One of the most remarkable achievements of American democracy was its provision of free universal compulsory education for all its children and young people. No society had ever committed itself to universal education. The movement to get our children out of the fields and factories led every state by 1918 to set a minimum school leaving age ranging from 16 to 18. . That meant that publically supported high schools had to be available to all communities.

It also meant that schools had to develop ways of serving the full range of differences in language, culture, experiential background , values, goals and ability  among the children coming to our schools . In earlier times the goals of general education were little more than the minimal three r’s with secondary education only to prepare the elite for higher education. To serve all pupils well, new institutions with new curricula had to evolve: schools needed a broad and variable curriculum to serve the all of the nation’s youth including the waves of  young immigrants. 

Much thought went into this curriculum. John Dewey said we could no longer make the students adjust to the school; we had to make the school fit the learners. We needed to prepare all learners for full participation in a democratic society, and also to accept difference, to start where the learners were and carry them as far as they were capable of going. One answer was the comprehensive high school. The central idea was that a single school could serve everyone in a community by offering varied curricula with many choices and options. That was particularly important in small and medium sized towns that could only support a single high school; but it was also important in the large cities. By having all young people in the same school, students could learn to participate in a diverse society. Schools could serve the college bound but they could also provide interesting and challenging sequences for those who would enter the work force when they left school.

The civil rights period extended this concept to eliminate racially segregated schools. New  laws required inclusion of the full range of handicapped and special populations so that the schools were really serving all young people in the public schools of  the community.

It wasn’t a perfect system but it worked well to keep virtually all young people in school, to educate them to a reasonable level, and to provide a unifying experience for new and native born citizens. 

Now, however, there are strong pressures on state and federal levels to move to a one size fits all narrow curriculum. Choices, even for those college bound, have been largely eliminated and every student is required to complete the courses formerly required for those seeking college admission. Advanced math and science courses are required for all that were designed originally for those planning to follow college majors in math and science. And in many states all students have to pass the same tests at the same level to even get a high school diploma.

Ironically, as other developed and developing nations are moving toward universal education and a comprehensive secondary curricula, we ‘re driving pupils out of schools that are no longer willing or able to adjust to their needs and goals. 

On the national level, the punitive No Child Left Behind law is requiring that schools not only narrow the curriculum but that all pupils reach the same high level of achievement previously only reached by the top 10-20 percent. Virtually every school and school district will be labeled as failing by 2014 according to several state studies because they can’t reach these impossible goals.

Our nation needs good mathematicians and scientists. But more than that it needs informed citizens with a broad education who can participate in a democratic society. In an increasingly diverse society we need schools that can adjust to differences among learners.  For that we need to bring back the comprehensive high school.

Nearly a decade ago, The Huffington Post published an article I wrote, Wanna be a School Reformer? You Better do Your Homework! Today, all the cool kids are getting “FutureReady®!”

Whenever school leaders suggest that they want to improve the educational experiences offered students, if only they knew how, I do two things.

  1. Wish the education community could find a cure for amnesia
  2. Tell them to swing by my place. I’ve got a thousand books on how to improve education written with authority, clarity, and specificity by generations of gifted education leaders.

The best way to be “FutureReady®!” is to be well-versed in the education literature (not get-rich quick books found in airport gift-shops en route to school discipline conferences) and recognize that every problem in education has been solved before.

If you are a classroom teacher, parent, or school board member, I humbly recommend this assortment of books, suitable for whole faculty book groups (PK-12).

School leaders should step away from the TED Talks and dig into some of the books recommended below. Your students will thank you!

Wanna be a School Reformer? You Better do Your Homework!

Originally appeared in The Huffington Post on 10/19/2010

Shouldn’t people bold enough to call themselves “school reformers” be familiar with some of the literature on the subject?

Most of the school leaders who signed last weekend’s completely discredited manifesto,” are unqualified to lead major urban school districts. Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein are not qualified to be a substitute teacher in their respective school districts. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan could not coach basketball in the Chicago Public Schools with his lack of credentials. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that they advocate schemes like Teach for America sending unprepared teachers into the toughest classrooms armed with a missionary zeal and programmed to believe they are there to rescue children from the incompetent teachers with whom they need to work. In public education today, unqualified is the new qualified.

The celebration of inexperience and lack of preparation is particularly disconcerting when it comes to education policy. When you allow billionaires, ideologues, pop singers and movie viewers to define reform, you get Reform™.

Reform™ narrowly defines school improvement as children chanting, endless standardized testing preparation, teacher bashing and charter-based obedience schools who treat other people’s children in ways that the rich folks behind Reform™ would never tolerate for children they love.

