I hope that anyone reading this is healthy and sane during this period of uncertainty. Teachers and kids alike are grieving over the loss of freedom, social interactions, and normalcy. Many families, even those never before considered at-risk, are terrified of the potential for financial ruin or catastrophic health risks. Since I’m all about the love and spreading optimism, I humbly share a silver-lining for teachers and the kids that they serve.

The fact that you are being told to “teach online” in some vague version of “look busy” may mean that teachers are finally being trusted. Districts large and small are abandoning grading as they recognize that education (at home) is inequitable. I guess it’s better late than never to discover the obvious.

Parents and superintendents are vanquishing the needless infliction of nonsense known as homework. Standardized testing is being canceled, an actual miracle. Colleges have recognized that enrolling students next Fall is more important than SAT or ACT scores. Each of these emergency measures has been advocated by sentient educators forever.

So, there is reason to celebrate (briefly), but then you must act! Use this time to remake schooling in a way that’s more humane, creative, meaningful, and learner-centered. This is your moment!

In the absence of compelling models of what’s possible, the forces of darkness will fill the void. Each of us needs to create models of possibility.

The fact that kids’ days are now unencumbered by school could mean that they finally have adequate time to work on projects that matter rather than being interrupted every 23 minutes. I recently wrote, What’s Your Hurry?, about teaching computer programming, but it’s applicable to other disciplines.

Project-based learning offers a context for learner-centered pedagogy. I was reminded that the new edition of our book, “Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” includes several chapters on effective prompt setting that may be useful in designing projects for kids at home. Invent To Learn also lays out the case for learning-by-doing. Use that information to guide your communication with administrators, parents, and the community.

The following are but a few suggestions for seizing the moment and reinventing education after this crisis is resolved so we may all return to a new, better, normal.

Practice “Less us, more them”

Anytime a teacher feels the impulse to intervene in an educational transaction, it is worth pausing, taking a breath, and asking, “Is there less that I can do and more that the student(s) can do?” The more agency shifted to the student, the more they will learn.

One exercise you can practice teaching online, as well as face-to-face, is talk less. If you typically lecture for 40 minutes, try 20. If you talk for 20 minutes, try 10. If you talk for 10, try 5. In my experience, there is rarely an instance in which a minute or two of instruction is insufficient before asking students to do something. While teaching online, try not to present content, but rather stimulate discussion or organize activities to maximize student participation. Piaget reminds us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.”

Remember, less is more

My colleague Brian Harvey once said, “The key to school reform is throw out half the curriculum – any half.” This is wise advice during sudden shift to online teaching and the chaos caused by the interruption of the school year.

Focus on the big ideas. Make connections between topics and employ multiple skills simultaneously. Abandon the compulsion to “deliver” a morbidly obese curriculum. Simplify. Edit. Curate.

Launch students into open-ended learning adventures

Learning adventures are a technique I became known for when I began teaching online in the 1990s. This process is described in the 2008 paper, Learning Adventures: A new approach for transforming real and virtual classroom environments.

Inspire kids to read entire books

Since the bowdlerized and abridged basals are locked in school, encourage kids to luxuriate with real books! Imagine if kids had the freedom to select texts that interest them and to read them from cover-to-cover without a comprehension quiz or vocabulary lesson interrupting every paragraph! Suggest that kids post reviews on Amazon.com for an authentic audience rather than making a mobile or writing a five-paragraph essay. Use Amazon.com or Goodreads to find other books you might enjoy.

Tackle a new piece of software

Been meaning to learn Final Cut X, Lightroom, a new programming language, or any other piece of sophisticated software? Employ groups of kids to tackle the software alone or together and employ their knowledge once school returns. Let them share what they know and lead.

Contribute to something larger than yourself

This is the time for teachers to support kids in creating big creative projects. Write a newspaper, novel, poetry anthology, play, cookbook, or joke book. Make a movie and then make it better. Create a virtual museum. Share your work, engage in peer editing, and share to a potentially infinite audience.

Check out what Berklee College of Music students have already done!

Teach like you know better

Use this time to rev-up or revive sound pedagogical practices like genre study, author study, process writing, interdisciplinary projects and the other educative good stuff too often sacrificed due to a lack of sufficient time. You now have the time to teach well.

Take note of current events

Daily life offers a world of inspiration and learning invitations. Why not engage kids in developmentally appropriate current events or take advantage of opportunities like JSTOR being open to the public during the COVID-19 crisis? Here’s a possible student prompt.

“Go to JSTOR, figure out how it works, find an interesting article, and share what you learned with the class.”

Let Grow

Change the world by challenging students to learn something on their own by embracing the simple, yet profound, Let Grow school project. A simple assignment asks kids to do something on their own with their parent’s permission and share their experiences with their peers.

Stand on the shoulders of giants

Every problem in education has been solved and every imaginable idea has been implemented somewhere. Teachers should use this time to read books about education written by experts and learn the lessons of the masters.

Take time to enjoy some culture

There is no excuse to miss out on all of the cultural activities being shared online from free Shakespeare from the Globe Theatre, Broadway shows, operas, living room concerts, piano practice with Chick Corea, and exciting multimedia collaborations. Many of these streams are archived on social media, YouTube, or the Web. Bring some peace, beauty, and serenity into your home.

The following are some links, albeit incomplete and subjective, to free streaming cultural events.

Apprentice with the world’s greatest living mathematician

In A Personal Road to Reinventing Mathematics Education, I wrote about how I have been fortunate enough to know and spend time with some of the world’s most prominent mathematicians and that while not a single one of them ever made me feel stupid, plenty of math teachers did. Stephen Wolfram is arguably the world’s leading mathematician/scientist/computer scientist. Over the past few years, he has become interested in teachers, kids, and math education. Dr. Wolfram spoke at Constructing Modern Knowledge, runs an annual summer camp for high school mathematicians, and has made many of his company’s remarkable computational tools available for learners.

Acknowledging that many students are home do to the pandemic this week, Wolfram led a free online Ask Me Anything session about an array of math and science topics, ostensibly for kids, as well as a “follow-along” computation workshop. You, your children, or your students have unprecedented access to all sorts of expertise, just a click away! This is like Albert Einstein making house calls!

A bit of exploration will undoubtedly uncover experts in other disciplines sharing their knowledge and talents online as well.

