In Australia…

Laptop Schools Lead the Way in Professional Development

As published in Educational Leadership – October 1995
By Gary S.Stager

Gary S. Stager is a teacher educator and adjunct professor at Pepperdine University. He has spent the past ten years working with a dozen Australian schools in which every student and teacher has a laptop computer.

Educational reform is too often equated with plugging students into anything that happens to plug in. Technology-rich Australian schools lead the way in helping teachers use technology thoughtfully.

Many educators believe that technology alone will lead to innovation and restructuring in schools. Unfortunately, they either do not include staff development in the equation, or they provide programs that do little more than ensure that teachers are able to unjam the printer or use one piece of canned instructional software.

Having developed a number of professional development models for a dozen schools in Australia and more in the United States, I believe computer-related staff development should immerse teachers in meaningful, educationally relevant projects. These activities should encourage teachers to reflect on powerful ideas and share their educational visions in order to create a culture of learning for their students. In brief, teachers must be able to connect their computer experience to constructive student use of computers.

Australian Leadership

In 1989, Methodist Ladies’ College, an independent pre-K-12 school with 2,400 students, embarked on an unparalleled learning adventure. At that time, the Melbourne school made a commitment to personal computing, LogoWriter, and constructivism. The governing principle was that all students, grades 5-12, should own a personal notebook computer on which they could work at school, at home, and across the curriculum. Ownership of the notebook computer would reinforce ownership of the knowledge constructed with it. Approximately 2,000 Methodist Ladies’ College students now have a personal notebook computer.

The school made personal computing part of its commitment to creating a nurturing learning culture. It ensured that teachers were supported in their own learning by catering to a wide range of learning styles, experiences, and interests. All involved agreed that personal computing was a powerful idea, one more important than the computers themselves. What students actually did with the computers was of paramount importance. LogoWriter was the schools’s primary software of choice. (MicroWorlds is now used.)

Dozens of Australian schools (called “laptop schools”) are now in various stages of following the lead of Methodist Ladies’ College in computing and are now using some of the professional development models created during my five years of work there.

Staff Development Innovations

Many schools find the task of getting a handful of teachers to use computers at even a superficial level daunting. The laptop schools expect their teachers not only to be comfortable with 30 notebook computers in their classroom, but also to participate actively in the reinvention of their school. In such progressive schools, staff development does not mean pouring information into teachers’ heads or training them in a few technical skills. Staff development means helping teachers fearlessly dream, explore, and invent new educational experiences for their students.

I have employed three staff development strategies – in-classroom collaboration, “slumber parties,” and build-a-book workshopsæin many laptop schools. All three model constructivism by providing meaningful contexts for learning, emphasizing collaborative problem solving and personal expression, and placing the learner (in this case the teacher) at the center of the learning experience. Each school values and respects the professionalism of the teachers by acknowledging the knowledge, skills, and experience each teacher possesses.

In-Classroom Collaboration

Several Australian laptop schools have used the in-classroom model I developed working in the Scarsdale, New York, and Wayne, New Jersey, public schools. This collaborative form of teacher development places the trainer in the teacher’s classroom to observe, evaluate, answer questions, and model imaginative ways in which the technology might be used. The collaborative spirit and enthusiasm engendered by the trainer motivates the teacher, who feels more comfortable taking risks when a colleague is there to help. Implementation is more viable because this professional development occurs on the teacher’s turf and during school hours.

Residential “Slumber Parties”

This approach allows teachers to leave the pressures of school and home behind for a few days to improve their computing skills in a carefully constructed environment designed to foster opportunities for peer collaboration, self-expression, and personal reflection, and to encourage a renewed enthusiasm for learning. These workshops have taken place at hotels, training centers, a monastery with lodging facilities, even at a school. These learner-centered workshops stress action, not rhetoric. The workshop leader serves as a catalyst, and creates opportunities for participants to connect personal reflections to their teaching. These connections are powerful when they come from the teacher’s own experienceæmuch like the types of learning opportunities we desire for students. The slumber parties use three key activities:

  1. Project brainstorming. Before we are even sure that the teachers know how to turn on their computers, we ask them to identify projects they wish to undertake during the workshop. The projects may be collaborative, personal, or curriculum-related, and they need not relate to the subjects they teach.
  2. Powerful ideas. Each day begins with a discussion of a relevant education issue or philosophical concern. Topics might include the history of Logo and your role in technological innovation (what the school has already accomplished); process approaches to learning; or personal learning stories. The topic for the final day, “What does this have to do with school?” is designed to help teachers reflect on their workshop experiences and make connections to their role as teachers.
  3. Problem solving off the deep end. One or two problem-solving activities are planned to demonstrate how teachers can solve complex open-ended problems through collaborative effort. These exercises help the participants to understand that not every problem has only one correct answer and that some problems may have no answers.

Slumber parties are offered on a regular basis. Because the primary goal of the workshops is to support a learning community, teachers and administrators are encouraged to participate in more than one. Participants gain appreciation for the power and expressive potential of LogoWriter. And, they are reminded that their colleagues are creative, imaginative learners like themselves.

