. PBL 360 helps teachers build a powerful, personal set of lenses and an ability to see “360 degrees” – meaning in every direction – with which to build new classroom practices.

Teachers, administrators and even parents should consider participation.

Reinventing ourselves

Piaget teaches us that knowledge is a consequence of experience. Therefore, any understanding of project-based learning or ability to implement it effectively must be grounded in personal experience. It is for this reason that all professional development pathways begin with an Invent to Learn workshop. Subsequent workshop days will build upon personal reflections and lessons learned from the Invent to Learn experience. Flexibility and sensitivity to the specific needs of participants is paramount.

Day One – Learning Learning

Join colleagues for a day of hard fun and problem solving — where computing meets tinkering and design. The workshop begins with the case for project-based learning, making, tinkering, and engineering. Next, we will discuss strategies for effective prompt-setting. You will view examples of children engaged in complex problem solving with new game-changing technologies and identify lessons for your own classroom practice. Powerful ideas from the Reggio Emilia Approach, breakthroughs in science education, and the global maker movement combine to create rich learning experiences.

“In the future, science assessments will not assess students’ understanding of core ideas separately from their abilities to use the practices of science and engineering. They will be assessed together, showing that students not only “know” science concepts; but also that they can use their understanding to investigate the natural world through the practices of science inquiry, or solve meaningful problems through the practices of engineering design.” Next Generation Science Standards (2013)

Participants will have the chance to tinker with a range of exciting new low- and high-tech construction materials that can really amplify the potential of your students. The day culminates in the planning of a classroom project based on the TMI (Think-Make-Improve) design model.

Fabrication with cardboard and found materials, squishy electronic circuits, wearable computing, Arduino, robotics, conductive paint, and computer programming are all on the menu.

This workshop is suitable for all grades and subject areas.

Day Two – Teaching

Day two begins with a period of reflection about the Invent to Learn workshop the day before, focusing on teaching and project-based learning topics, including:

  • Reflecting on the Invent to Learn workshop experience
  • Compare and contrast with your own learning experience
  • Compare and contrast with your current teaching practice

Project-based learning

  • What is a project?
  • Essential elements of effective PBL

Thematic curricula

  • Making connections
  • Meeting standards

Design technology and children’s engineering

  • The case for tinkering
  • Epistemological pluralism
  • Learning styles
  • Hands-on, minds-on
  • Iterative design methodology

Teacher roles in a modern classroom

  • Teacher as researcher
  • Identifying the big ideas of your subject area or grade level
  • Preparing learners for the “real world”
  • What does real world learning look like?
  • Lessons from the “Best Educational Ideas in the World”
  • What we can learn from Reggio Emilia, El Sistema and the “Maker” community?
  • Less Us, More Them
  • Shifting agency to learners
  • Creating independent learners

Classroom design to support PBL and hands-on learning

  • Physical environment
  • Centers, Makerspaces, and FabLabs
  • Scheduling

Tools, technology, materials

  • Computers as material
  • Digital technology
  • Programming
  • Choices and options

PBL 360 models teaching practices that put teachers at the center of their own learning, just like we want for students. This in turn empowers teachers to continue to work through the logistics of changing classroom practice as they develop ongoing fluency in tools, technologies, and pedagogy. Teachers who learn what modern learning “feels” like are better able to translate this into everyday practice, supported by ongoing professional development and sound policy.

Day Three – Transformation

The third day focuses on the details and specifics of implementing and sustaining PBL in individual classrooms and collaboratively with colleagues. Participants will lead with:

Program Planning

  • Curricular audit
  • Standards, grade levels
  • Assessment

Classroom Planning

  • Planning PBL for your classroom
  • Curricular projects vs. student-based inquiry
  • Creating effective project prompts

Identifying Change

  • The changing role of the teacher
  • Shaping the PBL-supportive learning environment
  • Does your school day support PBL?
  • Action plan formulation

Advocacy

  • Communicating a unifying vision with parents and the community
  • Adjusting expectations for students, parents, community, administrators, and colleagues
  • Creating alliances
  • Identifying resources

Modern learning embraces a vision of students becoming part of a solution-oriented future where their talents, skills, and passions are rewarded. The changes in curriculum must therefore be matched with a change in pedagogy that supports these overarching goals. Teachers need to understand design thinking, for example, not just as a checklist, but as a new way to shape the learning environment. It is no longer acceptable to simply teach students to use digital tools that make work flow more efficient, nor will it be possible to segregate “making” and “doing” into vocational, non-college preparatory classes.

PBL 360 will help teachers create learning environments that meet these goals with professional development that is innovative, supportive, and sustainable.

