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.

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.

This June’s ISTE Conference will be my thirtieth ISTE (formerly NECC) conferences as a speaker. I suspect that I have been part of 60-80 presentations at this conference over that period – a record few if any can match. I was also part of the keynote session at NECC 2009. (watch it here)

This year’s accepted presentations are an eclectic mix. I will be sharing the stage with Sylvia Martinez about making and maker spaces. My personal sessions reflect two of my passions and areas of expertise; using technology in the context of the Reggio Emilia Approach and Logo programming.

The Reggio Emilia Approach emerges from the municipal infant/toddler centers and preschools of the Italian city, Reggio Emilia. These schools, often referred to as the best schools in the world, are a complex mix of democracy, creativity, subtlety, attention to detail, knowledge construction, and profound respect for children. There are many lessons to be learned for teaching any subject at any grade level and for using technology in this remarkable spirit. Constructing Modern Knowledge has done much to bring the Reggio Emilia Approach to edtech enthusiasts over the past decade.

I began teaching Logo programming to kids and teachers 35 years ago and even edited the ISTE journal, Logo Exchange (killed by ISTE). There is still no better way to introduce modern powerful ideas than through Logo programming. I delight in watching teachers twist their bodies around, high-fiving the air, and completely losing themselves in the microword of the turtle. During my session, I will discuss the precedents for Logo, demonstrate seminal programming activities, explore current dialects of the language, celebrate Logo’s contributions to education and the computer industry, ponder Logo’s future, and mourn the recent passing of Logo’s father, Dr. Seymour Papert.

Without Logo there might be no maker movement, classroom robotics, CS4All, Scratch, or even software site licenses.

So, what do making, Logo, and the Reggio Emilia approach have in common? Effective maker spaces have a lot to learn about preparing a productive context for learning from the educators of Reggio Emilia. Papert and the Reggio community enjoyed a longstanding mutual admiration while sharing Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky at their philosophical roots. Logo was used in Reggio Emilia classrooms as discussed in a recent translation of a book featuring teachers discussing student projects as a window into their thinking with Loris Malaguzzi, the father of the Reggio Emilia approach. One of the chapters in Loris Malaguzzi and the Teachers: Dialogues on Collaboration and Conflict among Children, Reggio Emilia 1990 explores students learning with Logo.

Gary Stager’s ISTE 2017 Presentation Calendar

Before You Build a Makerspace: Four Aspects to Consider [panel with Sylvia Martinez]

  • Tuesday, June 27, 1:45–2:45 pm CDT
  • Building/Room: 302A

Logo at 50: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas

  • Tuesday, June 27, 4:45–5:45 pm CDT
  • Building/Room: Hemisfair Ballroom 2

Logo, the first computer programming language for kids, was invented in 1967 and is still in use around the world today. This session will discuss the Piagetian roots of Logo, critical aspects of its design and versions today. Anyone interested in CS4All has a lot to learn from Logo.

Logo and the fifty years of research demonstrating its efficacy in a remarkable number of classrooms and contexts around the world predate the ISTE standards and exceed their expectations. The recent President of the United States advocated CS4All while the standards listed above fail to explicitly address computer programming. Logo catalyzed a commitment to social justice and educational change and introduced many educators to powerful ideas from artificial intelligence, cognitive science, and progressive education.

Learning From the Maker Movement in a Reggio Context

  • Wednesday, June 28, 8:30–9:30 am CDT
  • Building/Room: 220

Discover how the Reggio Emilia Approach that is rooted in a half-century of work with Italian preschoolers and includes profound, subtle and complex lessons from intensely learner-centered classrooms, is applicable to all educational settings. Learn what “Reggio” teaches us about learning-by-making, making learning visible, aesthetics and PBL.

Direct interview requests to gary [at] stager.org


Gary Stager is the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute for educators July 11-14, 2017, coauthor of Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, and curator of the Seymour Papert archive site, DailyPapert.com. Register today for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017!

Hard fun at CMK 2016!

Constructing Modern Knowledge, celebrates its 10th anniversary this July 11-14, and represents the best work of my life. Before anyone was discussing the maker movement in schools, Constructing Modern Knowledge created a four-day oasis where educators could learn-by-doing through the construction of personally meaningful projects with digital and traditional materials. From the start, CMK was never a conference. It was an institute. From its inception, CMK was designed to build a bridge between the best principles of progressive education and the constructive tools of modernity.

Wearable computing

Since our focus was the Piagetian ideal that knowledge results from experience, educators attending Constructing Modern Knowledge, when not lost in project development, engage in formal and informal conversations with some of the greatest innovators and thinkers of our age.

Dont’ miss out! Register today!

CMK Speakers are not recruited for being cute or witty, but because they were experts with a body of profound work. CMK began with guest speakers Alfie Kohn, Peter Reynolds, and digital STEM pioneer Robert Tinker. Until his death, Marvin Minsky, arguably one of the most important scientists of the past century, led eight annual fireside chats with educators at CMK. The great mathematician, scientist, and software developer Stephen Wolfram “subbed” for Professor Minsky last year.

Two of the greatest jazz musicians in history led a masterclass at CMK. Years before his daily Blog changed the media landscape and he was featured in a commercial at the start of the Academy Awards, Casey Neistat was a guest speaker at CMK 2012. Civil rights icon Jonathan Kozol spent time at CMK. Alfie Kohn and Deborah Meier engaged in a spirited conversation, as did Eleanor Duckworth and Deborah Meier. Best-selling historian James Loewen spoke at CMK nearly a decade before Southern States began dismantling confederate statues. Wonder Kid and CMK 2015 speaker, Cam Perron, is about to be honored for his extraordinary contributions to baseball. MIT Media Lab faculty have generously hosted us for eight years. Check out the list of the other amazing people who have spoken at CMK.

YouTube filmmaker and media sensation Casey Neistat spoke at CMK 2012!

One of the great joys of my life has been sharing my heroes and friends with educators. Our faculty consists of brilliant women and men who invented the technology that justified computers in classrooms. Cynthia Solomon, the last surviving member of the three people responsible for inventing the Logo programming language for kids has been with us since the beginning. Everything I know about teaching teachers I learned from Dan and Molly Watt, who abandon retirement each summer to help educators reflect upon their CMK learning adventures. Brian Silverman has had a hand in every strain of Logo, Scratch, and LEGO robotics sets for the past forty years joins us each summer. The Aussies who invented 1:1 computing have been on our faculty as have the co-inventor of the MaKey MaKey and Super-Awesome Sylvia. Sadly, we recently lost the remarkable Edith Ackermann, an elegant and profound learning theorist who worked with Piaget, Papert, and Von Glasserfeld. Edith was part of CMK for three years and touched the hearts, minds, and souls of countless educators. CMK introduced the profound work of Reggio Emilia to a new community through the participation of Lella Gandini, Lillian Katz, and the magnificent Carla Rinaldi.

