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

ABSTRACT

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from widespread access to computers and the Internet, schools and other educational organizations remain committed to outdated notions of computer literacy instruction.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.

INTRODUCTION

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.

DISTURBING TRENDS

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.

Skinner Rocks!

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.”

Smart Furniture

“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.

Immobile Laptops

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.

CONCLUSION

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.

REFERENCES

  • 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
    Computer Society.
  • 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.

[v] http://www.einstruction.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=news.display&menu=news&content=showArticle&id=115

[vi] http://www.qwizdom.com/download/PressRelease020306.pdf

I am beyond thrilled to share the stage with Dennis Littky at this weekend’s TEDxNYED.

For those of you unfamiliar with Dennis Littky and his amazing work as a true school reformer and briliant educator, an interview I conducted for District Administration Magazine in 2005 is below.

After you read Dennis Littky’s book, The Big Picture: Education is Everybody’s Businesss, you MUST read Doc: The Story Of Dennis Littky And His Fight For A Better School. This recently republished book by Susan Kammeraad-Campbell may be the first education thriller ever published.


Radical Reformer

Dennis Littky drew on his 30 years of education innovation to create a new school model.

By Gary Stager – November 2005

Dennis Littky may be America’s most important educator. After three decades of leading major school innovation in New York, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, Littky, along with co-founder and co-director Elliot Washor, seems to have found the holy grail of school reform in Providence, R.I. Not only have they created a radical school design–Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, a network of six small schools across three campuses that personalizes each student’s education and prepares all 700 students for collegiate and professional success–that has enough success to prove that it works, but they are successfully “scaling up” this model in communities across the United States. As of last school year, there were 26 MET schools in operation and Thayer High School in New Hampshire was the first school in the Coalition of Essential Schools while Littky was its principal.

If all of this were not enough, Littky recently wrote a book, The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s Business, (ASCD 2004). In the book, Littky, 60, reveals the MET model through the profound learning stories of the students it serves. The book is a passionate testament to learners, learning and human potential. The author’s breezy style makes the powerful ideas he shares easily accessible to education stakeholders.

“I think it’s a comment on the world we’re in that simply by being kind and knowing the kids and greeting them is something that stands out.”
Fast Company magazine recently named Littky its No. 4 Entrepreneur of the Year and the Gates Foundation has provided a nearly $10 million grant to help create 38 small, urban high schools in the next five years based on the Big Picture principles and pedagogy. Business leaders embrace Littky’s educational vision without requiring him to pander to their notions of schooling.

Editor-At-Large Gary Stager spoke with Littky recently, covering his philosophy, his future plans, how he operates in this day of NCLB and liability concerns, and whether his schools offer extra-curricular activities. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

How would you describe the MET in 30 seconds?
Littky: The MET is the school that truly takes one student at a time. An incredibly respectful place, meaning not just being nice to kids but [also] in the way it respects whatever they’re interested in.

The family is part of making decisions, whatever the kid is interested in, it starts from that kid. So in that sense I think it’s different than any other school and we do not believe that there is one curriculum that everyone has to know. A lot of people argue about that.

And then the structures are set up with a teacher following a kid in a small group for four years so you really get to know [the student] well. And we push that all the work be real, so it’s not [pretending] you’re interested in writing a paper on horses. It’s working with somebody around horses and finding something real that can be done. So I think it’s the deep respect allowing the kid in the family to build their own curriculum, follow their own interest and passions and to do it all in a real way so it’s not fake.

So how do you know they’re done–prepared for college, life or jobs?
Littky: That’s a great question because they’re never done, done with a project or done with school, ready to move on. You know in few of the ways we are pretty traditional, I mean there are kids who come to us that are very skilled, kids who come to us that could spend eight years with us. … Some kids do something very different their last year. … I was just with a kid yesterday who is doing a documentary as a senior project. I almost don’t consider our stuff school.

So it partly is the longer we can stay with kids, helping to support their learning and letting them grow is good. Kids ready to move on whenever they want to move on, they move on.

We don’t leave our kids after they graduate. One of the main things we do that we don’t even talk about that much is that I have a transition counselor. I involve the advisors after [graduation].

Last week we had an empty nest meeting with the parents of the kids who left because many of them are single parents, their best friend just left for school [college. They’ve] never had anybody in school. So your kid messes up. What do they say? “Come home honey.”

We’re with them forever, I have 10 kids now working back in our school in some capacity who graduated over the last four or five years.

