“Things take longer to happen than you think they will, but then they happen faster than you thought they could.” – Al Gore

As summer 2019 draws to a close, I am left with a sense of renewed optimism. It feels as if there is a growing appetite for the sort of progressive, constructionist, child-centered, Reggio inspired, project-based I have advocated for over my entire career. The popularity of our book Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, interest in the other books we publish, and the success of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute contributes to my optimism. I spent much of August working in three different schools that are unapologetically progressive. They embrace things like project-based learning, no grades, multi-age grouping, authentic assessment, learning-by-making, and computing as an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression. I have not enjoyed this level of fun and meaningful work since I led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools, started one of the first camp computer programming programs, or collaborated with Seymour Papert on my doctoral research, when we created a multiage, project-based, alternative learning environment for incarcerated teens.

Recent news accounts detail how the children of the Koch Brothers are creating a progressive school in Wichita, Kansas, called Wonder. Even if that school and its potential spinoffs are the polar opposite of the obedience schools for other people funded by the Kochs, the mere recognition by rich people that progressive education is preferable (at least for their children) may be viewed as a small victory.

EduTwitter and education articles are awash in ideas with progressive intent. Unfortunately, much of the escalating volume of half-baked and often terrible advice dispensed is shallow, ahistoric, or just plain wrong. However, even impoverished or disingenuous notions of student voice, reflection, metacognition, choice, centers, exhibitions of work, Montessori education, agency, making, etc. are evidence of a growing desire for progressive education.

We may also see a demographic shift in the expectations for schooling by millennials who entered kindergarten the year No Child Left Behind was enacted and are now coming to grips with the costs of an impoverished educational experience focused on standardization, testing, and narrowing of the curriculum. Their K-12 education was distinguished by constant test-prep, teacher shaming, charter and privatization schemes, elimination of electives, and dismantling of arts programs.

Their teachers’ preparation was focused on animal control and curriculum delivery, absent practice in the art of teaching. Tens of thousands of Teach for America interns were thrown in front of a classroom after being handed a backpack of tricks and greeting card messages about “what a teacher makes.” Whole language, classroom centers, interdisciplinary projects, authentic assessment, pleasure reading, play, integration, and even recess were flickering flames in the heads of teachers old enough to remember the seventies. Donald Graves, Frank Smith, John Holt, Lillian Weber, Maxine Greene, Herb Kohl, Ken and Yetta Goodman, Ivan Illitch, Bev Bos, Vivian Paley, Loris Malaguzzi, Dennis Littky, Deborah Meier, and Ted Sizer have been erased from the common language of educators. Award-winning school administrators congratulate themselves for their discovery of TED Talks on the hotel room TV during one of the many school discipline conferences. Sound educational theory has been replaced by “I believe.”

Hey Stager, I thought you said there was room for optimism? Those last two paragraphs are pretty brutal.

There is now, and will be for the foreseeable future, more demand for progressive education than there is supply.

The children of the first Millennials are now entering school. This emerging generation of parents will greet the schooling of their children with a hunger for a different educational diet than they experienced, even if they have no idea what that might be. Those of us who know better, need to do better. We need to create clear and distinguishable options for parents yearning for a creative, humane, and joyful educational experience for their children. I assert that the demand for progressive education already exceeds supply and will continue to grow.

Remarkable new materials and software are creating opportunities not just to teach things we have always wanted kids to know, but are granting students access to new knowledge domains, ways of knowing, and creative outlets unimaginable just a few years ago. Such objects-to-think-with help realize a modern sustainable form of progressive education.

The challenge: When the Koch Brothers and progressives value the same quality of education for their children, doing the right thing for all children might not only be viable, but on the right side of history. Imagine if the world awakes from its slumber and suddenly desires the kind of educational system many of us dream of. How would we meet the demand? Who will teach in that fashion? Who will teach the teachers? Where does one begin?

My recent work reminds me that even in schools fully committed to progressive ideals, we are building the plane while flying it. Regardless of the quality of their preservice education, teachers love children and want to be liberated from the shackles of compliance. Schools will need to educate children, their teachers, and the community all at the same time if they wish to invent a better future. You cannot visit this future, watch a video about it, or tweet it into existence. No amount of education tourism is a substitute for you and your colleagues taking the controls, confronting your compromises, and doing the right thing.