Legendary author & civil rights icon Jonathan Kozol explores a CMK project

Nothing moves me more deeply than the stories of how CMK participants had coffee or went for a walk with a genius they only had access to because of our institute.

Two of the greatest learning theorists in history, Edith Ackermann & Carla Rinaldi share a laugh at CMK 2016

CMK welcomes educators of all ability levels, from newbies to tech-savvy power users, but everyone learns together from and with each other. Annually, teachers at CMK create amazing projects that might have earned them a TED talk two years or engineering Ph.D. five years ago. For example, educators at CMK 2016 created their own version of Pokemon Go a mere week after the actual software was released to great media fanfare.

Most of all, year-after-year, Constructing Modern Knowledge demonstrates that:

  • Teachers are competent
  • Knowledge is a consequence of experience
  • Learning best occurs in the absence of instruction
  • Technology supercharges learning and makes us more human, creative, expressive
  • Education can and should be non-coercive
  • Assessment is at best adjacent to learning
  • Constructionism is effective
  • Things need not be as they seem
  • It is possible to create rich productive contexts for learning without fancy architecture, bells, furniture, curriculum, tests….
  • Educators are capable of innovation and invention with bleeding edge tools
  • Learning is natural, playful, intense, whimsical, and deadly serious
  • Age segregation, tracking, and even discrete disciplines are unnecessary and perhaps counterproductive
  • A learning environment should be filled with a great variety of objects-to-think with
  • Collaboration is great as long as its natural, interdependent, flexible, mutually beneficial, and desired
  • Computer programming is the new liberal art

Although a labor of love, Constructing Modern Knowledge is a hell of a lot of work and relies on the generosity of countless colleagues. I created CMK when no other institution or organization would do so and have run ten institutes with zero funding, grants, sponsors, or vendors. I packed up the first CMK and caught a plane two hours after the 2008 institute ended. Last year, eight of us spent two and a half days packing up the 60 or so cases of books, tools, materials, and technology we ship across the USA before and after each institute.

A few of the 60+ cases that become the CMK learning environment

Our hearts swell with pride from how CMK alumni are leading schools and professional learning events all over the world. Through their efforts, the impact of Constructing Modern Knowledge will be felt by children for decades to come.

If you have read this far, I hope you will understand that 2017 may be the last Constructing Modern Knowledge. Please consider joining us.

Since CMK believes that anything a learner needs should be within reach, we build a library.

Whether or not the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute ends in 2017, we will continue to offer innovative learning adventures for educators around the world. Check out the CMK Futures web site to learn about bringing our expertise to your school, community, corporation, or conference.

Eric Rosenbaum (L) demonstrates the MaKey MaKey to Marvin Minsky (R) at CMK 2012

Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017 is thrilled to announce that Dr. Eric Rosenbaum will be joining our 10th annual summer institute, July 11-14 in Manchester, New Hampshire. Eric, one of the most prolific inventors of creative play materials for learners (MaKey MaKey, Beetleblocks, Singing Fingers, Coloring Cam – to name a few) will provide CMK 2017 participants with a sneak peak at the much-much-anticipated Scratch 3.0 programming environment!

Register for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017

Dr. Rosenbaum will lead a demo and Q&A after a presentation by CMK 2017 guest speaker, Dr. Neil Gershenfeld, Director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms and maker movement pioneer at our very special reception at the MIT Media Lab. Gershenfeld is author of the seminal book, Fab: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop–from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication, a book that created the foundation for the modern maker movement.

Eric Rosenbaum and Neil Gershenfeld join littleBits Founder and CEO, Ayah Bdeir, and MacArthur Genius-Award winning educator (and CMK favorite) Deborah Meier as guest speakers at Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017.


About Eric Rosenbaum, Ph.D.

Eric Rosenbaum earned a Ph.D. in the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT Media Lab, where he created new technologies at the intersection of music, improvisation, play and learning. He is currently the Senior Front End Engineer Scratch in the MIT Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten Group and worked recently with the with Google Creative Lab and NYU Music Experience Design Lab. Eric’s projects include the MaKey MaKey invention kit, the Singing Fingers app for finger painting with sound, the Glowdoodle web site for painting with light, Coloring Cam app for using your camera and the world as a coloring book, MmmTsss software for improvising with looping sounds, and a Scratch-like language for creating interactive behaviors in the virtual world of Second Life.

One of his latest projects is the creation of Beetle Blocks, a visual programming language for creating 3D designs you can print. This will be Eric’s third year at Constructing Modern Knowledge.

Eric Rosenbaum on the faculty of CMK 2012

Eric holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Technology in Education from Harvard University. He also holds a Masters degree and Ph.D. in Media Arts and Sciences from MIT Media Lab, for which he developed Jots, a system to support reflective learning in the Scratch programming environment.

Learn more about Eric here.

Register for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017


About Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017

Constructing Modern Knowledge, July 11-14, 2017 is a minds-on institute for educators committed to creativity, collaboration and computing. For ten years CMK has been viewed as the gold standard of professional learning events at the intersection of learning-by-doing, cutting-edge technology, and progressive education.

Participants will have the opportunity to engage in intensive computer-rich project development with peers and a world-class faculty. Inspirational guest speakers and social events round out the fantastic event. Rather than spend days listening to a series of speakers, Constructing Modern Knowledge is about action. Attendees work and interact with educational experts concerned with maximizing the potential of every learner.

While our outstanding faculty is comprised of educational pioneers, bestselling authors and inventors of educational technologies we depend on, the real power of Constructing Modern Knowledge emerges from the collaborative project development of participants.

Each day’s program consists of a discussion of powerful ideas, mini tutorials on-demand, immersive learning adventures designed to challenge one’s thinking, substantial time for project work and a reflection period.

Register for Constructing Modern Knowledge 2017

A recent request from a doctoral student led me to find this 2013 paper I authored. Otherwise, it would have been forever lost in the dustbin of academia. You might find it interesting.