Abandon hysterical internet policies

The immediate need for laptops, Internet access, student email, plus the expedient use of available technologies like YouTube, FaceTime, Skype, Twitter, Instagram, and Zoom has instantly dispelled the hysterical and paranoid centralized approach to the Internet schools have labored under for the past twenty-five years. The Internet has never been dependent on the policies of your school or your paraprofessional IT staff to succeed. Perhaps we will learn what digital citizenship actually looks like after teachers and children are treated like modern citizens.

Heed Seymour Papert’s advice

When I worked with Seymour Papert, he created a document titled, “Eight Big Ideas Behind the Constructionist Learning Lab.” This one sheet of paper challenges educators to create productive contexts for learning in the 21st Century. Can you aspire to make these recommendations a reality in your classroom(s)?

Do twenty things to do with a computer

In 1971, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon published, Twenty Things to Do with a Computer. How does your school measure up a half-century later?

Program your own Gameboy

Yes, you read that correctly. Here is everything you need to know to write your own computer games, build an arcade, or program a handheld gaming device!

Teach reading and programming simultaneously

Upper elementary and middle school students could learn to program in Scratch and develop their reading fluency at the same time. Learn how in A Modest Proposal.

Share my sense of optimism

Shortly before the COVID-19 crisis, I published, Time for Optimism, in which I shared reasons why progressive education is on the march and how we might teach accordingly. We can do this!

Wash your hands! Stay inside! Stand with children!


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary.


Scratch is a miracle. It’s popularity as a creative computing environment and its ubiquity around the world are truly impressive. Millions of children use the environment and have shared tens of millions of projects for others to enjoy and remix.

Scratch is a descendent of the Logo programming language. Logo was the first, and I would argue best, programming environment ever designed for children and learning. Logo is over fifty years old. While this would seem to be a million years old in technology years, Logo not only remains powerful in the hands of children, but benefits from a half-century worth of research, project ideas, and collective pedagogical wisdom.

Scratch adds media computation to the Logo bag of tricks available to kids. The sort of storytelling projects created in it appeals to adults who value kids being engaged in creative acts. A large part of Scratch’s appeal is the enormity of its project library full of projects that look like anyone can make them. It is also worth remembering that Scratch was originally designed for use in afterschool programs where teaching could not be guaranteed. Kids look at Scratch and know what to do. These are powerful and legitimate design features that contribute to its popularity.

Logo on the other hand was designed as a vehicle for education reform and created a “microworld” in which children could be mathematicians rather than just be taught math. Kids using Logo often fell in love with mathematics and felt intellectually powerful for the first time. Logo introduced the concept of the turtle, a representation of the child’s place in physical space, and turtle geometry, a math connected to movement in the real world. The turtle matched the intensity of children, captured their imagination, and was their collaborator in constructing mathematical knowledge. In 1968, Alan Kay first imagined the Dynabook, the progenitor of the modern laptop or tablet computer, after observing children programming in Logo. Kay recalls being amazed by the sophisticated mathematics young children were engaged in. Fifty-two years later, I feel the exact same way every time I use Logo with children.

*Today, a 5th grader came bounding up to me to announce, “Look what I accomplished!” She had taught the Logo turtle to draw a fraction, a bit of curricular detritus that normally invokes dread. In the process, she simultaneously demonstrated understanding of fractions, division, angle, linear measurement, and was on the verge of understanding variables all while teaching the turtle to draw. Turtle geometry may be the greatest mathematical prosthetic ever invented for learners. Logo creates a Mathland in which “messing about” and learning mathematics is as natural as a child develops oral language.

Math is the weakest link in every school. It remains the center for misery and instructionism in most. Seymour Papert taught me that the teaching of math ultimately jeopardizes all other efforts at educational progress. There is no gap as wide as the gulf between mathematics – a jewel of human intellect, and school math. Papert believed that even the most progressive schools become undone by the traditional diet and pedagogy of school math. He often discussed the need to create a mathematics children can love, rather than inventing tricks for teaching a “noxious” irrelevant math. Papert convinced me that no matter how project-based or student-centered a school happens to be, there remains a part of the day or week (math time) when coercion is reintroduced into the system. That is ultimately coercive to the nobler aims of the institution. Logo is and has been one of the few Trojan horses available for helping teachers rethink “math” on behalf of the kids they serve.

I fear for the future of such experiences in a world in which software has no value and there is no incentive for modern Logos to be created.

I just spent several hundred words stipulating that Scratch is a good thing. However, decisions were made in the evolution of Scratch that undermine its ability to make mathematics comprehensible, wondrous, relevant, and accessible for learners of all ages. Scratch could maintain fidelity to the powerful ideas inherent in Logo while adding all of the storytelling, animation, and media manipulation in a Web-based programming environment, but the designers of Scratch have decided to do otherwise. In fact, the most recent version, Scratch 3.0, has made it either too difficult or impossible to create the sorts of experiences I desire for my grandchildren and the children I’m privileged to teach.

I truly do not wish to step into the minefield of arguing about everyone’s favorite software, but my concerns are legitimate. I know readers may be thinking, “Hey, design your own software if you love Logo so much!” This is impossible in a world in which software has no value and there is no incentive for modern Logos to be created. Scratch benefits from mountains of government, university, and corporate funding, making it the 900-pound gorilla in coding for kids. That’s a good thing, but it could be better. My hope is that as Scratch evolves, consideration is given to bringing back some of the powerful mathematical ideas that have been lost.

Let me get specific. The following examples are a non-exhaustive list of the ways in which Scratch makes my life more difficult as a teacher and teacher educator concerned with providing authentic mathematical experiences.

Putting the turtle out to pasture
Perhaps the most enduring and kid-imagination-capturing metaphor of Logo programming goes like this:

[Teacher] “The turtle has a pen stuck in its belly button. What do you think happens when it drags its pen?”

[Kids] It draws!

This sounds simple, but is at the heart of what makes Logo a powerful, personal experience. Placing a transitional object representing ourselves inside of the machine is an instant personal invitation to programming. Drawing, with a crayon, pencil, or turtle is the protean activity for representing a child’s thinking.

Drawing or painting with the mouse is fine but denies children opportunities to express mathematical formalisms in service of drawing. There is fifty years’ worth of scholarship, joy, and powerful ideas associated with turtle graphics – often a user’s first experience with thinking like a mathematician and debugging.

