Marvin Minsky & Gary Stager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The following is a non-exhaustive collection of resources intended to inform educators interested in open education, open plan classrooms, and other forms of learner-centered environments. It only recommends resources found on the Internet. You should of course read John Holt, Loris Malaguzzi, Herb Kohl, A.S. Neill, Lillian Weber, Jonathan Kozol, Paulo Friere, David Perkins, David Hawkins, James Herndon, John Dewey and many others… Consider this an introduction to open education.

Vintage Videos from the 1970s


A documentary on open education and open plan schools.


A Southern United States community commits to open education in an old public primary school.
This video blows my mind.


Herbert Kohl, a pioneer of open education featured in this documentary on the early days of whole language and open education.

A Seminal Book

The Open Classroom by Herbert Kohl
This short book launched the open education movement in the United States

But how do they learn to read?

Reading by Frank Smith
A seminal text on natural approaches to literacy

But how do they learn math/maths?

Seymour Papert’s Mathland

Constance Kamii Videos

Double-Column Addition

Multiplication of Two-digit Numbers

Multidigit Division

Making Change – The difficulty of constructing “tens” solidly

Constance Kamii Direct vs Indirect Ways of Teaching Number Concepts at Ages 4-6
A comprehensive lecture explaining Piagetian ideas showing that although number concepts cannot be taught directly, they can be taught indirectly by encouraging children to think.

Kamii Games for Developing Number Sense


Constance Kamii and Lillian Katz “Defending the Early Years” panel

Other FABULOUS Inspirational Videos with Implications for Open Education


I remember seeing this live when it aired in 1991. There is rarely any coverage of education this sensible on television.


The late Bev Bos – “Starting at Square One”


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

Stop the Insanity
Simple strategies to address the growing epidemic of at-risk learners.
October 2007 issue of District Administration Magazine

When politicians shout and headlines highlight underperforming schools and children left behind, they are referring to the growing number of students labeled “at-risk.” The phenomena leading to this designation include poverty, behavioral disorders and the rapidly growing epidemic of learning disabilities. “Atrisk” has really come to mean, “Not good at school.” Consider the possibility that if a student is not good at school, then that school is not good for the student. Perhaps the school is at-risk.

From 1999 through 2001 I worked with MIT colleagues Seymour Papert and David Cavallo on the creation of a high-tech, multiage, project-based, alternative learning environment for incarcerated teens within the troubled Maine Youth Center. Students in a person often represent the hat trick of being at-risk-poverty, social problems and learning disabilities.

My Ph.D. dissertation documents the remarkable work of dozens of these students and shares details of constructionist learning theory, which was supported and validated by the learning environment we created. Subsequent work with large populations of at-risk students in the United States, Canada and Australia leads me to share the following, some might say radical, proposals for serving at-risk learners.

Some define insanity as doing the same thing and expecting a different result. If a student is underperforming or not learning, subjecting him or her to more of the same, perhaps louder or for longer periods of time, will not achieve a different result. This is a punitive approach to teaching that increases student alienation.

The state of Maine freed us from all curricular and assessment requirements. This made it possible for us to focus on each learner. At the very least, every school can try fresh approaches to see if new interventions reduce the severity of the at-risk population.

Treat all new students as welcome guests in your classroom. Leave their umulative folders in the file cabinet so you may get to know them without prejudice. Do not allow colleagues and past teachers to poison your relationship with students before you even get to know them.

One student, Michael, was absolutely brilliant at engineering. He could assemble, test and improve a dozen robotic machines in the time it takes most people to get started. He could converse at length with MIT professors about engineering principles. Yet everything in Michael’s permanent record indicated that he was illiterate. We had clues that this was a misdiagnosis,since Michael programmed computers and garnered information from books around the classroom but never made a big deal about it. Instead we focused on Michael and his current work. We provided assistance when asked and when we observed a teachable moment. A spirit of collegiality and trust was formed between us. Such a bond is critical in any productive context for learning but is often lacking in the lives of at-risk learners.

A few weeks before Michael was going to be released from the facility on his 18th birthday, he quietly sat at his computer for long stretches of time busily working on something important to him. Upon completion of this project, Michael presented us with a 12,000-word autobiography.

My colleague feigned amazement and said, “We were told you were illiterate.” Michael replied, “Oh, I could always read and write, but I wasn’t a very strong reader and I didn’t like reading about puppies.” Then his voice trailed off and he said, “I liked reading about NASA,” as if to suggest that nobody cared about what he liked to read and tossed him in the illiterate bin. Michael and so many other at-risk learners suff er from what Herbert Koh calls “creative maladjustment.” We found that students proud of their work maintained secret portfolios, even if they refused to produce such documentation for us.

Here are a few additional suggestions for better educating at-risk students.

1. Move the goalposts

It may be unrealistic to believe a student years below grade-level will catch up in a few months, regardless of a teacher’s brilliance. The goal needs to be what football coaches call forward progress. We need to take individual students from where they are and move them forward.