If that were not bad enough, Reform™ advances a myth that there is only one way to create productive contexts for learning. It ignores the alternative models, expertise and school improvement literature all around us. Public education is too important to society to allow the ignorant to define the terms of debate. Great educators stand on the shoulders of giants and confront educational challenges with knowledge, passion and intensity when afforded the freedom to do so. There are a great many of us who know how to amplify the enormous potential for children, even if we are ignored by Oprah or NBC News.

Reading is important for children and adults alike. Therefore, I challenged myself to assemble an essential (admittedly subjective) reading list on school reform. The following books are appropriate for parents, teachers, administrators, politicians and plain old citizens committed to the ideal of sustaining a joyful, excellent and democratic public education for every child.

In A Schoolmaster of the Great City: A Progressive Education Pioneer’s Vision for Urban Schools, school teacher and principal Angelo Patri identifies and solves every problem confronting public education. This feat is all the more remarkable when you learn that the book was published in 1917!

Recently deceased Yale psychologist Dr. Seymour Sarason published forty books on a wide range of education issues well into his eighties. A good place to start is The Skeptical Visionary: A Seymour Sarason Reader. You have to admire a guy who published a book with the title, The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform: Can We Change Course Before It’s Too Late, twenty years ago! Books written in the 1990s, And What do YOU Mean by Learning, Political Leadership and Educational Failure and Charter Schools: Another Flawed Educational Reform? remain quite timely and instructive.

No serious citizen or educator concerned with the future of education can afford to ignore the role of technology in learning. Jean Piaet’s protegé, Seymour Papert, began writing about the potential of computers to amplify human potential in the mid-1960s. His view is a great deal more humane and productive than using computers to quiz students in preparation for standardized tests. All of Papert’s books and papers are worth reading, but I suggest you start with The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.

Want to see what sustainable scaleable school reform looks like where children are treated as competent? The Big Picture: Education Is Everyone’s Business by Dennis Littky with Samantha Grabelle describes urban high schools with small classes, consistent student teacher relationships and an educational program based on apprenticeship. Students don’t go to “school” on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They engage in internship experiences in the community in any field that interests them. The other days of the week, the curriculum is based on whatever the students need to learn to enhance their internships. This is not vocational. It prepares students for university or any other choice they make. The Big Picture model has spread across the United States with impressive results.

The biography of Big Picture Schools co-founder Dennis Littky, Doc: The Story Of Dennis Littky And His Fight For A Better School, by Susan Kammeraad-Campbell may be the first school reform thriller. The book chronicles how Littky transformed a failing school and was wrongfully fired the second political winds changed. Anyone interested in “reforming” public education would be well advised to read this exciting page-turner.

MacArthur Genius Deborah Meier has forgotten more about effective teaching and urban school reform than today’s entire generation of “reformers” ever knew. Meier is often considered the mother of the small school movement and her work as the founder of the Central Park East Schools and Mission Hill in Boston remain influential inspiration for parents and educators committed to the preparation of learners with the habits of mind required for a healthy democracy. Her book, In Schools We Trust: Creating Communities of Learning in an Era of Testing and Standardization, is a masterpiece sharing the wisdom developed over more than a half century of teaching and school leadership. You should also read Meier’s weekly online discussion with Diane Ravitch, the Bridging Differences blog.

The Schools our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” is but one of the many terrific books by Alfie Kohn in which he challenges conventional wisdom on sacrosanct topics like homework, grades, standardized testing and rewards with clarity and evidence. His books are fearless and make you think. His articles are collected at Alfiekohn.com. Alfie’s small book, The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools should be on the kitchen table of every parent and teacher. If you’re tired of reading, you may watch two terrific Kohn lectures on the DVD, No Grades + No Homework = Better Learning.

Dr. Theodore Sizer was a school principal, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and unofficial leader of the high school reform movement over the past twenty-five years. His intellect, calm demeanor and practicality led to the creation of the Coalition of Essential Schools and a template by which any secondary school could improve from within. The first book in his “Horace trilogy,” Horace’s Compromise, tells the story of American high schools, warts and all, through the eyes of a fictional English teacher, Horace Smith. This book and the two that follow share Horace’s epiphanies about the shortcoming of American high schools, their strengths and how he and his colleagues can make their school better. The organization Sizer founded, The Coalition of Essential Schools, continues to inspire such local reform efforts one school at a time.

National Book Award-winning author, educator and civil rights activist has been giving voice to the poorest children in our nation and the injustice they face since the 1960s. All of Kozol’s books are equal-parts profound, infuriating and inspirational, but the tender and beautifully written, Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope, reminds us why we should care about public education.

Herbert Kohl has shared his insights as a teacher and teacher educator in dozens of brilliant books. His recent anthology, The Herb Kohl Reader: Awakening the Heart of Teaching, should whet your appetite for reading many more of his books.