So how do you convince colleges or employers that they’re ready?
Littky: Well, ready, of course, is relative, but because our kids are dealing with the adult world from freshman [year] on–having lots of adult mentors, making their phone calls, talking to customers, making presentations, they’re way more ready for the work world and getting stuff done.

The only way they’re ready for college is that the hope that most of them have this love for learning and want to continue. People ask me how do our kids function once they get in regular classes? The kids take college classes all through, they know some are [lousy], they know some are good. They’re pretty independent in their thinking and working so they don’t need to be guided. So, the good part and the bad part is there’s less tolerance of [lousy classes].

You know, we grew up to accept bad teachers. On one end you hope they put up with it and don’t drop out of school, on the other hand you want them to acknowledge that they’re being mistreated and disrespected.

You make the point in the book that the MET is not vocational. So with all the emphasis on internship and real-world things how does it remain non-vocational? How do you resist that temptation?

Littky: I believe that everything is hands and eyes, I’m not sure there is anything vocational anymore, things are changing too fast. And the reason we use the internship is not to prepare the kids to be an architect or a car mechanic. It is to find something they love that can engage them and get them to think and to explore new bigger things.

I have a quote in [the book] saying–and I love the quote–“The way to really teach people to be good thinkers is to let them learn anything in an in-depth kind of way. And if they do that then you change,” so that’s why it’s not vocational.

I don’t care what the kid’s going to do, but whatever they love, now that’s what I care about.

So what does a day or week look like at the MET?
Littky: Tuesday and Thursday the kids don’t come to school, they go right to their internship and for the advisors it’s not a time where they are in meetings or doing other things. The teachers are on the road during that time also. They’re visiting that kid at the architect’s office. They’re visiting that kid at the zoo. They’re trying to find the work that’s real work. They’re trying to make sure that every kid has their own learning plan. They’re trying to make sure that the goals they set are being met by the environment.

So in those days if you came to school and we took you to the hospital you would see kids doing blood tests, or see kids following around a doctor. At a computer place, they’re developing some programs for one of their customers. So really in the best-case scenario, they’re real workers in places where they’re not just filing.

How do you convince the partners, the mentors of that?
Littky: It’s been way, way, way easier than people expect! One, adults love to have some teenager that loves what they love and they don’t they have to take home at night. And their own kids don’t give a [darn] about what they do, so they become very attached to our kids. Mentors who have been there for four years are given an honorary teaching degree at graduation. They’ve really been there [for the students] so that has not been the problem really.

Then Monday, Wednesday and Friday kids come to school in the morning and we all start the day with what we call a “pick-me-up.” Our schools are only 120 kids each and the whole school is together and you may have someone reading poetry, you may have a kid talking about their trip, you may have someone showing a video they made. There’s something to broaden the kids and start the day in an up way. Then they go to an advisory, every kid belongs to one to 15 in our case, one to 17 in California, a group that meets every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for four years.

And that advisor/teacher is really in charge of their whole program. So on that day they could be reading a paper about what does it mean that Arafat died, what does that mean for us? They’ll be talking about the election … The main textbook is each kid has a calendar book, they’ll be walking around, “What’s your schedule for the week? Who are you meeting with? When are you working?’ So that advisory period goes on about a half hour. Then the kids are kind of on their own, small groups, individuals having their meetings, teachers moving around helping them saying, “C’mon I want to edit that paper with you. Jimmy go work with Sam on this.”

And the paper is related to the internship?
Littky: That’s right, the projects are all related to a Hispanic kid, his writing, doing a brochure in Spanish for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. There are a lot of Spanish people in Providence. Somebody else is doing a presentation at CVS Drug Stores, they’re doing PowerPoint. Somebody else is researching a project for an architect. So, in the best-case scenario, I describe it like looking like a newsroom. People moving around and working.

To me that’s what’s so exciting. When I bring people to school I say, “Look, you don’t see teacher out here,” the kids are on the computer, they’re moving around, kids are asking for help because they have something real that’s got to get done. Then they have lunch together in a regular way and then again they’re out doing their individual small group work with a teacher moving around and then they come back together at the end of the day for a half hour, kind of summing up what they’re doing, making sure they know what they’re thinking about doing at night.

The teacher doesn’t assign homework, it’s on the individual, “Hey I got to present this manual to the guy at the hospital tomorrow, how do I do this?” So that’s kind of the week and the exciting part, which keeps our attendance the highest in the state in all our schools is it’s different every day. You know there’s something new all the time.

And the kids collaborate?
Littky: The kids collaborate so they have other teachers work with them, like they say, “I don’t know much about this area.” “Go see Rachel over there so.”