2. Be honest

Prioritize and have honest objectives. If a child is disruptive, teaching him or her Algebra 2 may be unrealistic since your real goal is for the student to behave. Institutions give grades for academic subjects, while society just worries about the student being a behavioral problem.

3. Imagine the impossible

If student discipline or behavior is your primary concern, think about the places where such problems do not exist and study them. Reflect on why such activities as summer camp, organized sports or afterschool jobs don’t suffer from the same pathologies, and identify variables you may integrate in the classroom.

4. Remember that less is more

We may need to do a lot more of what we know about effective primary school teaching. Integrated studies, thematic teaching, a centers approach or storytelling as teaching offer models of engaging students without overwhelming them with different rituals and teachers and giving them insufficient time for doing quality work.

5. Stop the name calling

This one is a biggie and extends beyond blaming students for their predicament. Make a concerted effort to refrain from labeling students at-risk, under-performing, etc. Their status is not a surprise to them, and labeling them only harms their self-esteem. Other labels, often considered positive, such as “multiple intelligences learning style” also have a deleterious effect by placing students in a new set of boxes.

6. Eliminate academic competition

While competition may be human nature, it’s highly destructive in the learning environment. It is only possible for students to make steady personal progress if one may comfortably read Dr. Seuss while a classmate tackles James Michener. Th e typical high school classroom sanctions ridicule and rewards degree of difficulty. This is counterproductive for at-risk learners.

7. Create authentic experiences

Disengaged students need to work on long-term meaningful work they can take pride in. Whether you embrace projectbased learning or something akin to the apprenticeship model used successfully by the Big Picture schools, students, especially those at-risk, need to be engaged in authentic experiences.

Students love teachers brave enough to maintain humane relationships with them.

8. Offer greater curricular diversity

The biggest mistake made in an effort to increase test scores is doubling up on reading and mathematics at the expense of the other subjects, especially electives. At-risk students may already dislike school. Depriving them of opportunities to learn something they like by killing-off electives, social studies, science and the arts is a recipe for disastrous dropout rates.

9. Have material rich classrooms

Learn from great kindergarten classes and make classrooms material rich. Not only should there be abundant constructive and computational technology and art supplies, but every classroom needs a wellstocked classroom library of fiction and nonfiction books at every reading level.

Allowing one of our 18-year-old students to “read” a book on tape led him to say, “This is the first time I ever saw pictures when I read.” Access to such materials may quickly lead to literate behaviors. Ubiquitous access to computers may offer a opportunity for at-risk students to demonstrate expertise in a domain not dominated by teachers.

10. Let go of the checklists

Great teachers know that once interest is generated in a story or topic, connections may be made to any other subject. Your scope and sequence is less important than children learning.

11. Talk with the students

While this sounds obvious, I meet highschool-age students regularly who have never had a conversation with an adult. Sure, adults have talked at them or yelled at them or told them what to do, but an alarming number of students have never engaged in an actual intergenerational conversation among equally interested parties. Without reversing this trend, students will never be able to be productive citizens. Students love teachers brave enough to maintain humane relationships with them.

12. The “worst” students need your “best” teachers

We all know the tendency to assign the best students the finest teachers. While we may quibble over a defi nition of “best,” the most flexible, creative, compassionate teachers need to work with your least successful students.

13. Keep the students engaged

The one rule in our Maine classroom was that every student needed to be doing something. Children understand this, and it’s good, simple advice for educators of atrisk students as well. If one strategy isn’t working, do something else.

14. Don’t put students at risk in the first place

Can you imagine how much effort and suffering Michael invested in being illiterate? Wouldn’t asking what he liked to read when he was seven have saved a great deal of hardship? It may take decades to overcome today’s earlier and tougher calls for accountability, which result in the conditions that breed at-risk students.

Gary S. Stager, gary@stager.org, is senior editor of DISTRICT ADMINISTRATION and editor of The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate

(www. districtadministration.com/pulse).

New Ravitch book I have eagerly anticipated Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education , for many months. I’ve recommended the book in this blog and at conferences since my copy arrived a few days ago.

I remain excited that a noted education historian is openly criticizing the pandemic of standardized testing, union-busting, teacher-bashing, charter school expansion and heavy-handed policies being driven by political ideologues and corporate profiteers. Diane Ravitch can teach us a lot about school governance, policy and the history of public education. Just don’t expect to learn much about learning from her new book.

Admittedly, I have only skimmed the book, but it is not hard to find evidence that Dr. Ravitch has not left all of her highly conservative views behind. She blames the familiar bogeymen of the religious right for many of the problems in American public education, notably constructivism and whole language with the selective citing of easily refuted research. Her naive understanding of learning theory or learner-centered pedagogy is like that of a teacher education student or mom who just returned home from a “Tea Party” rally.

