Checking-in on teachers working on a robotics project during an Invent To Learn workshop

A reporter for an Australian education magazine recently sent
interview questions about robotics in education, including the obligatory question about AI. The final article, when it runs, only grabs a few of my statements mixed in amongst the thoughts of others. So, here is the interview in its entirety. Of late, I have decided to answer all reporter questions as if they are earnest and thoughtful. Enjoy!

Q: With the current focus on STEM, and the increasing need to engage students in hands-on STEM learning, what sort of potential exists for the teaching of robotics in the classroom?

GS: Piaget teaches us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” If we believe that learning by doing is powerful, learning-by-making concretizes and situates powerful ideas. Robotics is one such medium for learning-by-making in a fashion that combines the actual use of concepts traditionally taught superficially or not at all.

In a learner-centered context, robotics adds colors to the crayon box. If in the recent past, seven year-olds made dinosaurs out of cereal boxes, now their cereal box dinosaurs can sing, dance, or send a text message to their grandmother, as long as state law still allows dinosaurs to use cellphones in schools.

Reggio Children’s Carla Rinaldi working with Aussie educators Prue & Stephanie at Constructing Modern Knowledge

Q: How important has robotics become in preparing students for the jobs of the future?

GS: Less than learning to play the cello, love theatre, or understand the importance of Thelonious Monk, the labor movement, or women’s history in a contemporary democracy.

A scene from one of my family workshops (click to zoom)

Q: Do you think skills such as coding and programming will become just as important as learning Math and English in coming years?

GS: Such questions reveal how powerful ideas are often reduced to fads and buzzwords in a zero-sum notion of schooling. While it surely the case that any new idea introduced in schools runs the risk of stealing time and attention from something else, robotics is an interdisciplinary medium for expression, like drawing, painting, writing, composing

If our goals were as modest as to increase understanding of the decontextualized and often irrelevant nonsense found in the existing Math curriculum, kids would learn to program and engage in physical computing projects. The only context for using and therefore understanding many Math concepts is in computing activities. Absolute value on paper is a useless piece of vocabulary. If you are trying to design a robot to navigate an unfamiliar terrain or get your rocket ship to land on a planet in the video game you programmed, a working understanding of absolute value comes in quite handy.

For much of my generation, DNA is three letters representing three words I can neither remember or pronounce, plus that squiggly thing I don’t understand. Advances in technology now make it possible for year seven kids to manipulate DNA. I bet those kids will have a different relationship with genetics than previous generations.

Q: What sort of an impact does teaching the fundamentals of robotics have when it comes to possible career pathways for students?

GS: I don’t know and I do not trust anyone who claims to know the future of employment. Schools make a terrible mistake when they see their purpose as vocational in nature. The sorting of kids into winners and losers with career pathways determined by some artificial school assessment should be relegated to the dustbin of history. How well did the Hawke Government do at predicting the impact of social media? Schools should prepare children to solve problems that none of their teachers ever anticipated. Schools should do everything possible to create the conditions in which children can become good at something, while gaining a sense of what greatness in that domain might look like. The “something” is irrelevant. Currently, academic success has little to do with the development of expertise.

I have three adult university educated children. The only one to live on her own, with employment, and health insurance since the minute she graduated, was the art major. She enjoyed a fabulous well-rounded liberal arts education.

Q: Do you think schools are typically placing enough of an emphasis on robotics, coding, programming and artificial intelligence? Or do we still have a long way to go in embracing this technology in schools, particularly in Australia?

GS: In a wealthy nation like Australia (or the United States), every child should have their own personal multimedia laptop computer (30 years after Australia pioneered 1:1 computing) and they should learn to program that computer and control external devices not because it might lead to a job someday, but because programming and physical computing (a term preferable to robotics) are ways of gaining agency over an increasingly complex and technologically sophisticated world.

Programming and robotics answer the question Seymour Papert began asking more than fifty years ago, “Does the computer program the child, or the child program the computer.” In an age of rising authoritarianism and “fake news,” learner agency is of paramount importance.

The first schools in the world where every kid owned a personal portable computer, used them for programming and robotics was in Australia!

Coding and programming are the same thing. As a proponent of high-quality educational experiences, I recommend programming and robotics as incubators of powerful ideas. AI largely remains science fiction. Its contemporary uses in education are dystopian in nature and should be rejected.

A scene from one of my family workshops

Q: When it comes to the teaching of STEM in schools, and particularly robotics, how well do you think Australia is placed compared to other countries? And, are our schools doing enough to prepare students for future jobs?

GS: International education comparisons are immoral and needlessly based on scarcity. In order for Australian students to succeed, it is unnecessary for children in New Zealand to fail. Competition in education always has deleterious effects.

A scene from one of my family workshops

Q: Do you think enough is being done in educating our future teachers about the importance of STEM and robotics during their tertiary education?

GS: No. The art of teaching and everything but curriculum delivery and animal control has been sadly removed from teacher preparation. Teachers taught in a progressive tradition see robotics as mere stuff and use it with ease and without specialised instruction.

Q: What are some of the steps schools can take to upskill their teachers in robotics? And how important is it to ensure teachers are appropriately skilled in teaching robotics?

GS:

  • Stop viewing robotics narrowly through the lens of robotics competitions where one rich school builds a truck to kill another rich school’s truck. Competition also has a prophylactic impact on the participation of girls.
  • Expand your notion of robotics more broadly as physical computing and see the whimsical, playful, beautiful projects shared in our book, Invent To Learn,this library of project videos (http://cmkfutures.com/competent-teachers/), the Birdbrain technologies video library (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCxjgGxBG2QhymwC2FHpt3zw), and the work being done with the micro:bit around the world
  • Most importantly, schools need to embrace project-based learning, not as the pudding you get after suffering through a semester of instruction, but as the primary educational diet. Once that occurs, the power of robotics/physical computing as a vehicle for personal expression becomes self evident.

A scene from one of my family workshops (click to zoom)

Q: What are some of the ways teachers can incorporate robotics into the Australian Digital Technologies Curriculum?

GS: By doing something. There are remarkable new materials available like the Hummingbird Bit Robotics Kits, (https://inventtolearn.com/bit/) but schools have now had access to kid-friendly robotics kits from LEGO since 1987.

I also recommend placing teachers and parents in meaningful hands-on experiences such as my family workshops described at http://stager.tv/blog/?p=4452, or the Constructing Modern Knowledge institute.

A scene from one of my family workshops (click to zoom)

Q: In coming years, how much of an emphasis do you think will be placed on robotics education in schools?

GS: Fads fizzle. One’s ability to control computational devices will only increase in importance.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to comment on?

GS: The voluptuous Australian national curriculum in design and technology should be replaced by Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon’s pithy 1971 paper, “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer.”


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 October 2019 in DC, NJ, & Boston – Register today!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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