What I Did on My Three Summer VacationsBy Brian Silverman
Illustrated by Peter Reynolds

Previously published in Mathematics and Informatic Quarterly (in Bulgaria) prior to this version appearing in the Fall 1998 issue of Logo Exchange. Volume 17. Number 1.

We finally did it. We made it through the maze in Montreal’s Old Port in eleven minutes. There’s a really good chance that our time is the all-time record!

It all started a few years ago when my daughter, Diana and I were biking and found ourselves in Montreal’s Old Port. There was a new attraction called S.O.S. Labyrinthe, that promised a pirate adventure. It turned out to be a giant indoor maze in an old warehouse building with a handful obstacles with a pirate theme. The “pirates” were kids on roller blades providing help to the desperately lost and confusion to the rest of us.

The maze is a twenty-by-eighty grid of about two metre squares. The walls are made of thick plastic sheets hung between poles that are placed at the grid points. Four small sections of the maze have been built up to resemble a ship’s bridge, an engine room, a cargo hold, and lockers for the crew. These four checkpoints have hidden stampers to stamp a card received when you enter the maze.This card is also time-stamped when you first enter then maze and again when you leave.

When Diana and I first tried we got lost almost immediately. It took us about an hour and twenty minutes to find our way out and get all the stamps we needed. Despite being lost most of the time we enjoyed it so much that we went back the following week. This time we brought my son Eric along because he’d missed the first time through. The second time, to avoid getting lost, we decided to follow a set of simple rules that, as any little robot will tell you, can help to get you out of most mazes.

The rules are:

  1. turn right whenever you can
  2. turn around when you reach a dead end.

That’s all there is to it and it actually works. We followed the rules and managed to make it through the maze in about twenty two minutes. When we finished the pirate behind the desk put our names on the board as the group that had the best time of the day. He mentioned in passing that it was a better time than he sees most days.

The challenge at this point was obvious. Our goal was to get the best time ever. We only had to figure out how. I had a plan that I thought would be pretty simple. However, as is almost always the case, it didn’t turn out to be as simple as I’d initially imagined. The plan was this: Go through the maze twice. The first time through bring along a little computer to record our path. Then go home, draw a map, find the best route and go back the following day and go through running as fast as we can.

There were a couple of immediate problems. The first one was pretty easy to resolve. How could we be sure that the maze didn’t change on us between the first run and the second? (The plastic panels are moved on a regular basis to keep the maze from staying the same.) A couple of phone calls and oblique questions later, we’d found out that the maze is only changed once a week, on Thursday night. The second immediate problem was trickier to resolve. Our plan required little computers to record our path. We didn’t have any little computers. Even if we did we wouldn’t know how to make them record paths.

My friends at MIT had little computers. We’d been working for a few years on making “programmable LEGO bricks”. At that time we were at the point where we’d had a couple of prototypes that had worked for a bit but none of them were reliable enough for the task. However as a result of a sort of spinoff of that project there were some little computer boards around that weren’t much bigger than a deck of cards. I asked my friend Randy Sargent if I could borrow one. He mailed it to me and I had it within a few weeks. Unfortunately by then the season was over and the project would have to wait until the next summer.

During the course of the winter a couple of things happened. One was that I had a lot of fun programming the little computer board I’d received. Over Christmas I played with making a tiny version of Logo. By New Year’s we had Logo programmable LEGO robots that didn’t need to be attached to a big computer. At the same time Randy had been working on perfecting a new programmable brick. By the following summer these came together and we had a programmable brick and a logo program for saving information about where in the maze we’d been.

Little computers are pretty stupid. We would have liked to have been able to just carry one along and have it remember where it had been. But the little computer wasn’t up for the task. What we did instead was attach a couple of pushbuttons to it. One to click the number of “squares” we’d gone forward, the other to click in the amount that we’d turned at each corner.

The summer mostly slid away before we got around to trying a second run. When we did get around to it, it was just Eric and me. Before getting into the maze we’d attached the brick to his belt, run some wires up his shirt and down the sleeves to the pushbuttons in his hands. Unless you were looking hard you wouldn’t have noticed anything suspicious. We scoped out the maze counting out loud on the straightaways and yelling out directions at the corners. People looked at us a bit strangely in general and were particularly confused and curious when we had to bring out the brick for minor adjustments.

We didn’t do too well on that round. The brick started misbehaving about three quarters of the way through. And even if it hadn’t, the recorded data had lots of mistakes in it. With a lot of guessing and processing we were able to construct about a quarter of the map but no more. Since it was late summer we gave up again for the year figuring we’d pick it up again the following year.

The next winter was a good one for programmable bricks. When we did the second run there were only five working bricks in the world and even those five needed a fair amount of babysitting. By the next summer, there had been several new iterations of the design (largely the work of Fred Martin) resulting in dozens of working bricks that were solid enough that we wouldn’t have to worry too much about hardware failures for the next round.

Also, during the winter there was plenty of time to think about what went wrong the previous summer. The main problem was that mistakes in clicking the buttons led to so much distortion in the map that it was completely useless. The maze is so big, (more than a thousand straightaways and turns), that it’s impossible to do the kind of recording that we did without making mistakes. We thought a bit about eliminating mistakes but decided instead to run the experiment with several programmable bricks simultaneously, do the recording several times separately then regroup and compare results.