Build-a-Book Residential Workshops

The origin for these workshops is based in the book, Build-a-Book Geometry. The book chronicles the author’s experience as a high school geometry teacher who spent an entire year encouraging his students to write their own geometry text through discovery, discussion, debate, and experimentation. It provides an exciting model for taking what teams of students know about a concept and then giving them challenges built upon their understanding or misunderstanding of it. The teacher then uses the responses to elicit a set of issues to which another team will respond, and so on. Throughout the process, each team keeps careful notes of hypotheses, processes, and conclusions, then shares these notes with the other teams during the process of writing the class book.

Healy’s ideas inspired a format that addresses confusing topics through discussion, problem solving, collaboration, and journal writing. Before the workshop, I ask each participant to identify three LogoWriter programming issues that they do not understand or that they need to have clarified. Small teams of teachers spend hours answering the questions and explaining numerous programming (and often mathematical) issues to one another. This exercise stresses the most important component of cooperative learningæinterdependence. When each group has answered all questions to its collective satisfaction, each teacher meets with a member of another team to explain what his or her group has accomplished.

Participants explore emerging questions through projectsædesigned by the leaderæthat are intended to use increasingly sophisticated skills. For example, teachers discuss the concept of programming elegance as they review student projects, and they keep careful notes of their programming processes, questions, and discoveries. These collective notes are included in the class book (disk). This disk becomes a valuable personal reference that the teachers can use in their own classrooms.

Teacher assessments of the residential workshops have been extremely positive. And, the quality of the experience makes the cost quite low when compared with the cost of providing an ongoing series of two-hour after-school workshops. Schools routinely spend much more time teaching concepts in bite-size chunks, while leaving real learning to chance.

Suggestions for Success

Following are some guidelines for successful technology implementation.

  • Work with the living.
    Because schools have limited technological and teacher development resources, those that do exist should be allocated prudently. If energy and resources are focused on creating a few successful models of classroom computing each year, the enthusiasm among teachers will be infectious. Of course, the selection of models must be broad enough to engage teachers of differing backgrounds and subject areas.
  • Eliminate obstacles.
    It should not be surprising that teachers without sufficient access to computer technology don’t embrace its use. How many workshops must a teacher attend to get a new printer ribbon? How long must a teacher wait to get enough lab time for his or her students to work on a meaningful project? The idea that schools should not buy computers before the teachers know what to do with them must be discarded.
  • Stay on message.
    Administrators must articulate a clear philosophy regarding how the new technology is to be used and how the culture of the school is likely to change. Communication between teachers and administrators must be honest, risk-free, and comfortable. Administrators must constantly clarify the curricular content and traditions the school values, as well as specify the outdated methodology and content that is to be eliminated. Teachers must be confident that their administrators will support them through the transitional periods.
  • Work on the teacher’s turf.
    Those responsible for staff development should be skilled in classroom implementation and should work alongside the teacher to create models of constructive computer use. It is important for teachers to see what students can do; this is difficult to accomplish in a brief workshop at the end of a long workday.
  • Plan off-site institutes.
    Schools must ensure that teachers understand the concepts of collaborative problem solving, cooperative learning, and constructivism. Accordingly, teachers must have the opportunity to leave behind the pressures of family and school for several days in order to experience the art of learning with their colleagues. Off-site residential “whole learning” workshops can have a profoundly positive effect on a large number of teachers in a short period of time.
  • Provide adequate resources.
    Nothing dooms the use of technology in the classroom more effectively than lack of support. Administrators can support teacher efforts by providing and maintaining the technology requested and by providing access to a working printer and a supply of blank disks.
  • Avoid software du jour.
    Many educators feel considerable pressure to constantly find something new to do with their computers. Unfortunately, this newness is equated with amassing more and more software. It is reckless and expensive to jump on every software bandwagon. The use of narrow, skill-specific software provides little benefit to students. Choose an open-ended environment, such as MicroWorlds, in which students can express themselves in many ways that may also converge with the curriculum.
  • Practice what you preach.
    Staff development experiences should be engaging, interdisciplinary, collaborative, heterogeneous, and models of constructivist learning.
  • Celebrate initiative.
    Recognize teachers who have made a demonstrated commitment to educational computing. Free them from some duties so they can assist colleagues in their classrooms; encourage them to lead workshops; and give them access to additional hardware.
  • Offer in-school sabbaticals.
    Provide innovative teachers with the in-school time and the resources necessary to develop curriculum and to conduct action research.
  • Share learning stories.
    Encourage teachers to reflect on significant personal learning experiences. Encourage them to share these experiences with their colleagues and to discuss the relationship between their own learning and their classroom practices. Formal action research projects and informal get-togethers are both effective. Teachers routinely relate that their most beneficial professional development experience is the opportunity to talk with peers.
  • Help teachers purchase technology.
    Schools should help fund 50-80 percent of a teacher’s purchase of a personal computer. This support demonstrates to teachers a shared commitment to educational progress. Partial funding gives teachers the flexibility to purchase the right computer configuration. Consider offering an annual stipend for upgrades and peripherals.
  • Cast a wide net.
    No one approach to staff development works for all teachers. Provide a combination of traditional workshops, in-classroom collaborations, mentoring, conferences, and whole-learning residential workshops from which teachers can choose.