Issues to address as a community

My work in progressive schools has helped me identify a list of issues schools need to address in any attempt to realize their aspirations. Essential conversations are ongoing and essential, but must accompany bold, meaningful, and reflective practice.

Where do we begin?

  • Projects
  • Teaching for democracy
  • Independence and interdependence
  • The value of learning stories
  • Honoring childhood
  • Removing coercion, competition, and antagonism from the classroom
  • Interdisciplinary projects are not a mash-up but are rooted in reflective practice.
  • The importance of whimsy, beauty, and fun
  • Computer programing as a liberal art
  • The value of school R&D

Making the case for project-based learning

  • What is a project?
  • Projects as the curriculum, not a culminating activity
  • Teaching in a project-based environment
  • How do you know a kid is learning?

What happens in a progressive classroom?

  • The limits of instruction
  • What if a kid isn’t interested in a particular project?
  • Connecting to student interests
  • How long should a project last?
  • Classroom centers
  • Shaping the learning environment
  • Teacher as researcher

Curriculum

  • How do I satisfy “the curriculum” without teaching it?
  • How skills and knowledge emerge from projects
  • The power of themes
  • Finding the balance between student interests and the responsibility to introduce children to things they don’t yet know they love
  • Why the constructive use of computers is non-negotiable.
  • Lessons from the Reggio Emilia Approach, El Sistema, constructionism, and other progressive traditions

The issues involved in realizing the ideals of progressive education are subtle and incredibly complex. They may even be impossible, but such aspirations are beneficial and worthy of a relentless pursuit.

Piaget “teaches us that knowledge is a consequence of experience.” If we wish for teachers to teach differently, they need to experience learning in new ways. If we want parents to support our progressive efforts, they too need to experience learning in different contexts.

We’re not clairvoyant and can’t predict what the future holds. We do however know a great deal about how to amplify the potential of each teacher and learner. I intend to dedicate the rest of my days making schools more productive contexts for learning so that each school day may be the best seven hours of a kid’s life.

I look forward to helping many more schools stand on the side children, perhaps even yours.

Please reach out if you are interested in PD, speaking, consulting services, family workshops, or school residencies.


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

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

 

 

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.

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. 

One additional recommendation…


Neil Gershenfeld, Alan Gershenfeld, Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld (2017). Designing Reality: How to Survive and Thrive in the Third Digital Revolution.

In his groundbreaking books, When Things Start to Think and Fab, MIT Professor Neil Gershenfeld predicted the past quarter century of technological innovation and defined the basis for the modern maker movement. In this new volume, Gershenfeld collaborated with his social scientist and game designer brothers to help us all imagine the next fifty years of technological innovation and how it will change our world. 


Learn by making this summer; alone, with colleagues, or with your own children!

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

This time of year, schools scramble to select a book for their entire faculty to read over the summer. Although it would be nice if everyone read the same book as a basis for common dialogue and for teachers to read more than one book about learning each year, I just assembled a list for the (DK-8) school where I serve as the Special Assistant to the Head of School for Innovation. Based on our overarching goals of action, reflective practice, progressive education, learning-by-making, energetic classroom centers, creativity, and collegiality, I recommended the following books for this summer. If a school community was to read one book (besides Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom) , I would recommend David Perkins’ book, Making Learning Whole.

If you wish to give your faculty (K-12 in any configuration), a list of selections to choose from, I recommend the following in no particular order.
  1. Perkins, David. (2010) Making Learning Whole: How Seven Principles of Teaching Can Transform EducationA clear and concise book on how to teach in a learner-centered fashion. 
  2. Gandini, Lella et al… (2015) In the Spirit of the Studio: Learning from the Atelier of Reggio Emilia, Second EditionA beautiful and practical book aimed at early childhood education, but equally applicable at any grade level. 
  3. Littky, Dennis. (2004) The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s BusinessAimed at secondary education, but with powerful ideas applicable at any level. This may be the best book written about high school reform in decades. 
  4. Tunstall, Tricia. (2013) Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of MusicOne of the finest books about teaching and learning I’ve read in the past decade. This lessons in this book are applicable across all subject areas. 
  5. Papert, Seymour. (1993) The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the ComputerA 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. 
  6. 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. 