Scratch 3.0 inexplicably demotes its pen blocks (commands) to software extensions. The extensions are hidden until the user un-hides them. All of the other Scratch 3.0 extensions support either external hardware control or more advanced esoterica like interactive video, language translation, or text-to-speech functionality. I appreciate that part of Scratch’s success is its clean design and lack of clutter. However, pen blocks are seminal and were integrated into previous versions. This design decision has several negative consequences.

  • It complicates the possible use of turtle graphics by requiring finding the location of the extensions button and clicking on the pen extensions
  • It implies that turtle graphics (drawing) is not as valuable a form of expression as animation.
  • The symbol on the extensions button is highly non-intuitive.
  • The pen blocks, once the extension is loaded, appear near the bottom of the block palettes, far from the motion blocks they rely on. This makes block programming cumbersome when the focus is turtle geometry.

The turtle has a pen stuck in its nose? Ouch!
In Scratch, the sprite draws from the perimeter of its shape, not its center. This makes precise movement, predictions about distances, and drawing precision much more difficult.

There are no turtle costumes for sprites
The turtle head points in the direction that matches “Forward” commands. This is obvious to even the youngest programmers. In Scratch, even if one wanted to use the turtle, there are no turtle costumes. Neither the turtles found in systems, like Turtle Art, MicroWorlds,  Lynx , or even the old 70s-80s era turtle  are provided. While it is possible to design your own Scratch costumes, you would be required to do so for every project, rather than merely adding sprite costumes to the system.

It is easy to explain that the “turtle may wear other costumes you design,” telling the kids that “the sprite could be a turtle that you can dress in custom costumes,” adds needless complexity.

No Clean, CG, Home, or CS
Nearly every other version of Logo has a Clean command for erasing the screen, CG, or CS for erasing the screen and repositioning the turtle at the center of the screen with a compass orientation of zero. Commonly found, HOME commands, send the turtle back to the center of the screen at coordinates, [0 0]. These are all simple concepts for even young children to quickly grasp and use.

Scratch’s pen extension Erase All block wipes the screen clean, but neither returns the sprite to home nor reorients a “dizzy turtle.”

Program for clearing the screen and sending the turtle/sprite home

Sure, if a teacher wants students to have a block performing the roles of Clearscreen, Scratch allows them to Make a Block.

The problem with doing so is that Scratch leaves the blocks you create, complete with their instructions, in the blocks palette – cluttering up your workspace. The definition of the “new” block cannot be hidden from users, even when the new block appears under My Blocks. Even more critically, there is no simple way to add pseudo-primitives (user-created blocks) to Scratch 3 for use by students each time they use the software. Therefore, you need to recreate Clearscreen in every new project.

[Making your own blocks is buggy too. Make your own block. Drag that stack of blocks, topped by Define, off the screen to delete it. Press Undo (Apple-Z or CTRL-Z). The definition stack of blocks returns, but not the new block under My Blocks until another block is created.]

The default sprite orientation is 90
When you hatch a sprite in Scratch, its orientation is towards the right side of the screen with an orientation of 90. If one hopes for children to construct understanding of compass orientation based on Mod 360, orienting the sprite/turtle to 0 is more intuitive. Since the turtle is a metaphor for yourself in space, your orientation is up, or 0 when facing the computer to program it.

No wrapping
For many kids, one of the most intoxicating aspects of turtle graphics comes from commanding the turtle to go forward a large number of steps. In many ways, it’s a kid’s first experience with big numbers. Turn the turtle and go forward a million steps and get a crazy wrapping pattern on the screen. Add some pen color changes, turns, and more long lines and math turns into art turns into math.

Scratch has no wrapping due to its focus on animation and game design. There could be a way to toggle wrap/no wrap. But alas…

Units are unnecessary
Not only are they unneeded, but educationally problematic. Far too much of math education is merely vocabulary acquisition, often devoid of actual experience. I go into countless classrooms where I find a store-bought or handmade “angles” poster on the wall listing the various kinds of angles. My first question is, “Who do you think is reading that?” The kids certainly aren’t, but more importantly, “Who cares?” Kids are forced to memorize names of angles too often without any experience with angles. Turtle geometry changes all of that.

If you watch me introduce turtle geometry to children, I show them that the turtle can walk and turn. It walks in turtle steps. I never use the terms, angle or degrees, until either kids use them or much much much later. After kids have experience with angles and a growing intuition about their units of measure will I mention the words, angle or degrees. After experience, those labels hang nicely on the concepts and the terms are understood, not just parroted.

In Scratch, the turn right and turn left blocks include the label for “degrees.” This is quite unfortunate. The design of these blocks is particularly odd since they do not even use the words, right and left, but arrows instead. This is most peculiar when juxtaposed against the rest of the motion blocks which are excessively chatty with extraneous text for their inputs.

Why use symbols for right and left and not a straight arrow for move?

To make matters worse, the default degree value in Scratch is 15. Kids naturally turn in 90 degree increments. If the default were 90, as it is in Turtle Art, kids quickly realize that there are turns smaller and larger when seeking angular precision. This is a much more effective sequence for understanding angle measurement from the syntonic to the abstract.

One tacit, yet profound, benefit of teachers teaching with Logo is that they gain experience teaching mathematics without front-loading vocabulary. In too many classrooms, kids are “taught” terms, like degree or angle, absent any experience. Logo-like environments offer the potential for teachers to appreciate how students may engage in mathematics unburdened by jargon. After children enjoy meaningful experiences and “mess-about” with the turtle, it is easy to say, “that’s called an angle,” or “the units used to measure angles are called degrees.” Those terms now have a powerful idea to hang their hat on.

Starting with units is not just unnecessary, it’s pedagogically unproductive.

Asymmetrical movement
Why are there blocks for turning right and left when there is only one move block? In Logo, Forward (FD) and Back (BK) are incredibly simple for children to understand and act out by playing turtle as a formal activity or in the course of programming. Move is ambiguous. Which way should I move? Forward and back make perfect sense.

Frankly, having a default of 10 in the move block is also a drag. For decades, teachers have experienced success by asking children, “How far would you like the turtle to go?” Kids suggest values and then are surprised by them. 10 is an arbitrary number. I might prefer 0 or a random integer as the default value for move. Such a change would force children to make a decision about the distance they wish to travel.

If you want the turtle to move backward, there is no back block. You are required to turn 180 degrees or move by a negative value.

Premature use of negative numbers
Introducing negative numbers and vectors the moment one encounters the turtle is premature and likely developmentally inappropriate. There is no reason for little kids to deal with negative numbers so soon when forward (fd) and back (bk) blocks could have been in the system, or at least as primitives under the pen extensions.