Although many administrators dream of providing only a handful of computers in their schools, the reality of what is happening in schools across Australia requires serious consideration. Universal computing is in our future, and staff development programs must be geared to that fact. Modern staff development must help teachers not only embrace the technology, but also anticipate the classroom change that will accompany widespread use.

We must recognize that the only constant on which we can depend is the teacher. Our schools will only be as good as the least professional teacher. Staff development must enhance professionalism and empower teachers to improve the lives of their students. Our children deserve no less.

In 1990, I had the great opportunity to lead professional development at the world’s first “laptop” schools. Australia’s Methodist Ladies’ College and Coombabah State Primary School were the first schools anywhere to embrace 1:1 computing. MLC is a large independent school that committed to 1:1 computing in 1989. Coombabah is a public school and often overlooked for its place in edtech history. The efforts of the teachers at both schools changed the world and I am enormously proud to have played a major role in that effort.

In the early 1990s, I spent months working at MLC, and then numerous other schools eager to embrace 1:1 and the constructionist principles demonstrated by this pioneering school. In 1993, the MLC faculty and principal wrote a book to share their expertise, philosophy and wisdom with educators in other schools. I hope you find the nearly twenty year-old learning stories, recommendations and tips useful to you. I especially call your attention to the audacity of embracing 1:1 computing more than 20 years ago and the fact that laptops were a way of bringing Papertian constructionism to life.

The book, Reflections of a Learning Community: Views on the Introduction of Laptops at Mlc by Methodist Ladies’ College is long out-of-print and sadly removed from the Web where it resided for several years. As a public service to researchers, educators and historians (and with the help of the Wayback Machine) I am able to share the complete book here. Check out how hip the title of this book is for 1993, since “learning community” has just became all the rage twenty years later!

With any luck (and lots of effort) I will soon be able to publish the first doctoral dissertation evaluating the efficacy of 1:1 computing, originally published in 1992!

You should also read Bob Johnstone’s history of educational computing up to and including the early days of innovation at MLC, Never Mind the Laptops: Kids, Computers, and the Transformation of Learning!

The chapters marked by an * indicate that the text describes some of my specific work at MLC.

Reflections of a Learning Community:

Views on the Introduction of Laptops at MLC


Section one: Computing at MLC

Section two Professional Development at MLC

Section 3 : Appendix

Grasso, I., & Fallshaw, M. (Eds.) (1993). Reflections of a learning community: Views on the Introduction of Laptops at Mlc by Methodist Ladies’ College. Melbourne: Methodist Ladies’ College.

Note: I wrote this article in 1993, three years after I began at working at the world’s first two laptop schools, including Melbourne, Australia’s Methodist Ladies’ College. By 1993, I had worked in dozens of Aussie “laptop schools.” It would still be several years before American schools began to embrace 1:1 computing.

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

It took eighteen years since Papert and Solomon published this prediction, but in 1989, Methodist Ladies’ College (MLC) in Melbourne, Australia embarked on a learning adventure still unparalleled throughout the world. At that time the school made a commitment to personal computing, LogoWriter, and constructionism. The unifying factor would be that every child in the school (from grades 5-12) would own a personal notebook 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 notebook 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 teachers and students will have a personal notebook computer. [at MLC alone]

Personal computing in schools not only challenges the status quo of computers in schools, but creates new and profound opportunities for the teaching staff at MLC. Schools often take computers so seriously (ie… hiring special computer teachers, scheduling times at which students may use a computer) that they trivialize their potential as personal objects to think with. Computers are ubiquitous and personal throughout society, just not in schools.

The challenge of getting 150 teachers to embrace not only the technology, but the classroom change that would accompany widespread and continuous LogoWriter use was enormous. Thus far the school’s efforts have paid off in a more positive approach to the art of learning on the part of students and teachers. MLC has provided their staff with varied and numerous opportunities lo grow and learn as professionals.

A Critical Choice

The laptop initiative inspired by Liddy Nevile and MLC Principal, David Loader, was never viewed as a traditional educational research experiment where neither success or failure mattered much. Personal computing was part of the school’s commitment to creating a nurturing learning culture. Steps were taken to ensure that teachers were supported in their own learning by catering to a wide range of learning styles, experiences, and interests. It was agreed that personal computing was a powerful idea more important than the computers themselves. What was done with the computers was of paramount importance. LogoWriter was MLC’s primary software of choice.

