In Chapter Four of our new book, Invent to Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, we discuss the importance of prompt setting as a basis for project-based learning. I argue that “a good prompt is worth 1,000 words.” Projects are not the occasional dessert you get as a reward after consuming a semester’s worth of asparagus, but that the project should be a teacher’s “smallest unit of concern.

Last week, Sylvia Martinez and I completed a successful four-city Texas Invent to Learn workshop tour. Each workshop featured an open-ended engineering challenge. This challenge, completed in under two hours, was designed not only to introduce making, engineering, tinkering, and programming to educators with diverse experience, but to model non-coercive, constructionist, project-based learning.

Presented with what we hope was a good prompt, great materials, “sufficient” time, and a supportive culture, including a range of expertise, the assembled educators would be able to invent and learn in ways that exceeded their expectations. (We used two of our favorite materials: the Hummingbird Bit Robotics Kit and Snap! programming language.)

A good time was had by all. Workshop participants created wondrous and whimsical inventions satisfying their interpretation of our prompt. In each workshop a great deal was accomplished and learned without any formal instruction or laborious design process.

What’s your point?
Earlier today, our friends at Birdbrain Technologies, manufacturers of the Hummingbird Bit Robotics Kit, tweeted one of the project videos from our Austin workshop. (Workshop participants often proudly share their creations on social media, not unlike kids. Such sharing causes me to invent new workshop prompts on a regular basis so that they remain a surprise in subsequent events.)

This lovely video was shared for all of the right reasons. It was viewed lots of times (and counting). Many educators liked or retweeted it, All good!

What’s slightly more problematic is the statement of the prompt inspiring this creation.

“Problem: The Easter Bunny is sick. Design a robot to deliver eggs.”

That was not the exact prompt presented to our workshop participants. This slight difference makes all the difference in the world.

The slide used to launch the invention process

Aren’t you just nitpicking?
Why quarrel over such subtle differences in wording?

  • Words matter
  • My prompt was an invitation to embark on a playful learning adventure complete with various sizes of candy eggs and a seasonal theme. Posing the activity as a problem/solution raises the stakes needlessly and implies assessment.
  • Design a robot comes with all sorts of baggage and limits the possible range of approaches. (I just rejected the word, solutions, and chose approaches because words matter.)

People have preconceived notions of robots (good and bad). Even if we are using a material called a robotics kit, I never want children to cloud their thinking with conventional images of robots.

The verb, design, is also problematic. It implies a front-loaded process involving formal planning, audience, pain point, etc… good in some problem solving contexts, but far from universally beneficial.

The use of problem, design, and robot needlessly narrows and constrains the affective, creative, and intellectual potential of the experience.

A major objective of professional learning activities such as these is for educators to experience what learning-by-doing may accomplish. Diving in, engaging in conversation with the materials, collaborating with others, and profiting from generative design (a topic for future writing) leads all learners to experience success, even in the short time allotted for this activity. Such a process respects what Papert and Turkle called epistemological pluralism. Hopefully, such positive personal experiences inspire future exploration, tinkering, and learning long after the workshop ends.

Our book suggests that good prompts are comprised of three factors:

  • Brevity
  • Ambiguity
  • Immunity to assessment

Such prompt-setting skill develops over time and with practice. Whether teaching preschoolers or adults, I am sensitive to planting the smallest seed possible to generate the most beautiful garden with the healthiest flowers. That glorious garden is free of litter from brainstorming Post-It Notes, imagination crushing rubrics, and other trappings of instruction.

References
Martinez, S. L., & Stager, G. (2019). Invent to learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, second edition (2 ed.): Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press

Turkle, S., & Papert, S. (1992). Epistemological Pluralism and the Revaluation of the Concrete. Journal of Mathematical Behavior, 11(1), 3-33.


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.

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Buy the book!

Long ago, a wise friend told me that 90% of education research is bullshit. As I mature, I realize that estimate is far too modest. Social media and the nonsense masquerading as education journalism have become inundated with a flaming brown paper bag full of articles out to prove that phonics[1]and penmanship instruction[2]are crucial 21stCentury skills[3], class size does not matter[4][5], constructivism is a failed pedagogical strategy[6], there are no learning styles[7], not everyone “needs to code,”[8]all kids need to be above the norm[9][10], and that standardized testing is objective, reliable, and valid[11].