Multiple forwards provides kids practice with repeated addition, leading to multiplication.

Consider this simple example:

fd 20
fd 30
fd 100

Now you want the turtle to return to the midpoint of that line segment.

You can achieve that goal three ways, not including all of the repeated addition that might be used if a kid is not ready to divide 150 by 2 or figure out that a U-turn equals 180 degrees.

bk 75
rt 180 fd 75
fd -75

It is the possibility of solving even simple problems in multiple ways that is central to the genius of learning to think mathematically with Logo and the turtle. Sadly, the Scratch use of “move” to replace forward and back makes what was once a natural simple act, complicated or impossible.

PS: One more annoyance
Why are ask and answer in the Sensing palette? They get information from a user, but do not sense anything. Either move them or rename the Sensing palette, Data. Again, why lead the witness with the arbitrary “What’s your name?” value?


*Notes:
This was largely written after a recent day teaching kids. I spent months deciding whether to share this with the world. The great Cynthia Solomon contributed to my thinking and Sylvia Martinez read a draft. Seymour Papert is in my head all of the time.

Resources

  • Scratch – web site for Scratch software
  • ScratchEd – online community and resources for teachers teaching with Scratch
  • LogoThings – Cynthia Solomon’s collection of artifacts on the history of Logo
  • A Modest Proposal – ideas for using Scratch to learn computing and reading
  • Lynx – web site for new generation of Web-based Logo
  • MicroWorlds – web site for MicroWorlds software
  • Turtle Art – web site for Turtle Art software
  • The Daily Papert – archives of Seymour Papert writing, audio, and video
  • The Logo Exchange – archives of the long-running journal for Logo-using educators
  • Logo history discussion – video interview with Cynthia Solomon and Wally Feurzig, two of Logo’s creators

Selected bibliography

  • Abelson, H., & DiSessa, A. A. (1986). Turtle geometry: The computer as a medium for exploring mathematics: MIT press.
  • Harvey, B. (1982). Why logo? . Byte, 7, 163-193.
  • Hawkins, D. (2002). The informed vision; essays on learning and human nature. NY: Algora Press.
  • Newell, B. (1988a). Turtle confusion: Logo puzzles and riddles. Canberra, Australia: Curriculum Development Centre.
  • Newell, B. (1988b). Turtles speak mathematics. Canberra, Australia: Curriculum Development Centre.
  • Papert, S. (1972). Teaching children to be mathematicians versus teaching about mathematics. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 3(3), 249-262.
  • Papert, S. (1993). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books.
  • Papert, S. (1999). Introduction: What is logo and who needs it? In LCSI (Ed.), Logo philosophy and implementation (pp. v-xvi). Montreal, Quebec: LCSI.
  • Papert, S. (2000). What’s the big idea? Toward a pedagogical theory of idea power. IBM Systems Journal, 39(3&4), 720-729.
  • Papert, S. (2002). The turtle’s long slow trip: Macro-educological perspectives on microworlds. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 27, 7-27.
  • Papert, S. (2005). You can’t think about thinking without thinking about thinking about something. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 5(3), 366-367.
  • Watt, D. (1983). Learning with logo. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co.
  • Watt, M., & Watt, D. (1986). Teaching with logo: Building blocks for learning. NY: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

The Papert articles (above) are available here.


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary.


All children should learn to program, not because it may lead to a job, but because it is a new liberal art and grants young people agency over an increasingly and technologically sophisticated world. At a time of rising authoritarianism and science denialism, it seems prudent to provide kids with experiences that develop a systematic way of making sense of the world. It may literally be the least we can do.

click to enlarge

Current approaches to teaching computing to kids suffer from the traditional failures of curriculum development and too often fall prey to the following desires:

  • vocabulary acquisition
  • a condescending view of teacher competence
  • convenience
  • frugality
  • ignorance of the intellectual euphoria associated with bending a computer to your will
  • offering students an illusion of agency without actual power
  • speed

The calls for “CS for All” are right out of the timeless schooling playbook; require a new subject without a requisite investment of funds or imagination and reduce it the sort of lifeless content devoid of experience that is easily tested. For extra credit, “demonstrate” that some students just don’t have a facility for the subject. A bell curve would be swell, but the real goal is for the “new subject” to fail with only children and their teachers to blame.

Scope & sequence from Microsoft’s CS curriculum for the micro:bit. https://makecode.microbit.org/courses/csintro

There is no better way to explain the quality of computer science curricula being developed for school use. Much of this curriculum is designed by interns or the very same educators who presided over the death of interest in CS. In many cases, the curriculum focuses on isolated topics, rather than on doing. What can a student do with the information being taught? Fluency is the goal!

(IMHO) Computer programming is not a means to demonstrate understanding of computer science jargon or even a technical act. At its best, computer programming a form of composition – like writing, music composition, painting, sculpting, or dancing. A handful of carefully designed assignments does not make one a computer programmer any more than it produces authors, musicians, or artists.

Computer programming mediates a conversation between the person and herself. Skills and habits of mind emerge from acts of creation, development, and debugging. One might think about this in terms of the purest forms of project-based learning where the project is a teacher’s smallest unit of concern and students are free to lose themselves in the process of realizing something that matters to them.

Great expertise is developed by identifying things that bother you, a laser-like focus on overcoming that obstacle, and the emergence of a new thing that bothers to you as you approach your temporary goal. This phenomena maps perfectly to the process of programming and debugging. It also matches a young person’s remarkable capacity for intensity while mirroring the writing process and other forms of composition.

Show kids a primitive or two and see what they can do with it. The genius of “Logo family” languages, like MicroWorlds, Lynx, Scratch, Snap!, TurtleStitch, Beetleblocks,  Turtle Art, or perhaps even MakeCode is that seemingly infinite world of complexity can be realized with a handful of commands or blocks. With forward and right, you can draw anything in the universe. New commands, reporters, variables, conditionals, and control structures may be introduced to students as they need them. Programming elegance results from constraints or experience. Since microcomputers are no longer limited to 4K of RAM, “efficient” code becomes less of a necessity and more of an aesthetic quality that develops over time.Allowing kids to program in their own voice allows them to concretize abstractions and solve problems while developing programming prowess.

