I am often asked about the adoption of Chromebooks and have spent months agonizing how to respond. This article offers food for thought to teachers, administrators, school board members, and policy makers who might find themself swept up in Chromebook mania.

What should a student computer do?

In addition to being portable, reliable, lightweight, affordable, and with a good battery life, a student computer should capable of doing everything our unimaginative adult reptilian brains think a kid should be able to do with a computer and powerful enough to do a great many things we cannot imagine.

The Chromebook might be sufficient if you believe that the primary purpose of school to be taking notes, looking stuff up, completing forms, and communication. I find this to be an impoverished view of both learning and computing. Children need and deserve more. If you find such uses compelling, kids already own cellphones capable of performing such tasks.

Powerful learning is a bargain at any price

Thirty years ago, my friend and mentor Dr. Cynthia Solomon taught me that sound education decisions are never based on price. Providing children with underpowered technology insults kids, treats them like 2nd class citizens, and signals that schools should get scraps. The more schools settle for less, the less the public will provide.

One of the most peculiar terms to enter the education lexicon is “device.” What was the last time you walked into an electronics or computer store and said to a salesperson, “I would like to buy a device please?” This never happens. You buy yourself a computer.

A device is an object you buy on the cheap for other people’s children to create an illusion of modernity. A Chromebook might be swell for a traveling salesman or UPS driver. It is, in my humble opinion, insufficient for school students in 2017.

Providing students with a Chromebook rather than a proper laptop computer is akin to replacing your school orchestra instruments with kazoos. We live in one of the richest nations in all of history. We can afford a cello and multimedia-capable computer for every child.

My best friend’s son attends a middle school where every student was issued a Chromebook. The kids use them primarily to charge their iPhones.

If someday, Chromebooks are sufficiently robust, reliable, and flexible at a good price, I will embrace them with great enthusiasm. That day has yet to arrive.

Chromebooks represent an impoverished view of computing

Read Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon’s 1971 paper, “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer,” (Go ahead. Google it on a Chromebook if you wish) and see how many of things they demonstrated that kids were doing with computers more than 45 years ago are possible on your “device.”

Australian schools in 1989-90 embraced personal laptop computing as a vehicle for programming across the curriculum and created a renaissance of learning with computers that too many educators remain ignorant of or have chosen to forget. Look at the capabilities of the XO computer, aka the $100 laptop, created by the One Laptop Per Child foundation. It was more powerful than today’s Chromebook. We do not to use classroom technology that dooms learners to secretarial roles. They need computers to invent, create, compose, control microcontrollers, program robots, run external machines, build simulations, and write their own software.

Where is S.T.E.M? Or the Arts in the examples of classroom Chromebook use? To those who say that you can compose music, make movies, or edit large audio files on a Chromebook, I suggest, “You first!” The ability to connect things like microcontrollers, robotics, 3D printers, laser cutters may indeed become possible on a Chromebook in the near future, but we already have all sorts of personal computers capable of doing all of those things well today. Why gamble?

When geniuses like Alan Kay, Seymour Papert, Cynthia Solomon, and Nicholas Negroponte spoke of “the children’s machine,” they meant a better computer than what their father used at the office. Today, “student devices” take on an air of condescension and paternalism that disempower young people.

Schools continuously invent that which already exists; each time with diminished expectations.

They love them!

The only time you hear teachers or administrators claim that kids love something is when those very same adults are desperate to justify a bad decision. Telling me that teachers are finally “using technology” since you procured Chromebooks is just an example of setting low expectations for the professionals you entrust with educating children. Making it easy to do school in a slightly more efficient manner should not be the goal. Making the impossible possible should be. Celebrating the fact that a teacher can use a Chromebook is an example of the soft bigotry of low expectations.

How low can you go?

I truly respect and appreciate that public schools are underfunded, but underpowered Chromebooks are not the answer. How cheap is cheap enough for a student “device?”

I recently purchased a 15-inch HP laptop with a touchscreen, extended keyboard, 12 GB of RAM, a 2 TB hard drive, and Windows 10 at Costco for $350. I routinely find real PC laptops capable of meeting the standards I outlined above in the $250 – $350 price range in retail stores. Imagine what the price would be if schools wished to buy millions of them!

If $250 – $350 is too expensive (it’s cheaper than playing soccer for one season), how about $35 for a Raspberry Pi, the powerful computer students can run real software on, including Mathematica, which comes free, on the Pi. A Raspberry Pi 3 computer has greater flexibility, power, and available software than a Chromebook and it costs less than my typical Dominos Pizza order.

If you’re feeling extra flush with cash, add a Raspberry Pi Zero computer to your order for the price of that delicious chocolate chip brownie concoction Dominos offers upon checkout.

The Cloud is not free and it still sucks!

One of the great misconceptions driving the adoption of “devices,” such as the Chromebook, is the promise of cloud computing. Doesn’t that just sound heavenly? The cloud….

How is the Internet access in your school? Painful? Slow? Unreliable? Have hundreds of children do all of their computing in the cloud and you may find the school network completely unusable. The future may indeed be “in the cloud,” but today works really well on personal hard drives.

The cost of upgrading your network infrastructure and then employing a high school dropout named Lenny and all of his mates to maintain the network (ie… lock, block, and tell teachers what they can and cannot do online) is much more expensive than trusting kids to save their files on their own laptop.

The Vision thing

Perhaps I missed something, but I am unaware of the educational vision supporting widespread Chromebook adoption. Google has not even faked an educational philosophy like “Think Different.”

Screwing Microsoft might be fun, even laudable, but it is not a compelling educational vision.

The Google problem

Did you hear that Google has a free salad bar and dry cleaning? How cool is that? I wish our staff room had a barista! The successful penetration of Chromebooks into schools is due in no small part to our culture’s lust for unlimited employer provided vegan smoothies. However, it would be irresponsible for educators to surrender pedagogical practice and the potential of our students to the whims of 23 year-old smartasses at any technology company. Silicon Valley could make its greatest positive impact on education by learning the lessons of history, consulting education experts, and most importantly, paying their fair share of taxes.

There are also legitimate privacy concerns about trusting a benevolent corporation with our intellectual property, correspondence, and student data. Google clearly has a lot to gain from hooking kids and their teachers on “The Google” while turning their customers into product.

The pyramid scheme known as the Google Certified Educator program turns innocent well-meaning teachers into street corner hustlers armed with a participation trophy for heroically mastering “the Google.”

Again, I do not understand why any of this reliance on Google is necessary. The average school could spend well under $100/month on its own email and web servers either on-site or co-located. Best of all, no one is reading your email and you are ultimately responsible for your own files. Let a 5th grader manage the entire operation!

The miracle of Google’s YouTube is that a company makes billions of dollars per year by delivering ad-supported stolen content to users. Any teacher who does not believe that they too are in the intellectual property business should be prepared to be replaced by a YouTube video.

Google envy makes bad education policy.

Unicorn Computing

School decision makers responsible for purchasing Chromebooks have been heard to say the following in justification of their actions.

“I had to get Chromebooks!”

The school up the street got them.

“The latest batch is so much better than the other ones we bought.”         

Why are you investing in unreliable technology and then congratulating yourself for doing it again?