Ravitch dismisses research conducted by noted scholars Lauren Resnick and Richard Ellmore and seems to present the case that Anthony Alvarado is one of the villains whose embrace of balanced literacy (HARDLY a progressive idea) and “constructivist math” (oooh booga-booga) led to the destruction of public education.

This assertion is not only wrong, but ignores the fact that Dr. Alvarado led many of the pioneering efforts in urban education including the “small schools” movement that resulted in the highly successful Central Park East Schools started by Ravitch’s colleague, Deborah Meier. Calling the reign of San Diego Superintendent and former prosecutor, Alan Bersin “left-wing”  is laughable to anyone with the slightest awareness of his heavy-handed leadership style.

Ravitch seems to revere A Nation at Risk as gospel created by divine intervention, not the Reagan administration and caricatures efforts of the 60s and 70s to make classrooms more democratic, creative and child-centered. She remains a proponent of national curricula, a patently absurd solution in search of a problem.

That said, I will read the rest of the book and share my thoughts as warranted. I just felt it was my obligation to warn my friends and colleagues that although I recommend  The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,  you should read it with a fresh new battery in your BS detector.

New Ravitch bookEducation historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education for the first President Bush, Diane Ravitch has just published an extraordinary book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. The book should be required reading for every policy-maker, citizen and educator.

The extraordinary reporting found in the book can not help but convince Americans that their public education system is endangered by the politicians, billionaire mischief-makers, foundations and business groups professing to “fix” the “broken” system.

Similar accusations have been leveled before in books by Alfie Kohn, Susan Ohanian, Gerald Bracey, Herb Kohl, Jonathan Kozol, Deborah Meier, Linda Darling-Hammond and others. What makes this book so extraordinary is that it was written by a proponent of many of the reforms Ravitch herself now admits are destroying public education.

That’s right, Dr. Ravitch is the rare scholar/leader who when confronted by the actual application of theory is capable of rethinking her assumptions. Ravitch has also severed ties to many of the conservative think-tanks with whom she no longer shares similar views and has had the courage to expose her change-of-heart and mind publicly in this book and in the spectacular blog, Bridging Differences, she writes with (CMK 2010 guest speaker) Deborah Meier.

Ravitch challenges the current fetishes of merit pay, mayoral control, charter schools, vouchers and standardized testing while also questioning the statistical plausibility of the test score miracles being touted by politicians like Arne Duncan and NYC Mayor Bloomberg. At the same time, Ravitch advocates a national curriculum (albeit a richer one than proposed), an idea I find extremely troublesome. Without sentimentality, Ravitch’s new book is a love letter to public education and the democratic ideals it fosters.

The story of personal transformation late in life is generating an unprecedented level of publicity for a book about education. I am most grateful to Dr. Ravitch for placing these issues at the center of mainstream media debate for the first time. I intend to write something substantive about the book once I have an adequate chance to digest it. In the meantime, I recommend you read the following reviews of the book.

  1. Little Dead Schoolhouse – Boston Globe 2/28/10
  2. “Teacher Ken’s” comprehensive review of the book for the Daily Kos – 2/28/10 (highly recommended)
  3. Business principles won’t work for school reform,  former supporter Ravitch says – Washington Post – 2/26/10
  4. Los Angeles Times review – 2/28/10
  5. Why You Should Read Diane Ravitch’s New Book – Washington Post – 2/26/10

You might also find these resources useful:

Herb Kohl Reader Register by June 5th & get a free copy of the Herb Kohl Reader!

Very few living educators have earned their own anthology. Herb Kohl just did.

After more than 40 years of teaching and more than 40 published books, Herb Kohl’s remarkable canon was recently honored in “The Herb Kohl Reader: Awaking the Heart of Teaching.”

Register for Constructing Modern Knowledge by June 5th and you will receive a copy of this fantastic new book when you arrive at the summer institute.


A recipient of the National Book Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award, Herbert Kohl was a founder and the first director of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative in New York City

Mr. Kohl received a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Harvard University; a Master’s degree in special education from Teacher’s College, Columbia University; and was a Henry Fellow at Oxford in philosophy. He began his teaching career in Harlem in 1962. In his distinguished career, he has taught every grade from kindergarten through college.

Kohl served as the Eugene Lang Visiting Professor for Social Change at Swarthmore College during the 2005-06 academic year. Prior to that, Kohl was the director of the Institute for Social Justice and Education in the University of San Francisco’s School of Education. He has also worked as a Senior Fellow at the Open Society Institute

Herb Kohl

Kohl is the Editor for the important Classics in Progressive Education book series and his recent book, Painting Chinese: A Lifelong Teacher Gains the Wisdom of Youth, is the perfect complement to Constructing Modern Knowledge.

Take a look at some of the classic books written by Herb Kohl or read Gary Stager’s interview with him, Landscape of a Lifetime.


Register for Constructing Modern Knowledge today!