You could also indulge yourself in the richest professional learning event of your life by participating in Constructing Modern Knowledge 2016. Limited space is still available.

The Best Invention and Tinkering Books, plus other cool stuff – including toys and kits

Four collections of recommended books

  1. The Constructivist Consortium has compiled an extensive online book store for creative educators. Be sure to peruse these recommendations!
  2. Wanna be a School Reformer? You Better Do Your Homework! Required reading for school leaders, administrators and policy makers.
  3. Tinkering resources for educators
  4. Overlooked gems, books kids (especially boys) will love

The two best education books of 2011

Tricia Tunstall’s beautiful new book, Changing Lives: Gustavo Dudamel, El Sistema, and the Transformative Power of Music, tells the story of El Sistema, perhaps the world’s most exciting large-scale (systemic) education project. At a time when presidential candidates call for children to clean toilets as a way of “learning the dignity of work,”, El Sistema, teaches hundreds of thousands of children to achieve their potential as productive citizens by learning to play classical music at a level previously unimagined.

This book is a must-read. It’s incredibly well-written and reminds us of how arts education can change lives. The lessons for all educators, politicians and parents are multitudinous. I sincerely hopes this book reaches a wide audience, it asks much of each of us, but the rewards are extraordinary. It reminds us what it means to be human. You should also get the fantastic DVDs, El Sistema: Music to Change Lives and The Promise of Music to bring music and motion to the ideas in Tunstall’s fantastic new book.

 

Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools by Roger Schank

Dr. Schank is one of the leading experts on artificial intelligence, storytelling, simulation, entrepreneurship and learning. His new book is another fearless volume about what is wrong with education and how it may be “fixed.” Schank is hilarious, provocative and not a person you want to argue with. This important book may help cleanse school leaders of the nonsense spread by Pink, Willingham and Marzano.

From Schank’s web site: “Unfortunately education and teaching rarely means either of these things in today’s world. The premise of my new book is simple. We have all gone to school. We all know that school is organized around academic subjects like math, English, history and science. But how else might school be organized? There is an easy answer to this: organize school around thought processes.”

 

Honorable Mention Book of 2011

Wasting Minds: Why Our Education System Is Failing and What We Can Do About It by Ron Wolk

While I profoundly disagree with some of his conclusions and views on educational technology, veteran academic and founder of Education Week, Ron Wolk does an exceptional job of describing the current educational landscape. The data within the book is invaluable.

 

 

Soon-to-be-released Books I Can Hardly Wait to Read!

 

The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformationby Edwards, Gandini and Foreman is the most comprehensive book on the phenomenal “Reggio Emilia approach” to education.The 3rd volume of this comprehensive anthology will be available any day now. It is a must read and re-read for many years to come.Lella Gandini has made a spectacular contribution to Constructing Modern Knowledge over the past few years. One of the great honors of my life was being invited by legendary educator and author of 40 seminal education books, Herbert Kohl, to make a small contribution to this new book about the importance of the arts in education.Being included in a book with Deborah Meier, Bill T. Jones, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Ayers, Lisa Delpit, Rosie Perez, Phylicia Rashad, Diane Ravitch and Maxine Greene leaves me speechless.I cannot wait for The Muses Go to School:Inspiring Stories About the Importance of Arts in Education to arrive!

Deeply moving & often hilarious book

 

Regardless of your politics or how you feel about his films, Michael Moore’s new book, Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life, is a poignant, witty and exceptionally well written memoir of growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. This book really captures one person’s realization of the American dream. I highly recommend this page-turner for idealistic teens and their parents.