“I know that the Chromebooks don’t do everything we need or want them to do, but they should soon.”

Then why did you buy Chromebooks now?

I call the actions justified by such statements unicorn computing. Peer pressure, hoping, and praying are insufficient justification for saddling teachers and children with underpowered powered unreliable devices – especially when cost-effective options exist.

In Closing…

It doesn’t matter to me if a new kind of computer captures the heart and wallets of consumers. All that matters is that scarce educational resources are used to provide students with maximum potential. If Chromebooks were the first computer ever invented and other options did not exist, I might embrace the Chromebook as a classroom option. If Chromebooks were sufficiently powerful, durable, and reliable, I’d endorse their use. When better computers are available at approximately the same price, disempowering kids and confusing teachers seems an imprudent option.

My life’s work has been dedicated to expanding rich learning opportunities for all students by helping educators embrace the tools of modernity. Much of this work has involved personal computing. From 1990, I led professional development in the world’s first two laptop schools and then countless others inspired by this work. I worked with the father of educational computing, Dr. Seymour Papert, for twenty years and was a member of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation’s Learning Group. Professionally, I have taught children to program computers across the curriculum since 1982. I learned to program in the mid-1970s, an experience that liberated my creativity and opened a window into a world of powerful ideas ever since.

I view computers as personal intellectual laboratories, ateliers, and vehicles for self-expression. The act of computing gives children agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world. When every child owns a personal portable computer, they are able to construct knowledge “anytime anywhere,” learn-by-doing, and share their knowledge with a global audience. Computing bestows agency upon learners and allows them to embrace complexity while exploring domains of knowledge and demonstrating ways of knowing unavailable to adults just a few years ago.

There is no greater advocate for computers and computing in education than me. However, the purchasing decisions made by adults, for students, can either amplify human potential or impede learning.

Smaller cheaper computers are an attractive proposition, especially for cash-strapped schools, but I am alarmed by the widespread and too often thoughtless adoption of Google Chromebooks in education. Simply stated, the Chromebook turns back the clock on what we have learned children can do with computers in search of an immature technology.

Dr. Gary Stager was invited to write a profile of his friend, colleague, and mentor Dr. Seymour Papert for the premiere issue of Hello World!, an impressive new magazine for educators from The Raspberry Pi Foundation. This new print magazine is also available online under a Creative Commons license.

I suggest you explore the entire new magazine for inspiration and practical classroom ideas around the Raspberry Pi platform, “coding,” problem solving, physical computing, and computational thinking.

Gary’s article was cut due to space limitations. However, the good news, for anyone interested, is that the full text of the article appears below (with its original title).

See page 25 of the Hello World! Magazine

Seymour Papert Would have Loved the Raspberry Pi!

When Dr. Seymour Papert died in July 2016, the world lost one of the great philosophers and change-agents of the past half-century. Papert was not only a recognized mathematician, artificial intelligence pioneer, computer scientist, and the person Jean Piaget hired to help him understand how children construct mathematical knowledge; he was also the father of educational computing and the maker movement.

By the late 1960s, Papert was advocating for every child to have its own computer. At a time when few people had ever seen a computer, Papert wasn’t just dreaming of children using computers to play games or be asked quiz questions. He believed that children should program the computer.  They should be in charge of the system; learning while programming and debugging. He posed a fundamental question still relevant today, “Does the child program the computer or does the computer program the child?”  Along with colleagues Cynthia Solomon and Wally Feurzig, Papert created Logo, the first programming language designed specifically for children and learning.  MicroWorlds, Scratch, and SNAP! are but a few of the Logo dialects in use fifty years later.

Papert’s legacy extends beyond children programming, despite how rare and radical that practice remains today. In 1968, Alan Kay was so impressed by the mathematics he witnessed children doing in Logo that he sketched the Dynabook, the prototype for the modern personal computer on his flight home from visiting Papert at MIT.  In the mid-1980s, Papert designed the first programmable robotics construction kit for children, LEGO TC Logo. LEGO’s current line of robotics gear is named for Papert’s seminal book, Mindstorms. In 1993, Papert conjured up images of a knowledge machine that children could use to answer their questions, just like the new Amazon Echo or Google Home. littleBits and MaKey Makey are modern descendants of Papert’s vision.

Prior to the availability of CRTs (video displays), the Logo turtle was a cybernetic creature tethered to a timeshare terminal. As students expressed formal mathematical ideas for how they wished the turtle to move about in space, it would drag a pen (or lift it up) and move about in space as a surrogate for the child’s body, all the while learning not only powerful ideas from computer science, but constructing mathematical knowledge by “teaching” the turtle. From the beginning, Papert’s vision included physical computing and using the computer to make things that lived on the screen and in the real world. This vision is clear in a paper Cynthia Solomon and Seymour Papert co-authored in 1970-71, “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer.”

“In our image of a school computation laboratory, an important role is played by numerous “controller ports” which allow any student to plug any device into the computer… The laboratory will have a supply of motors, solenoids, relays, sense devices of various kids, etc. Using them, the students will be able to invent and build an endless variety of cybernetic systems. “ (Papert & Solomon, 1971)

This document made the case for the maker movement more than forty-five years ago. Two decades later, Papert spoke of the computer as mudpie or material with which one could not only create ideas, art, or theories, but also build intelligent machines and control their world.

From his early days as an anti-apartheid dissident in 1940s South Africa to his work with children in underserved communities and neglected settings around the world, social justice and equity was a current running through all of Papert’s activities. If children were to engage with powerful ideas and construct knowledge, then they would require agency over the learning process and ownership of the technology used to construct knowledge.

“If you can make things with technology, then you can make a lot more interesting things. And learn a lot more by making them.” – Seymour Papert (Stager, 2006)

Programming computers and building robots are a couple examples of how critical student agency was to Papert.  He inspired 1:1 computing, Maine becoming the first state on earth to give a laptop to every  7th & 8th grader, and the One Laptop Per Child initiative.

 “…Only inertia and prejudice, not economics or lack of good educational ideas stand in the way of providing every child in the world with the kinds of experience of which we have tried to give you some glimpses. If every child were to be given access to a computer, computers would be cheap enough for every child to be given access to a computer.” (Papert & Solomon, 1971)

It made Papert crazy that kids could not build their own computers. When we worked together (1999-2002) to create an alternative project-based learning environment inside a troubled teen prison, we bought PCs hoping that the kids could not only maintain them, but also eventually build their own. Despite kids building guitars, gliders, robots, films, computer programs, cameras, telescopes, and countless other personally meaningful projects uninterrupted for five hours per day – a “makerspace” as school. Back then, it was too much trouble to source parts and build “personal” computers.

In 1995, Papert caused a commotion in a US Congressional hearing on the future of education when an infuriated venture capitalist scolded him while saying that it was irresponsible to assert that computers could cost $100, have a lifespan of a decade, and be maintained by children themselves.  (CSPAN, 1995) Later Papert would be fond of demonstrating how any child anywhere in the world could repair the $100 OLPC laptop with a single screwdriver. Before Congress, he asserted that computers only seem expensive when accounting tricks compare them to the price of pencils. If used in the expansive ways his projects demonstrated, Papert predicted that “kid power” could change the world.

