Bungling the World’s Easiest Sale
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.
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 of loyal social media readers.
Question: What do educators need to know today?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?”
- 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/
- 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.
- 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.
- Removing agency from teachers makes them less effective, not more.
- 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.
- We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.
We can afford a multimedia laptop and cello for every child.
- If every school had a strong instrumental music program, there might not be a President Trump.
- “Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions.” – Deborah Meier
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Balance is the Fabreze of education policy. It is a chemical spray designed to mask the stench of a two year-old tuna sandwich found in the minvan with the artificial bouquet of an April rain dancing on a lily pad.
- Balanced literacy got us systemic phonics.
- Balanced math begot Singapore Math worksheets.
- Balanced standards produced The Common Core.
- Balanced policy debates produced No Child Left Behind and Race-to-the-Top
- A balanced approach to educational technology made computer science extinct in schools and has now taught two generations of children to find the space bar in a computer lab-based keyboarding class.
I could go on.
Balance is elusive. It is fake and lazy and cowardly and sad. Balance is embraced by those who don’t know or can’t/won’t articulate what they truly believe. Balance fills the void left by the absence of alternative models and excellence. It is anonymous.
Educators are told that passion should be tempered. Every pedagogical idea is just fine as long as it is “for the children.” We should just do our jobs and not complain about outrageous attacks on our dignity, paycheck, curriculum, working conditions, or the living conditions of the students we serve.
Balance fills the school day with mandates and directives and lots of interruptions that while offering an illusion of options make it impossible for a learner to focus on anything long enough to become good at it.
Balance teaches children that teachers are helpless pawns in a system they don’t control or cannot understand.
Balance is the absentee parent of incrementalism. As educators take “baby steps” towards what they know is right or righteous they lead a long and meandering hike after which the followers cannot remember the original destination.
“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963)
Educators are to remain neutral and seek consensus at all-costs. Balance programs us to find the silver lining in tornados. There MUST be SOMETHING good in what Bill Gates or Sal Khan or any number of a million corporations with ED or MENTUM or ACHIEVE or VATION in their names happen to be peddling.
The laws of the political universe, and education is inherently political, greet each embrace of “balance” as ten steps in a more conservative direction. There is no balance – just weakness.
I urge you to read one of my favorite passages ever written about “balance” in education. It is from a lesser-known classic, On Being a Teacher,” by the great American educator, Jonathan Kozol. Please take a few minutes to read, “Extreme Ideas.”
As far too many American schools become obsessed with time-on-task, achievement, and beating the rest of the world in long division, play, recess, and even socializing over lunch fade into memory. Kids in schools lucky enough to still have art, drama, or music programs often have to wake before dawn to attend “zero period” or stay at school until dark, followed by an obscene quantity of homework. Stress levels are up, childhood obesity increases, school shootings have become commonplace and somehow still, the Dickensian shopkeepers tyrannically shaping education policy wish to extend the school day, lengthen the school year, and speed up the conveyor belt they mistakenly confuse for a learning environment.
Yelling, screaming, running
Turning tree branches into magic wands
Flopping on the ground (“because you’re supposed to”)
Trying on a cape
Wearing funny glasses
Studying a leaf
Cuddling a stuffed stingray
Driving an invisible car
Shouting pow pow pow while waving an imaginary weapon
Tickling a furby
Dressing like a fairy princess
Making new friends
Wrapping a scarf around your friend’s face
Kicking a pal down a slide Shooting hoops
Hissing at classmates
Smooshing a flower into your hand and then licking the resulting pollen
Cleaning up litter
In First Chance to Make a Learning Impression, my friend Will Richardson shares his disappointment with the “back-to-school” packets he just received in anticipation of his children’s next school year. Will explains how the focus of the packet is on everything but learning.
Just for fun, I set out to see how long it would take to find the word “learning” somewhere in the mix. Nothing on the first page, or the second, or the third…by the time I finally found the first instance I had stopped counting. It was a buried line in a letter from the principal explaining that due to NCLB, every teacher has to be “highly qualified” and that “every teacher continues life-long learning through professional development activities.”
Will’s 2013 article reminded me of a similar article I wrote for District Administration Magazine way back in 2004. I recommend reading Will’s article as well.
The back-to-school commercials each summer fill me with dreadful flashbacks of my own days as a student. As a parent, the end of summer is signaled by a last-minute desire to squeeze in a bit more family fun and the arrival of a large ominous envelope from the local high school. The package contains countless documents commanding our immediate attention and signatures in triplicate.
This enormous collection of murdered trees contains countless rules, regulations and a list of innumerable sanctions the school intends to visit upon my child. As if this draconian catalogue of crimes and subsequent punishments were not bad enough, I am then expected to sign the documents, implying that I agree with them.
This recent and disturbing phenomenon leaves me with many unanswered questions. What if I don’t sign the forms? When did the local public school become a gulag? Was there a public meeting in The Hague at which these rules and sanctions were compiled and democratically agreed to? Is this the best way to start a fresh school year? Can I have Johnnie Cochran look over the documents before I affix my signature?