Constructive Technology Workshop Materials

Although constructive technology evolves continuously, the following is the range of hardware and software that can be combined with traditional craft materials and recycled items supplied by the client. The specialized materials will be furnished by Constructing Modern Knowledge, LLC. Specific items may vary.

Cardboard construction

  • Makedo
  • Rollobox
Robotics

  • LEGO WeDo
  • Hummingbird Robotics Kits
  • Pro-Bot
eTextiles/soft circuits/wearable computers

  • Lilypad Arduino Protosnap
  • Lilypad Arduino MP3
  • Flora
Computer Science, programming, and control

  • Scratch
  • Snap!
  • Turtle Art
  • Arduino IDE
  • Ardublocks
Microcontroller engineering and programming

  • Arduino Inventor’s Kits
  • Digital Sandbox
New ways to create electrical circuits

  • Circuit Stickers
  • Electronic papercraft
  • Circuit Scribe pens
  • Conductive paint
  • Squishy Circuits
Electronics and Internet of Things

  • MaKey MaKey
  • littleBits
Consumables

  • Coin cell batteries
  • Sewable battery holders
  • Foam sheets and shapes
  • Felt
  • Needles and thread
  • Conductive thread and tape
  • Fabric snaps

Additional costs may be incurred for transporting supplies and for consumable materials depending on the number of participants and workshop location(s). Groups of more than 20 participants may require an additional facilitator.

Invent To Learn books may be purchased at a discount to be used in conjunction with the workshop.


About Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.

Gary Stager, an internationally recognized educator, speaker and consultant, is the Executive Director of  Constructing Modern Knowledge. Since 1982, Gary has helped learners of all ages on six continents embrace the power of computers as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression. He led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools (1990), has designed online graduate school programs since the mid-90s, was a collaborator in the MIT Media Lab’s Future of Learning Group and a member of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation’s Learning Team.

When Jean Piaget wanted to better understand how children learn mathematics, he hired Seymour Papert. When Dr. Papert wanted to create a high-tech alternative learning environment for incarcerated at-risk teens, he hired Gary Stager. This work was the basis for Gary’s doctoral dissertation and documented Papert’s most-recent institutional research project.

Gary’s recent work has included teaching and mentoring some of Australia’s “most troubled” public schools, launching 1:1 computing in a Korean International School beginning in the first grade, media appearances in Peru and serving as a school S.T.E.M. Director. His advocacy on behalf of creativity, computing and children led to the creation of the Constructivist Consortium and the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Gary is the co-author of Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, often cited as the “bible of the Maker Movement in schools”.

A popular speaker and school consultant, Dr. Stager has keynoted major conferences worldwide to help teachers see the potential of new technology to revolutionize education. Dr. Stager is also a contributor to The Huffington Post and a Senior S.T.E.M. and Education Consultant to leading school architecture firm, Fielding Nair International. Gary also works with teachers and students as Special Assistant to the Head of School for Innovation at The Willows Community School in Culver City, California.He has twice been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Melbourne’s Trinity College. Gary currently works as the Special Assistant to the Head of School for Innovation at The Willows Community School in Culver City, California.

Contact

Email learning@inventtolearn.com to inquire about costs and schedule for your customized workshop. We will work with you to create an experience that will change your school, district, or organization forever. Additional ongoing consulting, mentoring, or online learning services are available to meet individual needs.

Summer Institute

Schools should also consider sending personnel to the annual summer project-based learning institute, Constructing Modern Knowledge – (www.constructingmodernknowledge.com)

Candidly, I have not been enthusiastic about teaching “computational thinking” to kids. In nearly every case, computational thinking seemed to be a dodge intended to avoid computing, specifically computer programming.

“There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”

(Sir Joshua Reynolds)

Programming is an incredibly powerful context for learning mathematics while engaged in being a mathematician. If mathematics is a way of making sense of the world, computing is a great way to make mathematics.

Most of the examples of computational thinking I’ve come across seemed like a cross between “Computer Appreciation” and “Math Appreciation.” However, since smart people were taking “computational thinking” more seriously, I spent a great deal of time thinking about a legitimate case for it in the education of young people.

Here it is…

Computational thinking is useful when modeling a system or complex problem is possible, but the programming is too difficult.

Examples will be shared in other venues.

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.

While waiting for the 5th grade class to settle  down between recess and their holiday party, I wrote this project starter for creating arithmetic flashcard software in MicroWorlds. While the “math” isn’t particularly interesting or open-ended, there are plenty of opportunities for the students to improve and augment the software.

Bad drill and practice doesn’t become good because it is programmed in Logo, or by kids. However, the person who learns the most from “educational” software is the person who made it.

I thought of doing this because “practice multiplication facts” has been written on the classroom board for months. If the kids “write the software, perhaps they’ll think about multiplication a bit.