Papert’s Prison Fab Lab: Implications for the maker movement and education design

Abstract

For three years, the author collaborated with Seymour Papert in the planning, design, operation, teaching and documentation of the Constructionist Learning Laboratory at the Maine Youth Center. This work is significant as it represents Dr. Papert’s last institutional research project and marks his first attempt to design an educational environment based on the theory of constructionism from scratch. The implications for education reform and school reform are numerous. However, in the context of the 2013 Interaction Design and Children focus on DIY/maker culture, the overlooked work of the Constructionist Learning Laboratory the work of Papert, Stager and their colleagues is particularly pertinent. More than a decade before maker culture and “fab labs” emerged as a popular addition to formal education, Papert succeeded in creating a school built entirely upon the ideals of that movement.


Read the complete paper here.

Read more

This week, I will speak at my 29th ISTE Conference (International Society for Technology in Education, previously NECC) in Denver, Colorado. I have made at least one presentation every year since 1987. I signed the charter that created ISTE, organized one of its SIGs, and edited an ISTE journal for a few years. I was a keynote speaker at the final NECC Conference in 2009 before the conference was rebranded as ISTE. Despite my well-publicized concerns about the direction of the organization (see bottom of post), I attend the conference each year because educational computing is my life’s work and I refuse to abandon the field, no matter how tempting.

In the past, I have expressed my concerns over the quality, relevance, and too-often corporate nature of the ISTE keynote speakers. I have demonstrated the flaws and lack of objectivity in the session selection process and lamented the celebration of corporate interests.

These concerns have often been dismissed as sour grapes. My public statements certainly have not been beneficial to my career or my visibility on the conference program. Despite the popularity of my sessions, the 2013 conference organizers put me in a tiny room and turned away hundreds of educators lined up for my presentation.

For this year’s conference, I proposed two presentations. One, Programming: The New Liberal Art — Why and How to Teach It was accepted.

29 other accepted ISTE 2016 sessions cite my work or collaborations with Sylvia Martinez in their proposals.

The following proposal was rejected – obviously irrelevant

Mindstorms at 35: Examining the State of Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas

The most important book ever written about technology and education, Seymour Papert’s “Mindstorms” is 35 years old. This session led by Dr. Papert’s longtime colleague will review the book’s big ideas and engage the audience in an evaluation of the current state of education in light of Papert’s work.

Longer Description

Nearly 50 years ago, Dr. Papert began calling for 1:1 computing. He invented the first programming language and robotics engineering system for children. In 1970, Papert predicted the maker movement and his entire career was dedicated to creating contexts in which children could encounter and engage with powerful ideas.

Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas is arguably the most important book ever written in the field ISTE represents. This presentation will introduce Papert’s ideas to newcomers and ask veterans to candidly evaluate his predictions in light of the current state-of-practice. 

The presenter will also share video clips and textual excerpts from recently unearthed and overlooked work by Dr. Papert over five decades.

Objectives

  • Review or introduce the powerful ideas contained in Mindstorms
  • Introduce a new generation of educators to the powerful ideas of the father of educational technology, Seymour Papert
  • Challenge teachers, policy makers, tech directors, and administrators to do more with computational technology in order to amplify the potential of each learner
  • Take a good hard look at current practice
  • Explore what Papert had to say about 1:1 computing, the Internet, robotics, engineering, game design, school reform, teaching, and learning over half a century
  • Introduce constructionism to a new generation
  • Honor an intellectual giant never invited to keynote an ISTE or NECC Conference on the 35th anniversary of his seminal book

Session Outline 

  • Explore what made Mindstorms revolutionary
  • Review Papert predictions for what kids might do with computers and how schools would react
  • Discover recently unearthed video and texts shining new light on Papert’s work
  • Discuss the state of educational technology in light of the challenges Papert left for all of us

Supporting Research 

In addition to countless Ph.D. dissertations written about Papert’s work, I would direct you to the following:


Past articles about ISTE:



Gary S. Stager, Ph.D. is a veteran teacher educator, author, speaker, publisher who worked with Dr. Papert for more than 20 years. He was the principal investigator on Papert’s last major institutional research project and is the curator of the repository of Papert documents, The Daily Papert.

His ISTE 2016 session will be held Wednesday, June 29, 8:30–9:30 am in room CCC 110

I like Sphero and am impressed by their ability to execute as a company. Their customer service is terrific and their ability to attract the Star Wars license, publicity, and this recent New Yorker profile are unprecedented.
Sphero makes terrific toys. However, companies and reporters would be well-served by speaking with educators who understand learning and have paid some dues before making grand pronouncements about education. Simply comprehending the differences between teaching and learning would be a welcome first step.
 
The article’s ad-hominem attacks on Logo in favor of C for god’s sake shows just how profoundly misguided the “Coding” newbies happen to be. History does not begin with them. Every thought they have, no matter how unimaginative or unoriginal is not automatically superior to the work done by those of us who have taught kids and teachers to program for decades. David Ahl told me that Creative Computing Magazine had 400,000 subscribers in 1984. Thirty years ago, my friend and Constructing Modern Knowledge faculty member, Dr. Dan Watt, sold more than 100,000 books of Learning with Logo. Tens of thousands of educators taught children to program in the 1980s and then again after laptops were introduced in the 1990s. This was not for an hour, but over sufficient time to develop fluency.
 
It takes real balls for every other startup company, politician, and Silicon Valley dilettante to advocate for “coding” with a macho certainty suggesting that learning to program is a novel idea or accomplished in an hour.

Sphero is hardly the first programmable robot. My friend Steve Ocko developed Big Trak for Milton Bradley in the late 1970s. Papert, Resnick, Ocko, Silverman, et al developed LEGO TC Logo, the first programmable LEGO building system in 1987. (Watch Seymour Papert explain the educational benefits in 1987)

Apologies to The New Yorker, but balls don’t teach kids to code. Kids learn to code by teaching balls. Find yourself a copy of Mindstorms, 35 years-old this year, and you’ll understand.
 

Sphero

Sphero is a fun toy that may be programmed IN Logo – the best of both worlds. Tickle for iOS is a version of Scratch (and Scratch is Logo) whose secret sauce is its ability to program lots of toys, several made by Sphero.

 
Logo turns 50 years-old next year. Let’s see what Silicon Valley creates that children learn with for more than 50 days.

Tickle (Scratch/Logo) for iOS and Bluetooth devices

Related articles:

Professional learning opportunities for educators:

Constructing Modern Knowledge offers world-class hands-on workshops across the globe, at schools, conferences, and museums. During these workshops, teachers learn to learn and teach via making, tinkering, and engineering. Computer programming (coding) and learning-by-making with a variety of materials, including Sphero and Tickle. For more information, click here.