The Raspberry Pi finally offers children a low-cost programmable computer that they may build, maintain, expand, and use to control cyberspace and the world around them. Its functionality, flexibility, and affordability hold the promise of leveraging kid power to put the last piece in the Papert puzzle.

References:
CSPAN (Producer). (1995, 12/1/16). Technology In Education [Video] Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?67583-1/technology-education&whence=

Papert, S., & Solomon, C. (1971). Twenty things to do with a computer. Retrieved from Cambridge, MA:

Stager, G. S. (2006). An Investigation of Constructionism in the Maine Youth Center. (Ph.D.), The University of Melbourne, Melbourne.

Read more

Progressive Education and The Maker Movement – Symbiosis or Mutually Assured Destruction

Published paper of keynote address at 2014 FabLearn Conference at Stanford University by
Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Constructing Modern Knowledge
21825 Barbara Street Torrance, CA 90503 USA
gary@stager.org

Download PDF version

Keywords: Progressive education, education reform, mathematics education, constructionism, educational computing, maker movement

 

Abstract

In this paper, the author shares three societal trends that validate and vindicate decades of leadership by constructionist educators. The growing acceptance of learning-by-making represented by the maker movement, a newfound advocacy for children learning computer programming, and even the global education crisis, real or imagined, are evidence of predictions and efforts made by constructionists being realized. The paper also asserts that the survival of progressive education and the maker movement are mutually dependent. This conference offers a brief opportunity for celebration before returning to the “hard fun” required to harness the momentum of these trends and improve the learning ecology.

 

Paper

Three societal trends afford members of the constructionism community with cause for optimism. While two of these trends are positive and one negative, their trajectory is towards a greater acceptance of constructionist learning by formal and informal communities of practice. Recognition of the symbiotic relationship between progressive education, its learning theory constructionism, and the long-term survival of what has come to be known as “the maker movement” is critical for the long-term survival of each. Progressive education and the maker movement are at a crossroads when both rely on the other for relevance and acceptance.

The general population has begun to recognize that knowledge is a consequence of experience and that technology can play a role in the construction of knowledge. This revelation is an act of constructionism in and of itself. Despite our decades of paper writing, conference attendance and teacher training, people unfamiliar with the term are constructing constructionism without being taught. Such “popular constructionism,” is manifest in explosive growth of the global maker movement and a revaluing of children learning to program. Such progress is accompanied by a backlash by the formal system of schooling, just as Seymour Papert predicted nearly a quarter century ago. (Papert, 1991)

 

THE MAKER MOVEMENT

At Constructionism 2012, there were concerns expressed about the maker movement that to be candid, smacked of elitism. While it may be true that the moms, dads, and teachers advocating for making may lack a scholarly vocabulary for expressing principles of constructionist learning, they are not hostile to that information. The popularity of Maker Faire, Hour of Code, Scratch, and books like, “Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” are proof of a desire to learn more about learning. It is also the case that academics in the constructionism community would benefit from learning what members of the maker movement know and can do. The elements of community organization and creative spirit of the maker movement are to be admired.

As we assert in our book, (Martinez & Stager, 2013) Papert is not only the “father” of constructionism, but of the maker movement as well. In “Computer as Material: Messing About with Time” (Papert & Franz, 1987) and earlier, “Computer as Mudpie,” (Papert, 1984) Papert described a new role for the computer as part of a continuum of construction materials, albeit one imbued with protean qualities. (Papert, 1980)

“If you can use technology to make things you can make a lot more interesting things. And you can learn a lot more by making them. This is especially true of digital technology.” (G. S. Stager, 2006)

Papert not only provided the basis for constructionism as a learning theory, but also played a pivotal role in predicting, inventing, and advocating for the constructive technology now being popularized by the maker movement. Long before his involvement in the development of programmable LEGO robotics kits or being an advocate for one-to-one computing, made the case for such innovations and even expressed the importance of hardware extensibility.

In 1970, Papert and Solomon described the sophisticated technological needs of young children engaged in making things with computers.

“The school computer should have a large number of output ports to allow the computer to switch lights on and off, start tape recorders, actuate slide projectors and start and stop all manner of little machines. There should also be input ports to allow signals to be sent to the computer.

In our image of a school computation laboratory, an important role is played by numerous “controller ports” which allow any student to plug any device into the computer… The laboratory will have a supply of motors, solenoids, relays, sense devices of various kids, etc. Using them, the students will be able to invent and build an endless variety of cybernetic systems.” (Papert & Solomon, 1971)

Neil Gershenfeld, one of the leaders of the personal fabrication movement who predicted much of the current maker movement, recounts how Papert viewed the inability of children to construct their own computers as a “thorn in our flesh.” (Gershenfeld, 2005) The availability of the $35 Raspberry Pi and its offspring the Beaglebone, Yun, Gallileo, and other low-cost Linux computers, all with an ability to interface with the world, removes that thorn. Each of these tiny computers are capable of running Scratch, Snap!, Python, and Turtle Art. They also feature a range of inputs and outputs for extensibility. Scavenging for peripherals to use with such a computer, customizing it, and programming it to solve personally important problems is consistent with both maker and constructionist ideals. The computer hardware industry and leaders in the educational computing world have spent decades deriding Papert’s claims that children should build, program, maintain, and repair their own computers, not merely to reduce costs, but as an expression of agency over an increasingly complex, technologically sophisticated world. Emerging technology, like the Raspberry Pi, is resonant with the maker ethos of “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it,” (Jalopy, Torrone, & Hill, 2005) and ideals expressed by Seymour Papert long ago.

Papert’s colleagues or former students created many of the favorite technologies of the maker movement, including Scratch, Makey Makey, the Lilypad, and LEGO robotics. The FabLab and FabLab@School efforts to spread learning through digital fabrication also acknowledge Papert’s inspiration.

 

Making Megachange?

Modern making is a brew of new technologies, computation, and timeless craft traditions. The artificial boundaries between disciplines blur and enrich each other.

“So, too, the mega-change in education that will undoubtedly come in the next few decades will not be a “reform” in the sense of a deliberate attempt to impose a new designed structure. My confidence in making this statement is based on two factors: (1) forces are at work that put the old structure in increasing dissonance with the society of which it is ultimately a part, and (2) ideas and technologies needed to build new structures are becoming increasingly available.” (Papert, 2000b)

Attend a Maker Faire and you will marvel at the ingenuity, creativity, passion for learning, and desire to share knowledge on display. Maker Faire provides a venue for collaboration, showing-off, and sharing personal inventions. The creation of shareable artifacts is a basic tenet of constructionism. (Ackermann, 2001) Maker Faires, Make Magazine, and web sites like instructables.com provide unprecedented venues for sharing technological project ideas and products.

Look in any direction at a Maker Faire and you will discover children and adults learning and creating together “samba school style.” (Papert, 1980) Kids like Super-Awesome Sylvia, Joey Hudy, Quin Etnyre, Caine Monroy, and Schuyler St. Leger embody Papert’s belief in “kid power.” (Generation_WHY, 1998; Papert, 1998) These, and other children, are beloved heroes, legends, and leaders of the maker movement, not because they are cute, but due to their demonstrable talent, knowledge, and expertise. Like in a samba school, these young experts value their interaction with elders because they share a common goal of continuous growth.