If you believe any of these things, then I would love to tell you that the Common Core State [education] Standards were “written by the nation’s governors.” No seriously; they expect us to believe that crap. I for one would love to see Chris Christie’s notes from his curriculum development meetings. “Time for some BrainPop on the GW Bridge!”

When brightly colored infographics and Venn diagrams with nothing in the intersection of the rings fail to convince you to panic, the purveyors of hysteria wave their interactive white board pen and recite the magic word, “SCIENCE!”

SCIENCE is the new FINLAND!

Wish to justify the curious epidemic of learning disabilities, just yell, “SCIENCE!” Want to medicate kids when your curriculum fails to sedate them? SCIENCE! Care to cut salaries and slash electives? SCIENCE will prove that playing the bassoon will never get you a high-paying job at Google passing out t-shirts at tradeshows like the niece of your mom’s hairdresser. (Someone should set that last paragraph to music. Lin-Manuel, call me!)

Aside from the ISIS-like fanaticism defending phonics or penmanship systems, two recent “studies” reveal the quality of SCIENCE rushing through the body education like sugar-free gummy bears. “Study Shows Classroom Decor Can Distract From Learning,” about the value of bare walls on kindergartener’s recall, and “Kids perform better during boring tasks when dressed as Batman.” No, seriously. Those are real. Someone undoubtedly earned an EdD and parking space at Southern North Dakota Community College for such drivel.

The mere stench of SCIENCE associated with such studies goes unchallenged and serves as fantastic clickbait for a myriad of school discipline conventions. (Seriously, this is a real thing.) Why doesn’t anyone ask why babies are taking bubble tests or should be subjected to ugly classrooms? Surely, the National Science Foundation is funding replication studies to determine if five-year-olds dressed as Superman or Queen Elsa are more easily tricked into wasting their formative years on meaningless tasks? [12]

It just isn’t sufficiently SCIENTIFIC for children to enjoy happy, healthy, creative, productive, and playful childhoods. Move along young Batman. Nothing to see here. Wet your pants again? You might be dyslexic.

SCIENCE is only ever used to sustain the mythology or comfort of adults. The only time educators are ever asked to provide “evidence” is to justify something kids like – laptops, recess, band, making things…

The burden of proof is quite different for defending the status quo. What was the last time you heard anyone ask for evidence to support homework, 42-minute class periods, Algebra II, AP classes, textbooks, worksheets, times tables, interactive white boards, or the countless forms of coercion, humiliation, and punishment visited on students daily?

You know where else you find very little actual science? In Science class where the vast majority of the curriculum is concerned with vocabulary memorization or historical reenactments and very few students do science by engaging in the habits of a scientist.

At a recent gathering, three generations of people shared what they remembered from their high school science classes. The most vivid memories consisted of starting fires, causing explosions, noxious fumes, throwing test tubes out a window while exclaiming, “I’m Zeus,” or killing things (plants, the class rat, time). In SCIENTIFIC terms, 0.000000003% of the official science curriculum is retained after Friday’s quiz.

Another way of providing nutrients to the sod of education rhetoric is to sprinkle highfalutin terms like, metacognition, everywhere. This form of scientism takes a little understood concept and demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of it as a vehicle for justifying more memorization, teacher compliance, or producing the illusion of student agency. Don’t even get me started about the experts incapable of discerning the difference between teaching and learning or the bigshots who think learning is a noun.

Free advice: Forbes, the McKinsey Group, anyone associated with Clayton Christensen, TED Talks and EdSurge are not credible sources on education reform, pedagogy, or learning theory even if they accidentally confirm our own biases once in a while. They are libertarian hacks hell-bent on dismantling public education. It is also a good rule of thumb to steer clear of any source containing “ED,” “topia,” “mentum,” “vation,” “mind,” “brain,” “institute,” or “ology” in their title.

When you get right down to it, many of the questionable educational practices seeking justification from SCIENCE seek to promote simplistic mechanical models of complex processes that are in actuality much harder to distill or even impossible to comprehend. To those seeking to justify phonics instruction, a simple input-output diagram is preferable to the more likely hypothesis that reading is natural. Learning is not the direct result of having been taught.