If the school expects parents to sign-off on a list of ways school discipline may be enforced, perhaps I can circulate a list of expectations for how I expect the school to educate my child. It only seems fair.
So here’s my list, in no particular order:
- School to home communications will be proofread and spell-checked
- Teachers will take reasonable steps to maintain expertise in their subject area
- Homework will be purposeful and only assigned when necessary to reinforce a concept, engage in a long-term project or as the result of work not completed in-class
- Children will be encouraged to play
- Classroom libraries will be stocked with interesting books
- Students will not be treated as numbers
- Teachers will discuss current events with their students
- Students will be encouraged to talk about books they read, not just create mobiles and book reports
- School personnel will publish their e-mail addresses and respond to e-mail promptly
- The school district Web site will be updated more often than every five years
- Class sizes will be 20 or lower
- Teachers will attend at least one professional learning event outside of the school district per year
- Teachers will not talk down to children
- Punishment will be viewed as a last resort
- The school will offer rich visual and performing arts opportunities for all students
- Curriculum will endeavor to remain relevant and connected to the world
- Classroom rules will be developed democratically
- There will be formal and informal opportunities for parents to interact with teachers
- The principal will be accessible to students and parents
- Administrators will make an effort to interact with students in positive contexts
- Student diversity will be valued and celebrated
- Cooperation will be valued over competition
- The school will refrain from sorting, tracking, streaming and labeling children
- Students will play a large role in all aspects of the life of the school;
- Authentic forms of assessment will be used
- A modern functioning computer will be available whenever a child needs one
- Teachers will embrace opportunities to learn with and from students
- The school will take teacher input seriously
- Teachers will feel supported and encouraged to take risks
- Effective models of professional development will be designed and include the participation of the principal
- Equal attention and resources will be applied to the arts as to sports
I certainly sized the opportunity to pull no punches. I left no myth behind. Perhaps a few school business administrators will think differently about some of their decisions in the future.
A PDF of the article is linked below. I hope you enjoy the interview and share it widely!
Just returned home from speaking at another large international conference where meaningless clichés filled the air and rolled off of people’s tongues. Aside from being boring, clichés oversimplify complex issues and distract us from making forward progress. Clichés are a tranquilizer that retard our thinking and decision-making. Clichés amplify the superficial and form of a vapor barrier around powerful ideas.
Sometimes, the clichés are not even true. Yet, they still manage to become a community standard.
One particularly pernicious cliché goes something like this.
“We all have so much to learn from our students.”
Variations on this theme include:
“The kids are so much smarter than us.”
“My students know so much more than me.”
“They are the digital natives. We are digital immigrants.”
The motivation behind uttering such banalities is likely positive. It acknowledges that children are competent and encourages adults to learn with them.
However, these clichés suggest a power relationship in which all adults (particularly teachers) are resigned to the role of bumbling TV dad while the kids rule the roost. In education, this often serves as a justification for why teachers irrationally fear computers and modernity or appear to have stopped learning.
The cliché diminishes the value of expertise and effort for adults and young people alike.
Let me state clearly that I have no problem learning from anyone or any experience. I love learning with and from children. Nothing delights me more than when we co-construct some meaning. I just don’t go into classrooms thinking I am dumber than my students. I have experience, expertise, knowledge, wisdom, insights and a better Rolodex than they do.
My old friend Branford Marsalis is widely considered one of the world’s greatest musicians. He is also a very fine educator.
This one-minute clip may surprise you.
I look forward to the discussion…
The following is a paper I wrote for a conference in 2006. The problems I identify have become more acute since. One day, I’ll revisit this work. In the meantime, feel free to share this or comment below. (Hopefully the formatting wasn’t made too terrible during the move to this blog)
Has educational computing jumped the shark?
Gary S. Stager
Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology
Presented at ACEC 2006 – Cairns, Australia – October 2, 2006
Incremental approaches to classroom computer use have been slow to produce significant educational benefits. Criticism of educational computing is often validated by a lack of compelling models created in the absence of vision or adequate leadership. However, this paper departs from critics who suggest that computers should play little or no role in the intellectual lives of children by arguing that the opposite. Computational technology needs to play a much greater role in the learning process and is essential to the sustainability of schools.
Despite the societal shifts resulting from widespread access to computers and the Internet, schools and other educational organizations remain committed to outdated notions of computer literacy instruction. Such efforts, along with the allure of online delivery and assessment, serve to centralize curriculum at the very moment the identical technology could be used to revolutionize the learning process. Individuals once at the forefront of the learning revolution promised by the widespread availability of powerful computational and communications technology now preside over the use of that technology to reinforce the least effective educational practices of the past. This leads inevitably to a lowering of educational standards and a diminution in the learning opportunities available to young people.