There were one hundred officially sanctioned Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires around the world in 2013. These events attracted over 530,000 participants. Attendance increased 64% since 2012 and 335% since 2011. “Maker Faire organizers are influencing local education initiatives, encouraging hands-on learning in Science, Technology, Math, Science (STEM) and Art (STEAM) curricula.” 27% of Maker Faire organizers in 2013 were museums and many Maker Faire organizers are creating or expanding community-based makerspace-type facilities where the community may learn together outside of a school setting. (Merlo, 2014)

Those explosive numbers only tell part of the story of the explosive growth in making and its influence on winning hearts and minds for constructionism. Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires are official events sanctioned by Maker Media resulting from a formal application process. Countless other events led by local hackerspaces, clubs, scout troops, plus school-based maker days and Invent to Learn workshops are doing an impressive job of laying the groundwork for a rise in the appeal of constructionism.

Parents in highly competitive independent schools are becoming champions of constructionism based on the benefits of making they witnessed in their own children. Such parental enthusiasm gives lie to the notion that parents want joyless schools focusing on increasing test scores and provide much needed support for educators sympathetic to constructionism, but beaten down by the status quo. After parents at The American School of Bombay participated in a half-day “Invent To Learn” workshop with their children, they began demanding that classroom practice change to incorporate more making.

The maker movement and its accompanying “constructible” technology has resuscitated constructionism in a New York City public school started by Carol Sperry and Seymour Papert in the early 1980s. (Papert & Franz, 1987) Without Tracy Rudzitis’ impromptu lunchtime “Maker Space,” where the folding tables and freedom transform the learning experience for middle school students, computing would be dead at “The Computer School.” (G. Stager, 2014) In countless settings, the “neat phenomena” associated with popular maker technologies, such as 3D printing, Arduino, Makey Makey, squishy circuits, wearable computing, and conductive paint have caused schools to revive school art and music programs, otherwise sacrificed on the altar of budget cuts, tougher standards, or global competitiveness.

The publication of the Next Generation Science Standards, authored by the National Academy of Sciences, (Quinn, Schweingruber, & Keller, 2012) includes specific demands for computer science, engineering, tinkering, and hands-on scientific inquiry to be part of the diet of every American. These standards, written by actual scientists, add gravitas to what some might deride as the playful act of making.

“I think the technology serves as a Trojan horse all right, but in the real story of the Trojan horse, it wasn’t the horse that was effective, it was the soldiers inside the horse. And the technology is only gong to be effective in changing education if you put an army inside it which is determined to make that change once it gets through the barrier.” (Papert, 1999)

 

BILLIONAIRES DISCOVER CODING

Since Constructionism 2012, Silicon Valley executives, pop-stars, basketball players, politicians, government ministers, and the President of the United States have called for children to learn to code. (note: apparently computer programming is now called, “coding.”)

If you view programming as an intellectually rewarding activity, then it is surely good news that countless millions of dollars are being spent on initiatives like Code.org, Code Academy, and the creation of computer science instruction via Khan Academy.

Mark Guzdial identifies three reasons for learning to program:

  1. That’s where the future jobs are, in the mix of computing with other disciplines.
  2. The second reason is that a liberal education is about understanding one’s world, and computing is a huge part of today’s world. We ask students to take laboratory sciences (like biology, chemistry, and physics) in order to better understand their world and to learn the scientific method for learning more about their world. The virtual world is an enormous part of the daily lives of today’s professionals. Understanding computing is at least as important to today’s students as understanding photosynthesis.
  3. If you understand something well, you should be able to define its process well enough for a machine to execute it. If you can’t, or the execution doesn’t match the observed behavior, we have a new kind of feedback on our theories.

Regrettably, the impetus behind the current desire for “kids to code” seems more rooted in economic insecurity and foreign job killers than recognition that programming is a good way to understand formal systems, make sense of the world or answer Papert’s timeless question, “Does the child program the computer or the computer program the child?”

The pedagogical approach preferred by the coding proponents appears to be, “kids will go on the Web and figure it out.” In that case, the same paltry percentage of kids is likely to develop programming fluency now than before great wealth and media attention was dedicated to the cause.

Although well intentioned and surely better than another generation of children doing little more with a computer than preparing an occasional PowerPoint presentation on a topic they don’t care about for an audience they will never meet, the advocates of coding seem wholly ignorant that many teachers used to teach children to program during the 1980s. Many of these educators taught Logo and the Logo community developed a great deal of wisdom regarding how, what, why, and when to teach children to program. Dozens of books were written and hundreds of thousands of copies were sold. We danced recursion and acted out procedureality. Now, that knowledge base is largely ignored in favor of catchy slogans and YouTube videos. The constructionism community has a wealth of knowledge to share with coding proponents and a great number of questions as well.

  • Which programming languages are best for children to use and why?
  • Is computational thinking a fancy term for what Alan Kay calls “computer appreciation?” (Kay, 1996) Is this just a way of providing the illusion of computing without sufficient access or actual experience?
  • What are the goals of learning to program?
  • How does computer programming support, enhance or build upon other intellectual processes?
  • What can kids make with a computer?
  • Are computing, coding, and computer science synonymous?
  • What should a child at a particular age be capable of programming and which concepts should they be able to put into use?
  • What sort of teacher preparation is required in order to realize the dream of computer science for all?

We have no idea what children would be capable of if they programmed computers for a sustained period of time. Although we taught tens of thousands of Australian fifth-seventh graders to program in LogoWriter or MicroWorlds between 1989 and 1995, (Johnstone, 2003) schools substituted computing for report writing, note taking, and office tasks by the time those children reached high school. In many cases, computers once an integral learning appendage, were barely used at all as soon as schooling got “serious” and focused on achievement or careers.

In the current coding for all craze, there is little attention given to the proposition that while programming, students may learn other things or explore powerful ideas concurrently. Programming appears to be a means to an end – becoming a programmer, even if that objective is barely defined or the process is trivial.

Coding advocates also send schizophrenic messages. Somehow, the same people can assert that programming is sufficiently difficult that anyone who manages to learn to code will find herself on economic Easy Street and yet, coding is so simple anyone can do it.

In 2014, code.org launched “Hour-of-Code” in a massive publicity blitz intended to attract the attention of schools. While this sounds like a work of satire, Hour-of-Code attracted President Obama, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and other cultural icons to record messages supporting the initiative. (Betters, 2014)

The idea of learning anything substantive in an hour seems preposterous. No amount of advertising or cheerleading is likely to result in more schools teaching computer science in a fashion that appeals to a wide variety of children or supports multiple learning styles. Hour-of-Code is an example of what Papert called verbal inflation and reminds us that “When ideas go to school, they lose their power.” (Papert, 2000b) By definition, Hour-of-Code must be trivial. Perhaps the goal of “Hour-of-Code” was never really to teach or even inspire kids to program, but to create the illusion that the very same Silicon Valley moguls seeking to dismantle public education aren’t so bad after all. (ASU+GSV Summit, 2014; Severns, 2013; G. Stager, 2011; Strauss, 2013, 2014) The cost of such an effort is trivial. “We’ve now reached 25 million kids, and the entire Hour of Code cost $1.2 million. That’s 5 cents a child,” said code.org co-founder Hadi Partovi. (Delevett, 2014)

If we stipulate that the motives of the coding advocates are pure, new questions arise when coding is proposed as the purview of schools. Although efforts like code.org would love to infiltrate schools, they are less concerned by where kids learn to code. When a role for coding in school is delineated through governmental policy or curricular statements, the concerns become more even more acute for constructionists.