Note: This is a deliberate provocation intended to challenge a phenomenon in education rather than engage in a hot-tempered battle of dueling research studies. Don’t bother to ask me for evidence to support my claims since I’m trading in common sense and honestly do not care if you agree with me. Seriously.

Of course, there are studies widely available to validate my outrageous blather, but I am under no obligation to identify them for you unless you grant me a cushy tenure track position, medical insurance, and a pension. If this article upsets you, my powers of persuasion are inadequate to change your mind anyway.

Endnotes:

[1]If everyone learns to read through the direct instruction of a fixed sequence 43 different sounds, how do you explain students learning to read in China, Japan, Israel or any other language without phonemes?

[2]These studies always “prove” the importance of medieval chores by pointing to test score increases (memorization). How many children are misdiagnosed with learning disabilities for confusing the ability to express themselves (writing) with the way in which they use a pencil (writing)? If penmanship is so precious, teach it in art class as a craft or as a PE activity prior to the prehistoric high school IB exams.

[3]I refrain from citing the pernicious and ubiquitous “studies” I mock with such utter contempt because I do not wish to give them any more oxygen.

[4]See the amoral work of John Hattie. He also determined that desegregation doesn’t matter for student achievement. Basic concepts of right and wrong are of no consequence for such purveyors of SCIENCE!

[5]Bill Gates loves larger classes too (except for his children) – https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/02/bill-gates-big-idea-to-fix-us-education-bigger-classes/71797/

[6]Constructivism is not a pedagogical trick, it is a scientific learning theory. Those who doubt constructivism are like flat earthers or climate change deniers. Science has nothing to do with their beliefs.

[7]Go ahead; argue that humans do not learn differently. The anti-learning styles crowd confuses teacher intervention with learning.

[8]Addressed this issue in this podcast.

[9]Hillary Clinton promised to close all schools below average – https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/12/23/hillary-clinton-may-want-to-close-every-public-school-in-america-according-to-math/?utm_term=.623a9f0ad161

[10]No Child Left Behind demanded that all schools meet norm-reference standards by 2014 – [10]https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/10/11/354931351/it-s-2014-all-children-are-supposed-to-be-proficient-under-federal-law

[11]See all education policy

[12]My friend Alfie Kohn does a fantastic job dismantling the quality of such “SCIENCE” in this article. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2014/06/05/the-education-question-we-should-be-asking/


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.

In August 2018, I delivered the opening keynote address at the Constructionism Conference in Vilnius, Lithuania. When invited to speak at the conference nearly eighteen months earlier, I felt pressured to share the topic of my address quickly. Since I do some of my best work as a wiseass, I offered the title, “Making Constructionism Great Again.” Over the ensuing months, my tongue-in-cheek title began resonating and formed the basis for what I believe to be one of my favorite keynotes ever. (Sadly, I will unlikely ever give the presentation again. Therefore, I will not have the opportunity to improve upon my performance)

Despite the title I selected, I accepted the sober challenge of making an important contribution to the conference. After all, this is a community I care about, a topic I have dedicated my adult life to, in the home of my ancestors. Due to a family emergency, the speaker scheduled before me had to fly home and my talk got moved earlier in the schedule at the last minute. That meant that some of the people I hoped would hear my message, missed it. I rarely write a speech with specific audience members in mind, but I did in this case.

A bit of background

The Constructionism Conference is held every two years, almost always in Europe. The conference prior to Vilnius was in Thailand, but that was the only time the conference was outside of Europe. For close to three decades, the conference was called, EuroLogo, and was a biennial event celebrating the use of the Logo programming language in education. In 2008, the long-time organizers of the conference worried that interest in Logo was waning and that shifting the emphasis to constructionism (1) would broaden the appeal and attract more participants. It has not. Communities begin to die when they become self-conscious. There is nothing wrong with “preaching to the converted.” There are quite successful institutions that preach to the converted. Its members find strength, nourishment, and purpose in gathering.

In my humble opinion, the problem lies within the fact that the European Logo community, and this is a generalization, focused more narrowly on the fascinating mathematical or computational aspects of the Logo programming language separate and apart from its more radical use as an instrument of school reform, social justice, and epistemology. Logo’s father and inventor of “constructionism,” Dr. Seymour Papert was a noted mathematician and computer scientist who did invent the first programming language for children, but limiting the enormity of his vision to that would be like one of his favorite parables about the blind men and the elephant.

