On Christmas Eve (2016), the world lost one of its most profound thinkers when learning theorist, Dr. Edith Ackermann, left us at age 70. Anyone blessed with even the most casual encounter with Edith embraced her as a mentor, collaborator, and friend. She bestowed boundless respect upon anyone trying to make the world more beautiful, just, or creative. Edith’s grace danced into a room like a cool breeze awakening its occupants and setting their sights towards what truly matters.
Edith was a giant among learning theorists, even if under-appreciated and a best kept secret. Her work focused on the intersection of play, design, childhood, and technology. She worked closely with Jean Piaget, Seymour Papert, and Ernst von Glasersfeld – three of the most important experts on learning ever. Her insights were invaluable to the LEGO Company, MIT students, architects, and educators around the world.
Edith was always there to help me clarify my thinking and to take an idea one stop past my anticipated exit. She was a pal with whom you could walk arm in arm discussing almost anything, laugh boisterously, and gossip quietly. We disliked many of the same ideas and people, but Edith was just much better at hiding her disdain.
Perhaps, Edith’s remarkable perspective came from being an outsider. Despite the profound impact she had on innumerable students and colleagues, I never got the sense that the testosterone-oozing world of MIT afforded her the respect or security she so richly deserved.
Shamefully, I do not know much about Edith’s history or personal life; yet another painful reminder that we should do everything possible to know our friends better. Therefore, I will share some thoughts about her work and what she meant to me.
I don’t remember when I first met Edith. I think it was in 2000 when Seymour Papert sent me to sub for him as the keynote speaker at a conference held at the Piaget Archives in Geneva. Papert failed to tell the organizers that 1) he wasn’t coming or 2) that I was his replacement. The entire story is a hilarious comedy of errors that I’ll share another day.
Edith and I attended many EuroLogo (now Constructionism) Conferences and worked together 15+ years ago in Mexico City leading a workshop as members of the MIT Media Lab’s Future of Learning Group. Several years ago, I invited Edith to be a guest speaker at my 2014 Constructing Modern Knowledge institute. I set aside concerns that her Swiss accent, quiet demeanor, and brilliant intellect would not work in a room full of predominantly American educators. Her unrivaled genius made the risk worthwhile.
Edith’s wisdom, passion, humanity, and generosity of spirit made her an immediate favorite of the very educators who others treat as low-skill labor in need of a 7-step plan for raising achievement. The next year, Edith spent most of the institute with us interacting informally with participants and appearing on a panel discussion with two of my other heroes, David Loader and Deborah Meier. Last summer, despite her ongoing battle with Cancer, Edith Ackermann spent all four days of CMK helping each of us make meaning out of our individual and collective experiences.
Edith taught us so much.
One powerful idea she shared was that “Making is a way of seeing.” Edith had a gift for bringing into focus what others miss. She invited us to “lean in,” not in the vulgar career climbing form advocated by Sheryl Sandberg, but as a way of becoming one with nature, the community, ideas, beauty, and one’s soul.
I would like to share three very special memories of Edith Ackermann at Constructing Modern Knowledge.
After nine years of effort, I managed to convince Reggio Children President Carla Rinaldi to participate in Constructing Modern Knowledge. Edith and Carla were old friends who greeted each other with great love and respect. Their mutual affection was truly touching. During the institute, I stole a little time to show Carla and Edith how Tickle (an iOS dialect of Scratch) could be used to bring drones and a variety of robots to life. They appreciated the technological wizardry for a split second and then became preschoolers imagining how the different toys could play, communicate and love one another. Both experts were so in tune with the inner lives of children that they were able to wear the spirit of childhood play with great ease and abundant joy.
A tacit theme of Constructing Modern Knowledge involves creating the conditions by which each participating educator may think about how their particular learning experience connects with their own priory experience and future classroom practice. Superficially, our speakers may seem to have nothing to do with one another or the sorts of project work undertaken by CMK attendees. In 2015, I invited two National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters, 86 year-old pianist Barry Harris and 89 year-old saxophonist Jimmy Heath, to perform a masterclass at CMK. Edith not only understood immediately why I invited them to perform at an event about learning and making, but she was thrilled to spend time with Barry Harris whose music she knew. Edith had also watched videos of Barry teaching. Just take a look at the joy with which she approached this encounter.
I work all year organizing Constructing Modern Knowledge and try to steal an hour to indulge a passion of mine, taking great friends and colleagues to Cremeland, an “al fresco” roadside stand in Manchester, New Hampshire known for its fabulous fried fish and ice cream. The first year Edith joined the CMK team, I took her and a couple of colleagues for our secret lunch at Cremeland. You order food at one window, eat at picnic tables in the parking lot, and then return to a window at the opposite end of the building for decadent ice cream.
There is always a bit of chaos when a group of people are ordering from an unknown menu through a tiny window, but throw Edith’s Swiss accent into the mix and watch hilarity ensue.
Server: Can I take your order?
Edith: I’ll have the haddock platter.
Server: Hot Dog?
Server: Hot Dog?