This paper is not offered as an exhaustive review of the literature regarding the current state of educational technology use in schools around the world. No one paper could possibly do so. It is intended to stimulate discussion among members of the academic and practitioner community regarding current trends and their possible consequences. The author bases his observations on work as a teacher educator, consultant, teacher, researcher and educational journalist in schools across the United States and Australia, in addition to recent efforts in Canada, Brazil and India. The author speaks at more than a dozen educational technology conferences annually, consults with industry and writes a magazine column read by approximately 100,000 educational leaders each month. These various activities afford the author a rare perspective from which to identify patterns of rhetoric, policy-making and pedagogical practice.
Some of the evidence presented in this paper may strain credulity. However, the practices and products in question all exist. Alfie Kohn said, “In education, satire is obsolete.”[i] The confluence of magical new technology, an increasingly high-stakes educational system and the capitalistic desire to profit from this tension results in strange, but real challenges for schools.
This paper attempts to alert educators, members of education-related industries and policy-makers to trends that while at first glance appear to indicate progress, especially since they involve high technology, may actually result in expensive detours, distractions and disasters.
Critics (Alliance for Childhood, Cuban, Oppenheimer) often assert that computers do not belong in school for a variety of ideological, financial or developmental reasons. However, I agree with Seymour Papert that computers are today’s primary instrument for intellectual work, and central to the educational enterprise. If for no other reason than the fact that computers are already a part of the world of kids, we must respect the role they can play in children’s lives and develop ways to maximize the potential of technology. I have spent the past twenty-four years helping students use computers in intellectually rich and creatively expressive ways that defy current notions of curricula or educational standards.
After four decades of advocacy for computers in education, Seymour Papert corrected the record by suggesting that, “Computer scientists weren’t supposed to bring computers into classrooms. They were supposed to bring computer science to children in classrooms.” (Papert 2002) Papert contends that the failure to use computers in new ways as an instrument for educational progress is the result of an imagination gap. (Papert 1997)
Soon after bold creative teachers began tinkering with computers in their classrooms, schools embarked on the well-documented process of assimilating them. Computers were corralled into odd “lab” arrangements and children made an occasional field trip to the lab for the purposes of being taught “computer,” often by a teacher possessing few qualifications. Special computer literacy curricula was developed to meet the needs of inexperienced lab teachers and limited student access. Trivial work done during lab time failed to inspire other teachers to integrate computing into the life of their subjects and motivated teachers were quickly discouraged by too little access to too few computers. Educators with little or no technological fluency are asked to serve on committees where they use a crystal ball and develop “tech plans” not yet invented and students they have not met.
I postulate that the educational technology challenges associated with teacher professional development, inadequate funding and the demand for standards are not our primary problems. They are symptoms of an imagination gap and shortage of honest reflective practice that threatens to rob children of the potential afforded by advances in communications and computational technology.
Some may view this paper as a cautionary tale. Others may find that it affirms their tacit concerns while some will disagree violently with my hypotheses. This paper should not however be misconstrued as an argument against the widespread of use of computers and related technologies in appropriate ways across all subjects and grade levels. Many critics of educational computing alert us to the trivial ways in which computers are used. If school computers are used in dubious ways, the solution is not the abolition of computers, but more thoughtful practice.
It is remarkable that there remain proponents of a view that computers should play no role in education despite the transformational impact they have had on nearly every other aspect of society. Like many other educational innovations, the use of computers in schools may be dismissed as a failure before it was seriously attempted. It is well known, but seldom mentioned, that most children touch a computer for minutes per week in school. It is ridiculous to assign failure to the computer when access is so meagre and a vision for its use eludes most educators.
JUMPING THE SHARK
This author’s body of work challenges conventional arguments against the use of computers in school based on concerns over funding, child welfare and alternative priorities while joining Seymour Papert in offering optimistic scenarios in which computers may create efficacious opportunities for knowledge construction. However, recent observations of educational technology practice within American and Australian classrooms, as well as the changing rhetoric found in professional publications and conferences leads me to conclude that educational technology may have “jumped the shark.”
It’s a moment. A defining moment when you know that your favorite television program has reached its peak. That instant that you know from now… it’s all downhill. Some call it the climax. “We call it jumping the shark.” (Jon Hein – www.jumptheshark.com)
In this case, jumping the shark applies to the possibility that we have reached the tipping point where even exuberant proponents of educational technology must question whether the system’s implementation of it is now causing as much harm as good. This radical view goes beyond Papert’s predictions of assimilation in which the school system will naturally attempt to use new technology to support old practices and the “assimilation blindness” (Papert 1977) in which critics simplistically compare the computer to other classroom objects. At first glance the proposition that “educational technology may now do more harm than good” would seem to agree with critics of computers in the classroom. However, the common ground is limited to concerns about the quality of education afforded children.
While much criticism of educational computing is concerned with an erosion of control, uniform curriculum, traditional assessment instruments and industrial notions of efficiency, my fear is that educational technology is now being used to strengthen such instructionist tendencies at the expense of children. In other words, the current trajectory of educational technology is dominated by practices and objectives that succeed in making schooling much more like the desires of the technology critics and therefore squanders the enormous potential to revolutionize education that inspired so many ed tech pioneers for more than a generation.