Progressive Education and The Maker Movement – Symbiosis or Mutually Assured Destruction

Published paper of keynote address at 2014 FabLearn Conference at Stanford University by
Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Constructing Modern Knowledge
21825 Barbara Street Torrance, CA 90503 USA
gary@stager.org

Download PDF version

Keywords: Progressive education, education reform, mathematics education, constructionism, educational computing, maker movement

 

Abstract

In this paper, the author shares three societal trends that validate and vindicate decades of leadership by constructionist educators. The growing acceptance of learning-by-making represented by the maker movement, a newfound advocacy for children learning computer programming, and even the global education crisis, real or imagined, are evidence of predictions and efforts made by constructionists being realized. The paper also asserts that the survival of progressive education and the maker movement are mutually dependent. This conference offers a brief opportunity for celebration before returning to the “hard fun” required to harness the momentum of these trends and improve the learning ecology.

 

Paper

Three societal trends afford members of the constructionism community with cause for optimism. While two of these trends are positive and one negative, their trajectory is towards a greater acceptance of constructionist learning by formal and informal communities of practice. Recognition of the symbiotic relationship between progressive education, its learning theory constructionism, and the long-term survival of what has come to be known as “the maker movement” is critical for the long-term survival of each. Progressive education and the maker movement are at a crossroads when both rely on the other for relevance and acceptance.

The general population has begun to recognize that knowledge is a consequence of experience and that technology can play a role in the construction of knowledge. This revelation is an act of constructionism in and of itself. Despite our decades of paper writing, conference attendance and teacher training, people unfamiliar with the term are constructing constructionism without being taught. Such “popular constructionism,” is manifest in explosive growth of the global maker movement and a revaluing of children learning to program. Such progress is accompanied by a backlash by the formal system of schooling, just as Seymour Papert predicted nearly a quarter century ago. (Papert, 1991)

 

THE MAKER MOVEMENT

At Constructionism 2012, there were concerns expressed about the maker movement that to be candid, smacked of elitism. While it may be true that the moms, dads, and teachers advocating for making may lack a scholarly vocabulary for expressing principles of constructionist learning, they are not hostile to that information. The popularity of Maker Faire, Hour of Code, Scratch, and books like, “Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” are proof of a desire to learn more about learning. It is also the case that academics in the constructionism community would benefit from learning what members of the maker movement know and can do. The elements of community organization and creative spirit of the maker movement are to be admired.

As we assert in our book, (Martinez & Stager, 2013) Papert is not only the “father” of constructionism, but of the maker movement as well. In “Computer as Material: Messing About with Time” (Papert & Franz, 1987) and earlier, “Computer as Mudpie,” (Papert, 1984) Papert described a new role for the computer as part of a continuum of construction materials, albeit one imbued with protean qualities. (Papert, 1980)

“If you can use technology to make things you can make a lot more interesting things. And you can learn a lot more by making them. This is especially true of digital technology.” (G. S. Stager, 2006)

Papert not only provided the basis for constructionism as a learning theory, but also played a pivotal role in predicting, inventing, and advocating for the constructive technology now being popularized by the maker movement. Long before his involvement in the development of programmable LEGO robotics kits or being an advocate for one-to-one computing, made the case for such innovations and even expressed the importance of hardware extensibility.

In 1970, Papert and Solomon described the sophisticated technological needs of young children engaged in making things with computers.

“The school computer should have a large number of output ports to allow the computer to switch lights on and off, start tape recorders, actuate slide projectors and start and stop all manner of little machines. There should also be input ports to allow signals to be sent to the 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)

Neil Gershenfeld, one of the leaders of the personal fabrication movement who predicted much of the current maker movement, recounts how Papert viewed the inability of children to construct their own computers as a “thorn in our flesh.” (Gershenfeld, 2005) The availability of the $35 Raspberry Pi and its offspring the Beaglebone, Yun, Gallileo, and other low-cost Linux computers, all with an ability to interface with the world, removes that thorn. Each of these tiny computers are capable of running Scratch, Snap!, Python, and Turtle Art. They also feature a range of inputs and outputs for extensibility. Scavenging for peripherals to use with such a computer, customizing it, and programming it to solve personally important problems is consistent with both maker and constructionist ideals. The computer hardware industry and leaders in the educational computing world have spent decades deriding Papert’s claims that children should build, program, maintain, and repair their own computers, not merely to reduce costs, but as an expression of agency over an increasingly complex, technologically sophisticated world. Emerging technology, like the Raspberry Pi, is resonant with the maker ethos of “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it,” (Jalopy, Torrone, & Hill, 2005) and ideals expressed by Seymour Papert long ago.

Papert’s colleagues or former students created many of the favorite technologies of the maker movement, including Scratch, Makey Makey, the Lilypad, and LEGO robotics. The FabLab and FabLab@School efforts to spread learning through digital fabrication also acknowledge Papert’s inspiration.

 

Making Megachange?

Modern making is a brew of new technologies, computation, and timeless craft traditions. The artificial boundaries between disciplines blur and enrich each other.

“So, too, the mega-change in education that will undoubtedly come in the next few decades will not be a “reform” in the sense of a deliberate attempt to impose a new designed structure. My confidence in making this statement is based on two factors: (1) forces are at work that put the old structure in increasing dissonance with the society of which it is ultimately a part, and (2) ideas and technologies needed to build new structures are becoming increasingly available.” (Papert, 2000b)

Attend a Maker Faire and you will marvel at the ingenuity, creativity, passion for learning, and desire to share knowledge on display. Maker Faire provides a venue for collaboration, showing-off, and sharing personal inventions. The creation of shareable artifacts is a basic tenet of constructionism. (Ackermann, 2001) Maker Faires, Make Magazine, and web sites like instructables.com provide unprecedented venues for sharing technological project ideas and products.

Look in any direction at a Maker Faire and you will discover children and adults learning and creating together “samba school style.” (Papert, 1980) Kids like Super-Awesome Sylvia, Joey Hudy, Quin Etnyre, Caine Monroy, and Schuyler St. Leger embody Papert’s belief in “kid power.” (Generation_WHY, 1998; Papert, 1998) These, and other children, are beloved heroes, legends, and leaders of the maker movement, not because they are cute, but due to their demonstrable talent, knowledge, and expertise. Like in a samba school, these young experts value their interaction with elders because they share a common goal of continuous growth.