 

Coding through school-colored glasses

Conservative UK Education Secretary Michael Gove announced in January 2012 that the national ICT curriculum should be scrapped at once because it is “a mess,” “harmful,” and “dull.” (Burns, 2012) Since Gove’s provocative BETT speech several American states, Singapore, and Estonia (Gardiner, 2014) have joined the chorus calling for all students to be taught computer science, even if they have no idea what that means or what is involved in achieving success. The exhaustive Royal Society study commissioned by the UK Government to guide the curricular shift towards every child learning computer science includes thoughts such as, “Computer Science education does not necessarily involve computers.” (Furber, 2012) Progress indeed.

The UK National Curriculum is short on actual examples of what a student might do or make with a computer, but long on vocabulary leaving implementation of the curriculum prone to memorization, not actual computer science. (Berry, 2013; Department of Education, 2013a, 2013b) Regardless of your feelings about the substance of the new UK curriculum, efforts around the world are being met with opposition by the theoretically most “tech savvy” teachers in the system, the existing ICT or computer literacy teachers who are resistant to change. The road ahead seems bleak when you factor in a shortage of qualified teachers, an overstuffed school day, inadequate computer resources and an abysmal participation rate among girls and minorities. (Ericson & Guzdial, 2014; Guzdial, 2006; Guzdial & Reed, 2014) And that doesn’t even include a discussion of why so few students are interested in learning computer science even where it is offered.

In the United States, there are proposals in several states to allow Computer Science to earn Foreign Language course credit. (Edutopia, 2013; Guzdial, 2014) Once again, policy-makers with little understanding of CS hear “language” and think they can check off two boxes at once, foreign language and computer science. Aside from the obvious flaws in this logic, the substitution is as much a symptom of unquestioned curricular heuristics than it is support for high quality computer science offerings. Swapping a subject you have trouble defending for CS is another example of the idea aversion (Papert, 2000b) Papert spoke of.

“Computer science for all” is a laudable objective and a welcome change in direction. The constructionist and maker communities possess a great deal of expertise and wisdom that should play a major role in shaping both policy and pedagogical practice. Without such involvement, this rhetorical effort may do more harm than good.

 

EPISTEMOLOGICAL POLITICS

At the very moment when incredible new technologies emerge with the potential to supercharge learning, increase ways of knowing, amplify human expression, forge strange alliances, and empower each teacher and student, the School system has never been more draconian. This too is part of Papert’s prophetic wisdom.

“I have used Perestroika in the Russian political sense as a metaphor to talk about change and resistance to change in education. I use it to situate educators in a continuum: are you open to megachange, or is your approach one of seeking Band-Aids to fix the minor ills of the education system? The dominant paradigm is the Band-Aid–most reform tries to jigger the curriculum, the management of schools, the psychological context of learning. Looking at the Soviet experience gives us a metaphor to talk about why this doesn’t work. For stable change a deeper restructuring is needed–or else the large parts of the system you didn’t change will just bring the little parts you did change back into line.” (Papert, 1991)

Global trends point towards greater public school privatization, addiction to standardized testing, teacher shaming, union busting, savage urban school closures, the rise of charter schools, national curricula, PISA score competition, the suspension of local democracy via mayoral control of school districts, and sacrificing the art of teaching for the mechanics of curriculum delivery and crowd control. (Crotty, 2014; Ravitch, 2013, 2014) Bill Gates tells us that class size does (Vise, 2011) not matter and that teachers may be replaced by YouTube videos. (Tan, 2013) Propagandistic films intended to stoke parental hysteria like, “Waiting for Superman,” play in theatres and on Oprah. (Ayers, 2010; Guggenheim et al., 2011; Karp, 2010; Miner, 2011)

 

The Rise of Instructionism

In his Perestroika analogy, Papert predicts that constructionism will be met with more instructionism, hopefully until constructionism prevails. One look at the state-of-the-art in educational computing points to a rise in instructionism.

Not only do schools still have computer labs three decades after their creation, but the computers in those labs are increasingly used for computer-assisted instruction, test-prep, standardized testing, and surveillance. Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey said, “Computer programming is quickly becoming an essential career skill. Learning to code is a fantastic opportunity equalizer – if you’re good at it, it can help you achieve your dreams.” He did this while presiding over a scorched-earth “school reform” regime that eliminated Logo programming, art and music in dozens of elementary schools.

When schools do invest in personal computers, they are likely to buy iPads incompatible with making; what Alan Kay calls “symmetric creation” (Greelish, 2013) or make even worse decisions. The Australian state of Victoria invested $180 million and eight years of distractions in a Gosplan-like fantasy called Ultranet. (Tomazin, 2014) The Los Angeles Unified School District just pledged to spend as much as $2 billion for iPads for the sole purpose of standardized testing in a procurement process only Putin could love. (Blume, 2014; Smith, 2014)

The sudden epidemic of bad teachers proclaimed by politicians and the public’s growing dissatisfaction with schooling may be signs of the traditional system crumbling. Can we rise above this period of darkness by lighting a path towards megachange?

“Just 100 years ago, John Dewey was saying things about educational change, not very different from what I believe in. He couldn’t get very far. And the reason why he couldn’t get very far is that he had only philosophical arguments. He didn’t have an army. You must have an army, and it’s an army primarily of children and the adults also are a political force in this.” (Papert, 1999)

Constructionism is a stance and therefore inseparable from politics. Papert might say that the current chaos plaguing education is “the last flick of a dying dragon’s tail.” (Papert, 2000a)

 

SYMBIOSIS OR MUTUALLY ASSURED DESTRUCTION?

In a toxic era of high-stakes testing, curriculum narrowing, teacher shaming and public school privatizing, the maker movement represents a ray of optimism in an otherwise bleak environment. Simultaneously, the maker movement is poised to go mainstream only if its leaders recognize the benefits of situating “making” in the context of progressive education. An understanding of constructionism and the embattled history of progressive education are necessary for the maker movement to mature.

Quite simply, progressive education requires the energy, passion, new materials, and technology of the maker movement to increase its visibility, relevance, value, and urgency with policy makers, parents, and educational practitioners. For making to mature into a mature movement supporting more than a boutique industry of occasional “faires,” camps, and parties, the members of its community need to understand more about constructionism as well the historic struggle associated with the implementation of progressive education. The maker movement needs to situate their terrific passion, tools, talents, and intuition in a larger context of learning in a politically charged educational system. Both communities have a great deal to learn from one another and should recognize that they stand on the shoulders of giants. Such open-mindedness and knowledge are the minimum conditions under which each community can endure. In order to transcend minority status, a symbiosis of each community’s powerful ideas is required for the aspirations of each to be embraced and sustained by the larger society.