Although educational change is considered to occur at a geologically slow pace, the MLC community (parents, teachers, students, administrators) has immersed itself in some areas of profound growth in just a few short years. The introduction of large numbers of personal computers has served as one catalyst for this “intellectual growth spurt.” MLC teachers routinely engage each other in thoughtful discussions of learning, teaching, and the nature of school. While similar conversations undoubtedly occurred prior to the introduction of personal computing, today’s discussions are enriched by personal learning experience and reflections on the learning of their students in this computer-rich environment. Traditional curricula, pedagogy, and assessment are constantly being challenged. One teacher recently suggested that mathematics no longer be taught. Such an idea would have been unthinkable in a conservative church school ten years ago.

Teachers in many schools rightfully view the computer with suspicion as just one more mandated fad or as a threat to their professionalism as large Orwellian teaching systems are unloaded on the market place. The national average of students to computers in the United States is nineteen to one. The State of Florida recently announced that it will spend $17 million (US) in 1992-93 to rewire schools in order to make way for computers.’ $17 million could buy at least 20,000 students their own notebook computer. Schools routinely spend a fortune building fortresses, called computer labs complete with special furniture.2

The personal computing experience at MLC has been different. In less than four years, 1600 children and teachers have personal computers and approximately 40 teachers in one school have made LogoWriter part of their repertoire. Some schools spend more time deciding on a spelling workbook. Given the changes that have accompanied classroom computer use, this initiative would have been cheap at twice the price. 3

Challenging Our Notions of School

The act of asking every parent to purchase a notebook computer for their child3 was not nearly as courageous or challenging as the way in which MLC has chosen to use computers. The quaint idea of drilling discrete facts into kids’ heads with computer-assisted instruction was dismissed and so was the metaphor of the “computer as tool.” The popular tool metaphor is a based on the business paradigm of increasing productivity and efficiency. I would argue that there is seldom an occasion in school when the goal needs to be increasing a student’s efficiency or productivity. The discussion of educational tools is an odd phenomenon. One would be hard pressed to find another example of the tool metaphor used historically in education literature. Critics would suggest that the tool metaphor is the result of commercial forces.

MLC has chosen to guide its thinking about personal computing by the ideas of “constructionism” and by viewing the computer as “material.” Constructionism is the idea of Jean Piaget and extended by Seymour Papert to mean that learning is active and occurs when an individual finds herself in a meaningful context for making connections between fragments of knowledge, the present situation, and past experiences. The person constructs her own knowledge by assembling personally significant mental models. Therefore you learn in a vibrant social context in which individuals have the opportunity to share ideas, collaborate, make things and have meaningful experiences. After the first year of using laptops, the seventh and eighth grade humanities teachers asked for History, English, Geography and Religious Education to be taught in an interdisciplinary three-period block. This scheduling modification allowed for students to engage in substantive projects.

The computer as material metaphor is based on the belief that children and teachers are naturally talented at making things. The computer should be seen as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression – an integral part of the learning process. In this context a gifted computer-using teacher is not one who can recite a reference manual, but one who can heat-up a body of content when it comes in contact with the interests and experiences of the child. This teacher recognizes when it might be appropriate to involve the computer in the learning process and allows the student to mold this personal computer space into a personal expression of the subject matter.

Staff Development

MLC’s visionary principal, David Loader, once said, “We have not yet discovered truth.” This idea is at the core of MLC’s approach to staff development. While every teacher is expected to use technology in appropriate ways, their learning styles are respected and catered for via a range of professional learning opportunities. In-classroom consultants such as myself, visiting experts, conference participation, peer collaboration, university courses, courses offered by the school’s community education department, and residential whole-learning experiences all accompany the common afterschool workshop. Teachers have identified that sharing ideas with colleagues and the residential events have been their most rewarding staff development experiences.

I have led four multi-day residential inservices at which teachers learn about learning, Logo, themselves, and each other in a playful collegial environment. The quality of the experience for most teachers and successful learning outcomes of the “Logo slumber parties” makes the cost of sending fifteen teachers to the Hilton for three days inexpensive when compared with the cost of a never-ending series of ineffective two-hour afterschool workshops from here to eternity. MLC also recognizes two outstanding LogoWriter-using teachers by reducing their number of classes and asking them to assist other teachers in their classrooms. It is not uncommon for one teacher interested in sharing a recent insight to voluntarily offer a workshop for colleagues.

Teachers at MLC were introduced to computers by being challenged to reflect on their own learning while solving problems of personal significance in the software environment, LogoWriter – the software the students would be using. I would argue that educational progress occurs when a teacher is able lo see how the particular innovation benefits a group of learners. These teachers come to respect the learning processes of their students by experiencing the same sort of challenges and joy. The teacher and learner in such a culture are often one-and-the-­same. Other teachers find the enthusiasm and pride of their colleagues infectious. MLC is using LogoWriter to help free the learner to express herself in unlimited ways – not bound by the limits of the curriculum or artificial (school) boundaries between subject areas.