To me, the Constructionism/EuroLogo community has been focused on what is measurable and earns academic credit for those seeking job security in university systems proud of their ongoing medieval traditions. Although I have great friends who I love, respect, and adore within this somewhat dysfunctional family, I am never sure what they make of the loud American kid who works with thousands of teachers each year and doesn’t give a damn about publishing journal articles read by 3.1415927 people.

I go to the Constructionism Conference every two years because it is important to sustain the community and ideally to help it mature. If it became more popular or influential along the way, that would be a bonus. This speech was intended as a bit of unsolicited tough love, but love nonetheless. In fact, love is a big theme in this address. That is one of the most important lessons I learned from Seymour Papert and this Constructionism Conference was the first since his death.

I hope you will watch

Thankfully, I grabbed the SD card out of the video camera sitting in the theatre pointed at the stage following the talk so there is a video documenting a talk I am proud of and wish I could give many more times. The audio quality isn’t perfect and there is no camera work (except for a couple of quick edits I made). That said, if you want to understand who I am and why I do what I do, I hope you will watch this video. It was quite an emotional experience.

If you wish to listen to it while deep sea folk dancing, please WATCH from about the 46 minute mark. You need to see, hear, and feel what great teaching and learning look like.

(1) For those of you interested in learning more about constructionism, you could read our book, Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom or Edith Ackermann’s splendid papers, her Constructionism 2010 paper, Constructivism(s): Shared roots, crossed paths, multiple legacies or Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism: What’s the difference?


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.

There is so much for educators to learn about learning, learn about love, and loving to learn in this remarkable reunion commemorating Art Blakey’s Centennial. (start watching from 25:41)

The Jazz Congress in NYC ended today with a panel discussion featuring approximately thirty of the world’s finest musicians, all of whom played with the great Art Blakey over the course of four decades. For my money, this may be the single greatest gathering of artists ever assembled to honor a common mentor in history. Whether you never heard of Art Blakey or he is indelibly part of your consciousness, this conversation is simultaneously moving, profound, profane, and hilarious.

This video is everything! You owe yourself the two hour experience. I will refrain from saying more so you may construct your own meaning.

This remarkable gathering may be of equal or greater significance than the legendary A Great Day in Harlem photo.


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.

Following speaking at the prestigious WISE Conference in Qatar (November 2017), Gary Stager delivered a keynote address on learning-by making at a conference held at The American University in Cairo. The video is finally available. Enjoy!


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.

In May 2018, Gary Stager sat down with Change.School founders, Bruce Dixon and Will Richardson for their Modern Learners Podcast, to discuss learning, teaching, school improvement, and a host of other provocative topics. The title of the podcast is “The Lost Art of Teaching with Gary Stager.”

You may listen to the conversation or download the audio podcast here or watch the Zoom video below.

Look at what preK-6 Mexican teachers did in my recent PBL 360 workshop in Guadalajara. This was their first experience with engineering, physical computing, and programming. They designed, created, and programmed these “birds” in less than two hours with the Hummingbird Robotics Kit and SNAP!

The prompt was simple…

“Make a Bird. Singing and dancing is appreciated.”

There was no instruction. The entire project was completed in under two hours – roughly the equivalent of two class periods.

My work continues to demonstrate the limits of instruction, the power of construction, and the Piagetian notion that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.” There is simply no substitute for experience. Constructive technology and computing amplify human potential and expand the range, breadth, and depth of possible projects. This is critical since the project should be the smallest unit of concern for educators.

Look at these short video clips sharing the teachers’ projects and compare what is possible during an educator’s first or second computing experience with the unimaginative and pedestrian “technology” professional development typically offered. We need to raise our standards substantially.

“You cannot behave as if children are competent if you behave as if teachers are incompetent.” – Gary Stager

The following videos are unedited clips of each group sharing their project. Start listing the plethora of curricular standards satisfied by a single project of this kind.

Operatic Diva Bird from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

The Parrott from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde Robot Pengin from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Three-Function Bird from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

Singing Bird with Creepy Eyes from Gary Stager on Vimeo.

About the author

Gary Stager, Ph.D. is the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute for educators, coauthor of Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, and curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, DailyPapert.com. You may learn more about him and reach out here.