Server: Hot Dog?
Edith: NO! Haddock not Hot Dog!
This became a private joke between us and when I gave the CMK faculty and speakers t-shirts with chalkboards printed on them, Edith wrote, “Haddock, not hot dog,” on hers.
Au revoir dear Edith…. We love you and will miss you more than you could ever know.
For further reading…
- Constructivism(s): Shared roots, crossed paths, multiple legacies
- Cultures of creativity and modes of appropriation: From DIY (Do It Yourself) to BIIT (Be In It Together)
- The Craftsman, The Trickster, and The Poet “Re-Souling” The Rational Mind
- Minds in Motion, Media in Transition Growing up in the digital age: Areas of change
- Amusement, Delight, and Whimsy: Humor Has Its Reasons that Reason Cannot Ignore
- Microgravity Playscapes – Play in Long-Term Space Missions (Edith Ackermann coauthor)
- Programming For The Natives: What is it? What’s In It For The Kids?
- Systematic Creativity In The Digital Realm
- LEGO Learning Foundation Future of Learning Whitepaper (Edith Ackermann coauthor)
- To Know is to Relate: The Art of Distancing in Human Transactions (1997)
- More papers by Edith Ackermann
Constructionism 2010 Talk – Constructivism(s): Shared roots, crossed paths, multiple legacies
Let’s trick ‘em into learning!
© 2006 Gary S Stager
A friend called a few months back and asked me to tell him my most dangerous idea. What a great question! My answer, “Curriculum is bad.”
Allow me to make the case.
I can turn to almost any page in a textbook, article or website and find an outlandish, inaccurate or confusing idea some curriculum writer thought was brilliant. Even the most well intentioned efforts at relevance or context stretch credulity, often in a hilarious fashion.
A recent article in Edutopia (July 2006) presented a new method for making connections between art and math, called Aesthetic Computing. The following example demonstrates how the method might be used to teach teens about slope intercept form.
Aesthetic computing attempts to reach those frustrated by traditional math instruction by presenting abstract mathematical concepts in a more creative and personal way… For example, a standard equation for graphing lines on a slope such as y = mx + b might become a hamburger, with y representing the whole burger, m referring to the meat, and x standing in for spices. Multiplication is indicated by the fact that the meat and spices are mixed together, and b is added to represent hamburger buns. Students then write a story about the burger or draw a picture of it.
What? How is drawing a burger related to slope? One abstraction (slope) is replaced by even greater abstractions. The concept of variable is muddled and equations are presented wrongly as recipes. Worst of all, this is referred to as a hands-on project when it’s just coloring. (Note: If you think this is just one out-of-context example, I encourage you to read the primary sources on aesthetic computing. There you will find profoundly confusing examples of pedagogical tricks masquerading as constructivism.)
Corporations often write curriculum tie-ins to their products. Some are shameless marketing ploys while others are more altruistic. The NFL recently announced a $1.5 million marketing campaign to get kids more active and fight obesity – a noble public service gesture. It’s not their fault that curriculum is bad. They’re just playing along.
A language arts lesson has students create and perform a rap that demonstrates action verbs. A science lesson has kids play scooter tag, with one group of students representing cholesterol and another representing healthy hearts. (Associated Press, 10/19/06)
The NFL might solve two problems simultaneously. The Kansas City Chiefs can become the Cholesterols and the Redskins, the Healthy Hearts. Racist mascots could be replaced with scientific models while local school kids rap about vascular plaque. Multiple-choice comprehension questions appear on the Jumbotron.
Lola Falana Math
Textbook publishers use graphics and word problems to recycle old content. Units often begin with “real-life” content to help students make “connections.” One 7th grade math text has a photo of Walter Matthau dressed as Einstein. I know what the curriculum designers are thinking. Kids are just nuts for Walter Matthau!
The text below the photo reads something like, “In the classic motion picture, I.Q., Matthau plays Albert Einstein. Meg Ryan is his niece and Tim Robbins is a mechanic with a crush on her… Later in the film Tim Ryan’s character asks the niece, ‘How old is your uncle?’ Einstein overhears the question and yells from the other room, ’10 times 2 to the third.’”
Get it? They’re teaching exponents. What a hoot! All of the film stuff was unnecessary trivia that distracts from what should have been a simple arithmetic problem – not that anyone would ever express their age in exponential form.
The point of exponential notation is what? How does it work? Why?
Surely, the mere invocation of Einstein in the passage makes this a science lesson too.
I Know What You’re Thinking
Gary is against “bad” curriculum like the examples above. No, I oppose all of it. Curriculum is the arrogant folly of adults who don’t know the children who will play cholesterol scooter soccer, yet are self-ordained to prescribe what those students should know and when they should know it. Curriculum is the weapon of choice for ranking, sorting and labeling children. It is indifferent to individual needs, talents or desires. Worst of all, curriculum creates an impermeable barrier between teacher and student. Without curriculum, failure would be more difficult as would the assorted pathologies of discipline problems, drop-out rates and violence that plague far too many schools.
Warning: Educators will be criticized below! You have been warned.