LogoWriter (and its new successor, MicroWorlds) are the result of twenty-five years worth of research by Seymour Papert and his colleagues at MIT. Papert has been committed to extending the ideas of Piaget by designing open-ended software construction environments in which learners could express themselves in undetermined ways and make connections between personal interests, experiences, and knowledge.

Hundreds of thousands of teachers around the world use Logo in their classrooms.

Students at MLC have used LogoWriter across the curriculum in numerous and varied ways. A student designing a hieroglyphic word processor, a longitudinal rain data grapher, or Olympic games simulation must come in conlact with many mathematical concepts including randomness, decimals, percent, sequencing, cartesian coordinate geometry, functions, visual representations of data, linear measurement and orientation, while focusing on a history topic. An aspect of ancient Egyptian civilization was brought lo life by first drawing Egyptian urns and then designing pots that portrayed contemporary Australian life. Their teacher remarked at how traditional pencil and paper artistic skills no longer created an inequity in personal expression. A sixth grade girl was free to explore the concept of orbiting planets by designing a visual race between the planets on the screen. The more the student projects blur the distinctions between subject areas, the more the curriculum is rethought. Fantastic examples of student work abound.

Two particular projects by MLC students warrant attention because of the ways in which they challenge us to rethink the organization of schools. Seventh grade students were assigned the task of designing a LogoWriter program to solve a linear equation, such as 3X + 4 = 16. While such a task is typically too advanced for twelve-year-old students, the girls at MLC have gained much mathematical experience through their computer use and are therefore capable of solving such problems. One girl went well beyond the assignment of solving the equation by not only writing a computer program to solve similar equations – she created an elaborate cartoon of a girl walking into her bedroom, complaining to her mother about her difficult math homework, and then a magical computer appeared and showed the user how to use the equation solving program. The student extended the typical dry algebra assignment with great joy by demonstrating her creative art and communications abilities. Another student’s linear equation solving program included the playing of a complete Mozart sonata. Every note of the sonata had to be programmed in a way the computer understands. The mathematical experiences of both students were greatly enhanced because their computing environment allowed them to express their mathematical knowledge in their own voice. There is great hope for schools when student’s interests and experiences are encouraged to converge with the teacher’s curriculum.

Another example 1 wish to share illuminates how teachers have been forced to reflect on their role in the learning process and take action based on observations of student learning in the computer-rich environment. The French teacher at MLC was provided with a French language version of LogoWriter. It was originally thought that their students might find it interesting to “speak” to the computer in another language. One French teacher was intrigued by the idea, but did not know anything about LogoWriter. She felt comfortable asking a math teacher for help ­this type of professional collaboration is now commonplace at MLC.

The math department offered some eighth grade girls the opportunity to do their math assignments, not only on the computer, but in French. Students in several classes were intrigued by the challenge. A math teacher asked his colleague how to say a few phrases in French so that he could leave comments in French on their students’ projects. This teacher’s demonstrable respect for his student’s work and colleague’s subject area is exceptional by contemporary standards.

A few weeks passed before the French teacher visited the math class. The teacher was not only pleased to observe the students learning mathematics, computer programming, and French, but was ecstatic to find that the girls spontaneously speaking French. This veteran teacher later reported that she had never witnessed students of this age actually speaking French outside of a French class lesson. In the LogoWriter environment language is active ­the computer does something if you combine words in the right or wrong way and you receive immediate feedback.

This experience has caused a small group of teachers from a variety of disciplines to propose that the school allow them to create a French immersion class in the junior secondary school. Teachers who have not used much French since university are so excited by the learning of their students that they arc willing to practice the language along­side the students they are teaching. Now, one year-seven class does all of their LogoWriter assignments in French LogoWriter. This sort of professional risk-taking is more common in constructionist environments than in traditional school settings. Risk-taking is an essential element of self-esteem and a critical characteristic of great teachers.

Another language teacher at MLC recently remarked that there seemed lo be much more talk of French LogoWriter use by other subject teachers than in the language department. There may be something important in her observation. Perhaps the language department does not see the use of Logo in their discipline as revolutionary. However, mathematics, science, and humanities teachers are now excited about French!

Challenges for the Future

MLC faces the obvious challenges associated with helping teachers become better Logo programmers keeping the computers functioning. MLC also needs to encourage the collection of “Logo literature” – a canon of exemplary LogoWriter projects that may be deconstructed by other students and become part of the school’s culture. We are also working to provide students with opportunities to create more interactive programs. Most of the LogoWriter projects designed by MLC students have been expository in nature – databases, reports, tutorials. Much has been accomplished using very little LogoWriter. This is both a tribute to the MLC teachers and to LogoWriter itself.

The solutions to challenges, such as the one posed by David Loader, that “schools are not always very good places for children,” or James Britton’s, “schools must be more hospitable lo children’s intentions,” are much less obvious.

There is a belief among many teachers that constructionism, Logo, freedom, respect – whatever you wish to call it – is appropriate only for the students who have demonstrated educational achievement in the traditional ways. These teachers also believe that while they are capable of teaching in a constructive environment, the majority of their colleagues are not. This belief structure leads to depriving many students of potentially rewarding experiences and prevents more teachers from serving their students.