There were one hundred officially sanctioned Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires around the world in 2013. These events attracted over 530,000 participants. Attendance increased 64% since 2012 and 335% since 2011. “Maker Faire organizers are influencing local education initiatives, encouraging hands-on learning in Science, Technology, Math, Science (STEM) and Art (STEAM) curricula.” 27% of Maker Faire organizers in 2013 were museums and many Maker Faire organizers are creating or expanding community-based makerspace-type facilities where the community may learn together outside of a school setting. (Merlo, 2014)

Those explosive numbers only tell part of the story of the explosive growth in making and its influence on winning hearts and minds for constructionism. Maker Faires and Mini Maker Faires are official events sanctioned by Maker Media resulting from a formal application process. Countless other events led by local hackerspaces, clubs, scout troops, plus school-based maker days and Invent to Learn workshops are doing an impressive job of laying the groundwork for a rise in the appeal of constructionism.

Parents in highly competitive independent schools are becoming champions of constructionism based on the benefits of making they witnessed in their own children. Such parental enthusiasm gives lie to the notion that parents want joyless schools focusing on increasing test scores and provide much needed support for educators sympathetic to constructionism, but beaten down by the status quo. After parents at The American School of Bombay participated in a half-day “Invent To Learn” workshop with their children, they began demanding that classroom practice change to incorporate more making.

The maker movement and its accompanying “constructible” technology has resuscitated constructionism in a New York City public school started by Carol Sperry and Seymour Papert in the early 1980s. (Papert & Franz, 1987) Without Tracy Rudzitis’ impromptu lunchtime “Maker Space,” where the folding tables and freedom transform the learning experience for middle school students, computing would be dead at “The Computer School.” (G. Stager, 2014) In countless settings, the “neat phenomena” associated with popular maker technologies, such as 3D printing, Arduino, Makey Makey, squishy circuits, wearable computing, and conductive paint have caused schools to revive school art and music programs, otherwise sacrificed on the altar of budget cuts, tougher standards, or global competitiveness.

The publication of the Next Generation Science Standards, authored by the National Academy of Sciences, (Quinn, Schweingruber, & Keller, 2012) includes specific demands for computer science, engineering, tinkering, and hands-on scientific inquiry to be part of the diet of every American. These standards, written by actual scientists, add gravitas to what some might deride as the playful act of making.

“I think the technology serves as a Trojan horse all right, but in the real story of the Trojan horse, it wasn’t the horse that was effective, it was the soldiers inside the horse. And the technology is only gong to be effective in changing education if you put an army inside it which is determined to make that change once it gets through the barrier.” (Papert, 1999)

 

BILLIONAIRES DISCOVER CODING

Since Constructionism 2012, Silicon Valley executives, pop-stars, basketball players, politicians, government ministers, and the President of the United States have called for children to learn to code. (note: apparently computer programming is now called, “coding.”)

If you view programming as an intellectually rewarding activity, then it is surely good news that countless millions of dollars are being spent on initiatives like Code.org, Code Academy, and the creation of computer science instruction via Khan Academy.

Mark Guzdial identifies three reasons for learning to program:

  1. That’s where the future jobs are, in the mix of computing with other disciplines.
  2. The second reason is that a liberal education is about understanding one’s world, and computing is a huge part of today’s world. We ask students to take laboratory sciences (like biology, chemistry, and physics) in order to better understand their world and to learn the scientific method for learning more about their world. The virtual world is an enormous part of the daily lives of today’s professionals. Understanding computing is at least as important to today’s students as understanding photosynthesis.
  3. If you understand something well, you should be able to define its process well enough for a machine to execute it. If you can’t, or the execution doesn’t match the observed behavior, we have a new kind of feedback on our theories.

Regrettably, the impetus behind the current desire for “kids to code” seems more rooted in economic insecurity and foreign job killers than recognition that programming is a good way to understand formal systems, make sense of the world or answer Papert’s timeless question, “Does the child program the computer or the computer program the child?”

The pedagogical approach preferred by the coding proponents appears to be, “kids will go on the Web and figure it out.” In that case, the same paltry percentage of kids is likely to develop programming fluency now than before great wealth and media attention was dedicated to the cause.

Although well intentioned and surely better than another generation of children doing little more with a computer than preparing an occasional PowerPoint presentation on a topic they don’t care about for an audience they will never meet, the advocates of coding seem wholly ignorant that many teachers used to teach children to program during the 1980s. Many of these educators taught Logo and the Logo community developed a great deal of wisdom regarding how, what, why, and when to teach children to program. Dozens of books were written and hundreds of thousands of copies were sold. We danced recursion and acted out procedureality. Now, that knowledge base is largely ignored in favor of catchy slogans and YouTube videos. The constructionism community has a wealth of knowledge to share with coding proponents and a great number of questions as well.

  • Which programming languages are best for children to use and why?
  • Is computational thinking a fancy term for what Alan Kay calls “computer appreciation?” (Kay, 1996) Is this just a way of providing the illusion of computing without sufficient access or actual experience?
  • What are the goals of learning to program?
  • How does computer programming support, enhance or build upon other intellectual processes?
  • What can kids make with a computer?
  • Are computing, coding, and computer science synonymous?
  • What should a child at a particular age be capable of programming and which concepts should they be able to put into use?
  • What sort of teacher preparation is required in order to realize the dream of computer science for all?

We have no idea what children would be capable of if they programmed computers for a sustained period of time. Although we taught tens of thousands of Australian fifth-seventh graders to program in LogoWriter or MicroWorlds between 1989 and 1995, (Johnstone, 2003) schools substituted computing for report writing, note taking, and office tasks by the time those children reached high school. In many cases, computers once an integral learning appendage, were barely used at all as soon as schooling got “serious” and focused on achievement or careers.

In the current coding for all craze, there is little attention given to the proposition that while programming, students may learn other things or explore powerful ideas concurrently. Programming appears to be a means to an end – becoming a programmer, even if that objective is barely defined or the process is trivial.

Coding advocates also send schizophrenic messages. Somehow, the same people can assert that programming is sufficiently difficult that anyone who manages to learn to code will find herself on economic Easy Street and yet, coding is so simple anyone can do it.