As it turns out, Randy and another friend, Carl Witty were planning to come to Montreal towards the end of the summer to show off their robots at an artificial intelligence conference. They arrived with a car full of computers, tools, and robot parts. Their robots all come with cameras connected to electronics that can discriminate colors. Their demos included robots chasing balls and each other at high speeds. It seemed only natural to get them involved in the third round.

We had a lot of discussion about whether or not we could use the vision systems they had in their robots for more automatic data gathering. We decided not to because even if we could resolve all the computer issues, we weren’t sure that we had enough batteries for all of the needed electronics for the time it’d take. We did decide, however, that since they had brought along several miniature cameras we’d take a video record of first trip through and use that to help interpret the data we’d get from the computers.

Carrying a camera around a maze really didn’t seem subtle enough. Instead we took the camera and sewed it into a hat with only the lens sticking out the front. The camcorder fit neatly in a backpack. By the time we were ready to go, Carl, Randy and I each had a programmable brick rubber banded to our belts and Eric had a camera in his hat. The data gathering run took about two hours and was pretty boring. The bricks kept disagreeing with each other but we ignored this because we decided to sort it all out later. Eric, originally worried that he’d attract too much attention with the camera ended up not being able to convince anyone that he actually had one.

We brought the electronics home, dumped the data to three separate laptop computers and then spent an evening that didn’t quite turn into an all nighter trying to make some sense of it. For hours there was Randy, Carl, and I each with our own computer bouncing sequence numbers, grid locations, and reports of similarities and differences in data between us. My wife Erlyne and the kids watched for some of this, enjoyed part of the video but abandoned us when it seemed that we’d really fallen off the deep end. We persisted and after spending some time getting a feel for the method to the madness we decided to systemically play through the video noting when everything looked to be working and stopping the tape and fudging when it didn’t. Our stamina ran out before the tape did and we gave up for the night with about three quarters of the map in place.

The next morning, we all felt refreshed and raring to go. In less that two hours the printer was churning out copies of a complete maze map . We were about to set off when Eric asked why each of us had to go to get stamps at each of the places rather than splitting up the job. We realized pretty quickly that he had a point. There was a rule against going through the walls. There wasn’t a rule against the cards with the stamps going through the walls. It took us about a half an hour of staring at the map and thinking to come up with a plan that involved three teams and three relay points to pass the cards along like a baton in a relay race. Eric and I had the first stretch, passed the cards to Randy and then headed off to where Randy would pass them back after having met Carl twice along the way.

It all worked like clockwork. The maps were accurate, the plan workable. Eric and I had the first stamp in less that two minutes and found Randy in another two. When we called him through the plastic wall he didn’t answer but his hand appeared. He said later that a pirate was standing right beside and he was trying to not attract any attention. After the handoff we headed to the final relay point where we met up with Carl and got the cards through the wall from Randy. From there it was just a quick run to the end to get the last time stamp. It had taken eleven minutes, much less time than we had imagined possible.

We went to see the pirate at the desk. The board of daily winners wasn’t around any more. We showed him our card that confirmed that we’d done it in eleven minutes. He said that if we did it that fast we must have cheated. Maybe it’s true. Throwing that much technology at a problem may be cheating. On the other hand, it may just be another way of solving it


About the author

Since the late 1970s, Brian Silverman has been involved in the invention of learning environments for children. His work includes dozens of Logo versions (including LogoWriter & MicroWorlds), Scratch, LEGO robotics, TurtleArt and the PicoCricket. Brian is a Consulting Scientist to the MIT Media Lab, enjoys recreational math, and is a computer scientist and master tinkerer. He once built a tictactoe-playing computer out of TinkerToys. Brian is a longtime faculty member of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute.

You can also visit Brian’s Wikipedia page here.

About the illustrator

Peter H. Reynolds co-founded FableVision, Inc., in 1996 and serves as its Chairman. Mr. Reynolds produces award-winning children’s broadcast programming, educational videos and multimedia applications at FableVision, Inc. He served as Vice President and Creative Director of Tom Snyder Productions for 13 years.

He is also an accomplished writer, storyteller and illustrator, and gets his enthusiasm and energy to every project he creates. His bestselling books about protecting and nurturing the creative spirit include The Dot, Ish, and So Few of Me (Candlewick Press). His cornerstone work, The North Star (FableVision), The SugarLoaf book series (Simon & Schuster), My Very Big Little World and The Best Kid in the World, are the first of Peter’s many books about an irrepressible little girl who sees the world through creative-colored glasses. He has recently co-authored several popular books with his twin brother, Paul.

The film version of The Dot (Weston Woods) went on to win the American Library Association’ (ALA’s) Carnegie Medal of Excellence for the Best Children’s Video of 2005 and the film version of Ish was announced as one of ALA’s 2006 Notable Children’s Videos. His other series of original, animated film shorts, including The Blue Shoe, Living Forever and He Was Me, have won many awards and honors around the globe.

Peter’s award-winning publishing work also includes illustrating New York Times1 Best Seller children’s book, Someday (Simon & Schuster), written by Alison McGhee – a “storybook for all ages.” He illustrated the New York Times best-selling Judy Moody series (Candlewick) written by Megan McDonald, Eleanor Estes’ The Alley and The Tunnel of Hugsy Goode, Judy Blume’s Fudge series (Dutton), and Ellen Potter’s Olivia Kidney books

Peter Reynolds was a guest speaker at the 1st and 10th annual Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute.