Much of the rhetoric now embraced by an increasing number of people who previously advocated exciting visions of children using computers in personally liberating ways treats students in an instrumental fashion subordinate to the goals of the system. What some in the past may have deemed the utopian aspirations of educational computing proponents have now been silenced by classroom practices more inflexible and reactionary than before microcomputers entered schools.
These Are Not Happy Days
Unlike in the television show, Happy Days, when Fonzie jumped a shark while waterskiing in a leather jacket, the precise moment in which educational technology began its decline is not easily identified. A number of trends, marketing triumphs and political conditions converge to create the current malaise. Anyone of these variables alone would be troublesome, but together they create an alternative educational reality where friends and foes do little to realize the transformative promise of learning technology.
Just a few of these variables will be explored due to space constraints.
The Dominance of Information Technology – Our Homemade Straightjacket
Educational computing has experienced a semantic sea change over the past fifteen years. In fact, the word computing is hardly mentioned in the literature. Educational computing gave way to terms like informatics, ICT, information technology and just technology. When the vast capabilities of computing are reduced to, “just another technology,” we are then safe to make comparisons to a zipper or Pez dispensers.
It was the educational technology community, not external forces that debased the language we use to describe our efforts. Computing is a verb connoting action, technology is a noun – one more checkbox on an arbitrary list of curricular objectives. The C in ICT is at best cosmetic when the vast majority of students remain unable to email, collaborate or publish online despite the lofty (and readily ignored) goals of official technology standards. Our noble profession is increasingly referred to as “the industry.” Language matters. It shapes practice.
Since the widespread deployment of the Internet in schools during the mid 1990s, the function of the school computer has been reduced to that of information appliance or worse. Contemporary literature, popular and academic, focuses almost exclusively on the use computer for information retrieval and the occasional regurgitation of that information in the form of PowerPoint presentations or web pages. The false complexity associated with designing a web page or slideshow lulls spectators into believing that the students were engaged in an intellectually meaningful activity, when that assumption is often incorrect.
Recent doubts about such activities have not led to wide-scale challenges to the practice of digital book reports. Instead a new pedagogy of information literacy has emerged, complete with workshops, workbooks and literature attempting to fortify and justify the use of computers to support dubious educational practices. Edward Tufte, Seymour Papert and very few others outside of the practitioner community, have taken the unpopular step of revealing that this emperor has no clothes. The genuine effort expended by children creating such products is difficult to disregard, but the context of those efforts and the validity of the task needs to be challenged.
Another unintended consequence of this IT imbalance is the emphasis placed on student research. Actual research in the spirit of the work conducted by historians or scientists is an enormously valuable intellectual enterprise. The process skills associated with authentic research should be a universal part of every child’s education. The Internet offers unparalleled opportunities for students to engage in research in ways never before possible, particularly the ability to publish for a limitless audience and engage in collaboration with others across time and space. This is where the majority of the Internet’s power as a new learning medium resides. However, schools tend to focus on “looking stuff up,” delivering content and monitoring student progress. These uses are not only antithetical to the extraordinary power of the Internet, but their dominance creates unintentional consequences regarding Internet safety, censorship and security.
Simply stated, if the dominant metaphor for using a computer is looking things up, then it should come as no surprise when children look up in appropriate stuff. This eventuality consumes scarce resources and diverts our attention away from using computers in ways that ennoble a creative and intellectual renaissance in children. The hysteria caused by both fear of using the Internet and the fear of not using the Internet causes schools to employ legions of network managers who are given unprecedented budgetary and educational discretion, along with very little oversight. Teachers wishing to do the “right thing” are often precluded to using the school network in educationally justifiable ways due to policies and technical obstacles created by non-educators with unilateral power.
The Total Cost of Dependency
I call this phenomenon, the total cost of dependency. It relates to the unintended learning costs of over-promising and under-delivering reliable Internet functionality and subsequent benefits. TCOD also applies to situations that result from settings in which the network functions perfectly. Educators accustomed to unreliable network access abandon the use of computers and those lucky enough to have access to fully functional networks too often focus on the use of the Internet to the exclusion of other forms of computing. The popular advertising slogan, “the network is the computer,” is inapplicable to K-12 education.
Proponents of the network-centric view often tell educators that as soon as there is enough bandwidth, everything they ever dreamed of will be possible. There is plenty already possible for learners to do with computers and the fixation on the Internet is depriving too many children of those rich experiences. If there ever is limitless bandwidth, computers will be television, not a constructive medium for active learning. For children trying to make a movie, program a robot, animate a poem, build a simulation or design a video game, regular ubiquitous access to a sufficiently powerful computer is far more important to both the job at-hand and a student’s intellectual development, than is net access.
