Marvin Minsky & Gary Stager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Twenty years ago this past summer, I led professional development at the first two schools in the world where every student had a laptop. You read that correctly; 20 years ago! Those two Australian schools, 1 private and quite well documented – Methodist Ladies’ College (MLC) and one public and lost to history – Coombabah State Primary School, finally realized Seymour Papert and Alan Kay’s 1968 vision of personal computing. Every child had their own laptop and learned to program in LogoWriter as a way of exploring powerful ideas across the curriculum. Their teachers, predominantly computing neophytes, learned to teach programming and as a result thought deeper about thinking. We had little doubt about what children would be able to do, but expectations were high for teachers.

At MLC, I was trusted to do whatever I thought would improve the school. I worked in classrooms with teachers as my apprentice so they could see through the eyes of their students and their laptop screens what modern knowledge construction looked like. I ran workshops, took dozens of teachers off-site for multiple-day immersive learning adventures, worked across K-12 and had complete 24/7 access to the very busy school principal. I recently asked MLC Principal David Loader what he was thinking when he hired a 27 year-old American with no formal academic credentials, paid him to work in his school for months at a time and have complete authority to do whatever he felt was right, regardless of the risk? David at first looked confused by the question and then matter-of-factly said, “I gave anyone who showed initiative the same level of authority.” He then rattled off the music, art and catering teachers who were indeed given free reign to do the impossible on behalf of kids.

MLC quickly became recognized as one of the best schools in the world and led the way for other schools eager to embrace personal computing. Within a few years, hundreds of thousands of Aussie students had a school issued laptop. I had the great privilege of working with dozens of Aussie “laptop” schools in the early 90s. Along with my colleagues, we invented the future. My work in schools where every student has a personal laptop computer has taken me around the world several times.

My work at MLC is well chronicled by Bob Johnstone in his book, Never Mind the Laptops: Kids, Computers, and the Transformation of Learning, and in a recent essay I wrote, “Hard and Easy,” as part of Pamela Livingston’s book, 1-to-1 Learning, Second Edition: Laptop Programs That Work. In 1995, ASCD published an article I wrote, Laptop Schools Lead the Way in Professional Development, in Educational Leadership. On the 10th anniversary of my work in laptop schools, I produced a “Laptop Self-Assessment” rubric to determine how a particular school measured up to the goals my colleagues and I set back in 1990.

Since my early work at MLC, Coombabah and other Australian schools, I’ve worked extensively in “laptop” schools around the world. (Subscribe to my occasional newsletter to learn about new 1:1 videos and other resources to be put online in the near future.) I collaborated with Seymour Papert and advised his colleagues in Maine prior to the law providing a laptop for every 7th and 8th grader in the state. I inspired and collaborated with the Eastern Townships School Board in Quebec where 6,000 3rd-12th graders have MacBooks and I was a member of the One Laptop Per Child Foundation’s Learning Group.

In April of this year, I had the privilege of celebrating my 20th anniversary of 1:1 and work in Australian schools as the keynote speaker at the Australian Computers in Education Conference in my adopted hometown of Melbourne, Australia. This evening I will be the keynote speaker at the European Laptop Institute in The Hague.

In a few weeks I will return to Seoul, South Korea to work at The Chadwick International School, a magnificent new progressive international school that will eventually serve K-12 youngsters from Korea and abroad. In a few weeks, my colleagues and I at Chadwick will once again change the world when every student from 1st grade onward will have their own personal Macbook computer. Robotics, programming and deep project-based learning across the curriculum will be the hallmarks of Chadwick’s approach. We will move past the low-hanging fruit of information access and language arts and use the computer to create new learning opportunities and amplify student potential across the entire school.

Not since the early 1990s have I had the opportunity to work in a school and mentor teachers so closely over a long period of time as I will at the Chadwick International School. I have spent the past six months or so as a consultant helping with the planning process; including policy issues, purchasing, professional development, visioning and curriculum integration. Look out for great things coming from this exciting school.

Within hours of returning home from South Korea, I fly to to speak in Peru, where hundreds of thousands of children own an XO personal laptop. I’m excited to get the chance to work with my old friend (from the mid 1980 Logo days) Oscar Becerra

December 2-3, I’ll be in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to be the keynote speaker, along with Dr. Chris Dede, at the Great Lakes 1:1 Computing Conference.

At some of these upcoming conferences I will not only be delivering my keynote address, Ten Things to Do With a Laptop: Learning and Powerful Ideas, but also brand new keynote, Twenty Lessons from Twenty Years of 1:1 Computing. That session, dealing primarily with leadership and policy issues was presented recently at the ISTE Conference, National School Boards Association’s Annual Conference and the NSBA Technology + Learning Conference.