Dr. Gary Stager was invited to write a profile of his friend, colleague, and mentor Dr. Seymour Papert for the premiere issue of Hello World!, an impressive new magazine for educators from The Raspberry Pi Foundation. This new print magazine is also available online under a Creative Commons license.

I suggest you explore the entire new magazine for inspiration and practical classroom ideas around the Raspberry Pi platform, “coding,” problem solving, physical computing, and computational thinking.

Gary’s article was cut due to space limitations. However, the good news, for anyone interested, is that the full text of the article appears below (with its original title).

See page 25 of the Hello World! Magazine

Seymour Papert Would have Loved the Raspberry Pi!

When Dr. Seymour Papert died in July 2016, the world lost one of the great philosophers and change-agents of the past half-century. Papert was not only a recognized mathematician, artificial intelligence pioneer, computer scientist, and the person Jean Piaget hired to help him understand how children construct mathematical knowledge; he was also the father of educational computing and the maker movement.

By the late 1960s, Papert was advocating for every child to have its own computer. At a time when few people had ever seen a computer, Papert wasn’t just dreaming of children using computers to play games or be asked quiz questions. He believed that children should program the computer.  They should be in charge of the system; learning while programming and debugging. He posed a fundamental question still relevant today, “Does the child program the computer or does the computer program the child?”  Along with colleagues Cynthia Solomon and Wally Feurzig, Papert created Logo, the first programming language designed specifically for children and learning.  MicroWorlds, Scratch, and SNAP! are but a few of the Logo dialects in use fifty years later.

Papert’s legacy extends beyond children programming, despite how rare and radical that practice remains today. In 1968, Alan Kay was so impressed by the mathematics he witnessed children doing in Logo that he sketched the Dynabook, the prototype for the modern personal computer on his flight home from visiting Papert at MIT.  In the mid-1980s, Papert designed the first programmable robotics construction kit for children, LEGO TC Logo. LEGO’s current line of robotics gear is named for Papert’s seminal book, Mindstorms. In 1993, Papert conjured up images of a knowledge machine that children could use to answer their questions, just like the new Amazon Echo or Google Home. littleBits and MaKey Makey are modern descendants of Papert’s vision.

Prior to the availability of CRTs (video displays), the Logo turtle was a cybernetic creature tethered to a timeshare terminal. As students expressed formal mathematical ideas for how they wished the turtle to move about in space, it would drag a pen (or lift it up) and move about in space as a surrogate for the child’s body, all the while learning not only powerful ideas from computer science, but constructing mathematical knowledge by “teaching” the turtle. From the beginning, Papert’s vision included physical computing and using the computer to make things that lived on the screen and in the real world. This vision is clear in a paper Cynthia Solomon and Seymour Papert co-authored in 1970-71, “Twenty Things to Do with a Computer.”

“In our image of a school computation laboratory, an important role is played by numerous “controller ports” which allow any student to plug any device into the computer… The laboratory will have a supply of motors, solenoids, relays, sense devices of various kids, etc. Using them, the students will be able to invent and build an endless variety of cybernetic systems. “ (Papert & Solomon, 1971)

This document made the case for the maker movement more than forty-five years ago. Two decades later, Papert spoke of the computer as mudpie or material with which one could not only create ideas, art, or theories, but also build intelligent machines and control their world.

From his early days as an anti-apartheid dissident in 1940s South Africa to his work with children in underserved communities and neglected settings around the world, social justice and equity was a current running through all of Papert’s activities. If children were to engage with powerful ideas and construct knowledge, then they would require agency over the learning process and ownership of the technology used to construct knowledge.

“If you can make things with technology, then you can make a lot more interesting things. And learn a lot more by making them.” – Seymour Papert (Stager, 2006)

Programming computers and building robots are a couple examples of how critical student agency was to Papert.  He inspired 1:1 computing, Maine becoming the first state on earth to give a laptop to every  7th & 8th grader, and the One Laptop Per Child initiative.

 “…Only inertia and prejudice, not economics or lack of good educational ideas stand in the way of providing every child in the world with the kinds of experience of which we have tried to give you some glimpses. If every child were to be given access to a computer, computers would be cheap enough for every child to be given access to a computer.” (Papert & Solomon, 1971)

It made Papert crazy that kids could not build their own computers. When we worked together (1999-2002) to create an alternative project-based learning environment inside a troubled teen prison, we bought PCs hoping that the kids could not only maintain them, but also eventually build their own. Despite kids building guitars, gliders, robots, films, computer programs, cameras, telescopes, and countless other personally meaningful projects uninterrupted for five hours per day – a “makerspace” as school. Back then, it was too much trouble to source parts and build “personal” computers.

In 1995, Papert caused a commotion in a US Congressional hearing on the future of education when an infuriated venture capitalist scolded him while saying that it was irresponsible to assert that computers could cost $100, have a lifespan of a decade, and be maintained by children themselves.  (CSPAN, 1995) Later Papert would be fond of demonstrating how any child anywhere in the world could repair the $100 OLPC laptop with a single screwdriver. Before Congress, he asserted that computers only seem expensive when accounting tricks compare them to the price of pencils. If used in the expansive ways his projects demonstrated, Papert predicted that “kid power” could change the world.

The Raspberry Pi finally offers children a low-cost programmable computer that they may build, maintain, expand, and use to control cyberspace and the world around them. Its functionality, flexibility, and affordability hold the promise of leveraging kid power to put the last piece in the Papert puzzle.