Hooked on Office
A web browser and Microsoft Office are the most used software applications. Both applications represent critical tools for personal productivity and communication. However, learners should also use computers in constructive ways – as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression. Adults seem amused by the sight of children playing Donald Trump dress-up, “Look how cute she is! She’s wearing mommy’s heals and using Excel!” However, the dominance of Office applications in schools places a disproportionate emphasis on using computers to get “work” done[ii], versus using computers to learn. While the two goals are not mutually exclusive, I assert that the balance of educational experiences should tilt towards learning and process rather than product.
It is impossible to predict which specific technologies or pedagogical practices that will withstand the test of time. However, there are several technologies popular in schools that warrant review.
The growing assault on public education led by the Bush and Howard administrations is manifest in the obsession with testing, data, standardization and punishment. The dissection of learning into sequential bite-sized decontextualized fragments directly benefits the textbook, testing and integrated learning system companies. These are divisions of the same multinational behemoths. These conspicuous relationships advocate for Orwellian schemes like, “No Child Left Behind,” and have expensive technological “solutions” at the ready.
The market for inexpensive drill-and-practice software evaporated long before the enduring fantasy that if you get the software just right, every toddler will master long division subsided. Today, expensive instructional management systems are sold to poor schools terrorized by the threat of sanctions accompanying low performance on standardized tests. Although these systems have not changed much in forty years, they are no longer seen as a window onto the future as much as a life-saving attempt by desperate underprivileged schools.
The folly of teaching machines, personalized learning and continuous assessment date back to the invention of computers. Bad ideas are timeless. Government policies and easy-to-produce high-profit teaching systems from well-heeled corporations create a perfect storm for using computers in low-level disempowering ways.
Early advocates rebelled against CAI when excitement about computers in education was infectious. Today is different in that that these pioneers now make purchasing decisions and create a climate in which these systems dominate the landscape. Today, membership organizations purporting to represent educational progress, such as ISTE, are engaged in “monetizing” the testing craze and rushing to create “high-stakes” computer literacy examinations.[iii] Every child must now be above average every minute of the day.
Such regressive practices are no longer typified by children sitting at banks of computers wearing headphones or in the back of the classroom playing Math Blaster. Teaching systems have gone wireless and centralized simultaneously.
BUT WAIT, THERE’S LESS!
Two categories of such systems dominate the marketplace and classrooms; “smart” boards and “clickers.”
“Intelligent” white boards may appear as cost-effective strategies for advancing a school’s technological capability, yet these Pre-Gutenberg technologies may ultimately reinforce the worst of existing classroom practices. They reinforce the dominance of the front of the room and omniscience of the teacher. Facilitating increased lecturing and reducing education to notes on a board represents a step backwards. We should question the widespread appeal of these products. The sales success of clever furniture is undeniable, but its actual use is less clear.[iv]
Classroom as Game Show, Teacher as Huckster
A new category of products has hit the educational technology market and enjoys remarkable sales. The more academic-sounding acronym, classroom performance systems (CPS), has been created to bestow. With a CPS, each child watches typically unattractive multiple-choice questions displayed on a screen in-front of them and on-cue punches what they think is the correct answer into a handheld remote-control device. The software can then present the teacher and class with the correct answer and a tabulation of student results. Such a system requires learning be reduced to its simplest, most binary form and gives aid and comfort to the misguided notion that continuous assessment is synonymous with teaching.
Teachers report to me that their “colleagues” find it difficult to design their own quizzes for these systems. The result of this difficulty marketing agreements with textbook publishers who happily provide, for a fee, questions that require little more than a smile from the classroom teacher. This contributes further to the deprofessionalization of educators and does little to help them embrace the constructive use of computers in their classrooms.
One vendor, eInstruction, reports sales of 1.8 million “response pads”[v] and is suing a rival over their patent entitled “System and Method for Communicating with Students in an Education Environment.” That’s funny; I didn’t realize that teachers need remote control devices in order to communicate with students.
One corporation, Qwizdom, announces on its website that “Instant data just got even faster!” What’s faster than instant? Qwizdom refers to being part of the “audience response industry.”[vi] There is no illusion that teachers are more than performers and students spectators. Furthermore, emphasis on faster instants does violence to the promise of personal computers as incubators for project-based learning and deep intellectual engagement.
David Thornburg, reminds us that a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” is allowed to think about a problem, poll the audience or phone a friend before pulling the trigger on her answer. CPS systems prohibit such thinking practices.
Both “intelligent boards” and “clickers” reduce education to the delivery and regurgitation of information and make it simple for centralized authorities to monitor classroom activity and reduce individual students to data.
Australia’s greatest contribution to the world of computing was the pioneering embrace of laptops in education. Back in 1989-90, MLC and the State of Queensland embraced laptops as personal knowledge machines that brought the theories of Dewey and Papert to life. Today, laptops are no longer about powerful ideas, personal responsibility and the decentralization of knowledge, but tools for information delivery, constant assessment and global competitiveness. Some schools now promise that when they implement 1:1 computing, they will not change the curriculum at all. This is not virtuous; it’s idiotic and a waste of money.