This is also an opportunity for introducing concepts, like percent, in order to create a cumulative score.

Download the PDF project starter by clicking the link below:

 A “Math” Game Only A Mother Could Love (PDF)

Girls and Technology – Overcoming Myths and Malpractice1
Version 1.0
Presented at the 2002 Alliance For Girl Schools
Girls and Technology Conference
© May 2002 Gary S. Stager

It is indeed an honor to speak at this conference and share my experiences and expectations with such an august audience. My qualifications for this conference could be based on my two decades of work with technology and kids, the work I did in the early days of school laptop computing right here in Australia or the fact that I am the parent of two teenage girls. I originally suggested that this talk be titled, “I’m not sure why Dale Spender hates me,” based on my experience as Ms. Spender’s human piñata at an MLC dinner and the ironic fact that she went on to quote me extensively in one of her books.

The theme of this conference, girls and technology, implies a problem. Neither girls nor technology are the problem. If a problem does exist, it is with the men and women commonly identified as educators and to a lesser extent, parents. It is the intellectual timidity, professional indolence, imagination gap and what Seymour Papert calls, idea aversion that prevents us from meeting the needs of all digital age children. The greatest number of victims of such idea aversion may be girls since for reasons real and imagined. The prevailing myths that girls don’t like computers; girls need different technology; girls should learn to criticize technology; girls have adequate access and ample role models; school leaders are qualified to make technological decisions; and schools should be used as social sieves lead to the creation of pedagogical decisions ultimately detrimental to girls themselves.

Microcomputers and the global information infrastructure offer unprecedented opportunities for expanding the learning community and for children to engage with powerful ideas. The choice is between an increasingly irrelevant system of schooling or the realization of John Dewey’s dream for a learning environment in which children can achieve their full creative and intellectual potential. Computational and communication technology may be used as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression or as a tool for oppression. The first option makes schools better places for teachers and kids to learn, the second will hasten the demise of school’s monopoly on education.

It would be a shame if we missed the chance to revolutionize the learning environment if we were simply ignorant. It would be a sin to ignore the remarkable possibilities demonstrated right under our noses in order to preserve some quaint notion of 19th century education. We know how the combination of elevated expectations, respect for epistemological pluralism, a dash of creativity and ubiquitous can produce a learning renaissance because we’ve seen it in schools a tram-ride away.

The most important educational technology innovation in the past two decades began at Methodist Ladies’ College in 1989 when David Loader, a giant in girls’ education, committed his school to the proposition that every child should own a personal laptop computer. This was never intended as a stunt, experiment or project. David noticed that computers were getting more portable and affordable while anticipating that such a bold investment would pay great dividends for educators concerned with making schools what James Britton would describe as, “more hospitable to the intentions of children.”

Six years before the World Wide Web, Loader shared these provocative thoughts with his school community.

Apparently the sun cannot rise in present schools…

Unlike David Suzuki who dismisses computers as information processors, we see knowledge not so much as being processed but as being constructed in the classroom. John Dewey’s observation that the content of the lesson is the less important thing about learning, is relevant (here). – David Loader

Almost every child, on the first day he sets foot in a school building, is smarter, more curious, less afraid of what he doesn’t know, better at finding and figuring things out, more confident, resourceful, persistent and independent, than he will ever be again in his schooling – John Holt

This was the shot heard ‘round the world. Soon after laptops were delivered to MLC, impressive student LogoWriter projects inspired teachers to rethink their notions of curriculum, assessment, scheduling and most importantly, the under-appreciated learning abilities of their students. Humanities teachers demanded long uninterrupted blocks of time to accomplish interdisciplinary collaborative projects. French teachers ventured into the uncharted waters of maths classrooms, boatloads of educators from around the world visited Kew and the idea of Marshmead was born.

Steve Costa, was patient zero – the first teacher in history to teach a class of girls each equipped with a laptop. Steve’s extraordinary teaching abilities coupled and willingness to share his talents with colleagues has made his classroom one of the most visited in the world. Not only did Steve Costa possess the confidence and courage to invent the future, he has demonstrated a remarkable focus over the past thirteen years. He has not been seduced by the latest technological fad or gimmick, but has continued to help students maximize the potential of their minds and computers by remaining committed to the hard fun of programming in Logo (MicroWorlds). Steve’s work continues to inspire me. What he and his girls have accomplished is remarkable. If there were any justice, Mr. Costa would appear on an Australian postage stamp. He is arguably one of the most important teachers in this nation’s history.

I am delighted that Steve Costa and David Loader will keynote a conference in Maine, USA this August between Alan Kay, the inventor of the personal computer, and Seymour Papert, the educator who predicted thirty-five years ago that every child would have a personal computer. Maine has built upon the foundation laid by these educational giants by passing a law requiring the provision of an iBook computer and 24/7 net access for every seventh and eighth grade student in the state.