References:
CSPAN (Producer). (1995, 12/1/16). Technology In Education [Video] Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?67583-1/technology-education&whence=

Papert, S., & Solomon, C. (1971). Twenty things to do with a computer. Retrieved from Cambridge, MA:

Stager, G. S. (2006). An Investigation of Constructionism in the Maine Youth Center. (Ph.D.), The University of Melbourne, Melbourne.

Read more


On Christmas Eve (2016), the world lost one of its most profound thinkers when learning theorist, Dr. Edith Ackermann, left us at age 70. Anyone blessed with even the most casual encounter with Edith embraced her as a mentor, collaborator, and friend. She bestowed boundless respect upon anyone trying to make the world more beautiful, just, or creative. Edith’s grace danced into a room like a cool breeze awakening its occupants and setting their sights towards what truly matters.

Edith was a giant among learning theorists, even if under-appreciated and a best kept secret. Her work focused on the intersection of play, design, childhood, and technology. She worked closely with Jean Piaget, Seymour Papert, and Ernst von Glasersfeld – three of the most important experts on learning ever. Her insights were invaluable to the LEGO Company, MIT students, architects, and educators around the world.

Edith was always there to help me clarify my thinking and to take an idea one stop past my anticipated exit. She was a pal with whom you could walk arm in arm discussing almost anything, laugh boisterously, and gossip quietly. We disliked many of the same ideas and people, but Edith was just much better at hiding her disdain.

Perhaps, Edith’s remarkable perspective came from being an outsider. Despite the profound impact she had on innumerable students and colleagues, I never got the sense that the testosterone-oozing world of MIT afforded her the respect or security she so richly deserved.

Shamefully, I do not know much about Edith’s history or personal life; yet another painful reminder that we should do everything possible to know our friends better. Therefore, I will share some thoughts about her work and what she meant to me.

CMK Intern Walter explains Pokemon Go to Edith

I don’t remember when I first met Edith. I think it was in 2000 when Seymour Papert sent me to sub for him as the keynote speaker at a conference held at the Piaget Archives in Geneva. Papert failed to tell the organizers that 1) he wasn’t coming or 2) that I was his replacement. The entire story is a hilarious comedy of errors that I’ll share another day.

Edith and I attended many EuroLogo (now Constructionism) Conferences and worked together 15+ years ago in Mexico City leading a workshop as members of the MIT Media Lab’s Future of Learning Group. Several years ago, I invited Edith to be a guest speaker at my 2014 Constructing Modern Knowledge institute. I set aside concerns that her Swiss accent, quiet demeanor, and brilliant intellect would not work in a room full of predominantly American educators. Her unrivaled genius made the risk worthwhile.

Edith’s wisdom, passion, humanity, and generosity of spirit made her an immediate favorite of the very educators who others treat as low-skill labor in need of a 7-step plan for raising achievement. The next year, Edith spent most of the institute with us interacting informally with participants and appearing on a panel discussion with two of my other heroes, David Loader and Deborah Meier. Last summer, despite her ongoing battle with Cancer, Edith Ackermann spent all four days of CMK helping each of us make meaning out of our individual and collective experiences.

Heroes – David Loader, Deborah Meier, & Edith Ackermann

Edith taught us so much.

Making as a way of seeing

One powerful idea she shared was that “Making is a way of seeing.” Edith had a gift for bringing into focus what others miss. She invited us to “lean in,” not in the vulgar career climbing form advocated by Sheryl Sandberg, but as a way of becoming one with nature, the community, ideas, beauty, and one’s soul.

I would like to share three very special memories of Edith Ackermann at Constructing Modern Knowledge.

2016
After nine years of effort, I managed to convince Reggio Children President Carla Rinaldi to participate in Constructing Modern Knowledge. Edith and Carla were old friends who greeted each other with great love and respect. Their mutual affection was truly touching. During the institute, I stole a little time to show Carla and Edith how Tickle (an iOS dialect of Scratch) could be used to bring drones and a variety of robots to life. They appreciated the technological wizardry for a split second and then became preschoolers imagining how the different toys could play, communicate and love one another. Both experts were so in tune with the inner lives of children that they were able to wear the spirit of childhood play with great ease and abundant joy.

Edith and Carla Rinaldi playing

Hard fun!

2015
A tacit theme of Constructing Modern Knowledge involves creating the conditions by which each participating educator may think about how their particular learning experience connects with their own priory experience and future classroom practice. Superficially, our speakers may seem to have nothing to do with one another or the sorts of project work undertaken by CMK attendees. In 2015, I invited two National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters, 86 year-old pianist Barry Harris and 89 year-old saxophonist Jimmy Heath, to perform a masterclass at CMK. Edith not only understood immediately why I invited them to perform at an event about learning and making, but she was thrilled to spend time with Barry Harris whose music she knew. Edith had also watched videos of Barry teaching. Just take a look at the joy with which she approached this encounter.

Edith with the great Barry Harris

2014
I work all year organizing Constructing Modern Knowledge and try to steal an hour to indulge a passion of mine, taking great friends and colleagues to Cremeland, an “al fresco” roadside stand in Manchester, New Hampshire known for its fabulous fried fish and ice cream. The first year Edith joined the CMK team, I took her and a couple of colleagues for our secret lunch at Cremeland. You order food at one window, eat at picnic tables in the parking lot, and then return to a window at the opposite end of the building for decadent ice cream.