One dilemma for the maker movement is that its major players want it to be both a cause and a profit-center. At FabLearn 2013, Leah Buechley courageously challenged Make™ to take issues of representation, inclusion, gender, race, cost, and accessibility seriously. (Buechley, 2013) Her most easily addressable criticism of Maker Media, owner of Make Magazine™ and Maker Faire™ was the lack of women and people of color on its magazine covers. That concern has been ignored to date. Buechley also pointed out the high cost of entry into “making.” Except for more expensive technology, such as 3D printers, prices do not seem to be falling quickly enough to bring “making” to underserved or poor populations, young or old.

Buechley rightly described how making and Make™ have been conflated in the mind of the population while Maker Media attempts to create an illusion of public service by placing their educational initiatives in a MakerEd non-profit. However, when the White House wishes to celebrate learning by making and its role in an innovative economy, they hosted a Maker Faire™ not a maker fair.

It should come as no surprise that there is a tension between commerce and changing the world. Maker Media is the 1,000 pound for-profit gorilla that creates a venue for makers to share their ingenuity in a commercial environment where others pay to interact with makers. There is nothing wrong with that. It has fueled the explosive rise in making. However, when one company controls the venue, narrative, access to market, and publishes products that compete directly with the creations of other makers, claims of a social mission need to be taken with a grain of salt. Monopolistic tendencies are incompatible with the democratic ideals of both making and progressive education.

Alas, the futures of the maker movement and progressive education are at a crossroads. While the maker movement currently benefits from media attention and the public’s fascination with cool new tech toys, progressive education has been a political punching bag for generations. It is blamed for educational failures disproportionate to its influence. Without great care, the maker movement may find itself susceptible to similar mocking, derision, or marginalization. Sure, that’s nice as a summer camp arts of crafts project, but what does it have to do with raising test scores. Political and social alliances need to be strengthened between each community or the fate of both will be uncertain at best.

 

FD 100

Papert reminds us that we need to shift our self-concept in order to bring about the change children deserve.

“Now there is an opportunity to become the person whose job is to facilitate rethinking the whole learning environment of the school, the whole structure of education. We are entering a period in which the person who was “the computer teacher” has the chance to become the educational philosopher and the intellectual leader of the school, of the education world.” (Papert, 1991)

It is inadequate to dismiss schools as relics of the past because that is where you will find millions of kids who need us. Fellow travelers in the maker movement and the unlikely allies behind the coding campaign might be just the army we need inside of a cardboard horse, with LED eyes, and synthesized speech all controlled by a tiny microcontroller running Scratch.

Let us spend our days at Stanford celebrating a growing acceptance of our ideas, but then return home to lead and engage in the hard work of improving the learning ecology.

 

References

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Ayers, R. (2010). What ‘Superman’ got wrong, point by point. Washington Post, 27.

Berry, M. (2013). Computing in the National Curriculum – A guide for primary teachers. London: Computing At School.

Betters, E. (2014). Code.org’s Hour of Code campaign kicks off: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg will teach you to write basic lines of code. Pocket-Lint.com. Retrieved April 15, 2014, 2014, from http://www.pocket-lint.com/news/125707-code-org-s-hour-of-code-campaign-kicks-off-bill-gates-mark-zuckerberg-will-teach-you-to-write-basic-lines-of-code

Blume, H. (2014). LAUSD’s Quest to See Full iPad Curriculum Comes Up Short. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-0209-lausd-digital-20140211,0,304522.story – axzz30F68qhj9

Buechley, L. (2013, October 28, 2013). FabLearn@School 2013 Conference Closing Keynote. Paper presented at the Leah Buechley, Stanford University.

Burns, J. (2012). School ICT To Be Replaced by Computer Science Programme. BBC News. Retrieved April 25, 2014, 2014, from http://www.bbc.com/news/education-16493929

Crotty, J. M. (2014, March 31, 2014). Is Christie-Backed One Newark Reform Plan Good for City’s Studentsq. Forbes.

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Ericson, B., & Guzdial, M. (2014). Measuring demographics and performance in computer science education at a nationwide scale using AP CS data. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 45th ACM technical symposium on Computer science education, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

Furber, S. (2012). Shut down or restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools. The Royal Society, London.

Gardiner, B. (2014, March 23, 2014). Adding Coding to the Curriculum. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/24/world/europe/adding-coding-to-the-curriculum.html?_r=0

Generation_WHY (Producer). (1998, March 16, 2011). Seymour Papert on Generation WHY and Kid Power. Retrieved from http://blog.genyes.org/index.php/2010/02/20/seymour-papert-on-generation-yes-kid-power/

Gershenfeld, N. (2005). Fab: the coming revolution on your desktop–from personal computers to personal fabrication. Arizona: Basic Books.

Greelish, D. (2013, April 2, 2013). An Interview with Computing Pioneer Alan Kay. Time.

Guggenheim, D., Kimball, B., Chilcott, L., Strickland, B., Rhee, M., Weingarten, R., . . . Cassidy, J. (2011). Waiting for” Superman”: Paramount Home Entertainment.

Guzdial, M. (2006). Computing for Everyone: Improving Global Competitiveness and Understanding of the World. Retrieved September, 10, 2007.

Guzdial, M. (2014). Why Counting CS as a Foreign Language Credit is a Bad Idea from CSTA Blog. Retrieved from http://computinged.wordpress.com/2014/03/19/why-counting-cs-as-a-foreign-language-credit-is-a-bad-idea-from-csta-blog/

Guzdial, M., & Reed, D. (2014). Eyes forward. Commun. ACM, 57(4), 10-11. doi: 10.1145/2581795

Jalopy, M., Torrone, P., & Hill, S. (2005). The Maker\’s Bill of Rights. from http://archive.makezine.com/04/ownyourown/

Johnstone, B. (2003). Never Mind the Laptops: Kids, Computers, and the Transformation of Learning. Seattle: iUniverse.

Karp, S. (2010). Superhero school reform heading your way: Now playing in Newark, NJ. Rethinking Schools, 25(3), 12-17.

Kay, A. (1996). Revealing the Elephant: The Use and Misuse of Computers in Education. Educom Review, 31(4), 22.

Martinez, S.-L., & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to learn: making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.

Merlo, S. (2014, January 1st, 2014). The Year of 100 Maker Faires.   Retrieved April 1, 2014, 2014, from http://makezine.com/2014/01/01/the-year-of-100-maker-faires/

Miner, B. (2011). The Ultimate $uperpower: Supersized Dollars Drive” Waiting for” Superman”” Agenda. Rethinking Schools, 25(2), 18-22.

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York: Basic Books.

Papert, S. (1984). Computer as Mudpie. In D. Peterson (Ed.), Intelligent Schoolhouse: Readings on Computers and Learning. Reston, VA: Reston Publishing Company.

Papert, s. (1991). Perestroika and Epistemological Politics. In I. Harel & S. Papert (Eds.), Constructionism (pp. 13-28). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Papert, S. (1998, June 2). Child Power: Keys to the New Learning of the Digital Century [lecture transcript]. Paper presented at the Eleventh Colin Cherry Memorial Lecture on Communication, Imperial College, London, UK.