The Hummingbirds Robotics Kit is also available from Amazon.com.

I wrote the attached paper for the 2017 Interaction Design and Children Conference at Stanford University. It was accepted, but ultimately not published since I could not justify the thousand bucks or so it would cost to attend the conference and then sign over the copyright of my work in order for it to disappear into an obscure journal.

Participating in such academic conferences have a very low return on investment since I am not a tenure track university professor. Nonetheless, I hope this paper makes some sort of contribution to the discussion.


ABSTRACT

The recent death of Seymour Papert is an occasion for grief, celebration, and planning for building upon his enormous contributions to knowledge. This paper is a plea for the IDC community to help preserve and expand upon the enormity of Papert’s powerful ideas.

Read the complete paper here.

Gary was recently interviewed by the National School Boards Association for the June 2015 American School Boards Journal.

Read “The Best Makerspace is Between Your Ears.”

 

 

“Young people have a remarkable capacity for intensity….”

Those words, uttered by one of America’s leading public intellectuals, Dr. Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, has driven my work for the past six or seven years. It is incumbent on every educator, parent, and citizen to build upon each kid’s capacity for intensity otherwise it manifests itself as boredom, misbehavior, ennui, or perhaps worst of all, wasted potential.

Schools need to raise the intensity level of their classrooms!

However, intensity is NOT the same as chaos. Schools don’t need any help with chaos. That they’ve cornered the market on.

capacity500
Anyone who has seen me speak is familiar with this photograph (above). It was taken around 1992 or 1993 at Glamorgan (now Toorak) the primary school campus of Geolong Grammar school in Melbourne, Australia. The kids were using their laptops to program in LogoWriter, a predecessor to MicroWorlds or Scratch.

I love this photo because in the time that elapsed between hitting the space bar and awaiting the result to appear on the screen, every ounce of the kid’s being was mobilized in anticipation of the result. He was literally shaking,

Moments after that image was captured, something occurred that has been repeated innumerable times ever since. Almost without exception, when a kid I’m teaching demonstrates a magnificent fireball of intensity, a teacher takes me aside to whisper some variation of, “that kid isn’t really good at school.”

No kidding? Could that possibly be due to an intensity mismatch between the eager clever child and her classroom?

I enjoy the great privilege of working in classrooms PK-12 all over the world on a regular basis. This allows me observe patterns, identify trends, and form hypotheses like the one about a mismatch in intensity. The purpose of my work in classrooms is to model for teachers what’s possible. When they see through the eyes, hands, and sometimes screens of their students, they may gain fresh perspectives on how things need not be as they seem.

Over four days last month, I taught more than 500 kids I never met before to program in Turtle Art and MicroWorlds EX. I enter each classroom conveying a message of, “I’m Gary. We’ve got stuff to do.” I greet each kid with an open heart and belief in their competence, unencumbered by their cumulative file, IEP, social status, or popularity. In every single instance, kids became lost in their work often for several times longer than a standard class period, without direct instruction, or a single  disciplinary incident. No shushing, yelling, time-outs, threats, rewards, or other behavioral management are needed. I have long maintained that classroom management techniques are only necessary if you feel compelled to manage a classroom.

In nearly every class I work with – anywhere, teachers take me aside to remark about how at least one kid shone brilliantly despite being a difficult or at-risk student. This no longer surprises me.

In one particular class, a kid quickly caught my eye due to his enthusiasm for programming. The kid took my two minute introduction to the programming language and set himself a challenge instantly. I then suggested a more complex variation. He followed with another idea before commandeering the computer on the teacher’s desk and connected to the projector in order to give an impromptu tutorial for classmates struggling with an elusive concept he observed while working on his own project. He was a fine teacher.

Then the fifth grader sat back down at his desk to continue his work. A colleague suggested that he write a program to draw concentric circles. A nifty bit of geometric and algebraic thinking followed. When I kicked things up a notch by writing my own even more complex program on the projected computer and named it, “Gary Defeats Derrick.” The kid laughed and read my program in an attempt to understand my use of global variables, conditionals, and iteration. Later in the day, the same kid chased me down the hall to tell me about what he had discovered since I left his classroom that morning.

Oh yeah, I later learned that the very same terrific kid is being drummed out of school  for not being their type of student.

I learned long ago. If a school does not have bad children, it will make them.