 

 

My Ten Favorite Jazz Recordings of 2011
Unsung Heroes by Brian Lynch Songs of Mirth and Melancholy by Branford Marsalis and Joey Caldarazzo In the Element by Emmet Cohen Roy-alty by Roy Haynes Road Shows volume 2 by Sonny Rollins
This extraordinary new album of modern jazz in tribute to unsung trumpet heroes is by my friend Brian Lynch and earned five stars from Downbeat Magazine. I’ve known Branford for 30 years. This new album is a duet with his longtime pianist, Joey Caldarazzo. The result is quite beautiful. I met young Emmet almost a year ago and we’ve hung out ever since. He recently placed 3rd in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition. His debut recording is quite good and he is going to be a monster in years to come. I heard Roy Haynes for the first time when I was 14 and his music has brought me more joy than perhaps anything else in life. He not only represents the history of American music, but at 86 years old, Mr. Haynes swings harder than any drummer alive. Sonny Rollins may be the world’s greatest living musician and he’s finally enjoying the respect he deserves. He was given a Presidential Arts Medal and Kennedy Center Honor in 2011. This recording includes recent live recordings, including a rare duet with Ornette Coleman.
Forever by Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke & Lenny Whtite
Pinnacle by Freddie Hubbard
The first CD in this 2-CD album is unbelievably exiting and hard swinging. The second disc? Not so much. I saw Freddie Hubbard perform live dozens of times and each note he played was exhilerating. This live recording is available for the first time. Unreleased “bootlegs” by Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter & Tony Williams – what’s not to love?? Here’s my credit card! This young vibraphonist has been called the “Mike Tyson” of the Vibes. Check out his terrific major label debut recording produced by mentor Christian McBride. It’s been a busy year for the hardest working man in jazz. Christian McBride’s big band and all-star duet recording are must-haves.


The weather outside may be frightful, but summer is right around the corner. You deserve to spend four days next July reigniting your creative flame, recharging your battery and learning with world-class educators, artists and inventors.

Join us to celebrate the 5th anniversary of Constructing Modern Knowledge, the world’s premiere project-based learning event in Manchester, New Hampshire – July 9-12, 2012!

Why not replace visions of sugarplums with the opportunity to learn storytelling with award-winning filmmaker Casey Neistat; tinkering with the Editor of Make Magazine, Mark Frauenfelder; project-based learning from one of its originators, Dr. Lilian Katz and explore the ultimate 21st Century toy factory, the MIT Media Laboratory, with Dr. Leah Buechley? Nine year-old faculty member, Super Awesome Sylvia, reminds us of the meaning of education.

Give yourself the learning experience of a lifetime and register today!

My tricky little pal and fellow suffering Jets fan, Will Richardson, recently tweeted asking for TED Talk suggestions to share with his family on “TED Talk” Tuesdays. Will and his wife are embarking on an interesting family event featuring dinner, a TED Talk and conversation with their teenage kids. I know how much my family learns watching Jersey Shore together, so I decided to share my parental expertise with the Richardson family via the following TED Talk recommendations.

You might find my small selection surprising:

#1 Margaret Wertheim on the Beautiful Math of Coral

This talk is all about connections and contrasts – beauty and science, math and art, problem solving and creativity. As a result, this brilliant presentation challenges many of the sterotypes about learning, knowledge and the scientific method perpetuated by school. You will be amazed by how the craft of crocheting led to the visualization and understanding of  centuries old theorems at the frontier of mathematics.

#2 Greening the Ghetto

Majora Carter’s TED Talk explores the connections between economic justice, poverty and environmentalism through community activism. Aside from the importance of this message, I selected this TED Talk because marketing and communications genius Guy Kawasaki does a masterful job of analyzing the talk line-by-line in his book, Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition. Kawasaki demonstrates how Ms. Carter breaks many of the rules of public speaking while persuasively delivering a world-changing presentation. (Kawasaki’s book is a must-read for educators and even high school students.)

This talk is also all about connections.

#3 The Sixth Sense

MIT Media Lab Pattie Maes and her graduate student, Pranav Mistry, demonstrate how $300 worth of consumer electronics may be worn and woven into daily life as we face a new world in which ubiquitous information is available to you as if it were a sixth sense. This video is mind-blowing and should inspire kids to learn to program computers and embrace tinkering.

#4 Tony Robbins Asks Why We Do What We Do


You do not need to buy into any of the new age hokum being peddled by Tony Robbins to recognize that he is one of the greatest communicators alive today. His presentation style is remarkable and the impromptu exchange precipitated by Vice President Gore’s heckling makes this one for the ages. There is much to learn stylistically and affectively from this performance.