The Piagetian adage, “knowledge is a consequence of experience,” is certainly true for programming. The more you program and the longer you stare at the screen of what you are programming, the better you will become at it. Schools that “or a little bit of Scratch” or celebrate “Hour of Code” trivialize the power of programming. Engaging in the false complexity associated with teaching a new programming language every year (or faster) is also likely to deprive students of the exhilarating feelings that result from your program meeting or exceeding your expectations. Programming should be like learning to write, compose, make cinema, dance, etc…

Above all else, quality work takes time. What’s your hurry?

PS: Computer programming requires computers.

• • •

Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroomand the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledgesummer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.


Get started learning to program by programming at Constructing Modern Knowledge 2020!

Snap! is a block based language created by the University of California at Berkeley and used in their first year computer science courses, as well as the high school AP Computer Science Principles Beauty and Joy of Computing curriculum. You might think of as Snap! as Scratch‘s older wiser cousin – perfect for learning computer science, engaging in more mathematical programming, and creating more complex coding projects.

For years, I have believed there to be an assortment of sophisticated programming projects that should be part of every child’s educational experience. Writing a program to graph a linear equation supports timeless algebraic curricula and is an excellent introduction to0 software design. Best of all, it is an opportunity to communicate the formalisms of algebra to the computer. By teaching this to the computer, students better understand the mathematics. When you learn that you can program your own tools, you are inspired to engage in even more sophisticated mathematical explorations.

I’ve done similar projects in Logo and MicroWorlds over the past years.

This project is possible in Scratch (with barely any modifications), but the next project, generating an X Y table for a linear equation is not. Therefore, I decided to use Snap! in the context of the 7th grade class I taught today.

Here you may download and use the handout based on my classroom experience with kids. I attempted to commit the process to paper. I will likely create a handout for creating the X Y table too. In the meantime, can you figure out how to do it yourself?

[Note: I declare what Y equals rather than just inserting the equation into the y coordinate in order to make the y = …x clearer for kids]


Gary S. Stager, Ph.D. is an award-winning teacher educator, speaker, consultant and author who is an expert at helping educators prepare students for an uncertain future by super charging learner-centered traditions with modern materials and technology. He is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on learning-by-doing, robotics, computer programming and the maker movement in classrooms. Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the first online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.


Coding & Physical Computing Masterclasses in California!

I’ve been meaning to share this project idea with Josh Burker, author of The Invent to Learn: Guide to Fun and the Invent to Learn: Guide to More Fun books, for more than a year.

While on one of the fabulous London Walks tours (I’ve done dozens of them) of Chelsea in London last year, I learned that before houses had street numbers assigned to them, people shared cards with a rendering of their home’s fanlight depicted on it. This practice dates back to 1720.

The function of the fanlight is to light a home’s entry way, but many of London’s upscale townhouses feature a semicircle shaped fanlight in which a geometric pattern exists. Each pattern needs to be different, at least in a particular neighborhood, in order to depict the occupants of the home for deliveries and visitors. Below are some of the photos of fanlights I took while walking around Chelsea.

Here’s the project idea…

  • Use your favorite dialect of Logo (Turtle Art, SNAP!, Scratch, etc…) to design a unique fan light. Teachers may support the activity by providing the code for drawing a uniform semicircle in which each student’s fanlight pattern must fit.

Extension

This is a good project for employing the concept of state transparency; in programming as in life, it is a good idea to return to where you started. Returning the turtle to its initial starting position and orientation allows you to repeat the pattern elsewhere on the screen and perform various transformations on it.

Try these challenges

  • Use Logo/MicroWorlds/SNAP!/Scratch to program the turtle to draw a row of townhomes with different fan lights in each window.
  • Change the scale of your entire neighborhood.
  • Change the scale of your fanlight window without altering its shape.
  • Allow the user to specify the scale of the fanlight and draw it to that scale.
  • Create a more abstract illustration using your fanlight in different ways.

That’s it!

Happy programming



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.is an award-winning teacher educator, speaker, consultant and author who is an expert at helping educators prepare students for an uncertain future by super charging learner-centered traditions with modern materials and technology. He is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on learning-by-doing, robotics, computer programming and the maker movement in classrooms. Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the first online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

Two-Day Seminars with Will Richardson in October 2019 in DC, NJ, & Boston – Register today!

Leading family learning-by-making workshops in schools around the world is a pure joy. When parents can experience through the eyes, hands, and screens of their children what is possible, they demand a new more progressive educational diet from their school. I have now led three different family workshops at my favorite school in the world. The first one featured a wide range of materials, including: MakeyMakey, littleBits, LEGO WeDo, sewable circuitry, and Turtle Art. Twenty people RSVPd and more than one hundred showed up. The kids ranged in age from preschool to high school.

The next workshop was held the night before Halloween 2018. So, I selected a Halloween theme for our work with the Hummingbird Duo Robotics kits. A few minutes of introduction to the Hummingbird kit and the prompt, “Bring a Spooky ghost, goblin, or monster to life!” was all that was required for 60+ kids and parents to build and program in Snap! spooky creatures in less than ninety minutes.

Last week’s workshop was the best yet. An invitation for thirty grade 3-6 kids and parents to attend a family learning-by-making workshop sold out in no time flat.

Each of these workshops exemplified irrefutable evidence of the efficacy of constructionism and the limits of instruction. However, the most recent workshop possessed a special magic. Last week’s workshop was centered around the BBC micro:bit microcontroller development board. For $30 (Australian/$22 US), each kid would go home with the micro:bit Go kit they used during the workshop.

It is worth noting that while the hosting school has a long tradition of project-based learning and open education, it is not a high tech school and its facilities are not unlike many public primary schools. Furniture, room layout, and projector placement make instruction virtually impossible, even if I were prone to offer step-by-step tutelage, of which I am not. (Kids and parents were working in every nook and cranny of a library and in an adjacent classroom) Besides, the research project that is my work with teachers and students, leaves me convinced that instructionism, the notion that learning is the result of having been taught, is a fool’s errand. Piaget’s belief that “knowledge is a consequence of experience” is central to my work.

Parents brought their own laptops while other families used school laptops. The parents with personal laptops needed to use their phones for Internet access because stupid school Internet implementation doesn’t allow guest Web access. There were more than sixty workshop participants.

This is how the workshop began.


Hi. I’m Gary. This is the micro:bit. It has a 5X5 LED display that can be used to show pictures or display text. It also has two buttons that you can use to trigger actions. The micro:bit also has a temperature sensor, a light sensor, an accelerometer that knows if you move, tilt, or drop it, a compass, and ability to communicate between two or more micro:bits via radio. You can also connect LEDs, motors, buttons, or other sensors to the micro:bit via alligator clips, wire, or conductive thread  if you want to build robots or other cool stuff.