Papert, S. (1999). Ghost in the Machine: Seymour Papert on How Computers Fundamentally Change the Way Kids Learn. Interview of Seymour Papert by Dan Schwartz.

Papert, S. (2000a). Seymour Papert’s CUE Conference Keynote Address (transcription). Palm Springs, CA: DailyPapert.com.

Papert, S. (2000b). What’s the Big Idea? Toward a Pedagogical Theory of Idea Power. IBM Systems Journal, 39(3&4), 720-729.

Papert, S., & Franz, G. (1987). Computer as Material: Messing About with Time. Teachers College Record, 89(3).

Papert, S., & Solomon, C. (1971). Twenty things to do with a computer Artificial Intelligence Memo # 248. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Quinn, H., Schweingruber, H., & Keller, T. (2012). A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas: National Academies Press.

Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools: Random House LLC.

Ravitch, D. (2014, March 27, 2014). New York Schools: The Roar of the Charters. New York Review of Books.

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Smith, D. (2014, January 14, 2014). LAUSD Moves Forward with Second Phase of iPad Rollout. Los Angeles Daily News. Retrieved from http://www.dailynews.com/social-affairs/20140114/lausd-moves-forward-with-second-phase-of-ipad-rollout

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Stager, G. (2014, Winter 2014). What’s the Maker Movement and Why Should I Care? Scholastic Administrator, 43-45.

Stager, G. S. (2006). An Investigation of Constructionism in the Maine Youth Center. (Ph.D.), The University of Melbourne, Melbourne.

Strauss, V. (2013, January 6, 2013). The Secret E-mails About Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 Million Donation to Newark schools. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/01/06/the-secret-e-mails-about-mark-zuckerbergs-100-million-to-newark-schools/

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Tan, S. (2013, May 18, 2013). Khan Academy Founder Returns Home as Big Name in U.S. Scholl Reform. New Orleans Times Picayune. Retrieved from http://www.nola.com/education/index.ssf/2013/05/khan_academy_founder_returns_h.html

Tomazin, F. (2014, April 20, 2014). Plug Pulled on Schools’ Disastrous Ultranet Computer System. The Age. Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/plug-pulled-on-schools-disastrous-ultranet-computer-system-20140419-36xse.html

Vise, D. d. (2011, february 28, 2011). Bill Gates Talks About Teacher Pay, Class Size. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://voices.washingtonpost.com/college-inc/2011/02/bill_gates_talks_about_teacher.html

 

Laptops and Learning

Can laptop computers put the “C” (for constructionism) in Learning?
Published in the October 1998 issue of Curriculum Administrator

© 1998 – Gary S. Stager

“…Only inertia and prejudice, not economics or lack of good educational ideas stand in the way of providing every child in the world with the kinds of experience of which we have tried to give you some glimpses. If every child were to be given access to a computer, computers would be cheap enough for every child to be given access to a computer.” Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon (1971)

In 1989, Methodist Ladies’ College (MLC) in Melbourne, Australia embarked on a still unparalleled learning adventure. Eighteen years after Solomon and Papert’s prediction this school made a commitment to personal computing and constructionism. The unifying principle was that every child in the school (from grades 5-12) would own a personal laptop computer on which they could work at school, at home, and across the curriculum with a belief that their ideas and work were being stored and manipulated on their own personal computer. Ownership of the laptop computer would reinforce ownership of the knowledge constructed with it. The personal computer is a vehicle for building something tangible outside of your head – one of the tenets of constructionism. By 1994, 2,000 MLC teachers and students had a personal laptop computer. This school, like most serious workplaces now has a computer ration of more than one computer per worker (teacher & student). Today, approximately 50,000 Australian school children have their own laptop. More and more American schools are embracing laptops as well.

Personal Computing – Personal Learning

Until recently, the notion of the PC and personal computing has escaped schools. Computer labs, special furniture and computer literacy curricula have been designed to make efficient use of scarce public resources. The potential benefits of using a word processor to write, edit and publish are rarely realized when access to the computer is limited and artificially scheduled. Laptops provide a personal space for creating, exploring, and collecting one’s own ideas, work, and knowledge in a more fluid manner. Pioneering schools like MLC adopted laptops for the following reasons:

The laptop is flexible, portable, personal and powerful
Students and teachers may use the computer whenever and wherever they need to. The laptop is a personal laboratory for intellectual exploration and creative expression. Learning extends beyond the walls and hours of the school.

The laptop helps to professionalize teachers
Teachers equipped with professional tools view themselves more professionally. Computers are much more likely to be integrated into classroom practice when every student has one.

Provocative models of learning will emerge
Teachers need to be reacquainted with the art of learning before they are able to create rich supportive learning environments for their students. The computer allows different ways of thinking, knowing and expressing ones own ideas to emerge. The continuous collection of learning stories serves as a catalyst for rethinking the nature of teaching and learning.

Gets schools out of the computer business
Laptops are a cost-effective alternative to building computer labs, buying special furniture and installing costly wiring. Students keep laptops for an average of three years, a turnover rate rarely achieved by schools. Built-in modems provide students with net access outside of school. The school can focus resources on projection devices, high-quality peripherals and professional development.

Since my work with the world’s first two “laptop schools” in 1990, I’ve helped dozens of similar schools (public and private) around the world make sense of teaching and learning in environments with ubiquitous computing. My own experience and research by others has observed the following outcomes for students and teachers.

Learner Outcomes

  • Students take enormous pride in their work.
  • Individual and group creativity flourishes.
  • Multiple intelligences and ways of knowing are in ample evidence.
  • Connections between subject areas become routine.
  • Learning is more social.
  • Work is more authentic, personal & often transcends the assignment.
  • Social interactions tend to me more work-related.
  • Students become more naturally collaborative and less competitive.
  • Students develop complex cooperative learning strategies.
  • Kids gain benefit from learning alongside of teachers.
  • Learning does not end when the bell rings or even when the assignment is due.

Teacher Outcomes

  • The school’s commitment to laptops convinces teachers that computers are not a fad. Every teacher is responsible for use.
  • Teachers reacquaint themselves with the joy and challenge of learning something new.
  • Teachers experience new ways of thinking, learning and expressing one’s knowledge.
  • Teachers become more collaborative with colleagues and students.
  • Authentic opportunities to learn with/from students emerge.
  • Sense of professionalism and self-esteem are elevated.
  • Thoughtful discussions about the nature of learning and the purpose of school become routine and sometimes passionate.
  • Teachers have ability to collaborate with teachers around the world.
  • New scheduling, curriculum and assessment structures emerge.

 

“I believe that every American child ought to be living in the 21st century… This is why I like laptops – you can take them home. I m not very impressed with computers that schools have chained to desks. I m very impressed when kids have their own computers because they are liberated from a failed bureaucracy …

You can’t do any single thing and solve the problem. You have to change the incentives; you’ve got to restructure the interface between human beings. If you start redesigning a learning system rather than an educational bureaucracy, if you have incentives for kids to learn, and if you have 24-hour-a-day, 7-day a week free standing opportunities for learning, you’re going to make a bigger breakthrough than the current bureaucracy. The current bureaucracy is a dying institution.” – U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich (Wired Magazine, August 1995)

When Seymour Papert and Newt Gingrich are on the same side of an issue, it is hard to imagine an opposing view. The fact that computers are smaller, cheaper and more powerful has had a tremendous impact on society. Soon that impact will be realized by schools. Laptop schools are clearly on the right side of history and will benefit from the experience of being ahead of trend.