There is no more fierce or tireless critic of the higher tougher meaner standards and accountability movement than Susan Ohanian. The book she co-authored with Kathy Emery, Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? engages in the old-fashioned “follow the money” journalism we keep waiting for from news organizations. This book will help you understand how we got to reform being defined and advanced by billionaire bullies.

Right before he died last year, respected scholar, Gerald Bracey published, Education Hell: Rhetoric vs. Reality – Transforming the Fire Consuming America’s Schools. This book disembowels many of the premises and data used to justify the high-stakes accountability rhetoric and school reform strategies currently being advanced. It’s a must read!

Not With Our Kids You Don’t! Ten Strategies to Save Our Schools by Juanita Doyon is a short must-read book for parents tired of their schools being turned into little more than Dickensian test-prep sweatshops. The book was written by a fed-up mom, turned activist from Washington who has upended her state’s political establishment in defense of the sort of high quality education Americans came to expect before No Child Left Behind.

October 2019 two-day seminars with Will Richardson in DC, NJ, & Boston!


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


Future Ready Schools® is a project of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

I’ve never been good at ice-breakers or getting-to-know-you games. If I am being paid to teach, whether it be children or adults, that’s my focus. I never worry about classroom management because I never enter a classroom thinking I need to manage it. “Hi, I’m Gary. We’ve got stuff to do!”

I take seriously the Reggio Emilia inspired notion that the primary responsibility of a teacher is to be a researcher – one who makes private thinking public and invisible thinking visible. Teachers should work* to understand the thinking of each student and identify what they can do in order to prepare the learning environment for the next intellectual development.

During my educator workshops around the world I often find that the best engineers are preschool teachers, the best mathematicians teach P.E., and the most natural programmers teach 5th grade (or vice versa?).  I have certainly found plenty of veteran teachers to be much more sophisticated technology users than their younger peers. Starting the workshop with preconceived notions of who the participants are or what they think they know only narrows the possibilities for serendipity and exceeding expectations.

This is the time of year when teachers meet with teachers of the next grade level to discuss the students they are about to receive. Perhaps this common practice is counterproductive. A student’s “file” can be a life sentence. Why be prejudiced about a student  before you meet her? Why not start every class with fresh eyes, an open mind, and open heart? Ask yourself, “How do I make this the best seven hours or forty-three minutes of a kid’s life?”


Footnote:

It's a lot less like work than it about caring for each student or getting to know them on a collegial level.


Marvin Minsky & Gary Stager

One great joy of my life has been getting to know and work with so many of my heroes/sheroes. Even greater satisfaction comes from sharing those people with my fellow educators, via books, presentations, and the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute.

Over dinner thirty years ago, one of my mentors, Dan Watt dropped some wisdom on me when he said, “writing is hard.” Writing is hard. I find sitting down to write is even harder. The reward of writing is your work being read by others, especially when readers report thinking differently as a result. Even the “hate mail” I received as a magazine columnist and editor made the agony of writing worthwhile.

While proud of many things I have written, three pieces stand out as enormous honors. Being asked by the science journal of record, Nature, to author the obituary of my friend and mentor, Dr. Seymour Papert, was a difficult challenge and great privilege. Learning later that the great Alan Kay recommended me for the assignment took my breath away. I will remain forever grateful for his confidence in my ability to eulogize our mutual friend in such an august journal.

On two other occasions, I have been invited to contribute to books by my heroes. A few years ago, the prolific progressive author and educator, Herb Kohl, asked me to write a response piece to the great musician, David Amram, for the book, The Muses Go to School: Inspiring Stories About the Importance of Arts in Education. My fellow contributors include Bill T. Jones, Bill Ayers, Whoopi Goldberg, Deborah Meier, Diane Ravitch, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Lisa Delpit, Maxine Greene, and others. Many readers may be unaware of my music studies and the fact that my career began as a public school arts advocate. Sharing anything, let alone a book, with the remarkable Herbert Kohl remains a source of enormous pride. This is an important book that should receive greater attention.

I first met Artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, in the late 1980s. I cannot say that I spent a great deal of time with him over the subsequent decades, but anyone who ever encountered Marvin can testify to the impact that I had on them, perhaps down to the molecular level. The fact that Marvin agreed to spend time leading a fireside chat with any interested educator at the first eight Constructing Modern Knowledge institutes continues to blow my mind. I will forever cherish his wit, wisdom, friendship, and generosity.