#5 Dave Eggers & 826 Valencia

Best-selling author Dave Eggers’ desire to give back to his community is only matched by his passion for whimsy and sharing his love of writing with young people. This TED Talk celebrating Eggers winning the TED Prize explores how pirate supply shops and superhero stores may serve as incredibly rich non-school learning environments where children become writers by writing with expert adult writers. Put aside Eggers’ nod towards school and homework and consider the powerful ideas of apprenticeship, access to expertise, community of practice and how we might all create productive contexts for learning.

If you want to go beyond five recommendations, might I suggest the two TED videos exploring El Sistema, the Venezuelan Youth Orcestra program and remind yourself of what the performing arts mean to a culture.

El Sistema: Music to Change Life

No educator's library is complete without this DVD

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istock_000011751237xsmallDear Friends,

I could really use your help!

You know how passionate I am about making schools better places for children. That’s why I have submitted a proposal to speak at the 2011 South-by-Southwest Conference. This conference could afford me with a great platform for educating the creative community about the current political threats to public education, and more importantly offer a constructive, creative and uplifting message illustrating alternative approaches that build upon each child’s remarkable capacity for intensity.

That is why I submitted the proposal, The Best Educational Ideas in the World. (Find the session description below and on the voting site.)

In order for me to be invited to speak at South-by-Southwest, (SXSW), I need for you and your colleagues, friends, relatives and students to spend a few minutes voting for my session. I apologize for how clumsy the web site is. That’s why I’ve included the following step-by-step instructions below:

  1. Go to: http://bit.ly/cxq78J
  2. Follow the instructions for creating an account
  3. An email will be sent to you containing a link to click that will return you to the voting site
  4. Click the link in the email
  5. Login using the email address and password you just created
  6. Click on the Explore the Interactive Proposals » link (http://bit.ly/bk31Hl)
  7. Type Stager into the Organizer field
  8. Click the SEARCH PANELS button
  9. My session, The Best Educational Ideas in the World, should appear
  10. Click the icon of the THUMBS UP to vote for my session.
  11. If you wish, click on the title of the session, scroll to the bottom of the page and leave a message of support. Every bit helps!

I am really grateful to each and every one of you who takes the time to follow the steps outlined above and votes for my session. Reaching multiple and varied audiences is the most effective way I can influence public opinion and help kids.

Unfortunately, this IS a popularity contest. That’s why I need your assistance.

All the very best,

Gary


The Best Educational Ideas in the World

Contemporary discussions of school reform focus on the creation of obedience schools for poor children or utopian governance schemes, such as charter schools. Neither approach does much to amplify the natural curiosity, expertise, creativity, passion, competence or capacity for intensity found in each child. A leading educator serves as your tour guide for a global exploration of powerful ideas and exemplary practices. Stops on the tour include personal fabrication; Reggio Emilia; El Sistema; Generation YES; One Laptop Per Child; a juvenile prison; 826 Valencia and more.

The artificial boundaries between art and science are blurred as children engage in authentic activities with real materials, create sophisticated artifacts of personal and aesthetic value and become connected to ideas larger than themselves. Collegiality, purpose, apprenticeship, complexity, serendipity and “sharaeability” are a few of the common values. Each approach either requires digital technology or may be dramatically enhanced by it. Lessons learned en-route our tour create productive contexts for learning in which students construct the knowledge required for a rewarding life.

Alternative models of school reform in which we treat other people’s students as our own will emerge. The common principles identified in some of the world’s most creative educational practices serve as lessons for parents, teachers and policy-makers eager to help children realize their full potential.

Questions answered during the presentation:
1.    How can we create learning environments that build upon children’s capacity for intensity?
2.    Are there humane creative models of school reform based on principles of social justice where students do extraordinary things?
3.    How are disparate ideas like El Sistema, Reggio Emilia, personal fabrication, alternative prison education and One Laptop Per Child similar and offer new models for education reform?
4.    Is learning natural and are children competent? Why do so many adults think that the answer is, “no?”
5.    How can early childhood approaches be applied at the secondary level and the arts inform approaches to science?