Much has been said recently about the virtues of anytime anywhere learning. Laptops certainly can deliver on that promise. Integrated productivity packages may be used to write, manipulate data and publish across the curriculum. However, the power of personal computing as a potential force for learning and as a catalyst for school reform transcends the traditional view of using computers to “do work.” I encourage school leaders considering an investment in laptops to dream big dreams and conceive of ways that universal computing can help realize new opportunities for intellectual development and creative expression.

There’s chatter from time-to-time within the edtech community about the lack of women in prominent roles. Yet, some of the most important pioneers in the field are ignored, overlooked or marginalized by the very same educators seeking representation and role models.

If Seymour Papert is the “father of educational computing,” then Dr. Cynthia Solomon is its mother. Cynthia was one of the three primary inventors of the Logo programming language for children and she introduced many of the metaphors used to teach programming to children. She is the author of one of the field’s seminal books, Computer Environments for Children: A Reflection on Theories of Learning and Education. How many of you have read this book first published in 1986?

Nearly 50 years ago, armed with a history degree from Harvard, Cynthia took a job as Dr. Marvin Minsky’s secretary because she wanted to learn how to program computers at a time when that wasn’t an option for young women. A few years later, she, Wally Feurzig & Seymour Papert created Logo and started the educational computing revolution. Watch the recent interview in which Cynthia & Wally recount the birth of Logo.

Wally Feurzig, Cynthia Solomon, Gary Stager

Cynthia Solomon is also the co-author of Designing Multimedia Environments for Children (with Allison Druin) and Logoworks: Challenging Programs in Logo by Cynthia Solomon, Margaret Minsky and Brian Harvey. She most recently put the full text of  Computer Environments for Children: A Reflection on Theories of Learning and Education and Logoworks… on the Web for free.

Ken Kahn, Seymour Papert, Cynthia Solomon & a kid at Logosium '99

We go way back

In 1985, I traveled to MIT for the first time to attend the Logo ’85 international conference. I was 22 years old and had no academic credentials. Memory suggests that the instant I stepped out of my cab, Cynthia Solomon and a handful of other great scholars and educators said, “Hey kid, come to dinner with us.” I’ve been lucky enough to have Cynthia Solomon as a friend, colleague and mentor ever since.

My annual summer institute, Constructing Modern Knowledge, would be unimaginable without Cynthia on the faculty. She returns to CMK 2011 this July 11-14th for the fourth time in four years.

Cynthia Solomon (right) teaches at CMK 2010

There is still room for additional registrants at this year’s Constructing Modern Knowledge institute! Register today!

Contemporary discussions of educational technology seem consumed with data management, total cost of ownership, testing and everything but student learning. It may be worth taking some time to reflect on our current practice and think about what’s possible. Are we doing all we can to use computers to empower students and change classroom practice?

Want to know how your school or district’s computer use measures up? Read Twenty Things to Do with a Computer, by my friends Cynthia Solomon & Seymour Papert. (Here is a scan of a journal version of the same text with photos)

This groundbreaking work was published in 1971. How does your school practice compare against such “ancient” predictions?

 

I was a pretty crummy student. My math and science grades were below average. Junior and senior high school were excruciating experiences made tolerable by my love of computer programming and fantastic music teachers. *

By the time I got to college, I took Algebra every time I needed to satisfy a math requirement and understanding as little as during my previous attempts. School often made me feel stupid, yet I also realized at a very young age that school was a cosmic farce I would somehow overcome.

Against that backdrop it’s difficult to imagine that the first time I ever spoke at a conference was at MIT. The occasion was Logo ’85 – The International Logo Conference. (Back then, edtech conferences had no exhibit hall and were held at places like MIT)

When this twenty-two year-old halfway through my 7 ½ year undergraduate studies, exited a taxi on the MIT campus, a group of people greeted me with, “Come on. Join us for dinner!” One of my dinner companions was Dr. Cynthia Solomon, now an irreplaceable member of the Constructing Modern Knowledge faculty.

Cynthia Solomon is a giant in our field despite her lack of recognition and absence from the lists of important edtech folks. That’s a real shame, especially when women and minorities are so underrepresented in our field. I am honored to have known Cynthia for twenty-five years and am deeply indebted to her for her participation in Constructing Modern Knowledge for the third consecutive year.

Cynthia Solomon at CMK 2008

Cynthia Solomon Teaching at CMK 2009

So, who is Cynthia Solomon. She’s a computer scientist, educator and the inventor of the Logo programming language for children. That’s right, Cynthia Solomon, Wally Feurzig and Seymour Papert are responsible for creating Logo back in 1968. For the next two decades, Cynthia was engaged in much of the foundational research on children constructing knowledge with computers.

Check out the paper, Twenty Things to Do with a Computer, that Cynthia and Seymour published in 1971. How does what your school does with computers thirty-nine years later measure up?

Long associated with the MIT Artificial Intelligence and Media Labs, Dr. Solomon went on to lead the Atari Cambridge Research Laboratory in the 1980s. Alan Kay led the Atari Lab on the West Coast. (Check out the amazing historic videos she has assembled from that period) After that she was a founder of Logo Computer Systems, Inc. and earned a doctorate in education from Harvard. Until just a few years ago, Cynthia was a full-time school computer teacher.

Solomon’s doctoral dissertation is the basis for the seminal book, Computer Environments for Children: A Reflection on Theories of Learning and Education. If you haven’t read it, you should. She is also coauthor with Allison Druin of the book, Designing Multimedia Environments for Children.

In the late eighties I organized a distinguished speakers series for NJ school leaders and Cynthia Solomon was the first person I hired. Since then we’ve worked together with the MIT Media Lab Future of Learning Goup in Mexico City and at the One Laptop Per Child Foundation.

One of life’s great gifts is having the privilege to meet and get to know extraordinarily smart and talented folks like Cynthia Solomon. What a pleasure it was to watch Cynthia, Deborah Meier and Lella Gandini discuss David Hawkins at last year’s CMK.

Through Cynthia, I’ve met people like Marvin Minsky (who led fireside chats the past two CMKs) and Stephen Wolfram. Cynthia seems to know all of the smartest scientists and mathematicians of the past half-century. Now, participants in Constructing Modern Knowledge get to know HER.

My greatest joy comes from creating opportunities for educators to learn from and interact with smart, talented and innovative people. That’s why Cynthia Solomon is part of the remarkable Constructing Modern Knowledge faculty and why you should attend.


The Constructing Modern Knowledge faculty also includes Deborah Meier, Alfie Kohn, Dr. James Loewen, Peter Reynolds, Briann Silverman, John Stetson, Sylvia Martinez & Dr. Gary Stager.

Constructing Modern Knowledge 2010

* My Ph.D. in science and mathematics education is the best revenge.