The expertise is distributed.
Littky: It truly is a learning community. It’s about using lots of adults. We have six schools there. Yesterday I was at the Oakland school and there’s this group pushing kids to get a voice through reading and they were all running book groups, so the teachers didn’t have to do that. They were working on something else.

So it’s looking at what a kid needs, looking around and saying, “How do we get them there?” A lot of our kids take college courses; you find an interest.

So how do you deal with the more mundane things like liability, ADA, certifying that they’re ready to graduate; all the sort of legal stuff that everyone gets hysterical about?
Littky: Well the world has become a tougher place to do our work since No Child Left Behind. You do whatever you need to do. We don’t have grades. Students do an hour-long exhibition every quarter, ninth grade on. Teachers write a page or two narrative on it, kids write notes and self-evaluations. But then when it’s time to go to college we translate that into a transcript. So we’re not stupid, we know colleges aren’t going to look at 16 narratives.

And our transcript has our four English classes. They’re just done in a different way, so as long as you can translate it. … You force your state to be a little more performance-based within as much structure as you need. If you’ve got to call the morning advisory something else, you call it something else. You’re covered by child labor laws and our kids are working regular internships in places It’s not so difficult.

So do you think there are lessons in MET for elementary schools?
Littky: Yeah, absolutely.

The thinking is always that the high school has so much to learn from the elementary schools.

Littky: Yeah. The best kindergarten class is built around kids’ needs. Find out what that kid needs, getting along with others, learning how to do blocks, learning how to read and then we seem to forget and everybody is the same in third grade. I think elementary schools need to look at [what they do] too.

But again, how do you make it real? We have a few elementary schools and we started a charter school in Providence. How do you make it real for a third grader? It’s like a visit to a fish place, it’s like going to a museum, how real is your community? But again, you know those young kids have creative, great ideas for inventions that do stuff; they just get it knocked down. And if you do it right, I mean and in the younger grades this is even more important. Kids got to learn to read and so you’ve gotta just keep pushing that, but if you find stuff kids are interested in then that’s how you teach them to read. I think our ideas are applicable all over the place.

Where do you get teachers from?
Littky: Well, that’s a hard one because our teacher training institutions are obviously not training teachers to work in Big Picture schools.

What are they training for?
Littky: They are training them to stand up in front of a room and lecture for high schools. And they’re spending time on how do you discipline kids? How do you control the class? Making sure you know all this content. … So most of our people who’ve gone through teacher training programs are not very well trained for, “Stop a second. Listen to the kid. Look at the kid. What connects? What kind of project?” So one, we do a tremendous amount of training ourselves. Every summer we have something we call working camp where we bring the freshman in.

You’re working them two, three hours and then you’re understanding what does it really mean to follow your passion, what does it really mean to get an internship? When we bring the whole staff together for another two weeks, we have every month a day where we step back and really look with a couple meetings during the week. So it just becomes this ongoing teacher-training piece and sometimes some of your good people didn’t even come from teaching. They come from other places that think about kids and have that respect for kids.

Our teachers need to be people who have a lifelong learning within themselves, an excitement about learning because they’ve got to be excited about helping you go further. They’ve got to be smart enough in the broadest way. So it’s mostly trying to find the kind of people that feel this in their heart and then we have to train them through the years.

So how many MET Schools are there now?
Littky: Twenty-six.

How do they get started?
Littky: One starts one by finding somebody with the power who says, “I want one of these.” We start them all different ways. So it could start from the superintendent in Oakland saying, “I want one of these,” or it could be somebody saying, “I’d like to start a charter school like this.”

Somebody said they want to do a charter and use our materials. If they get that charter and have a building, they can come to us. We’ve been going to a lot of districts that say they want us. And then we together select a principal. We feel that’s the key and then we train that person. We have what we call “TYBO,” The Year Before Opening, and we train those people on and off for a year. So it’s not like, “Okay, August, congratulations you’re on, let’s go.” A year beforehand we’re visiting the school, I’m working with some people.

Go observe a learning plan, then go out and do your own. Get ready to teach your own staff. How do you recruit back in your area? How do you get a building so we [can] work with people for a year getting them ready to go. Then we send coaches out, we’ve got materials online, we’re now starting video conferencing. But it can also start with women in Santa Monica just started following Elliot and I around. You know we kept putting them off, putting them off and then we’re talking about starting a school there.