Inventive Minds: Marvin Minsky on Education is a brand new book based on essays by Dr. Marvin Minsky, one of the great scientists, inventors, and intellectuals of the past century. Our mutual friend, Dr. Cynthia Solomon, a hugely important figure in her own right, edited a text in which important essays by Minsky were assembled and responded to by an amazing collection of Marvin’s friends. One of Marvin’s proteges, Xiao Xiao, illustrated the book. The contributors to this book include:

  • Co-inventor of the Logo programming language, Cynthia Solomon
  • Father of the personal computer, Alan Kay
  • Legendary computer science professor, author, and pioneer of the Open Courseware movement, Hal Abelson
  • Former Director the MIT Media Laboratory, Walter Bender
  • Artificial intelligence pioneer and MIT professor, Patrick Henry Winston
  • Software engineer, inventor, and executive, Brian Silverman
  • Software engineer, Mike Travers
  • Haptics engineer and scientist, Margaret Minsky
  • Me

I can’t speak for my contribution, but am confident that Inventive Minds will stimulate a great deal of thought and dialogue among you and your colleagues. Buy the book and enjoy some great summer reading!


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

I recently received interview questions by a cub reporter in the heartland. Paradoxically, the nature of the questions made answering a challenge. Here’s my attempt.

How would you define STEM education?

Quite literally, STEM is an acronym meaning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. To the extent that there is anything new to be found in STEM, it is a recognition that the nature and process of both science and mathematics have changed dramatically outside of school and that educational institutions may wish to reflect such advances. The T in “Technology” is unfortunate since it really should mean computing – programming computers to create models and solve problems otherwise impossible. The “T” certainly doesn’t refer to a Thermos or Pez dispenser, arguably both less protean technologies.

The E for “Engineering” is also a new addition to the curriculum. Young children are natural engineers. They enjoy an intellectual relationship with materials, people, and even ideas. They tinker and explore. They test hypotheses and push limits. Engineering is the concrete manifestation of theoretical principles. You test a hypothesis or try something. If it works, you’re inspired to test a larger theory, ask a deeper question, decorate, refine, or improve upon your innovation. If you are unsuccessful, one must engage in the intellectually powerful process of debugging. Traditionally, the only people permitted to have engineering experiences were the students who compliantly succeeded over twelve or fourteen years of abstraction. Engineering is the dessert you enjoy after your asparagus diet of school math and science.

The addition of intensely personal and playful pursuits like computing and engineering democratized science and mathematics learning while affording children the chance to do real math and science. Students should be scientists and mathematicians, rather than be taught math or science, especially when that curricular content is increasingly irrelevant, inauthentic, and noxious.

Would you say STEM education is important? If so, why?

If the motivation for STEM is some misplaced fantasy about job preparation or STEM is merely a buzzword designed to offer an illusion of progress, than STEM is not important. If we want scientifically and numerate students, some of whom might fall in love with making sense of the universe, while recognizing the changing nature of knowledge, than STEM has intense value.

If our goals are no more ambitious than raising stupid test scores, then kids should have rich engineering and technology experiences in order to be more active learners.

Dr. Stephen Wolfram, arguably the world’s greatest living mathematical and scientist, says that for any intellectual domain, X, there is now or soon will be a branch of that discipline called, “Computational X.” That new branch of the discipline represents the vanguard of that field, the most interesting ideas, and likely the better paying jobs as well.

Should schools have STEM programs? How are they beneficial to students?

If schools are going to bother teaching what they call math and science than they should embrace the new ideas, content, and processes of STEM. It is critical to engage students in authentic experiences since Jean Piaget taught us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.”

Schools should stop using the term “program.” Program implies a high probability of failure and therefore obscures the urgency to create a new intellectual diet for children. To the extent that one program siphons resources from another, than STEM is far less important than adequate funding for art and music education.

What does the future of STEM education look like to you?

Schools need to prepare students to solve problems that their teachers never anticipated. In 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the world’s least radical organization, stated that 50% of all mathematics has been invented since WW II. Let’s assume that that percentage is even higher thirty years late. None of that new mathematics made possible by computing and the social science’s demand for number can be found anywhere near a K-12 classroom and that is a sin.

New technology and materials afford us with the opportunity to not only teach kids the things we’ve always wanted them to know (regardless of merit), but for children to learn and do in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago.

The better question to ask is, “Who could possibly be against STEM?”


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

I once heard former President Clinton say, “every problem in education has been solved somewhere.” Educators stand on the shoulders of giants and should be fluent in the literature of their chosen field.  We should be reading all of the time, but summer is definitely an opportunity to “catch-up.”

Regrettably too many “summer reading lists for educators” are better suited for those concerned with get-rich quick schemes than enriching the lives of children. Case-in-point, the President of the National Association of Independent Schools published “What to Read this Summer,” a list containing not a single book about teaching, learning, or even educational leadership. Over the past few years, I offered a canon for those interested in educational leadership and a large collection of suggested books for creative educators and parents.

When I suggested that everyone employed at my most recent school read at least one book over the summer, the principal suggested I provide options. Therefore, I chose a selection of books that would appeal to teachers of different grade levels and interests, but support and inspire the school’s desire to be more progressive, creative, child-centered, authentic, and project-based.