This however is not an all-male history lesson. Many female teachers at MLC and Coombabah State Primary School in Queensland helped the world rethink the role of computers in schools. Merle Atherton, a quiet humanities teacher two years from retirement, embraced Logo and laptops with enormous enthusiasm and inspired countless colleagues to enjoy thinking about thinking. She was given an “in-school sabbatical” so she could work in classrooms alongside her colleagues.

Joan Taylor’s world-class Community Education department played an enormous role in the organization of holiday computer camps, global conferences and professional opportunities for teaching staff. The holiday computer camps provided parents with a creative child-care service and benefited the school in two important ways. The first benefit of the camp was as a “strongly suggested” prerequisite to attending the school as a new student. Four days of project-based computer use, the arts and a bit of sport provided adequate preparation for new children to succeed when they joined existing classrooms. Another benefit of the camps was that members of the teaching staff served as counselors. More “expert” teachers would lead robotics or Logo classes and less experienced teachers would apprentice. The casual nature of the camp allowed teachers to gain new knowledge and develop increased levels of consequence. Apprentices often replaced the experts in subsequent camps.

Community education also provided a venue for teachers interested in learning basic computing skills or finding out how to use computers for administrative tasks. This way the school could dedicate its professional development resources to using computers in ways that reformed education and benefited kids.

Merle and Joan are unsung heroes in the history of school computing.

I remember bringing some student projects back to the USA from MLC. When I shared them with one of America’s most accomplished computing-using teachers he remarked, “Oh, that’s what it looks like when the kids have time.” The ability to learn and work anywhere anytime is an obvious, yet important rationale for laptop use.

MLC was a magical place during the early nineties. Every aspect of schooling was open for discussion and reconsideration. I spent as long as three months at a time at the school with a brief to do anything I thought would contribute to educational excellence. I worked with teachers and kids in classrooms, consulted with staff, created the holiday computer camps, built a LogoExpress system to facilitate telecommunications from home and within school and had constant access to the principal. When I expressed concern over the gap between classroom reality and the rhetoric proclaiming the school’s commitment to constructionism, the principal supported my desire to take dozens of teachers away for intensive residential professional development sessions, fondly remembered as pyjama parties. After all, constructionism is something you DO as well as believe. You cannot be a constructionist who subcontracts the construction. “Do as I say, not as I do,” will no longer cut it.

Not all was perfect, even during these halcyon days. I remember needing a small bit of electronic tinkering done while at MLC and saying, “I’ll just get a girl to solder this for me.” My colleagues looked nervously around the room before someone said, “our girls don’t solder.” Concern for gender equity apparently ended at the point where students use tools, learn about electronics or perform actual service to the school community. The school musical theatre production hired professional musicians to provide accompaniment rather than utilizing talented student musicians. Ted Sizer, Deborah Meier and others write elegantly about the benefits of students assuming more responsibility for sustaining the intellectual culture and accepting responsibility for the operation of their school. We need to work harder

Soon after the pioneering efforts of MLC, two other groups of laptop schools emerged. The “marketeers” were schools more concerned with the marketing and publicity benefits of “doing laptops” than with reforming schools while nearly every other school found laptops in its future by inertia. The “marketers” and their “neighbours “ lacked the vision of the pioneer schools and found that they could differentiate themselves by embracing less empowering uses of computers and cynical assessment schemes like the International Baccalaureate. Some principals became more concerned with schmoozing hardware vendors and rising software version numbers than with educational innovation.

I am most disappointed at how little impact the laptop volcano has had on the structure of schooling. I assumed ten years ago that any educator with common sense would recognize the need for new school environments incorporating multiage, learner-centred, interdisciplinary learning. The creation of fantastic alternative learning environments at Marshmead and Clunes are evidence of a failure to bring about substantive school reform in traditional schools. The need for a school to build a new campus in order to be more learner-friendly suggests the institution’s incapacity for self-correction.

Perhaps I was naïve, but in the early nineties I had the following expectations for today’s schools.