If you program in Scratch, the micro:bit can be used to control a video game you make by pressing the buttons or tilting the micro:bit like a steering wheel. You can even connect the micro:bit to a paper towel tube and make a magic wand to advance a story you program.

We will be using a Web-based programming environment, Microsoft MakeCode, tonight because it uses all of the hardware features of your micro:bit.

  • Go to MakeCode.com
  • Click on micro:bit
  • Click on New Project
  • Drag the Show Icon block from the Basic blocks into the Start block.
  • Select the heart shape
  • Now, we want to transfer the program we created to the micro:bit. The micro:bit works like a USB flash drive. Put a program on it and it runs until you put a new program there.
  • Click Download
  • Find the downloaded file you created, the one that ends in .hex in your downloads folder
  • Drag that file onto the microbic drive in your file explorer or Finder
  • Watch the yellow light on the micro:bit flash to indicate that the transfer is underway.

Voila! There’s a heart icon on your micro:bit!

  • Click on the Input blocks
  • Drag out an On Button blockChoose Button A
  • Make the program show you a Pacman icon when a user clicks the A button on the micro:bit
    Drag out another On Button block
  • Program the B button to Show String (some text you type as a message)
    Download your new program and copy it to the micro:bit

Heart displays

  • Click the A button and see Pacman. Click the B button and display your message!
  • Connect your battery box to the micro:bit and disconnect the micro:bit from the computer. Look!
  • The program runs as long as it has power!
  • Come get your micro:bit kit and a list of project ideas you might try.

90 minutes later, we needed to tell kids and parents to go home. (I am reasonably confident that I wrote more of my two minutes worth of instruction above than I actually said to the kids).

About 1/3 of the participants were girls and many boys were accompanied by mothers and grandmothers. There were plenty of Dads participating as well. Once one kid or family team made a breakthrough, I would signal that to other kids so they knew where to look or ask questions if they were struggling or curious.


Scenes from the workshop

Observations
Many teachers in workshop settings really struggle with the mechanics or concept of finding their downloaded file and clicking-dragging the file onto the micro:bit. Not a single child had any difficulty performing the process of copying a file from one drive to another. I have long been critical of the clumsy way in which MakeCode handles the process of downloading programs to the micro:bit and the way in which the Arduino IDE uploads programs to its board. The fact that upload and download are used arbitrarily is but one indicator of the unnecessarily tricky process. The fact that not one primary school student had such difficulty the first time they encountered physical computing makes me less anxious about the process.

Several kids were very clever and had working understanding of variables despite not having school experience with such concepts. This once again proves that when a teacher acts as a researcher. they discover that kids know stuff or harbor misconceptions . Such information allows for adjusting the learning environment, testing an intervention, or introducing a greater challenge. Some students had little difficulty constructing equations, despite the ham-fisted MakeCode interface. A few kids just wanted the micro:bit to perform calculations and display the result.

Conditionals proved equally logical to lots of the 8-12 year-olds. (It was interesting chatting with parent/student teams because it was often difficult to predict if you needed to engage in one or two conversations at the same time. A clever kid didn’t always mean that their parent understood what was going on or vice versa.)

There is much written about iterative design in education. Iterative design is swell for designing a new toothpaste tube based on customer interviews, brainstorming, pain points, etc. It is terrible for learning history or playing the cello. Iteration is about fixing something; making it right. I am much more excited about activities, such as computer programming in accessible languages, that lead to generative design. Show a kid a couple o blocks and they immediately have their own ideas about what to do next. The degree of difficulty of projects increase as kids experience success. If they are successful, they naturally find a new challenge, embellish their project, or test another hypothesis. If unsuccessful, debugging is necessary. Debugging is one of the most powerful ideas justifying computer use in education.

New prompt ideas emerged. While working with kids, I improvised the challenge to make a thermometer that showed a smiley face for warm temperatures and a sad face for colder temperatures. That was then substituted for a too difficult challenge in my list of suggested prompts.

When chips are cheap as chips, all sorts of new things are possible. You can leave projects assembled longer than a class period. You can use multiple micro:bits in one project. If you build something useful, you never have to take it apart. Giving every child the constructive technology to keep is a game changer! I will reconvene the students who attended the workshop next week to answer questions and see what they’ve been up to. Perhaps, this experience will lead to another article.

In less than the time of two traditional class periods (90 minutes), young children demonstrated a working understanding of computing concepts covering a breadth and depth of experiences many kids will not enjoy over twelve years of formal schooling. All of this was accomplished without coercion, assessment, sorting, worksheets, or more than a couple of minutes worth of instruction. A commitment to student agency and use of good open-ended constructive technology with extended play value allows a beautiful garden to bloom.

Resources


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

In August 2018, I delivered the opening keynote address at the Constructionism Conference in Vilnius, Lithuania. When invited to speak at the conference nearly eighteen months earlier, I felt pressured to share the topic of my address quickly. Since I do some of my best work as a wiseass, I offered the title, “Making Constructionism Great Again.” Over the ensuing months, my tongue-in-cheek title began resonating and formed the basis for what I believe to be one of my favorite keynotes ever. (Sadly, I will unlikely ever give the presentation again. Therefore, I will not have the opportunity to improve upon my performance)

Despite the title I selected, I accepted the sober challenge of making an important contribution to the conference. After all, this is a community I care about, a topic I have dedicated my adult life to, in the home of my ancestors. Due to a family emergency, the speaker scheduled before me had to fly home and my talk got moved earlier in the schedule at the last minute. That meant that some of the people I hoped would hear my message, missed it. I rarely write a speech with specific audience members in mind, but I did in this case.

A bit of background

The Constructionism Conference is held every two years, almost always in Europe. The conference prior to Vilnius was in Thailand, but that was the only time the conference was outside of Europe. For close to three decades, the conference was called, EuroLogo, and was a biennial event celebrating the use of the Logo programming language in education. In 2008, the long-time organizers of the conference worried that interest in Logo was waning and that shifting the emphasis to constructionism (1) would broaden the appeal and attract more participants. It has not. Communities begin to die when they become self-conscious. There is nothing wrong with “preaching to the converted.” There are quite successful institutions that preach to the converted. Its members find strength, nourishment, and purpose in gathering.