Politicians propose laptops for teachers as if they were not the last workers in society afforded such luxury. Teachers performing clerical tasks and other chores, not transforming education, justify the investment.
The Governor of Maine needed to allow local schools to decide whether student laptops could go home as a matter of petty political expedience. Now other jurisdictions slavishly debate the merits of laptops going home as if this were a reasonable issue and 50% of Maine schools expand the digital divide by tethering mobile computers to the schoolhouse. If one student in one classroom looks at an inappropriate webpage, skittish vendors will render laptops useless in order to sell them to a school 2,000km away. Policy should not be predicated on historical accident or local politics.
It took more than a decade before defeatist language like pilot, initiative, project or experiment followed “laptop” in discussions of school computing. Now it’s the norm. This implies that the decision to embrace ubiquitous computing may have been a mistake rather than on the right side of history.
Schools are increasingly purchasing large quantities of student laptops without any constructive software, like MicroWorlds, and doing so with the encouragement of computer manufacturers. Some student laptops don’t even have a paint program installed. This is a brilliant strategy if the school teaches the humanities only. Mathematics and science learning stand to gain the most from the problem solving and computation afforded by the laptop, but such innovation is impossible in many schools.
Hardware manufacturers peddle laptop carts and governors propose a laptop on every desk fifteen years after thousands of students responsibly cared for their own portable computer at home, school and in the community. The metaphoric, as well as physical, locking-down of student laptops disempowers students and frustrates teachers needlessly. This hysteria represents a systemic backlash to the unprecedented creative and intellectual freedom bestowed upon learners.
One American school district had more than sixty million dollars (US) in-hand for student laptops. The educational goals accompanying the laptop purchase were so unimaginative and incremental that one politician was able to derail the entire initiative. Too little was done to excite the hearts and minds of citizens who want the most for children. (Stager 2005c)
Many new laptop schools pretend they invented the idea and disregard the lessons of their predecessors. They will recklessly change platforms just to get mentioned in the newspaper. Many Australian independent schools realized that changing their blazer colour was as useful a marketing ploy as integrating student laptops and didn’t require any institutional effort. The endless demands for evidence that laptops “work” demonstrates our community’s lack of capacity for growth and resistance to progress.
Computers are remarkably flexible devices capable of use in a wide range of contexts. A recent article in Technology and Learning Magazine profiled what the magazine’s editors determined to be the ten best returns on school technology investments. Not a single recommendation involved a learner doing something with a computer. This is a historic opportunity to seize powerful technology to help reinvent the nature and diversity of learning. We should embrace every opportunity to do so by keeping our “eyes on the prize” and avoiding detours. The needless focus on superficial planning, support for retrograde technologies, information addiction and welding laptops to furniture are symptoms of conservatism, ignorance and fear. Not long ago, the educational technology community were the warriors boldly leading schools towards an uncertain future filled with unprecedented learning opportunities for the children they serve. Somewhere along the line we have become reactionary and distracted by self-interest and costly detours.
We are duty bound to create compelling models of innovation and must define our terms, challenge accepted norms and set a course that amplifies the potential of children.
- The Alliance for Childhood. (2004) Tech Tonic: Towards a New Literacy of Technology. Available online at http://allianceforchildhood.org/projects/computers/pdf_files/tech_tonic.pdf
- Cuban, L. (2001) Oversold and Underused. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Harel, I., and Papert, S., editors. (1991) Constructionism. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.
- Kafai, Y., and Resnick, M., editors. (1996) Constructionism in Practice: Designing, Thinking, and Learning in a Digital World. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Kohn, Alfie. (2000) Transcript of the talk “The Deadly Effect of Tougher Standards.” The Harvard Education Letter. March/April 2000. Available online at http://www.edletter.org/past/issues/2000-ma/forum.shtml.
- Mclester, Susan. (2004) Top 10 Returns on Investment. In Technology and Learning Magazine, November 2004 issue.
- Oppenheimer, Todd. (2003) The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can be Saved. NY: Random House.
- Papert, Seymour. (1990)“A Critique of Technocentrism in Thinking About the School of the Future,” MIT Epistemology and Learning Memo No. 2. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory.
- Papert, Seymour (1981) Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas. NY: Basic Books.
- Papert, Seymour (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. New York: Basic Books.
- Papert, Seymour. (1997) Why School Reform Is Impossible” In The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 6(4), pp. 417-42. Available online at http://www.papert.org/articles/school_reform.html
- Papert, Seymour (2002) “Papert Misses ‘Big Ideas’ of the Good Old Days in AI,” from a press release published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. July 10, 2002. http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2002/papert.htm
- Stager, Gary. (2001) “Computationally-Rich Constructionism and At-Risk Learners.” In Computers in Education 2001: Australian Topics – Selected Papers from the Seventh World Conference on Computers in Education. McDougall, Murnane & Chambers editors. Volume 8. Sydney: Australian
- Stager, Gary. (2002) “Papertian Constructionism and At-Risk Learners.” In the Proceedings of the 2002 National Educational Computing Conference. Eugene, OR: ISTE.