The easy stuff

Schools would feature:

Basic productivity tool fluency

Electronic publishing of student work

Electronically-mediated parent/teacher communication

Teachers using the computer for personal productivity/school paperwork

Every child and teacher would have a personal computer

We would stop referring to computers as technology

I.T. would cease to exist as a school subject

The hard stuff

Kids would be:

All laptop owners

Composing music

Writing powerful computer programs

Freely communicating online

Building robots

Conducting scientific investigations with probeware

Publishing in a variety of convergent media

The hard stuff

School leaders would be:

Using computers in personally powerful ways

Supporting the imaginative use of emerging technology

Participating in the professional development they impose on teachers

No longer using computers to quiz or test students

The really hard stuff

Principals would no longer be able to get their photo in the newspaper just for standing next to a kid and a computer

School would be learner-centered and educators would be able to articulate what that means

School leaders would spend less time making computer deals and more time collaborating with other learners

Students would be able to program and construct their own software tools

The supremacy of curriculum would be abandoned & no one would speak of delivery

School leaders would join the community of practice

Kids would collaborate with other kids and experts around the world

The really really hard stuff

Multi-age interdisciplinary “classrooms” would be widespread

External forms of assessment would be replaced by more effective humane forms of authentic assessment

Kids would spend less time in school

Schools would stop viewing the needs of children as an impediment to the enterprise

There would be far fewer technology coordinators in schools

The advent of the World Wide Web in the mid-nineties allowed schools never particularly committed to constructionism to embrace a vehicle for reinforcing the primacy of curriculum and instruction. Despite the unrivaled power of the net to democratize publishing and offer unprecedented opportunities for collaboration, it has been assimilated by schools in the name of curriculum delivery and the status quo. Throw in the incredible expense of networking and the disasters caused by the unprecedented authority given to the non-educators running school technology infrastructures and the results were bound to be disappointing. It seems to many that the golden days of Australian school computing may be sadly behind us.

I invented Murray’s Law to describe the current state of school computing. Murray’s Law combine’s Moore’s Law and Murphy’s Law to state that every 18 months schools will purchase computers with twice the processor power of today and do things twice as trivial with those computers. Things need not be, as they seem. I will share glimpses of the opportunities some of your schools may be missing during this presentation.

MLC was clearly on the right side of history. Rather than give long-winded educational rationales for portable computers I suggest that the reason your school should provide laptops is because it’s training wheels for the adults in the school. It is inevitable that every kid will have her own full-featured portable computer, although it may not look like a laptop. Embracing laptops gives your teachers a few years to prepare for that eventuality on their terms.

I am not a cyber-utopian. I want children to have the widest possible range of high-quality experiences regardless of the medium. However, computers do offer new things to know and new ways to know new things. They can be intellectual prosthetic devices that enable people to learn and express themselves in unprecedented ways. For at-risk students the computer may provide the first opportunity to experience the satisfaction of having a wonderful idea.

For girls’ schools, the computer offers rare opportunities for young women to invent their futures. Such schools will be successful only when they embrace constructionism, computers and put the needs of learners ahead of those held by curriculum designers. The women charged with the education of girls need to model the most fearless, creative and intellectually-rich use of computers if they are to inspire girls to be their very best.

Myths We Need to Overcome

#1 Girls Don’t Like Computers
Girls use computers in all sorts of ways ignored by schools. They use the technology to sustain and establish relationships via instant messaging, a technology needlessly prohibited by many schools. They publish web pages about bands and television shows they love. They share music and rip MP3s. Girls even play video games when those games are more playful and less violent.

We need to look for opportunities to build software environments and computer activities that engage girls. Many more peer-to-peer products need to be developed.

#2 Children Use Computers in School
Some of your schools have gone to great expense in order to produce glossy brochures exclaiming, “We have computers!” What may been news in 1979 is no longer newsworthy. That race has been won. What do your girls DO with those computers?

It is not your job to sort children, to decide which ones will have certain opportunities. It is your job to ensure that all children are exposed to the widest possible range of possibilities within a supportive caring environment.

Unless every girl has the opportunity to explore robotics, programming, MIDI composition, digital filmmaking, multimedia web publishing in a culture that values these activities, we cheat them of a thorough and efficient education. While computers should be transparent across all disciplines, it is outrageous how few comprehensive secondary schools offer computer science as a serious course of study. Few girls even know that this is an option as avocation or vocation. IT or ICT classes are just dressed-up computer literacy and outdated business studies courses. They lack rigor and don’t reflect the state of computing.

According to a recent study conducted by the Australian government, 44% of all children spend less than 40 minutes per week and 66% of all children spend less than one hour per week using a computer in school.2 Similar levels of inadequate access would be found in the USA as well. The major implication of this limited access is that many girls will just not use computers at all. Scarcity is a major obstacle to use. It is just not worth it for a girl to fight for an extra few minutes of computer time. 1:1 laptop computing certainly helps overcome this problem.

#3 Girls Need Different Technology
The myth that girls that girls need “pink” technology is unfounded. They need more imaginative examples of how computers and related technology might be used. Girls don’t dislike LEGO robotics and programming. It is just that their mothers and grandmothers do not buy LEGO for them. Their mothers don’t buy much software either.

Girls don’t need purple bricks. They do need project ideas that don’t result in trucks. Time and time again we have seen that girls are quite imaginative competent programmers and engineers when inspired to engage in such activities.