In my humble opinion, the problem lies within the fact that the European Logo community, and this is a generalization, focused more narrowly on the fascinating mathematical or computational aspects of the Logo programming language separate and apart from its more radical use as an instrument of school reform, social justice, and epistemology. Logo’s father and inventor of “constructionism,” Dr. Seymour Papert was a noted mathematician and computer scientist who did invent the first programming language for children, but limiting the enormity of his vision to that would be like one of his favorite parables about the blind men and the elephant.

To me, the Constructionism/EuroLogo community has been focused on what is measurable and earns academic credit for those seeking job security in university systems proud of their ongoing medieval traditions. Although I have great friends who I love, respect, and adore within this somewhat dysfunctional family, I am never sure what they make of the loud American kid who works with thousands of teachers each year and doesn’t give a damn about publishing journal articles read by 3.1415927 people.

I go to the Constructionism Conference every two years because it is important to sustain the community and ideally to help it mature. If it became more popular or influential along the way, that would be a bonus. This speech was intended as a bit of unsolicited tough love, but love nonetheless. In fact, love is a big theme in this address. That is one of the most important lessons I learned from Seymour Papert and this Constructionism Conference was the first since his death.

I hope you will watch

Thankfully, I grabbed the SD card out of the video camera sitting in the theatre pointed at the stage following the talk so there is a video documenting a talk I am proud of and wish I could give many more times. The audio quality isn’t perfect and there is no camera work (except for a couple of quick edits I made). That said, if you want to understand who I am and why I do what I do, I hope you will watch this video. It was quite an emotional experience.

If you wish to listen to it while deep sea folk dancing, please WATCH from about the 46 minute mark. You need to see, hear, and feel what great teaching and learning look like.

(1) For those of you interested in learning more about constructionism, you could read our book, Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom or Edith Ackermann’s splendid papers, her Constructionism 2010 paper, Constructivism(s): Shared roots, crossed paths, multiple legacies or Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism: What’s the difference?


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

For decades, I have marveled at the vehemence with which seemingly reasonable adults defend not teaching kids to program computers. Aside from the typical (and often dubious) justifications popularized by politicians, Hour of Code, and the Computer Science for All community, I know how learning to program in the 7th grade was an intellectual awakening that has served me well for more than four decades.

So, when #1 Canadian, Dean Shareski, posed the following tweet, I decided to take “his” question seriously and offered to speak with him about the top online. Then another person I don’t know, Shana White, called in.

I hear some suggest everyone should learn to code. Ok. But should everyone learn basic woodworking? electrical work? cooking? plumbing? automotive? Those are all good things but is time part of the issue? How do all these good things get taught? Just thinking out loud.— Dean Shareski (@shareski) September 10, 2018

For what it’s worth, some of y0u might find the conversation interesting or just use it to lull yourself to sleep.

You may listen to or download the podcast here.

#basta


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary here.

The irony could cause whiplash. Over the past thirty years, the EdTech community expended sufficient energy to colonize Mars fighting the idea of teaching children to program computers. I cannot think of another single example in education where so much effort was invested in arguing against children learning something, especially ways of knowing and thinking so germane to navigating their world. Now, the very same folks responsible for enforced ignorance, disempowerment, and making computing so unattractive to children are now advocating “Computer Science for All.”*

There seems to be little consensus on what CS4All means, few educators prepared to teach it, no space in the schedule for a new course of study, and yet a seemingly unanimous desire to make binary, algorithm, and compression first grade spelling words. The sudden interest in “coding” is as interested in the Logo community’s fifty years of accumulated wisdom as Kylie Jenner is interested in taking Ed Asner to St. Barts.

So, amidst this morass of confusion, turf battles, and political posturing, well intentioned educators resort to puzzles, games, and vocabulary exercises for say, an hour of code.

I wish I had 0101 cents for every educator who has told me that her students “do a little Scratch.” I always want to respond, “Call me when your students have done a lot of Scratch.” Coding isn’t breaking a code like when you drunken insurance salesman go to an Escape Room as a liver bonding exercise. The epistemological benefit of programming computers comes from long intense thinking, communicating your hypotheses to the computer, and then either debugging or embellishment (adding features, seeking greater efficiency, decorating, testing a larger hypothesis).

Fluency should be the goal. Kids should be able to think, write, paint, compose, and dance with code. I recently met a team of sixth grade girls who won a contest for creating the “best app.” It was pretty good. I asked, “What else have you programmed?” and received blank stares. When I asked, “What would you like to program next?” the children all turned to look at the teacher for the correct answer. If the kids were truly learning to program, they would be full of independent ideas for what to do next.

Children have a remarkable capacity for intensity and computer programming is an intellectual and creative outlet for that intensity. When I learned to program in a public middle school in 1975, I felt smart for the first time in my life. I could look at problems from multiple angles. I could test strategies in my head. I could spend days thinking of little more than how to quash a bug in my program. I fell in love with the hard fun of thinking. I developed habits of mind that have served me for more than four decades.

So, for schools without a Mr. Jones to teach a nine-week mandatory daily computer programming class for every seventh grader, I have a modest proposal that satisfies many curricular objectives at once.

Whether your goal is literacy, new literacy, computer literacy, media literacy, coding, or the latest vulgarity, close reading, my bold suggestion offers a little something for everyone on your administrative Xmas list.

Give the kids a book to read!

That’s right. There are two very good books that teach children to program in Scratch using a project-approach. The books are completely accessible for a fifth grader. (or older) Here’s what you do.

  • Buy a copy of one of the recommended books for each student or pair of students.
  • Use the book as a replacement text.
  • Ask the students to work through all of the projects in the book.
  • Encourage kids to support one another; perhaps suggest that they “ask three before me.”
  • Celebrate students who take a project idea and make it their own or spend time “messing about” with a programming concept in a different context.

There is no need for comprehension quizzes, tests, or vocabulary practice since what the students read and understand should be evident in their programming. Kids read a book. Kids create. Kids learn to program.

There is a growing library of Scratch books being published, but these are the four I recommend. The first two choices may be the best since they were specifically written for the current generation of Scratch, Scratch 3.