From the very beginning giving a laptop to every child seemed like an inevitability. Computers were getting smaller, cheaper and more powerful. Of course children would have their own before long.

For the first time in 20 years (now 40) we had the platform available to begin realizing the ideals of Dewey, Kay and Papert. There was never any talk of experiment or pilot or project or initiative. Laptops were purchased for students because it was on the right side of history and the right thing to do.

At the recent Australian conference a Monash University lecturer told the audience that we should go slow with 1:1 because the jury is still out and the evidence yet to accumulate to justify the investment. The moderator, Jeff Richardson of Trinity College, snatched the gentleman’s iPhone, asked the audience how many people live in homes where there are more computers than humans and then suggested that children deserve no less where they spend most of their waking hours. The dirty little secret is that thirty years after microcomputers came into most Western schools, children get to use one for less than an hour per week. The Australian moderator asked me if I’d like to contribute anything to the suggestion.

I told the Monash lecturer that, “the first doctoral dissertation demonstrating the efficacy of 1:1 computing was published in 1991 in his department.” I own a copy. It’s time to move on! The kids deserve nothing less.

Last month I was interviewed by NPR (that R no longer stands for radio) about the India’s purported plans for a “$35 laptop” for education.

I was able to get in a few whacks against the visionless plan. Read my interview here

It now appears that “mine’s bigger” has been replaced with “mine’s cheaper.” The Indian announcement, like many of the “responses” to One Laptop per Child, appears to be more about a referendum on Nicholas Negroponte than improving the lives of children.

Like Negroponte or not, the entire high-tech industry swore that low-cost laptops were impossible until a handful of MIT visionaries and their friends proved them wrong.

The current line of attack seems to be, “Well that jerk wants to change the world with a $100 laptop, we will make it even cheaper.”

Nicholas Negroponte of One Laptop Per Child posted similar views here.

Incidentally, I recently celebrated my 20th anniversary of working in schools around the world where every child has a personal laptop computer.

istock_000011751237xsmallDear Friends,

I could really use your help!

You know how passionate I am about making schools better places for children. That’s why I have submitted a proposal to speak at the 2011 South-by-Southwest Conference. This conference could afford me with a great platform for educating the creative community about the current political threats to public education, and more importantly offer a constructive, creative and uplifting message illustrating alternative approaches that build upon each child’s remarkable capacity for intensity.

That is why I submitted the proposal, The Best Educational Ideas in the World. (Find the session description below and on the voting site.)

In order for me to be invited to speak at South-by-Southwest, (SXSW), I need for you and your colleagues, friends, relatives and students to spend a few minutes voting for my session. I apologize for how clumsy the web site is. That’s why I’ve included the following step-by-step instructions below:

  1. Go to: http://bit.ly/cxq78J
  2. Follow the instructions for creating an account
  3. An email will be sent to you containing a link to click that will return you to the voting site
  4. Click the link in the email
  5. Login using the email address and password you just created
  6. Click on the Explore the Interactive Proposals » link (http://bit.ly/bk31Hl)
  7. Type Stager into the Organizer field
  8. Click the SEARCH PANELS button
  9. My session, The Best Educational Ideas in the World, should appear
  10. Click the icon of the THUMBS UP to vote for my session.
  11. If you wish, click on the title of the session, scroll to the bottom of the page and leave a message of support. Every bit helps!

I am really grateful to each and every one of you who takes the time to follow the steps outlined above and votes for my session. Reaching multiple and varied audiences is the most effective way I can influence public opinion and help kids.

Unfortunately, this IS a popularity contest. That’s why I need your assistance.

All the very best,

Gary


The Best Educational Ideas in the World

Contemporary discussions of school reform focus on the creation of obedience schools for poor children or utopian governance schemes, such as charter schools. Neither approach does much to amplify the natural curiosity, expertise, creativity, passion, competence or capacity for intensity found in each child. A leading educator serves as your tour guide for a global exploration of powerful ideas and exemplary practices. Stops on the tour include personal fabrication; Reggio Emilia; El Sistema; Generation YES; One Laptop Per Child; a juvenile prison; 826 Valencia and more.

The artificial boundaries between art and science are blurred as children engage in authentic activities with real materials, create sophisticated artifacts of personal and aesthetic value and become connected to ideas larger than themselves. Collegiality, purpose, apprenticeship, complexity, serendipity and “sharaeability” are a few of the common values. Each approach either requires digital technology or may be dramatically enhanced by it. Lessons learned en-route our tour create productive contexts for learning in which students construct the knowledge required for a rewarding life.

Alternative models of school reform in which we treat other people’s students as our own will emerge. The common principles identified in some of the world’s most creative educational practices serve as lessons for parents, teachers and policy-makers eager to help children realize their full potential.