Kids have much more ability and enthusiasm as learners than schools often ask them to exhibit. Most teachers are better than schools ever give them the opportunity to demonstrate. We must create an environment in which teachers will feel secure in creating open-ended learning opportunities for all of their students.

A concrete example of how this phenomenon manifests itself is in the way mathematics and Logo are treated in MLC’s junior secondary school (grades 7-8). The standard syllabus is still followed, without enough concern for the new insights the students have as a result of their Logo-use. A syllabus of conservative teacher-conceived LogoWriter projects is assigned each year and teachers are given solution sheets for the assignments. It is amazing how quickly the solutions given to well-meaning mathematics teachers find their way into the students’ projects. The primary purpose of using LogoWriter in the domain of mathematics is for the learner to confront intellectual obstacles that need to be overcome. Learners need time to develop such strategies. Handing a student a solution sheet prematurely prevents the student from mathematical understanding any deeper than that derived from “full-frontal teaching” and the student is also unlikely to gain any programming fluency. Teachers are often too concerned with covering curriculum, student “success,” and the calendar.

This is understandable. No adult wants to see a child fail, although we create such opportunities with regularity. When a year-seven teacher can’t trust what the year-six teacher does and the year-eight teacher does, they must reinvent the subject each year in a teacher-centered way. The two year seven girls designing a LogoWriter tennis game are exploring many sophisticated mathematical concepts at an appropriate time for them, but a teacher of 30 kids who teaches something called, year-seven mathematics, cannot depend on serendipity. This teacher would feel more confident that all students would learn important knowledge and problem solving strategies if their entire school experience was one that respected tennis video games or student designed software tutorials on how to annoy other people. A school that creates these sorts of personal learning opportunities on a regular and ongoing basis, can depend on students learning most of the important mathematical concepts in a much more meaningful way, perhaps not always in the same sequence. The Western tradition of schools conspires against such meaningful learning.

The greatest enemy of understanding is coverage. As long as you are determined to cover everything, you actually ensure that most kids are not going to understand. You’ve got to take enough time to get kids deeply involved in something so they can think about it in lots of different ways and apply it – not just at school but at home and on the street and so on. (Howard Gardner, 1993)

The entire point of all of the examples I have given is that computers serve best when they allow everything to change. (Seymour Papert, 1993. Page 149)

Teachers are not to blame for this situation. Most work in a repressive environment, mired in archaic traditions, and incapable of the “mega-change” discussed by Papert and underway at MLC. What schools must realize is that instruction leaves much more to chance than construction. We have seen the disappointing result of traditional schooling’s reliance on instruction. The issue is more complex than merely asking, “Can we do any worse?” Logo-using teachers at schools like MLC have “lived” in environments in which students love learning. These professionals know that all children are capable learners. Their insights, ideas, and experiences must be trusted. Their learning stories and those of their students must be shared.

Teachers need to work in an environment that respects their personal insights and encourages routine to derive from their practical experiences. There is a menacing voice in the heads of many teachers that tells them to teach in other ways than they know are successful and rewarding. The pressing question becomes, “What sorts of schools can we design that will make the voice in our head supportive of our posi tive honest experiences as teachers and learners?”

Einstein was quoted as saying, “Education is wasted on youth.” I would like to play with this idea by proposing that, “Schools are wasted on adults.” An honest appraisal of traditional schooling would show how schools have been created to meet the needs of adults: childcare; passing-down traditions and morality; transmitting knowledge deemed valuable by a select group of adults. MLC is working to become a model for schools committed to creating rich environments that respect the learning of students and value the insights of adults.


  1. Electronic Learning Magazine – September, I992
  2. Corporations, such as Apple Computer, must realize that it is possible to do good and to do well simultaneously. It makes a lot more sense to sell 1,000 notebook computers to a school than to sell 10 for a computer lab. During the summer of 1992 Powerbook 100 notebook computers were being liquidated by Apple for less than $800 each. Perhaps hardware manufacturers will wise-up some day and market such low-cost powerful computers to K-12 schools.
  3. Each MLC teacher interested in owning a personal notebook computer received a substantial subsidy from the school in order to purchase a computer. The school decided against fully funding the computer for two reasons. a) The teacher had flexibility to purchase the computer that met his/her specific needs and b) Teachers were being asked to make a personal commitment to personal computing. Each year a $400-$700 stipend has been available to teachers interested in upgrading their hardware or purchasing peripherals.


Brandt, R. (1993), “On Teaching for Understanding: A Conversation with Howard Gardner,” Educational Leadership. April, 1993.

Franz, S. & S. Papert (1988), “Computer as Material: Messing About with Time,” Columbia Teachers College.


James, M. (1993), “Learners and Laptops,” Logo in Our Laps, Melbourne, Australia: MLC (In press)

Loader, D. (1993), “Restructuring an Australian School,” The Computing Teacher. March, 1993.