So what is your goal?
Littky: Our goal is to have no more than 50 schools and to try to build a network so they can support each other and be here in 20 years and be a model for others. Not that someone has got to do the exact thing, but if you were designing a school you may say go there and look at how they do internships. We can’t do this, but let’s make our senior year [different]. So we’re looking to change the world in the way of having a model design that can help people as you say go further and further in their work.

What’s the involvement of the Gates Foundation?
Littky: Well, Gates has given out money to start schools so we’ve been very fortunate to use their money to hire coaches to develop our Big Picture Online and to train principals. They’ve made it possible to do it.

I am very grateful to Gates, I think we should all be very grateful to Gates because in these tough times they have been one of the lone few that have supported something very different than the mainstream in this country. So the fact that they’ve given out $600 million, or however much it is, to people to do small, personalized schools is real positive. My worry is always about quality and sustainability.

You know we’re in our ninth year at the MET and just getting to our full capacity, we just got our buildings a year and a half ago, so this stuff takes time. When people used to look at me and say, “Oh you’ve got such small schools, how are you going to attack the districts?” I felt like saying, “It’s taken a hundred years to screw up our education system, it’s not going to be cured overnight.” Now I can do this 100-year plan that says, “Of course none of us are that patient, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”

Funding the Big Picture is at odds with current educational practice.
Littky: Correct.

So is that an accident or does the Gates Foundation have an actual dog in the fight?
Littky: No, I think two things that are rather interesting; I think Tom Vander Ark who was given the right even more so at the beginning to go find the movers and shakers to do this, had the right philosophy and found the right people regardless where the world was going.

He sought out people who were doing this kind of stuff, pressures of the world might be starting to change that, but I think it’s no accident that there are a lot of good groups that a lot of my friends, colleagues, got funded during this time. I don’t think it was an accident.

So how does your school deal with things like extracurricular activities and the other stuff that becomes synonymous with secondary education?
Littky: The baseball team is 0 and 30. No we don’t have it, and I get asked for one every day. And we do have proms, I guess everyone’s got their line you know. There are things that kids really connect to a high school in a way and really want and if you feel it will not take away from the main reason you’re there, then we go with it. The yearbook is something that’s very important to us. A prom was something very important to us.

Those are both things you see at the school all kind of run by the kids. Big-time sports, which were important to me personally, are hard to do when kids are working late, with internships etc. So we have managed to do intramurals. We have managed to have kids that want to play in a city league come at 6: 00 in the morning and practice. And if a kid wants to play big-time sports because that’s their passion, and we usually have one a year, they’re allowed to play at another school.

You know we talk about school going on all the time, so everything a kid does counts in a way. So we’re doing a thing this year, I’m struggling with it, but I’m keeping ninth graders till 5 p.m. So rather than going after school I just extended the day so there’s more of an option and time to do stuff.

Why are you doing it?
Littky: Well, 3 to 5 is the most dangerous time of the day. Ninth graders are usually pretty bored. So it’s just extended time to be able to either play with tutoring, to be able to give them a support environment, to do dance, to do those kinds of things. But I kind of look if they’re playing on a church team, that’s part of it. If they’re taking dance lessons someplace, go for it. We’re trying to get our kids to be active learners and engaged as much as possible.

You told a story in the book that resonated with me. I’ve seen variations on it a hundred times. You became nationally famous because you and your teachers greeted kids in the morning. Can you share some of your feelings about the reaction to such a gesture?
Littky: Well, I always say it’s pathetic–the standards we have out there. There was somebody, I think it was one of the Disney Teachers of the Year on one of the talk shows …

The 75 rules?
Littky: No, no, this one was somebody said, “I know every teacher’s name in high school.” “Oh my gosh that’s fantastic!” or “I know all my kid’s names!” “Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, it should be the other. “Oh my gosh we’ve been talking about it.” And so it’s just I think a comment on the world we’re in that simply by being kind and knowing the kids and greeting them is something that stands out. You know it’s like school has gotten to be such an impersonal place, the people have no idea how learning is connected to understanding who the kid is. So it’s laughable actually.

How did we get to this place?
Littky: I’m not that old but I think, I don’t know. The first page of my book I define what is learning. And I was thinking about it in terms of that’s the difference? We don’t have a definition in this country on what is learning. There is the famous quote that Bush’s grammar was a little incorrect when he said, “He wished–no he used instead of he and she he used he and her, but it says he wants kids to learn to read so they can pass the literacy tests.

So that has become our goal, not to read well, not to use what you read, but to pass the literacy test. So, I think until the country either gets a little more together on what they think is important for human beings, how to help people be mindful, or to have enough choices so people can decide this is who I want my child to be so I want to send her there, we’re in trouble.