In 2014, code.org launched “Hour-of-Code” in a massive publicity blitz intended to attract the attention of schools. While this sounds like a work of satire, Hour-of-Code attracted President Obama, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and other cultural icons to record messages supporting the initiative. (Betters, 2014)

The idea of learning anything substantive in an hour seems preposterous. No amount of advertising or cheerleading is likely to result in more schools teaching computer science in a fashion that appeals to a wide variety of children or supports multiple learning styles. Hour-of-Code is an example of what Papert called verbal inflation and reminds us that “When ideas go to school, they lose their power.” (Papert, 2000b) By definition, Hour-of-Code must be trivial. Perhaps the goal of “Hour-of-Code” was never really to teach or even inspire kids to program, but to create the illusion that the very same Silicon Valley moguls seeking to dismantle public education aren’t so bad after all. (ASU+GSV Summit, 2014; Severns, 2013; G. Stager, 2011; Strauss, 2013, 2014) The cost of such an effort is trivial. “We’ve now reached 25 million kids, and the entire Hour of Code cost $1.2 million. That’s 5 cents a child,” said code.org co-founder Hadi Partovi. (Delevett, 2014)

If we stipulate that the motives of the coding advocates are pure, new questions arise when coding is proposed as the purview of schools. Although efforts like code.org would love to infiltrate schools, they are less concerned by where kids learn to code. When a role for coding in school is delineated through governmental policy or curricular statements, the concerns become more even more acute for constructionists.

 

Coding through school-colored glasses

Conservative UK Education Secretary Michael Gove announced in January 2012 that the national ICT curriculum should be scrapped at once because it is “a mess,” “harmful,” and “dull.” (Burns, 2012) Since Gove’s provocative BETT speech several American states, Singapore, and Estonia (Gardiner, 2014) have joined the chorus calling for all students to be taught computer science, even if they have no idea what that means or what is involved in achieving success. The exhaustive Royal Society study commissioned by the UK Government to guide the curricular shift towards every child learning computer science includes thoughts such as, “Computer Science education does not necessarily involve computers.” (Furber, 2012) Progress indeed.

The UK National Curriculum is short on actual examples of what a student might do or make with a computer, but long on vocabulary leaving implementation of the curriculum prone to memorization, not actual computer science. (Berry, 2013; Department of Education, 2013a, 2013b) Regardless of your feelings about the substance of the new UK curriculum, efforts around the world are being met with opposition by the theoretically most “tech savvy” teachers in the system, the existing ICT or computer literacy teachers who are resistant to change. The road ahead seems bleak when you factor in a shortage of qualified teachers, an overstuffed school day, inadequate computer resources and an abysmal participation rate among girls and minorities. (Ericson & Guzdial, 2014; Guzdial, 2006; Guzdial & Reed, 2014) And that doesn’t even include a discussion of why so few students are interested in learning computer science even where it is offered.

In the United States, there are proposals in several states to allow Computer Science to earn Foreign Language course credit. (Edutopia, 2013; Guzdial, 2014) Once again, policy-makers with little understanding of CS hear “language” and think they can check off two boxes at once, foreign language and computer science. Aside from the obvious flaws in this logic, the substitution is as much a symptom of unquestioned curricular heuristics than it is support for high quality computer science offerings. Swapping a subject you have trouble defending for CS is another example of the idea aversion (Papert, 2000b) Papert spoke of.

“Computer science for all” is a laudable objective and a welcome change in direction. The constructionist and maker communities possess a great deal of expertise and wisdom that should play a major role in shaping both policy and pedagogical practice. Without such involvement, this rhetorical effort may do more harm than good.

 

EPISTEMOLOGICAL POLITICS

At the very moment when incredible new technologies emerge with the potential to supercharge learning, increase ways of knowing, amplify human expression, forge strange alliances, and empower each teacher and student, the School system has never been more draconian. This too is part of Papert’s prophetic wisdom.

“I have used Perestroika in the Russian political sense as a metaphor to talk about change and resistance to change in education. I use it to situate educators in a continuum: are you open to megachange, or is your approach one of seeking Band-Aids to fix the minor ills of the education system? The dominant paradigm is the Band-Aid–most reform tries to jigger the curriculum, the management of schools, the psychological context of learning. Looking at the Soviet experience gives us a metaphor to talk about why this doesn’t work. For stable change a deeper restructuring is needed–or else the large parts of the system you didn’t change will just bring the little parts you did change back into line.” (Papert, 1991)

Global trends point towards greater public school privatization, addiction to standardized testing, teacher shaming, union busting, savage urban school closures, the rise of charter schools, national curricula, PISA score competition, the suspension of local democracy via mayoral control of school districts, and sacrificing the art of teaching for the mechanics of curriculum delivery and crowd control. (Crotty, 2014; Ravitch, 2013, 2014) Bill Gates tells us that class size does (Vise, 2011) not matter and that teachers may be replaced by YouTube videos. (Tan, 2013) Propagandistic films intended to stoke parental hysteria like, “Waiting for Superman,” play in theatres and on Oprah. (Ayers, 2010; Guggenheim et al., 2011; Karp, 2010; Miner, 2011)

 

The Rise of Instructionism

In his Perestroika analogy, Papert predicts that constructionism will be met with more instructionism, hopefully until constructionism prevails. One look at the state-of-the-art in educational computing points to a rise in instructionism.

Not only do schools still have computer labs three decades after their creation, but the computers in those labs are increasingly used for computer-assisted instruction, test-prep, standardized testing, and surveillance. Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey said, “Computer programming is quickly becoming an essential career skill. Learning to code is a fantastic opportunity equalizer – if you’re good at it, it can help you achieve your dreams.” He did this while presiding over a scorched-earth “school reform” regime that eliminated Logo programming, art and music in dozens of elementary schools.

When schools do invest in personal computers, they are likely to buy iPads incompatible with making; what Alan Kay calls “symmetric creation” (Greelish, 2013) or make even worse decisions. The Australian state of Victoria invested $180 million and eight years of distractions in a Gosplan-like fantasy called Ultranet. (Tomazin, 2014) The Los Angeles Unified School District just pledged to spend as much as $2 billion for iPads for the sole purpose of standardized testing in a procurement process only Putin could love. (Blume, 2014; Smith, 2014)

The sudden epidemic of bad teachers proclaimed by politicians and the public’s growing dissatisfaction with schooling may be signs of the traditional system crumbling. Can we rise above this period of darkness by lighting a path towards megachange?

“Just 100 years ago, John Dewey was saying things about educational change, not very different from what I believe in. He couldn’t get very far. And the reason why he couldn’t get very far is that he had only philosophical arguments. He didn’t have an army. You must have an army, and it’s an army primarily of children and the adults also are a political force in this.” (Papert, 1999)

Constructionism is a stance and therefore inseparable from politics. Papert might say that the current chaos plaguing education is “the last flick of a dying dragon’s tail.” (Papert, 2000a)

 

SYMBIOSIS OR MUTUALLY ASSURED DESTRUCTION?