Loader, D. & L. Nevile (1991), “Educational Computing: Resourcing the Future,” IARTV Occasional Paper.

Jolimont, Australia: September, 1991.

Papert, S. (1993), The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. NY: Basic Books.

Papert, S. (1987), “A Critique of Technocentrism in Thinking About the School of the Future,” Transcription of a speech presented at the Children in an Information Age Conference in Sofia Bulgaria, May 19,1987.

Papert, Seymour (1981), Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. New York: Basic Books.

Solomon, C. & S. Papert (1972) “Twenty Things to Do With a Computer,” Educational Technology.

Hard and Easy
Reflections on my ancient history in 1:1 computing
© 2008-2009 Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.

Note: The following text appears in a slightly edited form in Pamela Livingston’s book, 1-to-1 Learning, Second Edition: Laptop Programs That Work. It’s amazing how much better a piece of writing becomes when you edit it post-publication. (Apologies to Ms. Livingston)

I intend for the publication of this article to signal a renewed commitment to writing new articles about 1:1 computing while also making seminal articles on the topic available in the near future.

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When I led professional development activities in the world’s first two “laptop schools” back in 1990, the most unusual variable was not that Teachers in the early 90s learning with laptopsfifth through seventh graders each had their own truly personal computer when neither I nor any of my colleagues did. The most unique characteristic of these two schools and dozens of others that followed was the way in which those laptops were used. Although it seems like prehistoric times, there were drill and practice programs, “educational” games, collaborative online projects and productivity packages widely available even before the first Gulf War and a few years before the existence of the World Wide Web.

Despite this range of seemingly easier options, the original “laptop schools” embraced computer programming, particularly Seymour Papert’s LogoWriter and its accompanying constructionist philosophy. The schools chose to do something hard with their laptops – something Papert might call, “hard fun.” Then as now, this approach stands in stark contrast to those who embrace computers as productivity enhancers, test score improvers or back-of-the-classroom amusements.

Children circa 1992 learning with laptopsThe laptop would serve as an incubator for powerful ideas – an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression. Since the personal laptop, as expressed by Alan Kay’s 1968 plans for a Dynabook, was itself inspired by observing young children program in Logo, countless schools around the world embraced Logo and its potential. Large international conferences were held. Books were written and millions of copies of Logo were installed. I embraced the Logo philosophy, led hundreds of teacher workshops and even edited a journal dedicated to its implementation. However, at Australia’s Methodist Ladies College in Melbourne and the Coombabah State School in Queensland, something demonstrably different was underway.

I remember returning home from Australia in the early nineties and presenting projects programmed by children in LogoWriter to audiences at educational technology conferences in the United States. One of my heroes, a fantastic longtime Logo-using teacher looked at the projects on display and remarked, “Oh! That’s what it looks like when the kids have time.” The work of children in laptop schools possessed a level of sophistication unparalleled then or today.

Since the early 1980s, many of us believed in the intellectual and creative abilities of students that would be amplified by Logo programming, but2006-laptop-montage4 such goals often remained elusive where there just were not enough computers or time available to realize our aspirations. Students with their own personal laptop computer could now spend the time necessary for the task at hand. Each success would inspire project elaboration or the testing of a larger hypothesis. Errors in thinking or execution required complex debugging strategies.

While the laptop inspired previously reluctant students to become passionate learners perhaps interested in schoolwork for the first time, kids were able to integrate the skills and techniques taught them into personally meaningful projects. Such projects frequently outpaced the imagination of the curriculum or a teacher’s standard expectations. This was not only tolerated, but also embraced as the catalyst for wholesale school reform and innovation.

Not only had the early “laptop schools” invested in computers, they did so in order to disrupt the status quo in a deliberate fashion. MLC Principal David Loader quoted Holt, Dewey and Papert in memos to parents, essentially saying, “We love your children and the tuition that you send us, but frankly our school isn’t good enough.” This was quite a bold statement to share with the community, especially when one of the first two “laptop” schools was a private school dependent on parental investment. Their decision to “go laptop” passed a 27-member board by one vote and cost each parent thousands of dollars for a laptop at a time when few adults owned one.

Seymour Papert & I visit laptop classroom in 2004

Loader and his pioneering colleagues were ready to learn from the laptop experience and make whatever changes in schooling that the experience required. The implementation of laptops was never referred to as a pilot, project, initiative or experiment. There was an expectation that the provision of personal portable mobile multimedia computers for every student would pay educational dividends in excess of their cost and disrupt traditional pedagogical practices.

2006-laptop-montage3Attitudes towards class size changed overnight when 15-30 projects needed to be supported in every class. Within a year, English, History, Geography and Religious Education teachers demanded a three-hour humanities block during which all of the subjects could be integrated via a project approach. Forms of assessment and the curriculum changed. Students working on a humanities project had to engage in sophisticated mathematical thinking and computer science while their teachers observed the need to blur the artificial boundaries between subject areas, plus learned the value of collaboration with peers and students.