Gandini, Lella et al… (2015) In the Spirit of the Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia, Second Edition.
Aimed at early childhood education, but equally applicable at any grade level.  Illustrates how to honor the “hundred languages of children.”

 

 

 


Little, Tom and Katherine Ellison. (2015) Loving Learning: How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools
A spectacular case made for progressive education in the face of the nonsense masquerading as school “reform” these days.

 

 

 


Littky, Dennis. (2004) The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s Business.
Aimed at secondary education, but with powerful ideas applicable at any level. Students spend 40% each week in authentic internship settings and the remaining school time is focused on developing skills for the internship. This may be the best book written about high school reform in decades. 


Papert, Seymour. (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.
A seminal book that situates the maker movement and coding in a long progressive tradition. This is arguably the most important education book of the past quarter century.  Papert worked with Piaget, co-invented Logo, and is the major force behind educational computing, robotics, and the Maker Movement.


Perkins, David. (2010) Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform Education.
A clear and concise book on how to teach in a learner-centered fashion by a leader at Harvard’s Project Zero. 

 


Tunstall, Tricia. (2013) Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music.
“One of the finest books about teaching and learning I’ve read in the past decade.” (Gary Stager) Tells the story of how hundreds of thousands of students in Venezuela are taught to play classical music at a high level. LA Philharmonic Conductor Gustavo Dudamel is a graduate of “El Sistema.” The lessons in this book are applicable across all subject areas. 

Check out the CMK Press collection of books on learning-by-making by educators for educators!

Hard fun at CMK 2016!

Constructing Modern Knowledge, celebrates its 10th anniversary this July 11-14, and represents the best work of my life. Before anyone was discussing the maker movement in schools, Constructing Modern Knowledge created a four-day oasis where educators could learn-by-doing through the construction of personally meaningful projects with digital and traditional materials. From the start, CMK was never a conference. It was an institute. From its inception, CMK was designed to build a bridge between the best principles of progressive education and the constructive tools of modernity.

Wearable computing

Since our focus was the Piagetian ideal that knowledge results from experience, educators attending Constructing Modern Knowledge, when not lost in project development, engage in formal and informal conversations with some of the greatest innovators and thinkers of our age.

Dont’ miss out! Register today!

CMK Speakers are not recruited for being cute or witty, but because they were experts with a body of profound work. CMK began with guest speakers Alfie Kohn, Peter Reynolds, and digital STEM pioneer Robert Tinker. Until his death, Marvin Minsky, arguably one of the most important scientists of the past century, led eight annual fireside chats with educators at CMK. The great mathematician, scientist, and software developer Stephen Wolfram “subbed” for Professor Minsky last year.

Two of the greatest jazz musicians in history led a masterclass at CMK. Years before his daily Blog changed the media landscape and he was featured in a commercial at the start of the Academy Awards, Casey Neistat was a guest speaker at CMK 2012. Civil rights icon Jonathan Kozol spent time at CMK. Alfie Kohn and Deborah Meier engaged in a spirited conversation, as did Eleanor Duckworth and Deborah Meier. Best-selling historian James Loewen spoke at CMK nearly a decade before Southern States began dismantling confederate statues. Wonder Kid and CMK 2015 speaker, Cam Perron, is about to be honored for his extraordinary contributions to baseball. MIT Media Lab faculty have generously hosted us for eight years. Check out the list of the other amazing people who have spoken at CMK.

YouTube filmmaker and media sensation Casey Neistat spoke at CMK 2012!

One of the great joys of my life has been sharing my heroes and friends with educators. Our faculty consists of brilliant women and men who invented the technology that justified computers in classrooms. Cynthia Solomon, the last surviving member of the three people responsible for inventing the Logo programming language for kids has been with us since the beginning. Everything I know about teaching teachers I learned from Dan and Molly Watt, who abandon retirement each summer to help educators reflect upon their CMK learning adventures. Brian Silverman has had a hand in every strain of Logo, Scratch, and LEGO robotics sets for the past forty years joins us each summer. The Aussies who invented 1:1 computing have been on our faculty as have the co-inventor of the MaKey MaKey and Super-Awesome Sylvia. Sadly, we recently lost the remarkable Edith Ackermann, an elegant and profound learning theorist who worked with Piaget, Papert, and Von Glasserfeld. Edith was part of CMK for three years and touched the hearts, minds, and souls of countless educators. CMK introduced the profound work of Reggio Emilia to a new community through the participation of Lella Gandini, Lillian Katz, and the magnificent Carla Rinaldi.

Legendary author & civil rights icon Jonathan Kozol explores a CMK project

Nothing moves me more deeply than the stories of how CMK participants had coffee or went for a walk with a genius they only had access to because of our institute.