There is always a bit of chaos when a group of people are ordering from an unknown menu through a tiny window, but throw Edith’s Swiss accent into the mix and watch hilarity ensue.

Server: Can I take your order?
Edith: I’ll have the haddock platter.
Server: Hot Dog?
Edith: Haddock
Server: Hot Dog?
Edith: Haddock
Server: Hot Dog?
Edith: NO! Haddock not Hot Dog!

Haddock, not hot dog!

Fried fish & ice cream with great friends

This became a private joke between us and when I gave the CMK faculty and speakers t-shirts with chalkboards printed on them, Edith wrote, “Haddock, not hot dog,” on hers.

Au revoir dear Edith…. We love you and will miss you more than you could ever know.


For further reading…

Exploratorium Talk – The craftsman, The trickster, and the Poet — Conference Art as a way of knowing. San Francisco, 2011

Constructionism 2010 Talk – Constructivism(s): Shared roots, crossed paths, multiple legacies

CMK Founder Gary Stager, Ph.D. gave a presentation in November 2012 about the philosophy and practice of Constructing Modern Knowledge. The following video is a recording of that presentation about the institute.

Click here to register for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2013 today!

CMK 2013

 

Constructing Modern Knowledge may be the most important work of my career. For five years, we have demonstrated the competence and creativity of educators who spend four days of their summer vacation learning to learn in the digital age. I marvel at the complexity, sophistication and ingenuity illustrated by the educator’s projects created at Constructing Modern Knowledge. It is not an exaggeration to say that several of the projects created at CMK 2012 would have earned the creator(s) a TED Talk two years ago and an MIT Ph.D. five years ago.

CMK remains committed to creating a space where educators remake themselves by engaging in personally meaningful projects and learn through firsthand experience. It is NOT a conference. It is a samba school, laboratory, playground, library, maker space, film studio, atelier or workshop filled with people and objects to think with.

Constructing Modern Knowledge is a reflection of each participant. Some alums will say that CMK is about being at the forefront of the Maker movement, or about the Reggio Emilia approach, or about creativity, or robotics or filmmaking, or history, or school reform, or about S.T.E.M., or music composition or collaboration or visiting the MIT Media Lab. CMK is all of those things and what each participant makes of the experience.

Our remarkable faculty supports the learning of each participant and our guest speakers share a daily dose of inspiration. Given the diversity of the participants and the enormous range of projects created, CMK means different things to different people. So, what is CMK about?

Constructing Modern Knowledge is about:

  • Jamming on a cupcakeIMG_1682
  • Looking up
  • Looking in
  • Cool tools
  • Floating above the classroom
  • Bringing Edison back to life
  • Reinventing yourself
  • Painting a piano
  • Programming random Shakespearean insults
  • Giving Lego a ukulele lesson
  • Teaching a robot to use Twitter
  • Becoming the next great YouTube filmmakersmiling learners cropped
  • Getting lost in the flow
  • Learning to solder
  • Scoring a cartoon
  • Snapping lots of photos
  • Creating an animation
  • Having lunch with your hero
  • Sneaking around the MIT media lab
  • Feeling smart
  • Time lapse photography
  • Laughing really hard
  • Charging your iPhone by peddling a bike
  • Tinkering
  • Being a historian8022636190_3d5593b600_o
  • Working alone
  • Working in teams
  • Cool tools
  • Aluminum foil
  • Understanding astrophysics through dance
  • Being silly
  • Being serious
  • A digital butler keeping your beer cold
  • Engineering
  • Secret ice cream
  • Measuring your whiffle bat swing
  • Manch Vegas
  • Brightening a Rwandan child’s day
  • Flow
  • Fixing the future with air-curing rubber
  • Makey Makey
  • Conquering the geometry of islamic tiles
  • Conductive paint
  • Mathematical thinkingworking on floor cropped
  • Designing a video game
  • Making friends
  • Expanding your personal learning network
  • Feeling smart
  • Feeling foolish
  • Confusion
  • Finding science in your art and electronics in your peanut butter
  • Satisfaction
  • Scratch
  • Learning to learn
  • Bursting balloons
  • The Reggio Emilia Approach8023331155_8565f7ff3f_o
  • Clarity
  • Turning trash into treasure
  • Reading
  • MicroWorlds
  • Constructionism
  • Computer graphics
  • Storytelling
  • The 100 languages of children
  • Chatting with Marvin Minsky
  • Ingenuity
  • Choreographed t-shirtsResnick and Minsky
  • Turtle Art
  • Coffee with a legend
  • Writing
  • Progressive education
  • Creativity unleashed
  • Computing
  • An amazing faculty
  • Powerful ideaspitts2
  • Changing the world
  • A smile-controlled robot
  • Exploring linguistic patterns of the 1940s
  • Challenging yourself
  • Sounding like Eleanor Roosevelt
  • Brazilian churascaria
  • Wearable computing
  • Whimsy
  • Never finding the pool
  • Raising standards
  • Blowing your mind
  • MIDI
  • Conversation
  • Re-imagining educationx 5948920464_208e89e344_o
  • Expanding your comfort zone
  • Being super awesome
  • Taking off your teacher hat
  • Putting on your learner hat
  • Action!

Join the learning adventure with us July 9-12, 2013 in Manchester, NH!

Register today!