Countless professional development opportunities were created. Even architectural plans needed to be revised since students were now mobile in ways never before anticipated. Teachers who were required to pay roughly 25% of the cost of their own laptop, requested that vendors come to school to demonstrate the $5,000 laser printers some purchased with their own funds for use at home. Teachers read books about educational theory and discussed the nature of teaching and learning informally over lunch.

Older teachers nearing retirement, yet confident in their ability, spearheaded the use of laptops and LogoWriter. These veterans were trusted andsometimes the best way to use 30 laptops is to turn 29 off admired by younger colleagues with neither the technical or pedagogical expertise to innovate on their own. Average teachers wrote papers in order to present at conferences and enrolled in graduate school. The status of teachers was elevated where it mattered most – in the heads and hearts of the teachers themselves.

Today, dozens of teachers from the original “laptop schools” are school principals, professors, and corporate presidents around the globe. Expecting a professional to use professional tools enhances their self-image and improves their sense of professionalism!

The early “laptop schools” invested in a wide range of sophisticated professional development strategies that could provide and sustain momentum. Traditional workshops were available in addition to opportunities for school visits and post-graduate study. Veteran teachers were relieved of some teaching duties so they could mentor colleagues in their own classrooms.

Schools employed me sometimes for months at a time, to do whatever I deemed appropriate for improving the quality of the school and I had complete access to principals eager to consider my recommendations. Such willingness to learn, lead and support serendipity has sadly diminished with each passing year. However, in the early nineties I was able to convince multiple schools that the only way their teachers could teach in new ways was for them to learn in new ways. So, on numerous occasions I took dozens of teachers away for what became known as “slumber parties” during which they would learn to learn with computers in exactly the ways we hoped their students would learn – with the same software and personally meaningful project-approach.

If a teacher wished to learn computer mechanics or how to use a particular productivity tool, they could enroll in the school’s community education program, free-of-charge. Such learning opportunities were always on a teacher’s own time and outside of school-based professional development focused on learning. Many teachers apprenticed with me in computer camps offered during school vacations. This benefitted kids and working parents in addition to creating an informal, yet powerful professional development vehicle for a steady supply of teachers.

Successful school leaders sustained progress by continuing to innovate while ever mindful of the need to remind their employees and community to keep on pushing. The best school leaders create rituals to honor and preserve worthy efforts while challenging others to continue growing.


Does Easy Do It?
Today, I speak at many 1:1 events and participate in panel discussions where a colleague will reflexively alert the audience that, “This is hard.” Such warnings seem a precondition before implementing laptops or even accepting the inevitability if 1:1 computing. It has never been a matter of if, but of when.

Our deliberations too often descend into adolescent debates over whether laptops can go home or how many white boards to purchase (my answer = none) or how we will keep kids off the Internet; all the while focusing on the constraints rather than on the affordances of this protean device. The laptop not only helps kids learn what we have always wanted them to know, but allows them to know things that were impossible to know and to do things unimaginable just a few years ago. Sadly, as the technology has become cheaper and more ubiquitous, its use in schools has become more cautious and pedestrian. I rarely encounter the learning renaissance or explosion of classroom creativity I experienced pre-1996. This is not an indictment of the technology, but of schools and a failure of leadership. It is not the technology that has failed, but our imagination and willingness to engage in reflective practice.

Perhaps it is too hard to use laptops in transformative ways in the NCLB era when public schools are being shamed and oppressed by standardized testing while independent schools embrace such draconian practices as a vulgar marketing tool. It seems easier to pretend that the world has not changed or that understanding computer science is irrelevant to nearly every walk of life. Our schools increasingly adopt technology policies that treat teachers and students like imbeciles and felons.

Maybe, it’s all just too hard!

In retrospect, asking parents to spend $3,000 in 1990 per student laptop seems hard. Asking teachers to learn to program computers and teach students to do the same seems hard. Requiring teachers to spend their own money to help purchase a laptop while asking them to challenge all of their basic assumptions and beliefs about the nature of teaching and learning seems hard. Expecting principals to lead, inspire progress and make dramatic change palatable to the community seems difficult.

The crazy thing is that I don’t remember any of the work I did in “laptop schools” as being hard. The work was so exhilarating and the benefits of collaborating with joyful learners and curious eager energized teachers was so rewarding that it all seemed effortless. Easy as pie!

That’s right, setting the stage for the tens of thousands of schools around the world who have since considered or embraced 1:1 computer was easy! Convincing parents to buy their child a laptop was easy. Teaching thousands of children and their teachers to program on floppy-based laptops with monochromatic displays and a megabyte of RAM was easy. Creating productive contexts in which innovation and progress would continue in my absence was easy because the adults saw with their own eyes how children are competent and deserve the richest range of intellectual and creative opportunities imaginable.

Now, if I can just convince a few more adults and policy-makers how easy it really is to change the world!

2006-laptop-montage7©1993-2009 All photos and text – Gary S. Stager