Girls play computer games in ways that attempt to push the boundaries of the rules – to manipulate them. Boys study the rules and try using them to get ahead, to vanquish opponents. I have seen many young girls “play” with the genre of Expanded Books by clicking on words in silly sequences in order to get the computer to say funny things. Their willingness and desire to manipulate systems should make girls the best computer users, not the most at-risk.

Since it is increasingly difficult for companies to earn a profit producing software for children, even less is created for girls. That which is created for girls insults their intelligence and merely pretties up either trivial tasks like coloring or is related to petty chores like storing addresses or diary entries.

There have been a few notable attempts to produce software for girls, but these efforts have borne little fruit. In the late 1980s, SEGA assembled all of their female engineers, artists, authors, programmers and game designers in one building in the hopes that all of this “girl power” would inspire the creation of hit videogame software for girls. It did not.

Brenda Laurel’s company, Purple Moon, was dedicated to producing software for girls and spent unprecedented funds on research into gender play patterns. The problem was that by the end of the research there was no money left to make quality software that offered compelling experiences for girls. I remember my daughter calling Purple Moon technical support to complain that her interactive adventure game crashed. She was informed that it didn’t crash, it just didn’t really have an ending. The last hope of Purple Moon was actually based on a terrific concept, a sports game for girls. The company recognized the rise in popularity in soccer among girls and had an opportunity to develop a soccer computer game for girls. Unfortunately, their soccer program told the story of getting ready for the big match, but never actually let the girls play soccer.

All is not bleak. Innovative examples of game software, such as Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) for the Sony PlayStation,allows players to dance on a physical pad and interact with the screen. Girls love DDR and play it until they lose weight and their dance pads wear-out. They just do so at home with friends. The arcade DDR machines are played primarily by boys who engage in a less playful, more competitive version of the activity.

Perhaps the least understood development in software for girls was the enormous late ‘90s success of Mattel’s Barbie Fashion Designer software. Regardless of how you feel about Barbie, this software title sold more copies than any other piece of “girls” software ever. The industry observed the breakthrough sales of this product and wrongly attributed its success to the fact that Barbie was on the box. This simply is not true.

There has been unsuccessful Barbie software on the market for nearly twenty years and there were other Barbie titles next to Fashion Designer. So, why did FD sell so well? I would argue that its commercial success had far less to do with Barbie than with constructionism. Barbie Fashion Designer allowed girls an opportunity to use their computers to make something cool – in this case clothes you could design, print and dress your doll in. Constructionism trumps even Barbie. This is a lesson we would do well to heed.

#4 There is More to Technology than Notebook Computers
It would be a great mistake to suggest that the latest PDA gizmo or thin-client is superior to a full-featured notebook computer. Many of these devices are intended for professionals with a specific job to do. Kids need better computers than most executives. I am quite unimpressed with those who can turn word processing and web surfing into a nine-year scope and sequence chart.

School computers may be used to do work and to learn. Work consists of writing, calculating, researching and presenting information. Learning consists of being immersed in the constructive processes with a reasonable chance of leading to the construction of a larger theory or bigger question. Microsoft Office is OK for doing work. MicroWorlds Pro is superior for learning.

“These days, computers are popularly thought of as multimedia devices, capable of incorporating and combining all previous forms of media – text, graphics, moving pictures, sound. I think this point of view leads to an underestimation of the computer’s potential. It is certainly true that a computer can incorporate and manipulate all other media, but the true power of the computer is that it is capable of manipulating not just the expression of ideas but also the ideas themselves. The amazing thing to me is not that a computer can hold the contents of all the books in a library but that it can notice relationships between the concepts described in the books – not that it can display a picture of a bird in flight or a galaxy spinning but that it can imagine and predict the consequences of the physical laws that create these wonders. The computer is not just an advanced calculator or camera or paintbrush; rather, it is a device that accelerates and extends our processes of thought. It is an imagination machine, which starts with the ideas we put into it and takes them farther than we ever could have taken them on our own.”3

Those who make claims that schools should use such devices rather than notebooks probably have little experience using computers in creative ways and are probably more concerned with cost than benefit to children. We learn by constructing knowledge in a social context. Such construction is dependent on full-featured computers capable of making all sorts of wondrous things and sharing those things with others. Serendipity should be the goal. It is arrogant and misguided to put too much stock in what we think kids might do with technology. I embrace the wondrous inventions that enliven classrooms and stimulate even greater inquiry.