Download a printable brochure for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2013

 

 

I often remind teachers that as educators, their role is to educate everyone – children, parents, administrators, colleagues and the guy sitting next to you at the counter in a diner. Educating, like learning, must be 24/7

Every school, teacher, administrator, graduate student or kid I teach gains from the expertise I developed working with every other school, teacher, administrator or kid over the past thirty years. My experiences and the insights gained from those experiences are my most valuable commodity, one I am happy to share.

Much of my work as an educator is spent helping fellow citizens and educators recognize that even in these dark days, things need not be as they seem.  This is accomplished through the sharing of anecdotes, examples of work, case studies, photographs and video of children learning in productive contexts for learning that may seem alien or impossible when compared with a school setting. This willing suspension of disbelief is dependent on compelling the case I can make. People may only choose from alternatives they have experienced or seen. A large part of my work is spent collecting the evidence necessary to change minds or creating compelling models of what is possible in a teacher’s own classroom. If one can change minds, it may be possible to change professional practice.

Recently, I led a short professional development session at a school where I showed two videos from Reggio Emilia, Italy; Utopi Quoti (Everyday Utopias) and I Tiempi Del Tempo (The Times of Time) http://www.learningmaterialswork.com/store/reggio_children_multimedia.html

Teachers at the school were able to watch day-in-the-life videos of the extraordinary inquiry-based learner centered environments of Reggio Emilia’s municipal preschools, ask questions and discuss how what they observed might inform or transform their practice in a K-8 setting half a world away. The generosity of the educators, students and parents of Reggio Emilia make such conversations possible, since their videos share models of teaching and learning that may be foreign to us or invisible otherwise.

I have enjoyed some incredibly exciting experiences as an educator this year that remind me of why I teach and of the power computers can play in the construction of knowledge. This feeling of success is confronted by the sense that members of the edtech/ICT community have no idea what I do. I have low expectations for policy-makers and the media, but the edtech/ICT community should know better, right? They should join me in advocating powerful ideas and classroom revolution. Instead, too many seem more concerned with shopping, composing clever platitudes and congratulating each other via social media. It seems that the longer computers are in schools the fewer ideas there are for using them. When my colleagues whine and complain that change isn’t possible, I know in my soul they are wrong.They too could be classroom badasses, if only I could explain what I do and they believed what kids do with me. This inability to have a wider impact makes me feel like such a failure.

Colleagues and friends like to learn about the work I do in classrooms around the world. Sometimes, I even blog about my experiences. Occasionally, I share materials I created for classroom use. Such sharing requires extra work and rarely captures the enthusiasm, joy, social interactions, interventions, epiphanies, powerful ideas or tacit gestures so critical to powerful learning experiences. Perhaps it is so difficult for others to imagine young children programming computers, learning without coercion or being _____ (mathematicians, scientists, engineers, authors, filmmakers, artists, composers…) because they have never seen it with their own eyes.

If a picture is indeed worth 1,000 words, video may be worth a bazillion.

Trust me
Oh, how I wish you could have seen the 3rd grade class I taught late last week. The kids were programming in Turtle Art, a vision of Logo focused on creating beautiful images resulting from formal mathematical processes. I drew three challenges on the board and then groups of kids, who had used the software a few times before, set off to work collaboratively in figuring out mathematical ways to “teach the turtle” to reproduce the images I shared. I could tell you how the kids demonstrated an understanding of linear measurement, angle, integers, iteration, randomness, optical illusions, naming, procedurality and debugging strategies. However, if video had captured the session, you might have seen the kid who spends half the day getting a drink of water demonstrating impressive mathematical reasoning. You might have seen kids shrieking with joy during a “math” lesson, others high-fiving one another as they conquered each challenge and kids setting more complex challenges for themselves based on their success. You may have also noticed how the classroom teacher joined his students in problem solving – perhaps for the first time, but discovering the role the computer can play in education. Video might have captured how I choreographed the activity with less than a minute of instruction followed by 45 minutes of learner construction.

Alas, there is no such video to share.

I wish you could have seen what happened when I challenged a class of 5th graders to write a computer program in MicroWorlds that would allow the user to enter a fraction and have the computer draw that fraction as slices of a circle. The problem was so challenging that I offered to buy lunch for the first kid or group of kids to write a successful program. The kids worked for days on the one problem.

If I had video, you would have seen students confront variables for the first time by using them. They also employed algebraic reasoning, turtle geometry, angle, radius and speaking mathematically to their collaborators. I wish I could share how I asked the right question at the precise moment required to help a kid understand the problem at hand, how I refused to answer some questions or give too much information and deprive kids of constructing knowledge.

I wish you could have seen how excited the three little girls were when their program performed reliably. I wish you could have seen the non-winners who continued working on their programs regardless of the contest being over. I wish you could have seen the girls showing their program to their teacher and improving it based on aesthetic suggestions. I sure wish I could share a photograph of the 11 year-old female mathematicians arm-in-arm with #1 written on each of their arms held high.

Why should you trust me without evidence? I could post the program they wrote, but it might make as much sense as Swahili to some of you, while others will ask if the students were “gifted.”