Recently, a friend sent me a link to an episode of Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show. In this whimsical YouTube video, eight year-old Sylvia teaches you about designing, engineering and programming a variety of projects using the open-source Arduino robotics controller. With the poise, wit and clarity of a seasoned television host, Sylvia explains the electronic principles of light–emitting diodes, resisters, potentiometers, grounds and compiling the program you download to create a strobe light. Next, she teaches viewers how to construct a Randomly Influenced Finger Flute that uses a square wave at a variable number of hertz to make the Arduino play music.
This is no burping into VoiceThread!
Sylvia disposes of the ISTE technology standards in the first fourteen seconds of her video. By following her motto, “Have fun, play around and get out there and make something,” she learns a host of powerful ideas, engages countless habits of mind and demonstrates her knowledge by constructing something shareable. Sylvia’s video embodies Seymour Papert’s theory of constructionism. In fact, many of the fluencies displayed by Sylvia are discussed in Papert and Solomon’s 1971 paper, “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer.”
Don’t you dare tell me that the demands of the curriculum preclude time for such classroom projects. Kids like Sylvia remind us of the authentic nature of learning and the efficiency of project-based learning. Several years worth of lectures on physics, electronics, engineering, computer science and video production would not result in the understanding demonstrated by Sylvia; that is if elementary schools bothered to teach such subjects at all.
Engineering is concrete. Engineers make things. They experiment and tinker. If you know anything about development you recognize that knowledge construction follows a progression from concrete to the abstract. Yet, most kids are deprived of engineering experiences until they endure twelve years of abstractions. If the creative inclinations of young children were nurtured in an engineering context, their understanding of the increasingly elusive math and science facts would be developed in a meaningful natural context.
Sylvia’s father is an accomplished technology expert. So what? Public schools are designed to democratize specialized learning experiences for all children. If Sylvia was doing little more than reading off a teleprompter, then her performance would still exceed our expectations. Yet, she demonstrates so much more.
Sylvia embodies the spirit of the exploding DIY movement with the creativity of the Little Rascals and curiosity of Mr. Wizard. She’s just using the construction materials of her era. The difference is the power of computational thinking and microprocessors. Arduino microcontrollers are the Barbies of her generation.
The high crime is that kids like Sylvia will be in seventh grade, four years from now, where the curriculum awaiting them will be worthless concoctions like keyboarding instruction or “using the Google.” We insult children’s intelligence and squander their potential by serving up a curriculum of “computer appreciation” dependent on adult inadequacies or misallocated resources.
There are lots of computers in schools, but very little computing! Three decades ago, I dedicated my life to using computers constructively to amplify human potential. Back then, educational computing was built on progressive learning theories, propelled by passion of the civil rights movement and based on a notion that children could invent a better world than existed for previous generations. Sadly, I no longer recognize my own field. The powerful ideas of Dewey, Holt, Papert, not to mention Al Rogers, David Thornburg, Tom Snyder, Fred D’Ignzaio and Tom Snyder – have been replaced by a focus on filtering policies, meaningless clichés about 21st Century skills and funding concerns. I often wonder, “is edtech/ICT a legitimate discipline or just a shopping club?” Too many educational technology conferences, like ISTE, seem like a busload of foreign tourists speeding past historical monuments in order to get to the next duty-free shop.
While your district tech team wrestles with the earth-shattering decision over whether kids should write their five-paragraph essay in Microsoft Word or Google Docs, kids could be doing and learning like Sylvia. While you bathe in the warmth of your PLN with self-congratulatory tweets, Sylvia is sharing serious expertise with the world.
Tens of thousands of district tech directors, coordinators and integrators have done such a swell job that after thirty years, teachers are the last adults in the industrialized world to use computers. I feel compelled to ask, “Are the very same employees charged with inspiring teachers to use computers creating dependency and helplessness instead?”
Teachers are not imbeciles incapable of growth or felons who can’t be trusted to show Sylvia’s YouTube video in class. Each summer’s Constructing Modern Knowledge Institute demonstrates the creativity and intellectual capacity of educators when they are engaged in projects involving programming, robotics materials, microcontrollers, drawing tablets, musical bananas, soda can orchestras, bike powered LEGO iPhone chargers, animation, filmmaking, authentic problems and whimsy. During the 1980s, we taught tens of thousands of teachers computer programming and how to teach it to children.
Educators love the stories of the eleven year-old dot.com millionaire and Web stars, like Sylvia, but would you really want her in your class? Can you build upon the gifts the kids bring to you or will you force them to comply with someone else’s curriculum? Would you punish her or classify her with a learning disability for a failure to sit quietly as school repeals the 20th Century?
Failure to embrace the kids’ competence, capacity and creativity leads educators to deprive children of opportunities to achieve their potential. Worst of all, it cheats children out of the rich 21st Century childhood they deserve.
- Super-Awesome Sylvia’s YouTube Channel – http://www.youtube.com/user/SuperAwesomeSylvia
- Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute – http://constructingmodernknowledge.com
- Tinkering resources