Software is another cause of confusion. Some educators are impressed by false complexity, software loaded with confusing features, tools and menus. The logic suggests that hard-to-use, expensive, or corporate software must be superior to the silly stuff developed specifically for kids. New need not mean better and pretty need not mean deep. We should endeavor to use as few software packages as possible, if of course those packages are sufficiently flexible, so that students may develop fluency. MicroWorlds use pays dividends after students have ample time to allow the software to become second nature. Jumping from software package to software package may impress adults, but it will cheat students of the benefits paid by fluency.

#5 We Have Good Role Models for Girls
One of the most effective ways to learn is through apprenticeship. Children learn a great deal, with little effort, from spending quality time engaged in authentic activities with adults. These adults inspire, teach and motivate through their example. It makes sense that if we want girls to be competent engaged computer users, then the women in their lives need to be competent engaged computer users. Most of the women known to children are teachers and yet they are among the weakest users of computers in society.

The critical shortage of teachers with demonstrable levels of computer fluency makes it difficult for girls to see the value of computing in their reflection. Carol Gilligan’s research suggests that during the early years of adolescence when girls begin to shape their identity, they also begin to see women marginalized by society. Teachers have a responsibility to be much better high-tech role models, computer clubs for girls need to be created and a public campaign must be waged to attract girls to hobbies and vocations involving computer technology.

#6 Girls Should Study Technology Criticism
Dale Spender once told a room full of educators that schools need to teach girls to criticize technology since for a number of reasons, including that women were being “routinely raped and molested online.” This hysterical proclamation was made prior to the widespread availability of the World Wide Web.

While we should be cautious to ensure the safety of all children, we do not need to raise irrational concerns. Reactionary criticism of “technology” (whatever that means) is like criticizing the weather. You will lead a rather unfulfilling life.

While it may be useful to be knowledgeable of the benefits and consequences of emerging technologies, criticism requires little intimate knowledge of the subject and renders the critic a spectator. Girls cannot afford to remain spectators in the use of the most powerful instruments of science, art and commerce ever invented. If girls wish to lead happy productive lives they will need to learn to cut code, to master the instruments of so much influence. We must move beyond hoping that our daughter will marry Bill Gates to a day in which our daughters compete successfully against him. This is a necessity if computers and software are to ever become more attractive and convivial for the majority gender.

#7 School Administrators are Qualified to Make Important Technology Decisions
School administrators like the marketing benefits associated with standing next to a group of kids and a computer, yet few have ever done anything imaginative with a computer. Unprecedented budgetary and educational discretion have been placed in the hands of technology directors who often have little knowledge of or concern for the learning needs of children. This abdication of responsibility has cost schools billions of dollars and squandered all sorts of good will and opportunity to innovate.

#8 Schools are Designed to Sort Children
American schools are being destroyed by the over-emphasis on higher-meaner-tougher standards and the quest for high-standardized test scores. California spends nearly $2 billion (US) annually on the administration of a testing scheme non-aligned to the curriculum and which can’t even seem to be scored correctly. Teachers are prohibited by law from looking at the test and receive no more than a score reporting on each child’s results yet are expected to improve practice based on this score.

Some schools spend as much as eleven weeks per year in external assessment in addition to the countless wasted hours of test preparation. Recess is being eliminated in some schools. Science, social studies and the arts have disappeared to make way for more literacy and numeracy based on a pedagogy of yelling louder more often. Students are being tortured by this nonsense and great teachers are being driven out of the profession. Schools are deemed failures and susceptible to takeover while children are kept from progressing to the next grade based on norm-reference tests requiring 50% to fail. This is the cruelest of hoaxes perpetrated on children. The publisher of California’s exam includes teacher instructions in the event that a student vomits on her test booklet.

One principal recently committed suicide as a result of her school’s test scores.

These tests serve no productive purpose and are cheating children of a joyous purposeful learning experience. Citizens of conscience must oppose this wholesale deprivation of educational excellence at every opportunity.

Australian independent schools do not have to play this game, yet they do. Complain all you want about the Department of Education, but your schools have the power to reject or at least influence, the trajectory of these accountability schemes.

This is not the case. In the years since I began working with Australian schools, local girls’ schools have not only capitulated to the VCE, but have embraced the odd little International Baccalaureate. Say what you like about American imperialism, but even we don’t have the audacity to dictate your curriculum.

The greatest tragedy is that local independent schools not only lack the courage to fight this scourge, they actively promote their scores in a most cynical attempt to gain market advantage over the competitors.

I spent some time looking at the web sites of local girls’ schools and was sickened by an animation of a cute little girl with text scrolling over her announcing this school’s test scores. Perhaps the advertisement should say things like, “Our school makes more girls cry and nauseous than any other school.” Or “our girls crushed the dumb girls down the street.” How about, “our school wasted more precious resources on cheap marketing stunts than our competition?”