My fourth graders are using Pico Crickets as their robotics construction kit. They are currently figuring out ways to bring stuffed animals to life with locomotion, sound, lights and senses. If you could see the class you would immediately appreciate the wide range of expertise and learning styles represented. Some kids have never built anything or played with LEGO while others have lots of experience. There are children very close to programming and reanimating their animal while others are busy building the tallest LEGO tower, giving a stuffed monkey a Mohawk haircut or shaving a teddy bear. Each student is working at their own level in their own way

I wish you could have seen the workshop I whipped together with little notice for seventy high school teachers in an economically challenged region. I wish you could have shared their joy and laughter while engaged in recreating old-time radio broadcasts from the 1930s and 40s. Along the way, they learned to record, edit and enhance digital audio without a bit of instruction. They fanned out in teams across their campus in order to find quiet places to record and discovered a powerful literacy activity they could use with students the next day. They also learned that tech skills could be learned casually in the context of a rich project.

Photography
Many schools have an uneasy relationship with photography, video and student identity. Some schools allow photography without the use of student names or the school identified. Others use initials or pseudonyms to indicate student identities. Some schools have prohibitions on publication of photos online. Some schools have no prohibitions whatsoever. Occasionally, I encounter schools that do not allow photography of any sort.

None of this is new to me. The tension over photography often mirrors fears of the Internet My doctoral research was with incarcerated teenagers and required me to take photographs without student faces being visible. I got pretty good at that, but such carefully designed “shots” makes it impossible to show the life of the classroom.

If schools, parents and teachers would embrace photography and video, school would be better for children. I truly believe that.

Here are but a few arguments for classroom photography.

Documents and tells learning stories
Photography and videography may be used to capture learning stories that make thinking visible to teachers, invite other learners to contribute to another student’s thinking, inspire peers to build upon the knowledge or accomplishments of classmates and preserves the intellectual life of the school.

Communicates with parents
Photography and videography provide an authentic way to demonstrate what students know and do for parents.

Honors student work and accomplishments
The publication or even casual sharing of student project-work via media honors their accomplishments without badges, grades or other coercive gimmicks.  Citizens are most likely to support schools that provide evidence of innovation.

Beautifies the school
Photos and video displays of students actively learning sets a tone for a school and reminds inhabitants of what matters.

Shares exemplary practices with fellow educators
Colleagues may learn what’s possible and new pedagogical practices if they are able to visit other classrooms vicariously. A fancy formal term for this is called “lesson study.”

Avoids hypocrisy
Parents should be educated that putting a student’s photo or poem on the Web will not result in alien abduction. They should also be reminded that advocating for a newspaper photo of their kid kicking a goal is of less value than sharing classroom practice as a means to inspire and improve education in their school and beyond.

Photos are useful
In addition to their educational function as documentation that makes thinking visible for teachers planning learner-centered interventions, photos may be used for public relations and school publications.

It’s nice to share
‘nuff said

Constructing Modern Knowledge 2011 ended just a few days ago and I’m exhausted, but in the words of David Letterman, “It’s a good kind of tired.” CMK 2011 stands as one of the highlights of my career. Not only was I able to create a productive learning environment for approximately 90 educators from Australia to Costa Rica, but they were able to interact with brilliant experts, authors and inventors, including Jonathan Kozol, Derrick Pitts, Lella Gandini, Mitchel Resnick, Brian Silverman, Cynthia Solomon and Marvin Minsky. Some of us toured the wondrous MIT Museum and explored the Boston Freedom Trail. We socialized at a minor league baseball game, over meals and at the MIT Media Lab.

Supported by an amazing faculty, CMK 2011 participants engaged in dozens of hands-on/minds-on projects and expanded their vision of how computers can transform learning. (Specific examples will be shared at constructingmodernknowledge.com in the coming days.)

During the flurry of CMK 2011 activity, I stole away a few minutes to create a presentation intended to wrap-up the four-day institute. While thinking about the lessons of CMK 2011, several words beginning with the letter “C.” In the spirit of the great philosopher Mick Jagger who once said, “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing,” I ended up with an absurd number of C-words reflecting the lessons of Constructing Modern Knowledge 2011 in no particular order.

Create
CMK 2011 was all about creating and creativity for six or more hours each day.

Construct
Since knowledge is a consequence of experience, constructing things creates rich contexts for learning..

Collaborate
CMK 2011 participants collaborated with colleagues and new friends met at the institute when such interdependence is mutually beneficial. Participants also sat shared expertise and worked with an expert faculty.

Concrete
Human development progresses from concrete to abstract. Piaget and Papert suggest that every time you learn something new, you return to a level of concreteness. Engineering is a manifestation of concrete experience, yet the only people who get to study engineering are the ones who successfully navigated twelve to fourteen years of abstraction (school math and science). If learners start with engineering projects, a great deal of formal knowledge will be constructed. This was demonstrated numerous times throughout CMK 2011.

Courage
CMK 2011 participants demonstrated courage in myriad ways. They chose to spend four days of their summer at Constructing Modern Knowledge. They jumped in and began working on open-ended projects. They asked for help. They shared their insecurities and triumphs. They helped themselves to unauthorized tours of the MIT Media Lab. They engaged courageously in conversation with brilliant people.

Conversation
Educators at CMK 2011 engaged in constant formal and informal conversations with participants, faculty and guest speakers during project development, presentations and over meals.

Crazy
Some might think that it’s crazy to spend four or five days of summer vacation in Manchester, NH. Others might accuse CMK 2011 participant of being crazy for believing that they can change the educational experiences of their students. Surely, some initial project ideas seemed crazy. Connecting LEGO to a bicycle in order to charge an iPhone while peddling to work seemed crazy – until it worked.