Two of the greatest learning theorists in history, Edith Ackermann & Carla Rinaldi share a laugh at CMK 2016

CMK welcomes educators of all ability levels, from newbies to tech-savvy power users, but everyone learns together from and with each other. Annually, teachers at CMK create amazing projects that might have earned them a TED talk two years or engineering Ph.D. five years ago. For example, educators at CMK 2016 created their own version of Pokemon Go a mere week after the actual software was released to great media fanfare.

Most of all, year-after-year, Constructing Modern Knowledge demonstrates that:

  • Teachers are competent
  • Knowledge is a consequence of experience
  • Learning best occurs in the absence of instruction
  • Technology supercharges learning and makes us more human, creative, expressive
  • Education can and should be non-coercive
  • Assessment is at best adjacent to learning
  • Constructionism is effective
  • Things need not be as they seem
  • It is possible to create rich productive contexts for learning without fancy architecture, bells, furniture, curriculum, tests….
  • Educators are capable of innovation and invention with bleeding edge tools
  • Learning is natural, playful, intense, whimsical, and deadly serious
  • Age segregation, tracking, and even discrete disciplines are unnecessary and perhaps counterproductive
  • A learning environment should be filled with a great variety of objects-to-think with
  • Collaboration is great as long as its natural, interdependent, flexible, mutually beneficial, and desired
  • Computer programming is the new liberal art

Although a labor of love, Constructing Modern Knowledge is a hell of a lot of work and relies on the generosity of countless colleagues. I created CMK when no other institution or organization would do so and have run ten institutes with zero funding, grants, sponsors, or vendors. I packed up the first CMK and caught a plane two hours after the 2008 institute ended. Last year, eight of us spent two and a half days packing up the 60 or so cases of books, tools, materials, and technology we ship across the USA before and after each institute.

A few of the 60+ cases that become the CMK learning environment

Our hearts swell with pride from how CMK alumni are leading schools and professional learning events all over the world. Through their efforts, the impact of Constructing Modern Knowledge will be felt by children for decades to come.

If you have read this far, I hope you will understand that 2017 may be the last Constructing Modern Knowledge. Please consider joining us.

Since CMK believes that anything a learner needs should be within reach, we build a library.

Whether or not the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute ends in 2017, we will continue to offer innovative learning adventures for educators around the world. Check out the CMK Futures web site to learn about bringing our expertise to your school, community, corporation, or conference.

Bungling the World’s Easiest Sale

Forty years ago Seymour Papert began talking about a computer for every learner. In 1968, Alan Kay sketched the first personal computer as a tool for children. In 1989, Steve Costa began teaching entire classes of fifth grade girls each equipped with a laptop. In 1994, Cobb County Congressman Newt Gingrich advocated a laptop per student. Nearly a decade ago hundreds of kids at Harlem’s Mott Hall schools began taking laptops to and from school. Several years ago Maine passed a law providing a laptop for every 7th and 8th grader. Books like Bob Johnstone’s exhaustive history, “Never Mind the Laptops,” have been published and countless research studies have been concluded.

And yet in 2005, the notion of a laptop for every student appears to be more controversial than ever. In fact, the proverbial laptop has hit the fan across the country. Shame on us!

The Cobb County, Georgia schools were well on their way to purchasing 63,000 iBooks for teachers and students when a cranky politician sued and got a judge to order an end to the initiative. The cause of the judicial intervention was an accusation of fraud. Voters approved a tax levy designed to “upgrade obsolete computer workstations,” yet the judge seems to think that purchasing laptops does not represent an upgrade. This is a distinction without difference.

My experience suggests that parents eagerly embrace sincere efforts to revolutionize education.

The Atlanta Journal and Constitution and Marietta Daily Journal have featured hysterical reports on the laptop initiative for months. They smell blood and are going after district personnel for among other crimes, having been involved in the planning process and funding teacher professional development. The local press was outraged that Cobb County decided to purchase Apple iBooks instead of the Dell laptops that Henrico County, Virginia just bought for $50 less per unit.

If your educational goals consist of students making four slide PowerPoint slides about frogs to disinterested audiences or using the web to find five interesting facts about Spiro Agnew, then sure, go to Wal-Mart and buy the cheapest laptops. You might even ask kids to bring their PSPs to class and use those instead.

Fiscal prudence with the public purse is noble, but it is irresponsible to make computer purchases based solely on price. Not all computers are created equally. A public agency should be able to make the case that the bundled iLife creativity suite and operating system that Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal says, “leaves Windows XP in the dust,” is worth a few extra dollars per unit. A legitimate educational rationale should be able to be made for purchasing Macs if a district so chooses.