In a toxic era of high-stakes testing, curriculum narrowing, teacher shaming and public school privatizing, the maker movement represents a ray of optimism in an otherwise bleak environment. Simultaneously, the maker movement is poised to go mainstream only if its leaders recognize the benefits of situating “making” in the context of progressive education. An understanding of constructionism and the embattled history of progressive education are necessary for the maker movement to mature.

Quite simply, progressive education requires the energy, passion, new materials, and technology of the maker movement to increase its visibility, relevance, value, and urgency with policy makers, parents, and educational practitioners. For making to mature into a mature movement supporting more than a boutique industry of occasional “faires,” camps, and parties, the members of its community need to understand more about constructionism as well the historic struggle associated with the implementation of progressive education. The maker movement needs to situate their terrific passion, tools, talents, and intuition in a larger context of learning in a politically charged educational system. Both communities have a great deal to learn from one another and should recognize that they stand on the shoulders of giants. Such open-mindedness and knowledge are the minimum conditions under which each community can endure. In order to transcend minority status, a symbiosis of each community’s powerful ideas is required for the aspirations of each to be embraced and sustained by the larger society.

One dilemma for the maker movement is that its major players want it to be both a cause and a profit-center. At FabLearn 2013, Leah Buechley courageously challenged Make™ to take issues of representation, inclusion, gender, race, cost, and accessibility seriously. (Buechley, 2013) Her most easily addressable criticism of Maker Media, owner of Make Magazine™ and Maker Faire™ was the lack of women and people of color on its magazine covers. That concern has been ignored to date. Buechley also pointed out the high cost of entry into “making.” Except for more expensive technology, such as 3D printers, prices do not seem to be falling quickly enough to bring “making” to underserved or poor populations, young or old.

Buechley rightly described how making and Make™ have been conflated in the mind of the population while Maker Media attempts to create an illusion of public service by placing their educational initiatives in a MakerEd non-profit. However, when the White House wishes to celebrate learning by making and its role in an innovative economy, they hosted a Maker Faire™ not a maker fair.

It should come as no surprise that there is a tension between commerce and changing the world. Maker Media is the 1,000 pound for-profit gorilla that creates a venue for makers to share their ingenuity in a commercial environment where others pay to interact with makers. There is nothing wrong with that. It has fueled the explosive rise in making. However, when one company controls the venue, narrative, access to market, and publishes products that compete directly with the creations of other makers, claims of a social mission need to be taken with a grain of salt. Monopolistic tendencies are incompatible with the democratic ideals of both making and progressive education.

Alas, the futures of the maker movement and progressive education are at a crossroads. While the maker movement currently benefits from media attention and the public’s fascination with cool new tech toys, progressive education has been a political punching bag for generations. It is blamed for educational failures disproportionate to its influence. Without great care, the maker movement may find itself susceptible to similar mocking, derision, or marginalization. Sure, that’s nice as a summer camp arts of crafts project, but what does it have to do with raising test scores. Political and social alliances need to be strengthened between each community or the fate of both will be uncertain at best.

 

FD 100

Papert reminds us that we need to shift our self-concept in order to bring about the change children deserve.

“Now there is an opportunity to become the person whose job is to facilitate rethinking the whole learning environment of the school, the whole structure of education. We are entering a period in which the person who was “the computer teacher” has the chance to become the educational philosopher and the intellectual leader of the school, of the education world.” (Papert, 1991)

It is inadequate to dismiss schools as relics of the past because that is where you will find millions of kids who need us. Fellow travelers in the maker movement and the unlikely allies behind the coding campaign might be just the army we need inside of a cardboard horse, with LED eyes, and synthesized speech all controlled by a tiny microcontroller running Scratch.

Let us spend our days at Stanford celebrating a growing acceptance of our ideas, but then return home to lead and engage in the hard work of improving the learning ecology.

 

References

Ackermann, E. (2001). Piaget’s Constructivism, Papert’s Constructionism: What’s the Difference? Paper presented at the 2001 Summer Institute, Mexico City.

ASU+GSV Summit. (2014). 2014 ASU+GSV Summit to feature Gov. Jeb Bush, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and more than 225 game-changing education companies [Press release]. Retrieved from http://www.bizjournals.com/prnewswire/press_releases/2014/03/17/NY84960

Ayers, R. (2010). What ‘Superman’ got wrong, point by point. Washington Post, 27.

Berry, M. (2013). Computing in the National Curriculum – A guide for primary teachers. London: Computing At School.

Betters, E. (2014). Code.org’s Hour of Code campaign kicks off: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg will teach you to write basic lines of code. Pocket-Lint.com. Retrieved April 15, 2014, 2014, from http://www.pocket-lint.com/news/125707-code-org-s-hour-of-code-campaign-kicks-off-bill-gates-mark-zuckerberg-will-teach-you-to-write-basic-lines-of-code

Blume, H. (2014). LAUSD’s Quest to See Full iPad Curriculum Comes Up Short. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-0209-lausd-digital-20140211,0,304522.story – axzz30F68qhj9

Buechley, L. (2013, October 28, 2013). FabLearn@School 2013 Conference Closing Keynote. Paper presented at the Leah Buechley, Stanford University.

Burns, J. (2012). School ICT To Be Replaced by Computer Science Programme. BBC News. Retrieved April 25, 2014, 2014, from http://www.bbc.com/news/education-16493929

Crotty, J. M. (2014, March 31, 2014). Is Christie-Backed One Newark Reform Plan Good for City’s Studentsq. Forbes.

Delevett, P. (2014, March 7, 2014). Partovi Twins Quietly Emerge as Top Silicon Valley Angel Investors. San Jose Mercury News. Retrieved from http://www.mercurynews.com/business/ci_25297022/ali-hadi-partovi-twins-silicon-valley-angel-investors

Department of Education. (2013a). Computing Programmes of Study: Key Stages 1 and 2 UK National Curriculum. London.

Department of Education. (2013b). Computing Programmes of Study: Key Stages 3 and 4 UK National Curriculum. London.

Edutopia. (2013). Should Coding be the “New Foreign Language” Requirement? Edutopia. Retrieved from Edutopia website: http://www.edutopia.org/blog/coding-new-foreign-language-requirement-helen-mowers

Ericson, B., & Guzdial, M. (2014). Measuring demographics and performance in computer science education at a nationwide scale using AP CS data. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 45th ACM technical symposium on Computer science education, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

Furber, S. (2012). Shut down or restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools. The Royal Society, London.