- Stager, Gary. (2003) “The ISTE Problem” In District Administration Magazine, February 2003 issue.
- Stager, Gary. (2005a) “Gary Stager on the State of Ed Tech.” In District Administration Magazine, January 2005 issue.
- Stager, Gary. (2005b) “Gary Stager on Effective Ed Tech.” In District Administration Magazine, February 2005 issue.
- Stager, Gary (2005c) “Laptop Woes. Bungling the World’s Easiest Sale.” In District Administration Magazine, October 2005 issue.
- Tufte, Edward. (2003) The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press, LLC. Information available online at http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint
[i] Kohn has repeated a version of this quip in numerous contexts. One is available online at http://www.edletter.org/past/issues/2000-ma/forum.shtml
[ii] Despite the often underwhelming quality of such “work”
[iii] I am in possession of a December 2004 email sent by ISTE’s Washington D.C. office asking state ed tech directors to contribute to the creation of a “high-stakes” computer literacy test that ISTE would then sell back to them on behalf of a corporate partner. After months of denials, the ISTE CEO admitted to scheme at NECC 2005 and indicated that regardless of the propriety of the initiative, his membership organization needed to monetize this trend before others did. You may read the memo at http://www.stager.org/istememo
[iv] According to a March 30, 2006 press release, one manufacturer, “Smart Technologies,” has sold more than 250,000 whiteboards in every U.S. state and 75 countries.
This weekend, my nephew could not fully attend to visiting his grandmother in the hospital because he had very important homework to finish. That’s right, this fourteen year-old high-achieving student needed to color a worksheet of an Aztec God for Social Studies class. Grandma would just have to wait! Coloring is apparently one of those “21st Century Skills” you hear so much about.
Although the positive effects of homework are largely mythical, there is plenty of evidence that is detrimental in countless ways. One under-discussed issue surrounding homework policies is just how much homework is time-wasting crap designed, as John Taylor-Gatto reminds us, to extend the surveillance powers of the school into the personal time and space of children.
Teenagers being asked to spend their non-school hours coloring know that the assignment is ridiculous and may feel the same way about you.
So teachers, why do you do it?
Is the moronic consumption of kids’ time based on a lack of imagination and slavish adherence to someone else’s curriculum or because “the devil made me do it?” The “Flip Wilson defense” is as inexcusable and unconscionable as the “Nuremberg Defense.”
If children cannot count on you to insulate them from the madness of the world, who can they trust?
I also wrote about coloring in high school in the 2003 article, “A Whole Lotta Coloring Going On.”
- The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn
- The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning by Etta Kralovek and John Buell
- The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Children and What Parents Can Do About It by Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish
Homework articles by Alfie Kohn:
- “Changing the Homework Default,” Independent School, Winter 2007
- “The Goldilocks Paradox,” American School Board Journal, February 2007
- “Rethinking Homework,” Principal, January-February 2007
- “The Tougher Standards Fad Hits Home,” Rethinking Schools, Fall 2006
- “The Truth About Homework,” Education Week, September 6, 2006
- “Abusing Research: The Study of Homework and Other Examples,” Phi Delta Kappan, September 2006
- “Down with Homework,” Instructor, September 2006
- “Kids May Be Right After All: Homework Stinks,” USA Today, September 14, 2006
- “Interview with Alfie Kohn”, Maclean’s, September 15, 2006
- “Rethinking Homework Surveys,” unpublished, 2009
In addition to the keynote addresses, presentation topics and workshops offered here (including the three popular keynotes listed below), I have created new hands-on minds-on workshops and presentations.
Gary Stager’s most popular keynote addresses:
- Ten Things to Do with a Laptop: Learning & Powerful Ideas
- The Best Educational Ideas in the World: Adventures on the Frontiers of Learning
- Twenty Lessons from Twenty Years of 1:1
New workshops and presentation topics:
Invent to Learn
Join colleagues for a day of hard fun and problem solving where computing meets tinkering and performance. A secret yet timeless curricular theme will be unveiled Iron Chef-style. Participants will work with a variety of software, hardware and found materials in four domains (virtual, tactile, audio and video) to express the theme in a personal fashion. The day’s intensity will lead to impressive gains in skill development and a greater understanding of effective project-based learning. Computer programming, filmmaking, animation, audio production, robotics and engineering are all on the menu. Bring a laptop and camera or video camera We’ll supply the rest. Invention is the mother of learning!