Henrico County, VA made a great contribution to educational computing five years ago when they found a way to purchase more than 20,000 iBooks without raising taxes. Since then their missteps and public pronouncements have made it more difficult for other schools to embrace 1:1 computing. As the Governor of Maine fought for his laptop legislation, Henrico was in the news for inappropriate web use and an overreaction to isolated student mischief. This led Maine and other jurisdictions to accept crippled operating systems that calm the public’s fears, but create unintended consequences down the road. Disabling iTunes means no Tupac, but it also means no Martin Luther King, no Garageband music composition, no podcasting and no videoconferences with NASA scientists.

Just as Cobb County’s laptop plans were hitting their stride, Henrico struck again. Their school board loudly “dumped” Apple and signed a contract with Dell for their next round of laptops. Henrico officials explained that iBooks don’t have Microsoft Office on them. That’s funny. Lots of other schools run Office on their iBooks? Why are school districts issuing press releases announcing their purchases? Why does anyone care? I have no idea which brand of school bus or tater-tots Henrico purchases, why are laptops different?

To complete the Apple exorcism, Henrico decided to sell the dreaded iBooks to the public for $50 each. This led to what is now known as the “iRiot” in which 17 people were trampled and four were hospitalized. CNN reported a woman soiled herself and a guy used a folding chair to beat off other shoppers. Rather than apologize, a district official suggested that the event had “entertainment value.”

Whatever it says on your business card, you’re in sales.

When the legislature opposed his laptop plan, Maine Governor King traveled the state leading creative laptop-based history lessons and generating popular support. He spoke of the democratization of knowledge and opportunity. When the Governor proposed that Maine become “the learning state” with a reenergized economy, he demanded that politicians support the initiative.

Whatever level of public support Cobb County’s plans enjoyed, it was insufficient to ward off the opposition. The public was offered incremental gains in teacher use of computers, a modest gain in students looking up stuff on the Internet at least once a day from 20-50% and a promise that 60% of students will occasionally use brainstorming software. Textbook content would be delivered via the laptop. Woo hoo! I’ve got goose bumps! Where do I send my check?

Worst of all, the district lacked the courage to say that every student would be expected to use the laptop. How can someone opt-out of using the principal instrument for intellectual work, knowledge acquisition and creative expression? Can a student opt-out of using books? Express a moral objection to lectures?

Amidst the unambitious benchmarks and narrow vision, the district’s FAQ just makes stuff up, such as in the case of literature instruction, “software and Internet access can provide access to nearly every published title.”

I’ve worked with many 1:1 schools over the past fifteen years and have found it remarkably easy to justify the investment to auditoriums full of parents. It’s an easy sale when you offer a vision of children learning in unprecedented ways. I share examples of at-risk students increasing attendance and engaging in sophisticated projects, sophisticated concepts being learned in ways impossible just a few years ago, enhanced creativity, more work-related social interactions and learning 24/7, not just between the bells. Images of children participating in the construction of modern knowledge as mathematicians, composers, artists, engineers, poets and scientists appeal to the hopes and dreams of parents.

We need to do a much better job of selling the dream of what computers can bring to the learning process, but first we need to create some compelling models for citizens to embrace. We’ll have plenty of time to do so while we clean up the public relations mess created by the recent ham-fisted laptop implementations.

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An old friend and colleague got a new job at an education marketing/communication company where he believed they wanted actual content. He asked me to share some views on educational leadership. So, I took the time to formulate responses for his august publication. Sadly, it appears that the new publication seeks to be a low-rent version of EdSurge, focused on aggregating links and pro-vendor happy talk. Therefore, I humbly share the unpublished interview with my dozen[1] of loyal social media readers.

Question: What do educators need to know today?

  1. Shameless self-promotion is the key to all good things in education.
    Sixteen years of politics have successfully eroded the public’s confidence in public education. Every school needs a Minister of Propaganda to inform the community of the wonderful things happening in classrooms. If the adults feel incapable of performing this role, find a fifteen year-old student to deputize.
  2. We stand on the shoulders of giants.
    I once heard President Clinton say, “Every problem in education has been solved somewhere.” Put down the Twitter machine, read some books, attend conferences, and learn from great educators.
  3. I want to live in a world where kids wake up at three AM clamoring to get back to school to work on a project they care about and where teachers ask themselves, “How do I make this the best seven hours of a kid’s life?”
  4. There is nothing to be gained from reading “get rich quick” books sold at airport gift shops.
    Thomas Friedman, Frank Bruni, Steven Covey, Michael Horn, Clayton Christensen, and Dan Pink are no match for Herbert Kohl, John Dewey, Loris Malaguzzi, Seymour Papert, Alfie Kohn, Jonathan Kozol, or Frank Smith. A suggested reading list may be found at http://cmkfutures.com/reading/
  5. The current fascination with “Big Data Analytics” and “AI” will result in classrooms none of you will send your kids to.
    Rather than wait for a dystopian future, there are things we can do today to make schools better places for learning.
  6. We need to fight amnesia.
    Since “No Child Left Behind,” mountains of wisdom and evidence have been erased from our professional practice. For example, the debate over approaches to literacy ranges all of the way from punitive phonics to painful phonics. Sound commonsense practices, such as whole language, are no longer even debated.
  7. Removing agency from teachers makes them less effective, not more.
  8. It is time for urgency.
    As Jonathan Kozol says, “You are only 7 once.” Microcomputers have now been in schools for close to two generations. It is high time we stop debating the merits of modernity.
  9. We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.
    We can afford a multimedia laptop and cello for every child.
  10. If every school had a strong instrumental music program, there might not be a President Trump.
  11. Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions.” – Deborah Meier
  12. Pearson is not your friend.