Complex
CMK 2011 projects displayed a great deal of complexity. All sorts of skills and knowledge were required, even if that knowledge and skill needed to be developed within the context of the project.

Challenge
Brian Silverman told us that the MIT approach is to give students a really hard project challenge and assume that they can do it. At CMK 2011, participants set really hard challenges for themselves and in most cases succeeded.

Competence
Competence is a related principal to challenge. The educators of Reggio Emilia, Italy believe that learners are competent. Constructing Modern Knowledge was designed to demonstrate the competence of each learner and their ability to learn without being taught.

Care
Educators cared enough about themselves and their personal growth to attend CMK 2011. They cared about the work they did and for each other. Great care was taken in the process of creating personally meaningful projects.

Comfort
CMK 2011 participants worked when, where and how they felt most comfortable, even when they ventured outside of their “comfort zone.” The hallway, picnic tables, parking garage, floor and lobby were all part of the learning environment.

Craft
Timeless craft traditions were honored through storytelling, mixed media, historical connections, a quest for beauty and collaboration during the project development process. Sewing and photography took their rightful place alongside programming, animation and robotics. The marriage of the analog and digital contribute to the continuum of craft.

Crap
You never know what will inspire a learner. That’s why the CMK 2011 learning environment was filled with toys, books, art supplies, software, electronics, tools and assorted tchotchkes. A wooden automata kit became a talking Thomas Edison puppet and crappy plastic aliens inspired a robotics project.

Curiosity
Since curiosity is a hallmark of good project-based learning, the number and variety of projects in-progress at CMK 2011 sated the curiosity of learners.

Casual
Despite the high-intensity work engaged in my CMK 2011 participants, the learning environment was relaxed, flexible and kept interruptions to a minimum.

Children
Kids are the reason we are all educators. CMK 2011 participants honored the epistemological pluralism of their students by spending four days learning for themselves in the childlike fashion one hopes they nurture in their own students.

Cutting-edge
CMK 2011 participants worked with cutting-edge software and emerging technologies, such wearable computing via Lilypad Arduino. They also engaged in discussions of cutting-edge educational issues with Jonathan Kozol, Lella Gandini, Derrick Pitts and Mitchel Resnick. Constructing Modern Knowledge demonstrates the educators’ competence and capacity for growth. We also demonstrated how learning need not follow a sequential curricular hierarchy created by others. Learners of all ages may work on the cutting-edge as a productive relevant context for learning all sorts of other things.

Connections
Learning at Constructing Modern Knowledge exemplified the importance of connections between disciplines, low and high-tech materials, historic eras, strategies, learners and experts. The learning environment supports guest speaker Marvin Minsky’s adage, “You don’t really understand something until you understand it in more than one way.”

Community
A community of practice forms at Constructing Modern Knowledge around shared interests and actions. Bringing educators together to learn from and with experts enriches that community.

Computing
Schools have lots of computers, but very little computing. A few years ago, CMK guest speaker Brian Silverman said. “Computing is the game changer.” Computing allows one to solve problems, make things and express oneself in ways impossible without computation.

There were many moments at Constructing Modern Knowledge that reminded me of when Seymour Papert was asked, “Do you really mean to suggest that every child should have a personal computer?” Papert would respond, “No, every child should have at least two computers.”

Throughout CMK 2011, participants were spontaneously using iPads as the way they were intended; as accessories for their laptops.

Constructionism
Constructing Modern Knowledge was created to model Seymour Papert’s theory of constructionism. You can learn more about constructionism here.

Cupcakes
Ooey-gooey gourmet cupcakes were the refreshment of choice for our reception at the MIT Media Lab. They honored Professor Resnick and his Lifelong Kindergarten Group and celebrated the childlike abandon with which CMK 2011 learners worked throughout the institute.

At the end of the event, the leftover cupcakes were placed under the “foodcam,” an ingenious Media Lab invention that automatically emails a photograph of free food with a “come and get it” message to everyone at the lab!

Chapeau
At the start of Constructing Modern Knowledge, I ask participants to “take off their teacher hats and put on their learner hats.” This seeming act of selfishness enriches the learning experience in remarkable ways.

Several teachers from The Willows Community School in Los Angeles (the third year a large team  from their school has attended CMK) designed to build a concrete manifestation of this metaphor by using the Lilypad Arduino wearable electronic components to make a teacher that may be switched from teacher to learner to a combination of both!

Conclusion

There is one obvious C-word I left off of my list mistakenly – CHOICE. Learners at CMK 2011 had complete freedom to choose, what, how and when they would learn. Participants selected projects in a coercive-free environment unimpeded by curriculum.


Don’t take my word for it, read the great CMK 2011 blog posts written by participants!

From Kate Tabor

  1. Starting With a Blank Page
  2. Day 3 at CMK11: Ways of Knowing
  3. Day 2: CMK 2011 – Inspiration and Renewed Enthusiasm
  4. Looking for the Colonel
  5. Best Advice of the Day

Adam Provost’s blog post about CMK 2011

I just received this photo from a second grade teacher I worked with last month in South Korea. I spent a week teaching programming (via MicroWorlds EX) and robotics (Pico Crickets & LEGO WeDo) to first through third graders while consulting with other grade level teachers and the senior leadership team.

I also received a very sweet thank you note from a 3rd grader via Facebook (I know 3rd grader ≠ Facebook).