I often feel like the Great Gazoo when I attend educational conferences. If you don’t remember Gazoo, he was the Martian who inexplicably visited Bedrock in the Flintstones. Terms like set tasks, packets of work, VCE scores, marks, CATs, outcomes or league tables are the words of Dickensian shopkeepers, not people who love children.

Girls deserve schools that do everything possible to create nurturing environments capable of honoring their emotional, intellectual, spiritual and creative needs.

Conclusion
If we believe that children are a blessing entrusted to us, then what we do should be self-evident. The choice of educational direction is not related to education party, region or grade level. We must choose between a belief in constructionism, the notion that learners are central to the learning process, or instructionism, the idea that we can improve education by teaching better. Better teachers will undoubtedly create rich environments in which students feel safe to take risks, explore their curiosity and share their knowledge. However, it is impossible to learn for anyone else no matter how hard you try. Constructionism gives agency to the learner, instructionism to the system/curriculum/teacher. Our goal should be “less us, more them.”

Schools need to do a better job of engaging all learners, listening to them and building upon their natural expertise, knowledge and talent. We need schools in which children are engaged in authentic, personally meaningful tasks in conjunction with adults who can inspire them to greater heights. Abundant computer access and high expectations for the myriad of ways in which computers may be used as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression must be the norm. Adults, particularly women, have a major responsibility as role models who develop and use sophisticated computer users. We need to think less of female students as precious Victorian-era dolls and more as competent citizens who can compute, solder and take responsibility for their own learning. They deserve no less.

1 This is not a scholarly paper. It is intended as a manifesto to accompany a keynote address. This print document cannot reproduce the examples, video clips, anecdotes, humour and passion shared during the conference. The books I love and learned from may be found at http://www.stager.org/books/. A collection of my articles about education may be found at www.stager.org.

2 Real time Computers, Change and Schooling – National sample study of the information technology skills of Australian school students

Merydth, Russel et al.
October 1999

3 Hillis, Daniel. (1998) The Pattern on the Stone: The Simple Ideas that Make Computers Work.

 

Last Friday afternoon I experienced one of the most joyous moments of my thirty years in education. I took three fifth grade girls (along with their classroom teacher chaperone) out to lunch. That’s right. We walked right out the front gate of the school, into the sunlight, crossed the street, walked down the block and had a leisurely 90-minute lunch at the restaurant of their choice – regrettably the crime against gastronomy (and pizza), California Pizza Kitchen.

A few weeks earlier, I had challenged the 5th graders to write a computer program in MicroWorlds EX that would draw fractional representations of a circle for any fraction a user requested. Feeling a bit cheeky, I said that I would buy lunch for the first kid or group of kids to write a successful program. After a few class sessions dedicated to the challenge, three fifth grade girls were the first to succeed.

I know. I’m a hypocrite.

I reject behaviorism and its evil friends; grades, punishment, bribes and rewards. However, this felt different. The kids were going to join me for lunch like colleagues celebrating an accomplishment. Best of all, their classmates continued working on the programming challenge, without hard feelings, even after “winners” had emerged. Perhaps they knew that their turn would come. I routinely bring treats from my travels into the classroom. If I worked in an office, I might stop occasionally and buy Dunkin Munchkins for my co-workers. I do the same with my students. Why not?

I loved telling the girls that they could order anything they wanted and learning about their dietary habits and favorites. Conversation covered sick babies, interior decorating, roller coasters, face blindness and Khan Academy. The last two topics were introduced by a girl who matter-of-factly stated, “I watch 60 Minutes.” I was jealous of their classroom teacher who knew more about their parents, siblings, friends and neighbors than I do, but a good time was had by all. The genuine gratitude expressed by the girls (including their teacher) made it all worthwhile.

Perhaps the highlight of our lunch was watching the girls color their kid’s menus at a lunch celebrating their computer science prowess.  Once again, Seymour Papert is correct.

Below is the program the girls wrote. It required figuring out how to “teach the turtle” to draw a circle and utilized a bunch of mathematical concepts, including radius, fractions, variables and angle.

For those of you lacking the skills of a 5th grader and can’t read a Logo program, I’ve included a video demonstrating their program at work.

to Pie
 repeat 360 [fd 3 rt 1]
 end
to fraction :n :d
 cg
 setc "black
 pd
 Pie
 pu
 rt 90
 fd 172
 rt 90
 pd
 repeat :d [fd 172 bk 172 rt 360 / :d]
 repeat :n [rt 360 / :d fillit ]
 end
to fillit
 setc color + 5
 pu
 rt 5
 fd 20
 fill
 bk 20
 lt 5
 end
to mem
 repeat :n [fillit pu rt 1 fd :l / :d lt 1]
 rt 1
 bk :n / :d * :l lt 1
 end

 .