Gary Stager, gary@stage.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.

Explaining MET

  • Each MET school consists of no more than 120 students in advisories of no more than 15 to 17.
  • Each student works with the same advisor and peers for their entire secondary education.
  • Two days each week, MET students do not go to school. They do community-based internships with mentor experts in the student’s area of interest. The curriculum for the remaining three days is based on whatever the student needs to learn in order to succeed in their internship.

MET facts

  • The Met’s math scores jumped from a three-year average of 38 to 68 in 2004, a 79% increase.
  • The Met’s English/Language Arts scores rose from a three-year average of 64 to 79, a 23% increase.
  • The Met exceeded the No Child Left Behind goals set for Rhode Island in 2007.
  • On average, The Met had 18% more students profi cient in math and 14% more students proficient in English/Language Arts than the three largest Providence high schools. 94.2% graduation rate (one of the highest in the state) The state average is 81.3% and the Providence average is 57% for the city’s three largest high schools 93.3% attendance rate (one of the highest in the state) The state average is 89.5% and the Providence average is 77% for the city’s three largest high schools #1 in the state Parent Involvement1
  • The Met: 88 State Average: 41 Measures how involved parents feel in the school and how comfortable they are with teachers and school environment #1 in the state School Climate
  • The Met: 79 State Average: 68 Measures school safety, respect between teachers and students, student behavior in class #3 in the state Instruction
  • The Met: 61 State Average: 38 Measures teachers’ skills and support from school #1 in the state Teacher Availability (academic)
  • The Met: 76% High School State Average: 46% Percentage of students who feel they can talk to a teacher about academic issues #1 in the state Teacher Availability (personal)
  • The Met: 63% High School State Average: 18% Percentage of students who feel they can talk to a teacher about personal or family problems 1 Data on parent involvement, school climate, and instruction (from 2004), highest score = 100

I realise that this is late notice, but I will be leading a seminar, The Best Educational Ideas in the World: Adventures on the Frontiers of Learning, 13 September 2010 in the Lecture Theatre at The University of Melbourne’s Trinity College. The seminar will be from 4:00 PM to 7:00 PM and costs just $50 (US) ($58 AU). Regrettably, my registration system won’t handle Australian currency.

The seminar is intended for all P-12 teachers, tech directors, computing teachers, university students, parents and administrators.

You may register online here. Please pass this information along to colleagues & friends!!

A poster may be downloaded here.

Maps and location information may be found here.

The Best Educational Ideas in the World: Adventures on the Frontiers of Learning

Contemporary discussions of school improvement focus on the creation of obedience schools for poor children or utopian governance schemes. 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 teaching practices.

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. An ample Q&A session will follow the presentation.

Stops along our tour may include:

  • Personal fabrication
  • Reggio Emilia
  • Constructionism
  • El Sistema
  • 826 Valencia
  • Generation YES
  • One Laptop Per Child
  • and even reality television!

About Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Since 1982, Gary Stager, an internationally recognized educator, speaker and consultant, has helped learners of all ages on six continents embrace the power of computers as intellectual laboratories and vehicles for self-expression. He led professional development in the world’s first laptop schools (1990), has designed online graduate school programs since the mid-90s, is a collaborator in the MIT Media Lab’s Future of Learning Group and a member of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation’s Learning Team. Mr. Stager’s doctoral research involved the creation a high-tech alternative learning environment for incarcerated at-risk teens. Recent work includes teaching and mentoring some of Australia’s “most troubled” public schools. Gary was Senior Editor of District Administration Magazine and Founding Editor of The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate. He is currently Visiting Professor at Pepperdine University, an Associate of the Thornburg Center for Professional Development and the Executive Director of The Constructivist Consortium. In 1999, Converge Magazine named Gary a “shaper of our future and inventor of our destiny.” The National School Boards Association recognized Dr. Stager with the distinction of “20 Leaders to Watch” in 2007. The June 2010 issue of Tech & Learning Magazine named Gary Stager as “one of today’s leaders who are changing the landscape of edtech through innovation and leadership.”

Dr. Stager was a keynote speaker at the 2009 National Educational Computing Conference before an audience of more than 4,000 educators. He was also a Visiting Scholar at The University of Melbourne’s Trinity College during the summer of 2009.

Recently, Gary was the new media producer for The Brian Lynch/Eddie Palmieri Project – Simpatíco, 2007 Grammy Award Winner for Best Latin Jazz Album of the Year. Dr. Stager is also a contributor to The Huffington Post.

Register online here!