Question: When did a deep knowledge of teaching practices and education philosophy become a hindrance?

Around 1985, a couple of years after A Nation at Risk, legislatures around the world declared, “Teaching ain’t nothin’,” and replaced rich and varied teacher education curricula with Animal Control and Curriculum Delivery. The art of teaching and self-contained interdisciplinary elementary classrooms were replaced with departmentalized, mechanical efficiency schemes.

Unqualified is the new qualified. Appointing unqualified folks, like Joel Klein or Betsy DeVos, to leadership positions signals a corrosive message throughout the school system – educators can not be trusted to lead schools.

It is impossible to overstate the impact of the anti-intellectual assault on public education led by Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton Family, and Teach for America. It is preposterous to argue against continuing education for educators. Why isn’t there Hedgefund Trader for America or Surgeon for America?

Question: What are the top three things Gary Stager University would teach prospective teachers and principals?

  1. Teaching and learning are not the same thing. Learning is a verb and not the direct result of having been taught. Learning is natural. Children do not need to be tricked or coerced into learning when engaged in meaningful pursuits. Whenever faced with a classroom decision, educators should rely on the mantra, “Less Us, More Them.” Students always profit when maximum agency is shifted to them.
  2. The “project” should be the smallest unit of concern to educators. Piaget teaches us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” Experiences are best supported through interesting learner-centerered projects.
  3. Classroom management is only necessary when you go into a classroom thinking you need to manage it. We need to lower the level of antagonism between adults and children in order to create productive contexts for learning. If your temperament and worldview are better suited to being a prison guard, you have made a serious vocational error.

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This time of year, the “news” is full of heartwarming back-to-school tales of good citizens buying school supplies for needy classrooms. Pop-music footnotes, Katy Perry and Pharrell the Plagiarist have both engaged in selfless acts of corporate shilling philanthropy shameless publicity to help students get school supplies. Donors Choose has created a social media platform where teachers can beg crowdfund for crayons and Kleenex. (Read my article about Donors Choose)

Ain’t it swell that school supply supplying is bigger and better than ever?

HELL NO!

I will not help teachers commit suicide by supporting these feel good attempts to turn basic public school funding into an act of charity. Each time educators normalize deprivation and substitute charity as social justice withheld, they will find themselves with fewer classroom resources. Such actions also spurn greater public school privatization and devaluing of teachers.

Q:      You know who should pay for school supplies?

A:      Tax payers!

Perhaps corporations and pop stars could begin paying their fair share of taxes so that Katy Perry isn’t forced to enrich Bain Capital’s Mitt Romney’s Staples.

But, but, but, but, but… teachers spend a fortune on classroom supplies that their students need. Right, I get it. I do too. I spent $1,000 the first month I taught 4th grade. That’s not the point.

First of all, teachers should be able to deduct those costs off their income taxes. Second, public schools should be adequately funded. Third, teachers should stop contributing to consumerism and ask what their kids really need.

Yes, I’m going there. Every time a teacher requires 4 of these, 3 of those… a specific brand of pen, or an official notebook they contribute to needless family strife and exacerbate inequality.

When you require a Trapper Keeper (the Volvo of notebooks) or ban the Trapper Keeper (the three-hole punched incubus), you do not “teach organizational skills” as much as you teach compliance, reinforce prehistoric educational practices, and place a needless financial strain on your students’ families. It’s a freakin’ notebook for God’s sake. If a teacher is concerned with enforcing whether a student writes on one of both sides of a paper, or cares about the brand or color of their notebook, they should seek professional help.

Parents should stop worrying about this nonsense and expect public schools to be adequately funded and stocked with necessary supples – as is required by law and practice.

We are the richest nation in the history of the world. We can afford a cello and laptop for every child. It is a sin to beg for pencils.

So, let’s review. I salute the folks who wish to contribute to public education. Volunteering, contributing to organizations like Access Books, bring a performance to school, or pay for things kids might love are a much better idea. Every time a school wastes a second fundraising for basic supplies, a billionaire replaces a teacher with a YouTube video