Questions answered during the presentation:
1.    How can we create learning environments that build upon children’s capacity for intensity?
2.    Are there humane creative models of school reform based on principles of social justice where students do extraordinary things?
3.    How are disparate ideas like El Sistema, Reggio Emilia, personal fabrication, alternative prison education and One Laptop Per Child similar and offer new models for education reform?
4.    Is learning natural and are children competent? Why do so many adults think that the answer is, “no?”
5.    How can early childhood approaches be applied at the secondary level and the arts inform approaches to science?


The Best Way to Make Enemies…
Do the impossible
© 2008 Gary S. Stager

Since 1990, I have worked in schools where every child has a personal laptop computer. In fact, I led professional development in the world’s first two “laptop schools.” Ever since, I’ve worked from Melbourne to Mumbai to Maine trying to help educators enjoy the transformational learning experiences made possible by personal computing.

In some school districts the notion of a laptop per child remains a sci-fi fantasy from a utopian future. For others, laptops are viewed as typewriters, encyclopedias or testing systems in support of traditional school practices. Schools struggle to find the courage, imagination and financing to make 1:1 computing a reality. Despite the seemingly high cost of investing in a laptop per child, I know of schools that have urged manufacturers to keep prices high in order to reserve the laptop as the tool of rich children.

MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte formed the non-profit One Laptop Per Child Foundation (OLPC) a few years ago to meet the challenge of providing every child in the world with a robust, powerful, personal, environmentally responsible and rugged affordable mobile computer. If that weren’t ambitious enough, Negroponte recognized what many have known for years – current operating systems make no sense for children, particularly children in the developing world. If you’re a kid in Rwanda, what do desktops, trashcans or file folders mean to you? OLPC also believed that software should be free, open-source and collaborative. Sounds like a tall order.

With the release of the XO, often referred to as the $100 computer, Negroponte and a few dozen colleagues did what Silicon Valley could not or would not do. They made a low-cost energy-efficient laptop for children complete with a new graphical user interface and collaborative software applications. And boy was the high-tech industry mad! The Times of London and 60 Minute have documented Intel’s wide scale attempt to discredit OLPC across the globe while Bill Gates says snarky things about it at every opportunity. OLPC is like kryptonite to Business Week, a magazine that cannot resist writing about the failure of the XO as if it were oil prices or tax policy.

It is easy to understand why OLPC has earned the ire of the corporate community. They made a computer with a superior screen, energy management and ground-breaking mesh networking for less than the cost of marketing a bloated retail laptop. To make matters worse, they challenged the hegemony of Intel and Microsoft.

Looking at the world through school colored glasses
It is a lot harder to understand why many in our edtech community have been so hostile to the XO. The same educators whose students use the computer lab for little more than web surfing and word processing mock the XO, a device capable of a lot more for more children at a lower price. They complain that it’s not powerful enough, yet continue to use their existing computers in trivial ways.

I hear lots of “yeah, buts from the American edtech community.” What about professional development?” is a favorite mantra chanted as if American schools have succeeded in computer integration after more than 25 years of effort.

Why would anyone copy us?

Another favorite question is, “What about tech support?” That question is easily answered; local kids and adults will repair their own XOs. All you need is screwdriver and some parts. Remember when Americans used to repair things themselves? It wasn’t that long ago!

When the XO is the first computer, “book,” or even light source in a community there is a different sense of urgency. A few stories stand out. The President of Uruguay was on hand to distribute the first XO computers to students and the computer has been featured on an Uruguayan postage stamp. Poor slum dwelling Pakistani students had their school closed down and are required to work agricultural jobs. These kids have formed an XO Club and hold meetings during work breaks and nearly every night in order to keep learning.

During a recent OLPC workshop I met two Columbian women who exemplified the commitment to progress shared across the developing world. The educators wanted to provide XOs to a Columbian school without electricity. Due to its remote location where students arrive via individual boats, a petroleum-based generator is impossible. The women considered solar power, but they would need to hoist the panels above the rainforest canopy. Without missing a beat, the women looked at each other, shrugged and said, “We have a river.” That’s right. They’ll figure out a way to turn water into electricity in order to charge student laptops.

To countries where Internet access may be a four-day walk away and per pupil spending is $40/year, computers represent so much more than a way to practice multiplication tables.

SIDEBAR: This Fall, you will once again have the opportunity to change the world for a deserving child and get yourself a wicked cool XO laptop. At the end of the year, OLPC is likely to once again offer its Give One, Get One program. For $400 (price not yet set), you get an XO and a kid in the developing world gets one as well. This has the effect of reducing the cost of a laptop to less than $100 each since your donation is matched by a local purchase. Student clubs might get involved in this worthy endeavor as well. Go to www.laptop.org to learn more about G1G1 and to keep up with XO developments around the world.