25 Scratch 3 Games for Kids: A Playful Guide to Coding by Max Wainewright is a beautiful new book of Scratch 3 game programming projects presented in a highly visual style. (grades 4-7)

Super Scratch Programming Adventure!: Learn to Program by Making Cool Games is a terrific graphic novel filled with Scratch projects. (grades 4-7)

Code Your Own Games! 20 Games to Create with Scratch by Max Wainewright, is a lovely 80-page spiralbound book with gorgeous graphics and a non-nonsense approach to helping kids learn to program in Scratch by creating twenty different game projects sequenced by degree of difficulty. Most projects are started in 2–4 pages, with extension challenges and plenty of open-ended project ideas shared. I discovered this book a few months after originally posting this article and am a big fan. It’s inexpensive and makes a great gift for any kid, especially since the book doesn’t feel intimidating. Note: This book was written for the previous version of Scratch. This might be a better choice today.

Scratch For Kids For Dummies by Derek Breen is a terrific project-based approach to learning Scratch. Note: This was written for Scratch 2.0, but remains a valuable resource, particularly for teachers.

If per chance, thick books scare you, there are two excerpted versions of Derek Breen’s Scratch for Kids for Dummies book, entitled Designing Digital Games: Create Games with Scratch! (Dummies Junior) and Creating Digital Animations: Animate Stories with Scratch! (Dummies Junior). Either would also do the trick. Note: These were written for Scratch 2.0, but remain useful.

Growth

I must admit to being alarmed by the frequency with which many educators tell me that their students “Do a little Scratch.” Scratch and “Hour-of-Code” type activities present an illusion of simplicity that is misleading. Fluency only develops from doing “a lot of Scratch.”

Although my copy of this new book has yet to arrive, I’m intrigued by a more advanced Scratch book for kids written by the gentleman who wrote the delightful book, Code Your Own Games! 20 Games to Create with Scratch. Therefore, I’m cautiously recommending his book, Generation Code: I’m an Advanced Scratch Coder. The emergence of “advanced” Scratch programming books provides evidene of growth in the community and enhances the sustainability of the programming language.

Another Must-Have

Natalie Rusk’s terrific Scratch cards are a must-have for any Scratch-using classroom.

Check it out

You might also enjoy The Invent To Learn Guide to Block Programming.

Shameless plug

Sylvia Martinez and I wrote a chapter in the recent book, Creating the Coding Generation in Primary Schools.

* There are a plethora of reasons why I believe that Computer Science for All is 
doomed as a systemic innovation, but I will save those for another article.

Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.

The story of a boy’s academic pursuits in New Jersey and education’s lack of progress since then…

© 2001 Gary S. Stager/Curriculum Administrator Magazine
Published in the July 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator

I recently received a sad email informing me that Paul Jones, my first and only computing programming teacher, had passed away. Mr. Jones taught at Schuyler Colfax Junior High School in Wayne, New Jersey for thirty-seven years. If a monument to honor great achievements in educational computing is ever erected, it should surely include a statue of Mr. Jones.

Around 1976 I got to touch a computer for the first time. My junior high school (grades 6-8) had a mandatory computer-programming course for seventh and eighth graders. I only had the course once since I was in the band. In a twist familiar to schools across the land, kids less inclined to creative and intellectual pursuits got to take double the number of courses in those areas!

In the 1970s the Wayne Township Public Schools in New Jersey believed it was important for all kids to have experience programming computers. There was never any discussion of preparation for computing careers, school-to-work, presentation graphics or computer literacy. This was not a gifted course or a vocational course. This “mandatory elective” (a concept unique to schooling) was viewed as a window onto a world of ideas – equal in status to industrial arts, home economics and the arts.

To young adolescents transitioning out of trick-or-treating Mr. Jones was scary in a Dr. Frankenstein sort of way. Rumors abounded about him talking to his computer and even kissing it goodnight before going home at the end of the day. The truth was that this guy could make computers do things! To kids who never imagined seeing a computer – let alone controlling one, having such power within our reach was pretty heady stuff.

The class consisted of mini-tutorials, programming problems on worksheets to kill time while we waited to use the one or two teletypes sitting in the front and back of the room. The scarcity of classroom computers had an unintended consequence, lots of collaboration.

We could sign-up to do more programming or play a computer game after school. This afterschool activity, undoubtedly offered out of the goodness of Mr. Jones’ heart, would allow us extra precious minutes of computer time. Text-based versions of boxing, tennis, football and Star Trek were favorites. Mr. Jones knew how the games worked and would show us the underlying code if we were interested. Mr. Jones did sort of love his computer and his students. Once I knew the odds for each football play the computer never beat me again. I could THINK LIKE THE COMPUTER! This made me feel powerful and laid the foundation for a life of problem solving.

The habits of mind developed in Mr. Jones’ class helped me survive the series of miserable mathematics classes that would greet me in high school. Perhaps Mr. Jones was such a great teacher because he was learning to program too. (This never occurred to me as a kid since Mr. Jones knew everything about computers.)

During high school I would pay an occasional visit to Mr. Jones in order to trade programming secrets. As an adult we had a casual collegial relationship. He may have even attended one or two of my workshops. I do remember that he loved AppleWorks with a passion normally reserved for opera and that he collected Beagle Bros. AppleWorks add-ons like they were Beanie Babies.

Not long after Mr. Jones died I received a charming email from the world’s finest seventh grade social studies teacher, Bob Prail, asking me if I would be interested in applying for Mr. Jones’ teaching job. I was honored to be considered and must admit that the whole “circle of life” angle warmed my heart. However, living with my family 3,000 miles from Schuyler Colfax Jr. High would make the commute difficult. I also feared that the responsibilities assigned to this teaching position were no longer pioneering or designed to expand the thinking of students. I was concerned that the 2001 curriculum for a computing teacher (probably now called something like digital communication technology integration facilitator and cable-puller) would have deteriorated into the mindless computer literacy objectives of mouse-clicking, web bookmarking and word processing plaguing too many schools.

Unnamed sources within the junior high school in question have since revealed that students now spend a considerable amount of time learning to “keyboard.” I don’t know which is worse, disrespecting the talents and culture of kids by pretending that they have never seen a computer before or lowering our expectations by making it impossible for kids to do wondrous things with the most powerful technology ever invented.

As students of Mr. Jones a quarter century ago, none of us HAD ever seen a computer before and yet the curriculum was designed to inspire us to seize control of this mysterious machine. Since we had little idea what was impossible, we thought anything was possible. We felt smart, powerful and creative. Assuming Mr. Jones’ responsibilities while trivializing the intellectual power of computing would dishonor his spirit and diminish his pioneering contributions to the world of powerful ideas.


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. Learn more about Gary here.