Electrifying Children’s Mathematics
There may be no greater gap between a discipline and the teaching done in its name than when the beauty, power and mystery of mathematics becomes math instruction. One can only begin to address the systemic challenges of math education by understanding the nature of mathematics. Nearly 100 years of efforts to increase achievement with unchanged curricular content continues to fail spectacularly; yet, we do not change course. This workshops moves beyond the goal of making math instruction engaging to providing educators with authentic mathematical thinking experiences. Such experiences acknowledge the role computers play in mathematics and society’s increasing demand for computational thinking. Project-based approaches with mathematics at the center of the activity will be explored. Traditional concepts such as numeracy, geometry, probability and graphing will be investigated in addition to exciting new branches of mathematics rarely found in the primary grades.
This workshop is designed for teachers of grades 3-8. It may also be offered as an ongoing course with a greater emphasis on curriculum development and action research.
How to Teach with Computers
The increasing ubiquity of computational and communications technology in classrooms creates challenges and opportunities suggesting a need for a refresher course in learner-centered education. Project-based learning, classroom centers, interdisciplinary curricula and collaboration supercharge the power of computers as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression. Classroom computing affords schools an additional opportunity to recalibrate values and improve teaching practices on behalf of learners.
This hands-on minds-on workshop helps expand your vision of how computers may be used in knowledge construction while exploring pedagogical strategies for creating rich computing experiences that amplify the potential of each learner. Mini activities model sound project-based learning principles and connect various disciplines across multiple grade levels.
Modern schools face several challenges; among them are the questions at the heart of this workshop. Once teachers are finally convinced to use computers as instruments for learning, do they have creative project ideas and do they possess the pedagogical skills necessary for success?
This minds-on hands-on workshop will feature mini-projects designed to nurture sophisticated inquiry, computational thinking and artistic expression across disciplines and grade levels. The presenter will also discuss pedagogical strategies for using computers in an effective fashion as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression. These strategies illuminate principles of sound project-based learning and honor the individual learning styles, talents, curiosity and intensity of each student.
Dr. Gary Stager has thirty years of experience helping educators maximize the potential of computers and create productive contexts for learning on six continents. He led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools, created one of the first online Masters degree programs and was recently recognized by Tech & Learning Magazine as one of today’s 30 most influential educators.
The Future of Learning
When we say, “We’re preparing kids for the future”, it might be handy to review what we already know about creating productive contexts for learning and give serious consideration to the habits of mind demonstrated by today’s creative class. This workshop engages participants in minds-on activities requiring reflective practice and visioning exercises that use provocative video clips to explore the learning lessons of experts. Hands-on computing activities are added for workshops longer than 90 minutes in duration.
Personal Laptops in the Primary Grades
There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding young children’s computer use and not just by the folks who think modernity is turning children into brainwashed zombies. The edtech community has a lot to answer for in its “hand-me-down” approach to computers in the lower primary grades and the embrace of software that may be at odds with the pedagogical practice or educational philosophy of a school. This keynote address or hands-on workshop will explore ways in which computers, especially personal laptop computers, may be used to enhance the most childlike aspects of learning, amplify human potential and celebrate creativity. We will situate computer use in the theories of Dewey, Piaget, Papert, Montessori & Malaguzzi while arguing that young children need more computational power than older students. Playful examples of computational thinking among primary school students will be shared.
One-Hour Teacher Education
Award-winning educator, Dr. Gary Stager, will explore everything a modern educator needs to know about learning and school reform in less than an hour! School improvement is dependent on a recognition that we each “stand on the shoulders of giants” and can learn from the lessons of others. Successful 21st Century educators not only possess practical knowledge about the change process and technology integration, but a working understanding of the learning theories that propel those interventions in a way that benefits children and teachers. The rollicking presentation is intended to inspire, inform and entertain! The theory presented will be connected to contemporary best-practices and the personal experiences of the presenters. Follow- up resources, including Web links, videos, articles and suggested reading will be provided.
What Every EdTech Professional Should Know About Learning
Educators, including tech coordinators and CTOs concerned with advancing educational practice should situate their professional actions on not only best practices, but on theoretical foundations as well. “Standing on the shoulders of giants not only informs decisions that benefit the educational enterprise, but increases the potential for successful interventions. The presenters have observed a shocking level of “educational literacy” among their colleagues in the edtech sector and have decided to do something about the situation in a high-spirited witty fashion. Every person concerned with education would benefit from a refresher course in the powerful ideas and lessons learned from great thinkers and school reform efforts of the past and present. This one-of-a-kind session is deigned to light a spark under attendees to sustain their high-tech innovations by building upon a solid theoretical foundation. Follow-up resources, including Web links, videos, articles and suggested reading will be provided.
Roger & Me – Roger Wagner and Gary Stager
2 screens, 2 computers, 2 characters
Eavesdrop as two edtech pioneers and old friends regale each other with hilarious and profound tales of computing, magic, chemistry, history and suspended adolescence. Each mischief maker will have their laptop connected to a giant screen so they may spontaneously share interesting props, tell stories and engage in multimedia mischief-making. Be as amazed, inspired and entertained as Roger and Gary are whenever they collide. Hilarity will ensue!
This keynote promises to be like no other!