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Using Computers as Creative Tools
The debate about technology’s place in classrooms might vanish if the machines are used to expand students’ self-expression
Be sure to read to bottom!


A version of this column appeared in the March 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine.

I recently attended attended Apple Computer CEO Steve Job’s keynote address at the annual Macworld Conference in San Francisco. Amidst the demonstrations of OS X, the launch of the sexy new Titanium Powerbook and the obligatory race between a Pentium IV and Macintosh G4 (you can guess which won), Jobs said some things that I believe will be critically important to the future of computing.

Quotations from the CEOs of Gateway and Compaq decrying the death of the personal computer were rebuffed by Jobs who not only asserted that the PC is not dead, but that we are entering a new age of enlightenment. Steve Jobs declared that the personal computer is now “the digital hub for the digital lifestyle.”

While everyone is excited about new handheld organizers, video cameras, cell phones and MP3 players, these devices not only require a personal computer for installing software, backing up files and downloading media – they are made more powerful by the PC. The personal computer is the only electronic device (at least for the foreseeable future) capable of multimedia playback, supercomputer-speed calculations and massive data storage. Most importantly, the personal computer is required for those who wish to create, rather than be passive recipients of bits generated by others.

Jobs discussed how video cameras are cool, but iMovie makes them much more powerful. Boxes full of videotapes are no longer lost in the attic, because you can easily produce edited movies shareable with friends, relatives and the world. Jobs then launched iDVD, Apple’s stunning new technical breakthrough that allows anyone to create their own DVDs in minutes. Think about what this could mean in a classroom! Class plays, science experiments and sporting events could be shared with the community and playable with state-of-the-art quality on the home television. Video case studies of best practice can be used in teacher education complete with digital quality audio/video. Zillions of digital photos and scanned images of student work can be assembled as portfolios stored on one disk and viewed anywhere.

A company representative from Alias Wavefront was brought to the stage to demonstrate their software package, Maya. Maya is the 3D graphics tool used by George Lucas to make the most recent Star Wars film and by all of last year’s Oscar nominees for best special effects to work their artistic magic. The quick demo showed how a flower paintbrush could be chosen and with the wave of the mouse flowers could be drawn in 3D on the computer screen. These were no ordinary flowers though. The software knew to make each flower slightly different from the others, as they would appear in nature. The software also knew how they would behave if wind were to be added to the scene. Clouds drawn knew to move behind the mountains. Until now, Maya required a specially configured graphics workstation. It now runs on a Macintosh G4. While the software is currently too expensive for most kindergarten classrooms, it occurred to me that the world will be a much cooler place when five year-olds can use Kid-Pix-level fluency to create with the same tools as George Lucas. Perhaps then they will stop blowing up their Kid-Pix creations and express themselves through film.

Jobs argued that iMovie makes video cameras more powerful and iDVD enhances the value of both the video camera and DVD player. Therefore, the personal computer not only powers digital devices, but empowers our lives. This is a profoundly liberating and enabling vision for society.

As I left the auditorium I thought, “Steve Jobs really gets it!” However my admiration for his vision and desire for the new “toys” was quickly tempered by thoughts regarding the imagination gap guiding the use of computers in schools. Not once did Jobs compare the PC to the pencil or refer to it as a tool for getting work done. No standards for computer-use were offered. Instead, he challenged us to view the computer as a way of inspiring a renaissance of human potential.

Just Make Something
The personal computer is the most powerful, expressive and flexible instrument ever invented. It has transformed nearly every aspect of society, yet schools remain relatively untouched. Rather than be led by technological advances to rethink models of schooling, schools and the software industry have chosen to use computers to drill for multiple-choice tests, play games and find answers to questions available in reference books via the Internet. While the Internet is an incredibly powerful and handy reference tool, it’s real potential lies in its ability to democratize publishing and offer unprecedented opportunities for collaboration and communication. The dominant practice is to restrict or forbid this openness through filtering software, acceptable-use policies and overzealous network administrators. When the paradigm for Internet use is “looking stuff up” it should come as no surprise that kids are going to look at inappropriate content.

The results of this imagination paralysis are too numerous to mention. The hysteria over Internet use, growing disenchantment with schooling and calls to reduce tech funding are clearly the consequences of our inability to create more explicit, creative and public models of computers being used by children to learn in magnificent ways. The recent dubious report, Fool’s Gold, by the Alliance for Childhood, takes aim at school computer-use by illustrating the trivial and thoughtless ways computers are used in schools. A moment of candor requires us to admit that most of their criticisms are valid. Schools do use computers in dopey ways. However, that is not a legitimate argument for depriving kids of the opportunity to learn and express themselves with computers. It is however an indictment of the narrow ways in which schools use technolology. Experts advocating the use of handheld devices as “the perfect K-12 computer” so that students may take notes or have homework assignments beamed to them are cheating our young people out of rich learning adventures.

It’as if schools have forgotten what computers do best. Computers are best at making things – all sorts of things. Educational philosophers including Dewey, Piaget, Papert, Vygotsky, Gardner have been telling us forever that the best way to learn is through the act of making things, concrete and abstract. The PC is an unparalleled intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression yet schools seem ill-equipped or disinclined to seize that potential.

Kids can now express their ideas through film-making, web broadcasting, MIDI-based music composition and synchronous communication. They can construct powerful ideas (even those desired by the curriculum) through robotics, simulation design and computer programming.

While there is much rhetoric about kids making things with computers, those projects tend to reinforce old notions of teaching. Hyperstudio book reports or databases containing the pets owned by classmates are not what I have in mind. Kids should make authentic things borne of their curiosity, interests and reflecting the world in which they live.

I cannot imagine that the critics of public education and the investment in educational technology would object to kids using computers in such authentic, deeply intellectual and creative ways. Rather than creating unproductive standards for computer use, educational computing organizations should be building, documenting and sharing compelling models of how computers may be used to inspire joyful learning throughout the land.

Seymour Papert has proposed that we “view the computer as material.” This material may be used in countless wonderful and often unpredictable ways. Teachers are naturally gifted with materials of all sorts and the computer should be part of that mix. This change in focus should reap rewards for years to come.

We can do good and do well by exercising a bit more creativity. We can neutralize our critics and move education forward if we shift our focus towards using school computers for the purpose of constructing knowledge through the explicit act of making things. Children engaged in thoughtful projects might impress citizens desperate for academic rigor. Emphasizing the use of computers to make things will make life easier for teachers, more exciting for learners and lead schools into this golden age. [Emphasis 2016]

Scanned PDF of the original article